Sunday, February 26, 2006

SURFING ON BORROWED TIME

During the recent snowstorm that blanketed the northeastern United States, I found myself stuck at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. A fellow strandee was busily tapping into his e-mail, downloading files from the Internet and generally having a grand old time with his laptop computer. He told me that O'Hare had allowed him to pay $6.95 for the day to log onto its wireless network, allowing him to stay connected while in the airport.

Increasingly coffee shops, restaurants and other establishments are also offering wi-fi access on a pay-as-you-go basis. Some communities even have set up free wi-fi-access areas for their residents.

But what happens when, for example, you find that a neighbor has set up a wi-fi connection for her own use or a college has set up one for its students, but they've failed to secure it from other users logging in?

Recently several readers have written to ask me if it's OK for them to use an unsecured wi-fi access point to connect to the Internet if they haven't been granted formal permission to do so.

One reader in Fullerton, Calif., writes that his hometown offers free access, only asking residents to answer a few questions online and to provide their e-mail addresses. But what about other communities that don't ask for any information and "let you in without restriction?"

Another reader, from Columbus, Ohio, visited his mother recently. She had only a very slow dial-up Internet access, but the son found that one of her neighbors had a high-speed wireless connection.

"I find it quite easy to log in and gain Internet access," he writes."As I see it, I am not really stealing anything. As long as I am limiting my use to standard e-mail or Web access, I am not using enough bandwidth to degrade her own Internet activity, so no harm done, right?"

Most institutions or individuals who establish wireless Internet connections know how to set them up so that a login and password are required for access. If they decide not to do this, then the connection is open for anyone in range to use.

While I suppose that an argument could be made that you should never use what you don't pay for, I don't believe that this would apply here -- and I'm not even sure that I agree with the broad sentiment. Unless it is made clear to users tapping into wireless connections that they must agree to certain conditions before proceeding, they have not breached any ethical mandate by logging on in any way that they legally can.

The right thing would be for those who set up wireless connections and want to keep them private to take the time to do so. If you're a piggybacking user and can identify the individual to whom the connection belongs, it would be courteous but not essential to let that person know that you and presumably others are able to enjoy their wireless largesse.

But the responsibility for deciding whether others should be able to tap into a given access belongs squarely on the shoulders of whoever is setting up the original connection.

I WANT FREE STUFF TOO

I asked readers if companies are being unfair to existing customers when they offer discounts and special deals that are limited to prospective new customers.

If they think it's unfair, I added, would it be wrong for long-term customers to cancel their service -- if they can do so without incurring penalties -- and then re-up to take advantage of offers made to newcomers?

"I understand why companies market to the new consumer," writes Carol Bobke of Mission Viejo, Calif., "but I still don't think it's fair. Why should new customers get great deals and giveaways when there is no reward for loyalty?"

Bobke also doesn't see anything wrong with an existing customer canceling a service only to sign up again to receive the perks.

"It's business," she writes.

Mark Jones of Huntington Beach, Calif., has contacted companies with which he's done business in the past to see if they'd offer him the same discounts they were offering new customers. Some readily agreed to, he writes, while others were "steadfastly against" it.

"Since it is a free economy," Jones writes, "you can guess how I exercised my freedom of choices."

Post your own opinion by clicking on "comments" below.

Monday, February 20, 2006

MAKING THE LIST

You're a manager in a company, and you're called into a meeting where you and other managers are told that layoffs will take place at the end of the month. A list is circulated with the names of employees to be laid off, including those in your department. You are all told not to inform anyone about the layoffs until two weeks later, when an announcement will be made to the entire company.

When you get back to your office, one of the employees you manage comes in and tells you that he's about to make a down payment on a house. He asks if you know of anything going on at the company that should make him reconsider. You know that his name is on the list of employees to be laid off.

Do you tell him?

Post your thoughts here by clicking on 'COMMENTS' below. Or send your comments to
rightthing@nytimes.com. Please include your name and your hometown. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column.

SECRET IDENTITITES

Lying about your credentials on your resume is wrong, there's little question about that. It's also not very smart.

George C. Deutsch, a 24-year-old NASA public-affairs officer, resigned in early February after Texas A&M University confirmed that he had not graduated from the university with a journalism degree, as he had claimed in his resume -- only the latest evidence of the way such fabrications can backfire. If knowing that lying is wrong weren't enough to convince people not to inflate their credentials, you'd think that the consequences of being caught would be.

But what about when an employee deflates his resume? Is there anything wrong with understating one's credentials?

Several years ago Leesa Dupree of Brea, Calif., hired a financial analyst for a position that required a great deal of repetitive work on weekly and monthly reports. It was a position for which he seemed capable and well-suited.

Shortly after he started, the analyst had an idea about a new line of business for the company. Dupree was not enthusiastic about his idea, but they agreed that he would work up a proposal on his own time and submit it to top management for consideration.

Soon the analyst started missing deadlines, however, and the quality of the reports he turned in was so poor that Dupree had to rewrite several of them. After looking at his time sheets, she realized that he was spending 25 hours a week researching the new-business proposal, which he was supposed to be doing only on his own time.

"It was about this time that I found out that my analyst held a Ph.D in economics," Dupree says. "This had been omitted from his resume because he considered it irrelevant."

When he pitched his new-business idea to top management, she reports, he got a cool reception, and thereafter his performance suffered.

"He wasn't happy," she says, "and I wasn't happy with his work."

Eventually she encouraged him to resign, which he did.

"I probably wouldn't have hired him had I known about his Ph.D," Dupree says, "at least not without some discussion of whether he would be happy with the nature of his job."

Was he justified in leaving the Ph.D off his resume?

The analyst likely guessed -- correctly, as it turns out -- that, if his resume had included his degree, he would have been pegged as overqualified for the position. But withholding that information prevented his prospective employer from accurately gauging what kind of fit he might bein the organization. It wasn't an outright lie, but he certainly wasn't as forthcoming as any employer would want a job candidate to be.

If he left that credential off his resume in hope of gaining a foothold in the company, even in a job he didn't really want, he was misleading hisemployer. Sure, advancing in a company is a good goal, but most of us accept that advancement requires excelling at the job we're hired to do.

The right thing would have been for him to include the Ph.D on his resume. If during his job interview Dupree had questioned whether the job could hold his interest, he could have made the case that it would. If he couldn't convince her, or himself, then it was likely not the right job for him.

Monday, February 13, 2006

UP IN THE AIR

A reader from Naperville, Ill., was planning a trip, with her son and husband, to visit her mother-in-law in Las Vegas. They had a "standby" buddy pass, and decided to offer it to their 22-year-old nephew.

They made sure that he understood that his flight would be on a standby basis: If he didn't get onto the flight the others were on, he could get onto the next flight that had open seats available. The nephew would stay with them at their hotel in Las Vegas, so he needed money only for gambling and personal expenses.

As anticipated, the nephew wasn't able to get a seat on the same plane to Las Vegas. He got the last seat on the next flight, however, and met his relatives at the hotel.

Things didn't go as smoothly on the trip home. Again the nephew wasn't able to get on the same flight as his relatives, but this time, when they called him after getting off the plane back home, they found that he was about to miss out on a third flight that day.

"We gave him a list of instructions and our standard `be patient and flexible,"' my reader says.

She also gave him the telephone number of her mother-in-law, who had offered to put him up overnight if necessary. The nephew didn't seem put out, and told her that he had no place that he needed to be the following day.

While they were still on their way home from the airport, however, they got an irate telephone call from their nephew's father.

"He tore into us for leaving his son behind and alone in Las Vegas," my reader says. "When we got home we bought a regular ticket for my nephew, picked him up from the airport when he arrived and dropped him off at his parents' empty house."

Others to whom they've given these standby tickets also have experienced "nightmare trips," she concedes, but she's never been chewed out this way before.

Her question: "Did we act in an unethical, immoral, misleading or just plain wrongheaded way in offering our nephew a standby buddy pass while we traveled with a reservation?"

Of course not. A gift is a gift, so long as any drawbacks involved are made clear, and my reader obviously laid out the risks to the nephew well in advance. When all is said and done, the nephew got a free trip to Las Vegas and, whether or not his father feels otherwise, he's got nothing to complain about.

His father's reaction was out of line. Any good father is going to be worried about his son, regardless of age, but a 22-year-old is no child. He's entitled to make decisions for himself, including accepting a free plane ticket with the understanding that doing so might involve considerable inconvenience.

The father can question his son's judgment in accepting the offer, but he's got no right to chastise the person who gave his son the gift, simply because his son's standby didn't go smoothly. That risk is intrinsic in flying standby, and my reader had made clear the conditions of her travel offer, the restrictions of the ticket and the risks involved. That was the extent of her obligation, and even so her gift was a generous one.

When she learned how upset her nephew's father was, my reader even bought her nephew a ticket home out of her own pocket. This was above and beyond any reasonable expectation, and is further evidence of how generous a family member she is.

OPEN SEASON ON BLOGS

My readers were of one mind in concluding that anything a child posts on a public blog is fair game for teachers, parents or others to read.

"There is no expectation of privacy in a public forum," writes Alan Sechrest of Mission Viejo, Calif.

Kevin Eav of Irvine, Calif., likens blogs to the whiteboards posted on dorm-room doors. "If someone reads a blog and learns something that the blogger didn't want them to," Eav writes, "then that is the fault of the blogger."

"Of course parents and teachers should be able to read these blogs,"writes Jamie Thomas of Costa Mesa, Calif. "Maybe kids would relearn the sense of modesty that seems to be lacking from today's `Net' generation."

After hearing from students about their pages at
www.myspace.com, Kelly Yarborough, a teacher from Cypress, Calif., checked out their sites...and told them about it the next day. "If they had asked me not to return," she writes, "I would have abided by their requests."

Beth Houghton of Cypress, Calif., thinks that most bloggers understand that their postings are available even to their near and dear, even if some young people think otherwise. "Only the standard-issue arrogant kid could think that he or she can make public their most intimate thoughts/urges/musings or practices to the entire world and everyone but the parents is invited to read," Houghton fumes. "What insolence!"


Post your own thoughts on the topic below by clicking on "Comments." Please include your name, hometown and state in your response or email them to me at rightthing@nytimes.com.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

A KISS IS JUST A KISS?

In a recent episode of the television series "Lost," one of the characters, a surgeon named Jack, is shown in a flashback scene. The flashback finds him in a hospital parking lot with the daughter of a patient he has operated on. The daughter moves in and plants a substantial kiss on Jack's lips. After a moment Jack pulls away, even though he appears to enjoy the kiss, and tells her that this is wrong and cannot happen.

When he gets home that evening, Jack is shown in the kitchen with his wife. Given that he rejected the attentions of his patient's daughter, should he tell his wife about her advance?

Post your thoughts below by clicking on "COMMENTS" or send them to rightthing@nytimes.com. Please include your name and hometown. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column.

ARE YOU WHO YOU SAY YOU ARE?

About 25 years ago I went on a double date with a stripper. The stripper wasn't my date -- she was the across-the-hall neighbor of a female friend whom I was taking to see a play called "The Shadow Box." The stripper and her date joined us.

The stripper went by the stage name of Princess Cheyenne and, at the time, was a fairly well-known personality in Boston. I occasionally would read about her in the newspaper thereafter, but sometime around the mid-1980s she seemed to disappear from the scene.

Now she is back in the news. In October The Boston Globe reported that Lucy Wightman, the former Princess Cheyenne, had been "indicted on 26 counts of felony larceny, six counts of filing false health-care claims, six counts of insurance fraud and one count of practicing psychology without a license."

Wightman allegedly had passed herself off as a licensed psychologist, when in reality she had only a master's degree in counseling psychology and had never earned a Ph.D in psychology from any accredited institution, though she had purchased a Ph.D online.

Genuine psychologists, believing Wightman to be licensed, had referred patients to her. Some parents had taken their children to her for neuropsychological evaluations that Wightman was neither trained nor licensed to administer.

The Wightman incident -- her indictment, not my double-date with her -- created quite a stir in my household. My wife, a licensed therapist who earned the same master's degree that Wightman did, wondered what responsibility lay with the professionals who had referred patients to Wightman. Weren't they obligated to make sure that she had the credentials that she said or implied that she had?

Presumably the referrers didn't knowingly recommend an unlicensed practitioner -- if they had, they too would be in a heap of trouble -- but, even if they had no legal requirement to check out Wightman's credentials, didn't they have an ethical responsibility to make sure that she was on the up and up before sending patients to her? It's a question that reaches beyond the medical arena. Do we have an obligation to make sure that people are not faking their credentials when we're involved in recommending them or hiring them to do a job? If you're leading a search for a new employee, for example, and if no one else has verified the information on a promising candidate's resume, should you place a few calls to former employers or educators to confirm the information?

I would argue that, because of your responsibility to the company and to other employees, you should make those calls. It's not that I'm cynical and believe that most people provide false information, it's simply that checking out a candidate as thoroughly as possible should be a routine part of screening him or her for a job. If you're accepting anything he or she says at face value, you're failing to fulfill the basic idea of a screening.

In the Wightman case, the right thing would have been for the referrers to make sure that she -- and any other professional they recommended -- was qualified and licensed to do the work. While it might take extra work to check someone's credentials, mental health is too critical an issue to take anybody's expertise for granted.

There are times when, regardless of our efforts to check out someone's credentials, we are going to be duped by a clever hoaxster. Nonetheless we owe it to the people who might fall prey to such posers to make every effort to make it as difficult as possible for any deception to succeed.


c.2006 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Talking Politics Over Turkey

For those wrestling with how to have a civil discussion over a holiday meal, a discussion with HKS PolicyCast