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Sunday, June 25, 2006

RENDERING UNDESERVED RETURNS

For some, how far to go in correcting a retail mistake that results in more cash in your pocket than you deserve depends on how much money is involved. Others believe that such mistakes should be corrected regardless of monetary value. But to what lengths is one obliged to go?

Let's say that you've waited in line for several minutes to buy your morning coffee on the way to work. You've paid and are a couple of blocks away before you realize that the clerk gave you change for $20 rather than for the $10 you gave her.

Do you turn around and go back to the coffee shop to return the extra $10? Do you wait until the next time you're in the coffee shop to return the money? Or do you merely pocket the extra change and chalk it up to good luck?

What would you do?

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "Comments" below or send your thoughts to rightthing@nytimes.com
. Please include your name, your hometown and the name of the newspaper in which you read this column. Readers'comments may appear in an upcoming column.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Spiro Press, 2003), 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.

THE FAINT AROMA OF SOUR GRAPES

At one time or another, most of us have been passed over for a job we really, really wanted. Not something that we thought would have been a nice opportunity, but something that fell squarely into the "my whole life I have been praying for this kind of chance to prove myself" category.

It's one thing to be passed over for some other candidate who's equally qualified -- or, gasp, better qualified. But what about when someone gets tapped who, in your opinion, would be a disaster in that position for the company?

In other words, to quote a reader in New York: "What do you owe your employer if they've made a decision that was not in your favor and which you think will serve them poorly?"

A friend of the reader's was being considered for a foreign assignment to train new employees. The company chose someone else who, according to the friend, has poor people skills, including impatience and general rudeness.

"Presumably the managers considered all angles of all the candidates before making their choices," my reader writes. "But I wonder if people like my friend owe it to their companies to raise their concerns."

The reader feels that the answer is "maybe," but she can't see a graceful way to do it.

"More important, is there anything to be gained at this point by being candid?" she asks. "I fear it will make my friend look petty and her bosses feel defensive."

Her friend is inclined not to say anything, thinking that it would probably come off as sour grapes. My reader agrees that it's far safer at this point to let the issue go, "but I'm not sure if it's the right thing."

My reader's concern over her friend's professional well-being is well-intentioned. And it's only natural for her friend to feel righteous indignation after a poor choice has been made in filling the spot she really wanted.

But is she obligated to alert her bosses to the damaging character traits in her colleague who got the job? No.

She's right in assuming that it would be difficult for her bosses not to register her concerns as sour grapes, but that in itself doesn't outweigh her duty as an employee to defend her employer's interests. Even if she feared being seen as biased, it would be her duty to come forward if she knew something factual about the colleague that her employers did not, something that truly might put the company in a perilous position -- for example, "She killed a man in Reno once, just to watch him die."

There is no factual issue here, however. This is essentially a judgment call -- "A is too rude to be right for this job" -- and, to be fair, it would be hard even for the employee to be sure that there wasn't some self-interest in her own feelings on this issue. Absent specific, compelling information previously unknown to her employers, there is therefore no obligation for the employee to come forward.

The friend's concerns are, after all, ones that her bosses should have uncovered in interviewing the candidate. If they missed these aspects of the candidate's personality, they did a lousy job in the screening process. It is not up to my reader's friend to set them straight on how bad a pick they've made.

It's equally likely, however, that after weighing their choice'sstrengths and weaknesses the bosses decided that, in spite of a reputation for lapsing into rudeness, that person was best suited for the assignment.

The right thing for my reader's friend to do is to trust her own instincts and let the matter lie. If their pick turns out to be the disaster she anticipates, the bosses will find out soon enough and,hopefully, take full responsibility for making a poor choice.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

THE MARRIAGE IS OVER, BUT WHO GETS THE HOUSE?

When it comes to broken engagements, etiquette experts such as Emily Post say that it's appropriate for the bride-to-have-been to return the engagement ring unless it was a heirloom from her family. But what's the right thing to do if a woman receives gifts from her husband's side of the family but the marriage eventually ends in divorce?

A.K., a reader from northern California, split with her former husband 10 years ago. About five years earlier, however, her then-husband had given her a dollhouse that his great-uncle had made.

After her ex-husband's parents passed away last year, A.K.'s son let her know that his father, aunts and uncles wanted the dollhouse back. Neither her husband nor his siblings have directly asked her to return the dollhouse, however, and she wonders whether she should.

I don't think she's in any way obliged to do so. Unless he said otherwise at the time, her ex-husband gave the dollhouse to A.K. as a gift, free and clear. Unlike an engagement ring or a wedding present, gifts made with the implied intention of solidifying the subsequent marriage and thus contingent upon the marriage taking place, the dollhouse had no such strings attached.

Had A.K.'s husband wanted to regain possession of the dollhouse, the time for him to make that argument would have been upon their divorce, as they were deciding which partner would receive which assets from the marriage.

Asking for the return of the dollhouse now would be like me expecting a childhood friend to return the 1967 Roger Maris baseball card that I gave him before we had a falling out. I might like to have it back -- last I checked, the card was going for more than a hundred bucks on eBay -- but I should have no expectation that he'll give it back simply because our relationship turned sour many, many years ago.

Granted, the dollhouse may have significant sentimental value for A.K.'s ex-husband and his side of the family. And, granted, if she hadn't married into his family, her ex-husband most likely never would have given her the dollhouse.

But A.K. did marry into the family, and her husband did give her the gift. It would be thoughtful, even generous if A.K. chose to return it to the family of its maker, but it would not be thoughtless or ungenerous if she didn't. She's under no ethical obligation to do anything, and is perfectly entitled to keep the dollhouse for as long as she wants.

Speaking of ethical obligation, if her husband and his siblings would like A.K. to return the dollhouse, they should ask her directly, rather than put A.K.'s son in the middle of a potentially tense situation. Sure, their indirect approach may reflect the strained relationship between ex-spouses and ex-in-laws, but their hesitance to make the request directly may also indicate that they know that the dollhouse sits with its rightful owner.

If they want to let A.K. know that they'd like a chance to acquire the dollhouse if she should ever decide to part with it, there's no reason no tto tell her so. But when we give someone a gift, as a general rule it's right to assume that thereafter it's someone else's, to keep through thick and thin.

SOUND OFF: WHEN BOSSES CHEAT

In the case of the worker whose colleague confided in him that their mutual manager had asked him to use his name on an expense report to justify a minor expense, most of my readers felt that the worker should go back to the manager and tell him that, despite his initial agreement, he could not cooperate with the manager's plan.

No one disagreed with Neal White of Atlanta, who writes: "The manager should pay the expense out of his own pocket -- otherwise he is stealing."

Eva Bellinger of Sun Prairie, Wis., feels that the "person whom themanager asked to cover for him is responsible for taking action, not a third party" in whom that person happened to confide.

Judy Finnson of Vancouver, Wash., disagrees.

"If the colleague can't or won't do what's right," Finnson says, "the confidant/friend must."

E. Carroll Straus of San Juan Capistrano, Calif., agrees that, once informed of the situation, the colleague has an obligation to act.

"I would do so," he writes. "Clearly silence is complicity."

Mark Peterson of Verona, Wis., believes that the action speaks to the character of the manager, whom he describes as sounding "like a tiny little manipulator who will likely bury himself on his own sooner than later."

Bert Hoogendam of Ontario notes that, if the manager gets away with it once, his subordinate won't have heard the last of it.

"The colleague did cooperate for the first time," Hoogendam writes, "and that colleague can be assured that he can expect future requests for more bogus claims."

Check out other opinions at
http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com/2006/05/sound-off-hearsay-on-job.html or post your own by clicking on "Comments" below.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit andPersonal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Spiro Press, 2003), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writingand 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.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

SOUND OFF: DON'T ASK, DO TELL?

When an ice-cream vendor in Charlotte, N.C., was robbed in late May, a police officer asked him about his legal status as a U.S. resident. The police chief subsequently apologized, since it is departmental policy not to ask victims about their residency status. Charlotte's mayor, concerned about immigration issues, thinks that this policy should be changed.

An editorial in The Charlotte Observer responded that the mayor "needs to back off." While those accused of crimes should have their status checked, the paper argued, checking on the status of victims or witnesses to crimes may cause them not to talk to police "for fear of being busted" if they are in the country illegally.

What do you think? Should residency status be checked on witnesses and victims who might be illegal aliens, even if this might lead to criminals getting away with serious crimes? Or should the current policy stand, because it encourages more people to come forward, report crimes and/or testify against the criminals?

Post your thoughts by clicking on "Comments" or send them to rightthing@nytimes.com
. Please include your name, your hometown and the name of the newspaper in which you read this column. Readers'comments may appear in an upcoming column.

ONE MAN'S MISTAKE, ANOTHER MAN'S BREAK?

Everybody makes mistakes. The question is, to what extent are others entitled to benefit from them?

A friend recently told P.K. of La Crosse, Wisc., that he had purchased a wide-screen television at a discount-electronics outlet. Its price was$999, but the checkout clerk accidentally rang up $399. P.K.'s friend noticed the mistake right away, but "feeling quite lucky" he paid the $399, went home and hooked up the television.

Several hours later the store manager called, apologized for the mistake and asked P.K.'s friend to stop by to rectify the situation. His response, P.K. says, was essentially, "too bad."

"The girl at the checkout rang up $399," his friend told the manager,"and I paid what was asked. Sue me, if you'd like, and good luck trying toget the money."

P.K. says that his friend was quite proud of himself when it turned out that, as he had correctly figured, the store chose not to spend the time and money to pursue the matter.

The incident raises the question of how we should handle issues that cross ethical boundaries but may not actually be illegal, or how important it is to do the right thing when we're not likely to get caught.

P.K. wonders if his friend's behavior is any different from cutting a few corners on a tax form because everybody does it, not stopping back at the supermarket if you get too much change or even getting a free soda out of a machine because it's broken.

His sense of equivalence is indeed justified. Accepting a television set that you know was rung up for $600 less than the correct price may be different in degree from keeping a bottle of cola that should have cost you$1.25, but the intent is no different. You've accepted something that you know isn't rightly yours for the price you ended up paying.

In the case of the television set, the right thing for P.K.'s friend to have done is obvious: Having noticed the mistake while he was still in the store, he should have asked the cashier to doublecheck the price of the television and ring it up again.

The ethical situation is the same with the vending-machine cola, but it's more challenging to make good than it is in the case of P.K.'s friend and the television set. For one thing, most likely there's no one around to whom you can report the problem or to whom you can return the free soda. Plus, it is all but impossible that the owner of the machine will be able to track down the individual who has walked off with a free drink, the way the store manager did with P.K.'s friend, offering him a second opportunity -- an opportunity that he again rejected -- to do the right thing.

The right thing to do in such cases is to call the vending-machine operator -- there's usually a telephone number posted on the machine -- to report that the machine is broken. When you make the call, ask the vendor what to do with the free soda you've received. Chances are that, since you called in the problem in the first place, the vendor will tell you to keep it.

"Character," writes Robert Coles in "The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination" (The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral... ), "is how you behave when no one is looking."

That's true regardless of the value of the item questionably received and regardless of the likelihood of your getting caught.

Friday, June 09, 2006

A Code of Ethics and Can Ethics Be Taught

There are two articles I wanted to bring to your attention.

The first is by Greg Burns and Jodi Cohen and appeared in the Chicago Tribune on June 7. It's titled "Can You Teach A Person Ethics?" You can find it at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0606070181jun07,1,2440890.story. I'm quoted in the story along with many others. The Chicago Tribune requires registration, but it's free.

The second is a review of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin's new book A Code of Jewish Ethics (A Code of Jewish Ethics: Volume 1: You Shal... ) I wrote for jbooks.com. It appears at
JBooks.com - Non-Fiction: Hed: Mistaking Our Way to Ethical Behavior.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

TIME TO DRAW THE LINE

"A mistake is an accident," Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes, "while a sin is a choice."

I can't get this thought -- from Telushkin's "A Code of Jewish Ethics" ( A Code of Jewish Ethics: Volume 1: You Shal... ) -- out of my head since I read an e-mail from a reader in southern California who is faced with the dilemma of either following her boss's direction to do something that she knows is wrong or telling him no and risking the loss of a job she began barely 90 days ago.

The company for which she works requires its employees to take Web-based compliance courses. The courses are monitored, and those who do not complete them are "tagged" and informed of their noncompliance.

"Recently the person I assist has been tagged for having only 20% of the required courses completed," she writes.

My reader has already completed the courses herself. Now her boss has asked her to log in and take the courses again, this time under his name.

"I understand that, by completing these courses himself, he loses out on a day to two days of productivity," she writes, "but I do not feel it is completely honest to expect me to take the courses for him."

On the other hand, as his assistant she wants to make sure that he is productive, because that will help her in the long run. And, as a relatively new hire, she doesn't want to put her job on the line.

"I have told him that I would do it," she writes, "but now I feel that I need a second opinion. I worry that, if I don't do it, he'll pass it off to another assistant and look down upon me."

For most of us, the most difficult ethical choices we have to make aren't between right and wrong. Most of us can resolve such stark choices.It gets harder when we're faced with multiple right answers and have to select the best one.

That's not the case here, however. The assistant should not take the courses for her boss.

It was dishonest for her boss to ask someone else to complete his required courses. If she agrees to do it, she will become equally culpable. As for her job, the chances may well be greater that she'll lose the job if it's discovered that she participated in this deceit.

These sorts of situations are precisely why ethics programs are set up within companies. Most feature some mechanism that allows an employee to anonymously report suspected egregious behavior.

The reader's company has an ethics hotline. Without hesitation, the right thing to do is to report this guy. She's right to be concerned that, if she turns him down, he may simply entice someone else to do the same thing. Regardless of how productive he is, such flagrant dishonesty and such attempts to manipulate employees into doing wrong should be unacceptable at any company. If top management does nothing to investigate and stop this boss before he acts again, it is making a farce of its ethics program.

Making the choice to do nothing would be, well, sinful. That goes not only for my reader, but also for the company that employs her and her wayward boss.

SOUND OFF: BEST INTENTIONS

In a recent episode of the television medical drama "House," doctors had to decide whether to inform an organ donor that her partner, to whom she was planning to donate part of her liver, had told one of the doctors that she planned to leave the donor. The lead doctor warned his colleagues not to disclose the information, since it might dissuade the partner from making the donation. Did he make the right call?

"I think Dr. House made the right decision," writes Eileen Chitruk of Windsor, Ontario, and most of my readers who responded agreed with her.

It's a no-brainer for Phillip Brandt of Costa Mesa, Calif., who believes that the disclosure should be covered by doctor/patient privilege.

Emmanuel Tchividjian of New York agrees. "The information of the patient planning to leave her partner was most probably given in confidence and the doctor has no right to divulge it,"Tchividjian writes. "There is also the possibility that the patient might change her mind about leaving her partner because of her generosity." Check out other opinions or post your own at:
http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com. (The original question was posted at
http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com/2006/04/truth-and-consequences.html
.)

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Spiro Press, 2003), 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.