Sunday, July 30, 2006

UNRETURNED CALLS AND AN OBLIGATION UNRESOLVED

A few weeks ago I spent four hours in the rain, shoveling a ton and a half of bleached oyster shells onto the front lawn of my house.

Borrowing from a landscaping technique she'd seen while visiting Cape Cod, it was my wife's inspired idea to bring the shells to our small front yard, which is in a neighborhood about a block from Boston Harbor. The shells were dumped onto the city sidewalk in front of our house, however, and I needed to move them to avoid being ticketed for blocking the sidewalk.

The shoveling, and my subsequent backache, gave me an appreciation for exactly how hard landscape contractors work.

One of them is Leon Gray of Fullerton, Calif., who e-mailed me to ask about how far he needed to go to locate a contractor to whom he might owe some money.

"I was contacted by another firm to bid on a small waterfall feature at a private residence," Gray writes.

He and the other contractor scheduled a meeting at the residence, which Gray missed because poor cell-telephone reception had caused him to think that the meeting was in the evening rather than in the morning.

While at the residence, Gray met briefly with the homeowner and found out exactly what was needed. He prepared a bid to give to the contractor, but found it impossible to get in touch with him.

"I called a number of times and left voicemails," he writes. "I even called his assistant and had her leave a note for him to call."

The homeowner also called the contractor and received no response. A couple of weeks passed, and the homeowner was growing impatient, so Gray gave him the bid for the waterfall job. At the time, Gray says, he stated very clearly that, though he was offering a bid for informational purposes, the arrangements should be made through the original contractor.

"But if he refused to return either of our calls," Gray writes, "then I feel he is out of the loop so far as getting any referral fees. The homeowner emphatically agreed with me."

Gray wants to know if he is still obligated to continue trying to contact the contractor, given that none of his previous calls have been returned.

I believe that he is.

Some contractors -- the contractors who work on my own house, for example -- subcontract parts of jobs and let the subcontractor directly bill the homeowner without taking any referral fee. That does not seem to be the case in this instance, however.

While the contractor may be shirking his responsibility by being so difficult to contact, and apparently is annoying his client, it doesn't remove Gray's obligation. Without the initial contact from the contractor, he never would have found the job in the first place. Their initial conversation defined the obligations of the relationship, and nothing that has happened since, not Gray's missing the first meeting nor the contractor's failure to return telephone calls, has altered those obligations.

The right thing for Gray to do is to track down the contractor to resolve the amount of the referral fee. If this means going to the contractor's office in person, that's what he should do.

If, however, it turns out that the contractor has for whatever reason decided not to take the bigger landscape job, and if the homeowner still wants to hire Gray to build his waterfall, then the contractor should release Gray from any obligation.

SOUND OFF: RETURNING WHAT'S NOT YOURS

All readers who responded agreed that, if they received an erroneous $10 in change at their local coffee shop, they would return it promptly.

"The right thing would be to immediately return it," writes Nancy Pike of Mt. Vernon, Ohio, "no matter how personally inconvenient it would be."

Lori Flores of Riverside, Calif., notes that, if the mistake is left uncorrected, it's likely that the cashier will have to pay back the money out of her own pocket.

"To keep this money is theft," writes Kitty Chisholm of Windsor, Ontario.

Helen Standley of Charlotte, N.C., like Debi Grand of Stanton, Calif., and Carole Longman of Delaware, Ohio, would call the store manager about the mistake.

"Much angst can be avoided by a telephone call the instant the receiver discovers the mistake," Longman writes.

Sarah Moss, a 14-year-old from Orange County, Calif., has had personal experience with the issue: She recalls shopping with her mother and younger sister at a clothing store and, after leaving the shop, discovering that the cashier hadn't charged them for one pair of shorts."My conscience didn't have to beat me up for me to choose to tell my mom that we just stole a pair of shorts," Moss writes. "We marched back into the store and did our good deed of the day by paying for the shorts and simultaneously making my mom proud."

Check out other opinions at http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com/2006/06/rendering-undeserved-returns.html or post your own by clicking on "comments" below.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), 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.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

SOUND OFF: A TAINTED NAME?

The Roger D. Blackwell Inn, at Ohio State University in Columbus, is named after a former marketing professor who pledged $7 million to fund the building. Blackwell was subsequently convicted of insider trading and other financial crimes, but according to The Columbus Dispatch university officials "appear uninterested" in renaming the inn. The paper notes that so far Blackwell has given only about $1.4 million and that, given the cost of his appeal, little more likely will be forthcoming.

Given that Blackwell has been convicted of actions that the university would hardly encourage among its students, should his name be taken off the building? Or shouldn’t it matter, as long as the promised money is in fact given?

What do you think?

Send your thoughts to rightthing@nytimes.com or post them by clicking on "comments" below. 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.

PUTTING THE BITE ON FRIENDS

Every since learning in 2002 that his wife has multiple sclerosis, my friend David has participated in The Great Mass Getaway MS 150 Bike Tour. He and his oldest daughter join hundreds of others in a bicycle ride from Boston to Provincetown, Mass. All solicit donations from friends and family as sponsors, with the funds going to support multiple-sclerosis research.

And every year I get an e-mail from David letting me know about the ride, asking for my help, if I can give it, and giving me a link to a Web site through which I can make a donation.

My wife and I get several such requests during the year, and we support our friends and family as much as possible. I had never thought to ask whether it was appropriate for friends and family members to tug on the heartstrings of their loved ones in order to generate support for their own causes.

Some of my readers have, however.

C.K. of Yorba Linda, Calif., sent me a form letter that she recently received from a family member asking for financial support for a religious mission she was hoping to go on. The letter laid out the details of the mission, which involved working on construction projects in an impoverished area of a foreign country, and mentioned that, while the cost of the trip was $350, the letter writer still needed to raise $260.

“In my day,” writes my reader, who identifies herself as a senior citizen,"I would have worked hard all year long to pay for this trip … never thinking of asking for help."

Nonetheless, C.K. ultimately sent her relative $10.

Granted, the number of charitable events and of people seeking funds to support their participation in those events seems to grow every year. At some point each of us will surely find his or her resources stretched to the point that we can’t afford to fund every request that comes in, even if we’re inclined to do so.

But the prospective mission-goer gave C.K. an alternative to giving money: "If you can’t support me financially,” she wrote, “the team and myself would appreciate your prayers, not only during the trip, but also the preparation."

This is not unusual. My friend David also tells recipients of his e-mail that he’ll understand if they can’t support him in his ride this year.

Should C.K.’s family member work hard to earn as much as she can to fund her own trip? Yes, she should. The same is true of David, who I assume makes independent contributions to fund research into the disease he and his family live with every day.

But if the effort to raise more funds than any one individual can contribute to a worthy cause means reaching out to others, who better to solicit than family and friends? We aren’t, after all, being asked to fund a frivolous purchase, a luxurious vacation or an extravagant birthday party, the costs of which obviously should fall on the shoulders of those who want these things.

The right thing for those who are solicited on behalf of such causes is to decide if they can and want to give to whatever they’re being asked to support. If they can’t or don’t want to, they should feel absolutely no guilt. The request for support imposes no obligation whatever on its recipient.

But there’s no harm in asking or in being asked. Friends or family members who ask for donations show nothing more than their desire to go as far as they can to support something they consider worthy.

Speaking of which, you can find more information about participation in the MS Bike Tour on the Web site of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society at www.nationalmssociety.org.

Monday, July 17, 2006

MEMO TO MICROSOFT'S STEVE BALLMER

In light of Bill Gates' recent announcement that he'll be stepping back in managing Microsoft and the continued elevation of Steve Ballmer, here's a reprise of a column that ran in 2002 as a memo to Ballmer:

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

July 21, 2002

THE RIGHT THING

Corporate Values Trickle Down From the Top

By JEFFREY L. SEGLIN

To: Mr. Steven A. Ballmer, chief executive of Microsoft

Re: Your e-mail memo, "Realizing Potential," sent to employees last month

I recently read your message to the 50,000 employees of Microsoftworldwide. What caught my eye was how much your message, at 2,674 words, noted the importance of values throughout the company and how you said those values "must shine through in all our interactions -- in our work groups, across teams, with partners, within our industry, and most of all with customers."

You tossed in all the right "values" words: integrity, honesty, respect, trust, excellence and accountability, among others. But as far as I can tell, you cited only one substantive mechanism to show that all this talk about values is, as you put it, "not just a fluffy statement of principles but really a guide to action": You said that "starting with the upcoming August review, every employee will have a formal discussion of how they are doing on values withtheir managers."

I applaud you for taking this step. But I'm afraid that you, like many otherC.E.O.'s, haven't gone far enough. The notion that you want your company to stand for values is laudable, many ethics experts agree. But simply saying so and then asking employees how they are doing on the values front falls short.

"You've got to translate this into specifics," said Joseph L. Badaracco Jr., a business ethics professor at Harvard Business School and author of "Leading Quietly" (Harvard Business School Press, 2002). "Otherwise managers aren't going to pay any attention to it."

That's sage advice. Furthermore, how do you plan to balance the drive for innovation and big profits with the values of integrity, trust and so on? Clearly, there are times when these sets of values can conflict.

"He needs to put systems in place to ensure that the values-based culture is supported," said Linda Klebe Trevino, a professor of organizational behavior atPennsylvania State University. "Probably most important is the reward system. How much does advancement and compensation depend on bottom-line performance versus the other values? And what happens to top performers who don't live by those values?"

But first, ask yourself to what standard you plan to hold yourself. Laura P.Hartman, a professor of business ethics at DePaul University in Chicago and editor of "Perspectives in Business Ethics" (McGraw-Hill, 2001), thinks that you are "perhaps pointing the microscope in the wrong direction," given that most of the recent high-profile ethical problems in corporate America have been traced to the executive suite. Professor Hartman was not suggesting that Microsoft has suffered ethical lapses of late, but she contends that if you or any other C.E.O. want to instill certain values, you can start by acting as you'd like your work force to act. That means making sure that your reports respond consistently to ethical quandaries and ensuring that incentives are in the right place. That would provide "an actual commitment to these values rather than just an announcement about an actual commitment," Professor Hartman said.

Then there is the whole antitrust mess, now crawling to a resolution in the courts. Less than two weeks after your memo was sent to employees, Judge ColleenKollar-Kotelly of the Federal District Court in Washington requested that you and the state attorneys general pursuing antitrust actions against Microsoft suggest areas of compromise when you made your closing arguments. Your lawyer's response was to suggest eliminating the concessions you'd already made to reach a settlement in the first place. That hardly smacks of the kinder, gentlerMicrosoft in your memo. A simple "we can't come up with anything" would have sufficed.

Like many other chief executives, you have your work cut out for you to sell this values thing. Those who weren't already looking for reasons to criticize you will watch carefully to see if your actions belie your words. Here's my shorthand suggestion: Take bold steps.

Set yourself apart from those high-profile corporations that are accused of financial wrongdoing. For starters, tell the world in plain English howMicrosoft constructs a clear, honest financial statement. Follow up by declaring that you already have some strong policies in place regarding possible conflicts of interest: having only outside directors serve on your board's compensation and audit committees, for example. Voluntarily adopt some of the corporate governance proposals now floating around, like the one that would rotate outside auditors every few years.

And if you really want to make a bold convincing stroke, follow the lead of Coca-Cola and announce that you're going to start treating all those stock options you dole out as expenses on your financial statement.

Try these things if you want the world to know about the compelling platform and clear mission as an industry leader that you envision in your memo.


You want people to know about Microsoft's values and what the company stands for? Show us.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

SOUND OFF: DO ASK? DO TELL?

I reported that the mayor of Charlotte, N.C., wants to change his city's police-department policy of not asking victims of crimes about their immigration status. An editorial in The Charlotte Observer responded that the mayor "needs to back off."

Jack Stegall of Monroe, N.C., believes that the policy should be changed.

"Those who expect to receive benefits and protection from the law must assume some responsibility for obeying the law themselves," he explains.

Many readers agree, including Mark Jones of Huntington Beach, Calif.

"If someone who is in this country illegally is a victim of a crime," Jones writes, "they should remember that they committed a crime first."

"If they sneaked under a fence in the dark of night," writes Phil Clutts of Charlotte, N.C., "they knew they were doing something wrong for their own benefit, and should therefore be prepared to pay the consequences of reporting or not reporting a criminal act that they experienced."

"If they are going to come to the United States," writes Charles Seng of Lancaster, S.C., "they had better learn that, when you see a crime, you report it."

Jan Bohren of Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., disagrees, however.

"We shouldn't confuse illegal actions (immigrant status) with criminal actions (robbery)," Bohren writes.

Maggie Nelson of Monroe, N.C., agrees with that distinction.

"Being an illegal immigrant is not a violent crime like robbery, assault, rape or murder," Nelson opines.

For William Carter of Weddington, N.C., the key issue is the public benefit derived from individuals cooperating with the police in combating crime.

"What person in his right mind would get involved with the police for any reason," he asks, "if there is a chance he or she will be deported?"

Check out the original posting with reader comments at http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com/2006/06/sound-off-dont-ask-do-tell.html or post your own by clicking on "COMMENTS."


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.¶

A GOING CONCERN

There are times when seemingly trivial questions cry out for serious answers. The answers can inspire us to think about bigger issues, about who we are as individuals, neighbors and citizens.

When D.S. of Concord, Mass., e-mailed me, I doubt that she expected a response exploring people's relationships to property and ownership. She simply wanted me to weigh in on a dispute she and her husband have been having for some time...about portable outhouses. Her husband "seems to think it's OK to use an unlocked `handy house' that is on private property," she writes. "I'm not so sure."

D.S.'s husband is an avid walker, and there are many portable toilets unlocked on properties along his walking route.

"He believes that they're there to take advantage of for a person in need," D.S. writes. "I've told him that it's personal property, as someone is paying to lease it and have it maintained."

He responds that, if the owners didn't want others to use them, they'd put a lock on the door. D.S. is correct, of course. Trespassing on private property is illegal. And, as far as I know, there is no exemption for those with weak bladders.

But should property owners press charges against those who use their portable outhouses? If the outhouse wasn't locked and if the user didn't deface it, I don't believe so. They presumably have the legal right to do so, but this is counterbalanced by an obligation to the community.

There are times when the needs of the community should trump the rights of the individual under the law -- not as a legal matter, but as a moral one. A classic example of this, one about which I've written before, arose in 1995, when the plant at Malden Mills in Lawrence, Mass., burned to the ground shortly before Christmas. Owner Aaron Feuerstein had no legal obligation to keep his employees on payroll after the fire, which forced an all-but-complete shutdown of production, but he kept them on anyway.

"You're supposed to do what's right because it's right," he told me at the time, "not because there's a payoff."

Joseph Singer, a professor at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass., wrote about the obligations of ownership in "The Edges of the Field" (The Edges of the Field: Lessons on the Obli... ). His title is drawn from an Old Testament passage in Leviticus that instructs property owners not to reap to the very edges ofthe fields they own nor to gather fallen grapes from their vineyards, but instead to leave those for the poor. Singer's notion is that, regardless of ownership, possession of a resource implies an obligation to the larger community.While it's doubtful that the owners of the portable toilets in D.S.'s neighborhood had Leviticus in mind or were motivated by intentions as noble as Feuerstein's in leaving their facilities unlocked, it's clear that nonetheless the facilities are serving people in need.

If a given outhouse were locked, it would be wrong for D.S.'s husband to break in. But if, when his need arises, he happens to come upon one thatis unlocked, I say no harm, no foul.The right thing to do would be for D.S.'s husband to seek out the owners to ask permission, of course, perhaps by leaving a note of inquiry. But if no one is there and he's got to go, then he's got to go.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

SOUND OFF: DON'T EVEN THINK OF IT

A recent story in USA Today reported that two companies will begin using magnetic-resonance imaging as "brain-based lie-detector tests" that reportedly can detect lies with 90-percent accuracy.

"After the 9/11 attacks," the reporter writes, "the FBI, CIA, Department of Defense and other agencies began funding research into how changes in brain activity correlate with truth telling."

Some experts believe that far more discussion is needed about both the accuracy of such tests and the ethical implications of using MRI to detect lies.

"We understand that there are further ethics conversations (needed) when science pushes the envelope," said Stephen Laken, president of Cephos Corp., a firm that will perform the tests at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.

What do you think? Is this a brilliant use of technology to detect liars in our midst, or is it an ethically challenged intrusion into our heads?

Send your responses to rightthing@nytimes.com or post them at
http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.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.

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.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

BOSSES FROM HELL, PART I

The movie version of "The Devil Wears Prada," starring Meryl Streep as the challenging boss, Miranda Priestly, has rekindled media interest in bosses everyone loves to hate. The stories about difficult bosses is hardly new.

Below is a reprise of "The Right Thing" column that touched on the subject in the past. Others can be found in the collection of columns (also called "The Right Thing" by clicking on the title on the home page of the http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com blog.

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company

August 20, 2000, Sunday, Late Edition
Final SECTION: Section 3; Page 4; Column 2; Money and Business/Financial Desk

THE RIGHT THING:

When the Boss is a Stealth Bomber

By JEFFREY L. SEGLIN

AN anecdote in Kay Hammer's book, "Workplace Warrior: Insights and Advice for Winning on the Corporate Battlefield" (Workplace Warrior: Insights and Advice for ... ) brought me up short. It seems that Ms. Hammer once had a boss who set up a secret team of employees to develop a project that would replace work she had been doing. She didn't find out until the stealth project was presented as a fait accompli at a meeting of her entire division of 80 employees.

"It was awful," Ms. Hammer said in an interview. "One of the things I had to ask myself after that public humiliation was why somebody would have so much animosity toward me that they would do that."

Ms. Hammer's story struck me, because I had once been involved in a similar incident from the other side. I was the one asked by the boss to develop a project in secret that might supersede someone else's work.

What should an ethical person think when asked to operate behind a colleague's back?

On one level, it is perfectly reasonable for a boss to want to explore new ideas and find innovative solutions to business challenges, and to assign the work to whichever employee seems best suited to the task. And it often makes perfect sense to hold potentially disruptive experiments close to the vest until it is clear that they will bear fruit. So keeping some co-workers in the dark is not automatically unethical. It all depends on what the boss is up to.

"Surely, there are ways to negotiate an outcome that partakes of the boss's desire for confidentiality but engages the support of the employee," said Rushworth Kidder, president of the Institute for Global Ethics in Camden, Me. "But that will only happen if the motive behind the boss's action was up front and straightforward rather than deceptive or wily. Was the boss trying to get rid of the employee, but simply lacked the courage to say so?"

In highly politicized workplaces, discussions of such issues are often avoided on purpose. Instead, innuendo rules under the guise of "an obvious necessity for secrecy" or "for the sake of the good cause," said Laura L. Nash of the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at Harvard. "When this is allowed, you create a business culture with upside-down values. There is a general sense that honesty about underhanded tricks is more distasteful than the tricks themselves.

"By insisting on secrecy, Ms. Nash said, "people begin to portray the deceived person as the enemy -- the dysfunctional one who deserves to be blindsided."

"This little mental trick," she added, "covers up their own participation in the deception."

It's also a sop to cowardice. Unethical bosses resort to this kind of tactic, said Steven Berglas, a clinical psychologist who teaches at the Anderson School of Management at U.C.L.A., when they are afraid to confront subordinates about problems with their work. Instead, they scheme to achieve their ends indirectly, by pitting employees against one another.

Employees, naturally, tend to put what the boss wants ahead of the needs of fellow workers. That's what I did when my boss approached me, though I didn't realize it until I took the plan to another colleague for confidential feedback. My confidant's response was unambiguous: The whole thing smacked of unfairness.

Maybe he felt free to respond that way because it was me asking, and not our boss. In any event, he immediately saw ethical implications that I hadn't acknowledged.

"Sunshine is a great disinfectant," Ms. Nash said. "When such behavior is opened to scrutiny -- even in a confidential setting -- the stench becomes clear. If you can't develop a product internally without cannibalizing your own team members, there is something wrong with your managing or your morals -- or both."

Ms. Hammer said in hindsight that had she been more attuned to the kind of person the boss was, she might have seen the ploy coming and gotten out earlier. "If you think the boss is a total jerk and he shouldn't be in this position, that's not productive," she said. "You're not going to fix him or thrive."

Having learned the hard way, Ms. Hammer quit to start her own business, Evolutionary Technologies International of Austin, Tex., which sells software that helps dissimilar computers communicate.

I stopped peddling my own secret proposal as soon as my confidant expressed his discomfort, and the whole thing fizzled out. But now, after reading Ms. Hammer's story, I have to find the moral courage to call my old deceived colleague and apologize.

Jeffrey L. Seglin teaches at Emerson College in Boston and is the author of "The Good, the Bad, and Your Business" (The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choos... ). His column on business ethics appears the third Sunday of each month. E-mail may be sent to: rightthing@nytimes.com.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Little Whites Lies about Firings

Phil Rosenthal has a column in yesterday's Chicago Tribune (The Chicago Tribune Phil Rosenthal Media column: Reynolds' deviation ) about how the truth is scarce when companies fire employees. He was reporting on the the Star Jones-Reynold removal from the television show "The View."

In his column, he writes:

"One of the shockwaves still rippling from Star Jones Reynolds' abrupt departure from ABC's "The View" is just how radical it is to not put a smiley face on one's ouster.

" "It's a huge question that people deal with in their business lives all the time," said Jeff Seglin, a professor at Emerson College who teaches professional ethics and writes a syndicated ethics column."

Later in the column, he continues:

" "It's a little white lie to try to protect somebody by saving face, but the problem with that is everyone knows that she's being fired," Seglin said. "We all say we're doing this to make someone feel better about why they're leaving, but when someone says they're leaving for personal reasons or someone says they're going in another direction, we know what that means. So why not just be honest about it?"

"These kind of niceties are epidemic these days. Every operation from the White House on down seems to have boilerplate announcements just waiting for the blanks to be filled as a desk is emptied and the news and employee are readied for release.

" "That's sort of become this dirty little secret," Seglin said. "Everyone knows that's code for `I'm being fired.'" "

I wrote about a similar topic in "The Right Thing" column back in October 1998:

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

October 18, 1998

THE RIGHT THING: In Dismissals, Silence Has Its Perils

By JEFFREY L. SEGLIN

YOU walk into the office, and as the day goes on you realize that the guy who sat in the cubicle next to you for years isn't there. It's not just that he hasn't come in to work. There is no trace of him. The family pictures, the plants, the cartoons he liked to clip and post are simply gone. Office scuttlebutt has it that he has been dismissed. But there is no official word: no memo, no department E-mail.

Welcome to the modern workplace, where companies are so concerned about wrongful-termination suits that silence often replaces honest communication. Most managers with power to dismiss have faced the problem:whether to let people know why a colleague has been let go or to lie low.

A consequence of the first option is obvious: the risk of being sued for what may be seen as defamation. A consequence of the second may be subtler, but no less serious: creating a climate of fear and being labeled a boss who does not level with the staff.

Who can blame companies for choosing the silent route? In 1997 alone, more than 50,000 wrongful-termination suits were filed in state and Federal courts, according to Edgewater Holdings, an insurer in Chicago.

"The upshot is you get a workplace where the law has made speech dangerous," said Walter K. Olson, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of The Excuse Factory: How Employment Law is Paralyzing the American Workplace (Free Press, 1997).

One casualty on this battlefield was Paul J. McCarthy, dismissed in January 1994 by a Rochester division of Unisource Worldwide, a big marketer of paper and packaging systems. Mr. McCarthy had sold the unit's packaging machinery for almost four years. Unisource bought the company midway through his tenure. After initially being given no explanation for his dismissal, he said, he later was told he failed to meet "performance related criteria."

Mr. McCarthy contends that he was dismissed because he told supervisors about conduct by a fellow employee that had put a Unisource vendor at a significant safety risk by taking him to a bad neighborhood. The vendor confirms that account, but did not report the incident to Unisource and declined to be identified.

"We sold over $1 million worth of product through his company," the vendor said. "I didn't want to risk losing the business." But he did tell Mr. McCarthy, who was a friend. "He went ballistic on it," the vendor said. "Paul's a pretty righteous person."

MR. McCARTHY reported the incident to a regional vice president. The vice president told Mr. McCarthy's boss to dismiss him, according to Mr. McCarthy and others involved.

Mr. McCarthy, 39 at the time, was not part of a "protected class," like members of a minority group or older workers, that can sue over a retaliatory dismissal, if that is what occurred. Given New York law's adherence to the notion of "employment at will," Unisource did not need to give a reason for dismissing him.

Patrick Farris, senior counsel at Unisource Worldwide's headquarters in Berwyn, Pa., said, "The company is very comfortable with the decision that it made with respect to his termination."

If there is no legal issue, where is the ethical problem? It's simple. Fear of being sued has led to a situation in which people treat one another badly. They don't talk, or they talk but don't say anything. But this may backfire, said Mary Dollarhide, a management lawyer. Consider a situation, she said, in which a worker in a protected class has been "a lousy performer," and there has been no employer discrimination. "You don't counsel them because you're afraid you're going to get stuck with some bogus lawsuit having to do with their protected status," she said. "When things deteriorate to where you have to fire this person, you're going to end up with an empty personnel file without a lick of evidence that anything was ever wrong."

Not a lot of winners in that picture.

Jeffrey L. Seglin is a visiting fellow at Harvard University's Center for the Study of Values in Public Life. His column on business ethics will appear the third Sunday of each month. E-mail:
rightthing@nytimes.com.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

KEEP YOUR HEAD, BUT NOT SOMEONE ELSE'S

The problem with writing a column in which I dispense advice is that occasionally I find myself in the position of giving advice that could result in negative consequences for the person seeking guidance.

Making a sound ethical choice is the best route to take, even then, but I'm not keen on directing readers to take action that could result in criminal prosecution. The least I can do, I figure, is to alert them to the potential pitfalls they could face in setting things straight.

I recently received an e-mail query from a reader that places me squarely in the position of knowing what the ethical thing is for her to do to resolve her issue, while also knowing that doing the right thing could land her in a heap of trouble.

Her story is that, back in the early 1960s, when she and her soon-to-be husband -- now her ex -- were dating and in college, she noticed that he had a skull in his apartment. He told her that, in his freshman year, while wandering through an old cemetery he had come across an unmarked mausoleum, the door to which had rotted off. Inside were broken wooden caskets and bones. He took a skull.

"Fast-forward through our marriage and our divorce," she writes, "and I got `custody' of the skull. It sits to this day on my bookshelf."

Through some research, my reader discovered that the skull had belonged to someone who died in the mid-19th century.

"I have taken care of it and carried it with me on every move," she writes, "although it did have one unfortunate fall and broke the lower part of its upper jaw. Now what?"

She would like to return the skull to its rightful place, but the mausoleum door has been sealed off with cinderblocks. To institute official inquiries might lead to the restoration of the skull to its proper place, but it would risk getting her ex in trouble for something he did 40 years ago, which she doesn't want to do.

In short, she finds herself in a real quandary.

There's no question that the right thing to do is to return the skull so that it can be reunited with the rest of the skeleton. That's clear enough.

Grave-robbing is not only morbid, however, but also a felony. Cemetery law varies from state to state and is murky enough that it's unclear if the statute of limitations on the theft has passed, according to Robert Fells, general counsel for the International Cemetery and Funeral Association,which is reachable at
www.icfa.org.

"The right thing to do is to return it," Fells says. "Going by the book, a crime was committed. The person's best course of action would be to hire a knowledgeable attorney in that jurisdiction who might question whether immunity can be granted from prosecution for the return of the skull."

An attorney may also be able to tell the reader if he or she can keep her identity confidential, based on attorney-client privilege.

The return of the skull will create many challenges for the cemetery, of course, among them verifying whose skull it was, re-opening a sealed mausoleum and notifying any family members who may still be around.

"All it does is open up a can of worms," one director of a different cemetery told me. "Literally."

Even if the cemetery staff might wish otherwise, however, there's no question that the right thing to do is to return the skull so that it can be reunited with the rest of the remains and the issue can finally be, so to speak, laid to rest.

That it may be difficult for my reader to accomplish this does not lessen her obligation to do it.

SOUND OFF: GIVING AT THE OFFICE, WHETHER YOU WANT TO OR NOT

No readers objected to companies sponsoring company-wide campaigns to raise funds for charitable organizations, but all felt that such efforts must be truly voluntary.

"It's OK for companies to sponsor such drives," writes Elizabeth Goldin of Stone Mountain, Ga., "but 100-percent participation should not be a requirement for managers."

Dick Henley of Baltimore, Ohio, and Todd Brklacich of Murray, Utah, both had a practical thought: Such drives should be conducted only when they are arranged so that managers never know which employees contributed or how much they gave.

"Sponsoring good works is admirable," writes E. Carroll Straus of Orange County, Calif. "Strong-arming participation is coercion. Period."

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

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.

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