Sunday, December 10, 2006

HONESTY IS A GREAT SLEEPING AID

Several weeks ago I told the story of Eunice Kwon, the Pasadena High School student who won a Rotary Club district's annual ethics-essay contest by writing about how she and several of her friends who were "the smart kids" at school had lapsed into a culture of cheating. (See http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com/2006/09/you-tell-me-yours.html )

It was only after a friend told Kwon that he had found a password to a teacher's online grading book and easily could change all their grades that Kwon's ethical sense was jolted. She realized that her previous infractions of the rules, "no matter how petty, were all forms of cheating."

I challenged readers to tell me the kinds of ethical dilemmas in which they have found themselves, and they responded with some beauties.

Two stories stand out as examples of how everyday activities can challenge an individual's integrity, and several stories sent by high-school students in Columbus, Ohio, poignantly evoke how early the struggle to do the right thing begins.

THE CUSTOMER GOT THE TIP

While vacationing on the San Juan Islands in Washington with her husband, Genie Hufham of Charlotte, N.C., visited a restaurant gift shop and decided to buy a jacket that bore the restaurant's name on the breast pocket. The hostess put the jacket into a bag and told Hufham that the cost would be added to the bill for her dinner.

"After driving 15 miles back to our hotel," Hufham writes, "we realized that the cost hadn't been added to the meal bill."

The following day they returned to the restaurant to pay for the jacket. The hostess recognized them from the night before, and the waitress who had forgotten to add the charge to the bill was summoned.

"I wanted her to know that I would never be able to wear it without thinking that I had taken advantage of her mistake," Hufham says.

They settled the bill, and today Hufham wears her jacket with a clear conscience.

AN OPEN-AND-SHUT CASE

About two years ago Karen A., a reader from southern California, was putting her kitchen through a substantial remodeling. She located the cabinet pulls she wanted, and had a saleswoman at the store copy the catalog page and make a note of the sizes and prices for her.

When she returned, some weeks later, the same saleswoman assisted her. Unfortunately Karen had misplaced her notes, so the saleswoman pulled up a price on her computer.

"She said that the cabinet pulls were $6.48 each," Karen writes. "I was sure they were discounted to me previously to $4.34. I was insistent, and she agreed to let me order them for $4.50."

The pulls arrived, and Karen picked them up without any problem. A few weeks later, however, she came across her original notes and was horrified to see that the quoted price had indeed been $6.48. Many cabinets had been involved, and the different was significant -- a total of about $100.

When she returned to pay the money she owed, Karen was directed to the accounting office, where a confused clerk looked up and asked, "You want to pay more?"

Karen went through what she calls her "I-will-sleep-better-at-night explanation." The clerk consulted with another clerk, she writes, and the two of them went into the back office, where Karen heard them let out what she calls "a giant isn't-she-stupid roar."

"Thankfully," Karen writes, "honesty is its own reward ... and a great sleeping aid too."

TRIED AS JUVENILES

I received several letters from juniors in Beverly Graves' literature class at Worthington Kilbourne High School in Columbus. Graves, who has been teaching English for 34 years, often uses newspaper stories to make literature relevant to her students.

"It's a great way to update the choices the kids are struggling with," she says.

One student wrote about how her math teacher uses candy to reward pupils who answer difficult problem sets. But one day recently, when the teacher left the classroom, another student grabbed a handful of candy and tossed it to several other kids in the back of the room. The student who wrote me struggled with whether to turn in her classmate and risk being labeled a tattletale or not do anything and be tormented. She chose the latter, but continues to be plagued with guilt.

Another student wanted to know how he, as a lacrosse player, could keep from being viewed negatively in the wake of scandals allegedly involving lacrosse players at Duke University and in Dublin, Ohio. He worries that the misguided values of a few highly publicized players and coaches may tarnish what has been for him a wonderful sport.

Yet another student learned how long it can take to repair the damage done by even a small lie earlier this fall, when she told her mother that she would be spending the night at a friend's house and instead spent the night at Bowling Green University in a girlfriend's dorm room. Weeks later her older sister innocently let the secret slip.

"I've lost my trust," my correspondent says. "I'm still kind of grounded."

Despite the easy opportunity to do otherwise, both Hufham and Karen A. chose to do the right thing. And Graves' students are learning at an early age how to wrestle with the kinds of ethical issues that each of us faces throughout our lives.

Copies of my book, "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), are on their way to Hufham, Karen A. and Graves, as is a gift from the New York Times Syndicate to Graves' students for sharing their stories.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business," is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.

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