Sunday, September 24, 2006

TELL ME YOUR TALES

Don't forget to send me your stories about ethical dilemmas that have nagged at you. Draw them from any aspect of your life, but please keep your submission to no more than 300 words.

I'll run some of these stories in an upcoming column, and those whose stories are used in that column will receive a copy of my book, "The Right Thing" (Smith Kerr, 2006).

Include your name, address and telephone number, and submit your story by Oct. 10 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 UNIVERSAL QUESTION

If you know yourself to be a universal blood donor, one whose donated blood can be used by others regardless of their blood type, are you obligated to refrain from doing anything that might take you out of the donor pool?

An e-mail from Melanie McDonald, a reader in Stanton, Calif., raised that tricky question.

McDonald has O-negative blood, making her blood compatible with people of any other blood type. Now 50, she has been donating blood for more than 15 years. She also likes to travel, but is hesitant to go abroad because she worries about the medications and vaccines that she would have to take to avoid diseases such as malaria and hepatitis.

"I think this would restrict my being able to donate blood," she writes. "Morally, I feel I have an obligation to keep my blood `pure."'

She's quite right, but the restriction has nothing to do with any medications she might take. After returning from countries where malaria is a problem, donors are supposed to go a year without showing any symptoms before they resume giving blood, regardless of whether they took antimalarial medications before traveling.

Does McDonald have a responsibility to refrain from visiting such countries because she is a universal blood donor? Of course not.

The right thing for McDonald to do -- for any traveler to do -- is to take the appropriate medications and to not expose herself recklessly to any diseases she might inadvertently bring back into her country. She should also make sure to alert blood banks to which she's been giving blood that she will be unavailable for a year.

Even if McDonald did spend her life trying to keep her blood "pure" so that it would be ready for donation, there's no guarantee that she'd be successful -- as she learned a few years back, when she was deemed too anemic to donate. Although McDonald is among what is estimated to be only 1 in every 15 people in the United States who have O-positive blood, she should not be expected, by others or by herself, to lock herself up to keep from being exposed to anything that could possibly taint her blood.

Sure, if she's torn between traveling to a country that has a history of malaria and one that doesn't, I'd encourage her to choose the former. But she has no ethical obligation to do so.

She shouldn't worry about setting a bad example for others, either. Even if she takes an occasional year off from giving blood, the fact that she's been regularly donating for almost two decades and plans to continue to do so is behavior for others to emulate, regardless of their blood type.

SOUND OFF: A CHECKUP ON HOTEL CHECK-INS

For the most part my readers think that hotels are wrong to pre-charge credit cards for reserved rooms.

Bill Wotring of Fullerton, Calif., found nothing wrong with the practice, however, as long as the hotel tells you that the charge will be made. When in doubt, he suggests, ask.

Stevie Book of Charlotte, N.C. disagrees."Hotels should not charge a credit card to hold a reservation until check-in or the cancellation-policy date has been met," she writes.

David Douey of Windsor, Ontario, considers the practice "unethical ... because you have not yet availed yourself of their services at all."

Carol Goodsell of Sherman, Ill., agrees, and also points out that such charges might affect a person's credit limit.

If you end up canceling your reservation, writes Cathy Olson of Foothill Ranch, Calif., extra steps will be needed to credit the charges: "Soon credit institutions will add transaction charges!"

Belinda Sanders of Cypress, Calif., wants to know where "the consideration, product, benefit or service" is for the consumer: "Let me go give the nearest tire dealer $500 to use for his own purposes -- until I happen to need new tires!"

Check out other opinions at http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com/2006/08/sound-off-hey-wait-isnt-that-my-money.html or post your own by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" 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. Please include your name, location, and contact information.

Friday, September 22, 2006

HEWLETT-PACKARD'S LEAKS

As CEO Mark Hurd gets ready for a press conference this afternoon and has agreed to testify before Congress next week, there has been a great deal of coverage of the methods that Hewlett-Packard used to trace information leaks. One result of the discovery of how the leaks were traced has been the announced resignation of HP's board chair Patricia Dunn come January.

Yesterday, I spoke with Robin Young, host of NPR's "Here and Now" program about the issue. The segment of the show can be heard by going to http://www.here-now.org/shows/2006/09/20060921.asp and clicking on "Listen" under the "HP Leaks" story description.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

SOUND OFF: WHEELCHAIR WALKERS

The book publisher Houghton Mifflin came under fire recently when a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal revealed that some of its textbooks had included photographs of children in wheelchairs who were actually child models who could walk. (Aiming for Diversity, Textbooks Overshoot - WSJ.com)

It's common for models to be hired to pose as something they're not in order to advertise a product or illustrate a point, but critics charge that Houghton Mifflin, in its effort to be politically correct by including wheelchair-bound children, should have hired models who actually used chairs in real life.

What do you think? Is it wrong for textbook publishers to use pictures of models who aren't what they appear to be? Is there a difference between a model pretending to be, say, a doctor and one pretending to be a disabled person? Or is this a case of too much fuss being made about an otherwise praiseworthy effort to show a diverse group of children?

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" (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.

NOTHING WRONG WITH CHECKING A CHARITY

When a son or daughter dies, it's a tragedy for the parents. Some parents channel their grief into doing good works in memory of their child.

A reader from Ohio e-mailed me to let me know of a couple who had started a charitable golf tournament after their 17-year-old son died several years ago. Their son was a promising athlete, so the couple solicits donations from various sports teams, vacation destinations and athletic facilities. These items are auctioned off after the golf outing, with the proceeds to be used to help underprivileged kids in the community get the expensive sports equipment they need to participate in organized sports.

In theory, it's a terrific tribute to the memory of a young athlete. In practice, well, that's another story.

My Ohio reader writes that in the past two or three years she has witnessed some disturbing incidents involving the parents who lost their son.

"On one occasion," she writes, "a donated item that was not sold during the auction was given to a family member as a Christmas present. The following year a trip that was not sold was given as a gift to the parents of this couple."

She also suspects that gift certificates for dinners and rounds of golf have been personally used by the couple instead of being auctioned off.

If she's right, my reader says, "this couple has found a way to earn a living from the death of their son on the backs of generous donors."

She is "appalled by this couple's lack of good judgment with respect to the donated items," she writes. "Am I being too hard on this couple?"

She isn't. However sad the parents' loss of their child undoubtedly is, there's no ethical justification for any charitable organization, large or small, to solicit donations for a particular purpose and then turn around and let organizers take goods or proceeds for personal use. If the accusations are true, the couple is probably also violating the law by committing fraud.

The accusations may not be true, of course. It's quite possible that the parents have compensated their organization for any goods or services that they may personally have taken advantage of, with the proceeds going to the designated cause. If so, the parents are guilty of nothing more than insensitivity to the appearance of wrongdoing.

The right thing for my reader to do is to ask the parents for an accounting of how they have used the donations they have received. This is a reasonable question to ask of any charity before you donate to it.

If they balk at providing this information, or if my reader still suspects fraudulent activity after she hears back from them, she should report them to the charitable-law section of the state attorney general's office. The Web site for the National Association of State Charity Officials, at www.nasconet.org, lists the offices responsible for charitable organizations and solicitations in each state, while Canadians can find information about registered charities at www.cra-arc.gc.ca.

It's abhorrent to think that anyone would prey on the kindness of others by using a child's death to solicit funds for a worthy cause in his memory and then put those funds to other uses. It would be wrong for my reader or others to turn a blind eye to such practices if they have proof of wrongdoing.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

YOU TELL ME YOURS

A letter from Louise Hernandez of Yorba Linda, Calif., reminds me that personal stories can bring to life the ways that most of us deal with day-to-day ethical choices.

Hernandez sent me a copy of the winning essay in her Rotary Club district's annual ethics-essay contest for high-school students. The winner, Eunice Kwon of Pasadena High School, wrote about how she and several of her friends who were "the smart kids" at school had lapsed into a culture of cheating.

"I came into high school strong, proud and ready to take on the new challenges that I faced," she wrote. "By my third year I was weak, desperate and ready to do whatever it took to keep myself ahead. I cheated."

Kwon didn't feel too bad about it at first.

"After all, there was maybe one person in all of my AP classes who never openly cheated," she explained. "The rest of my friends quite candidly copied homework from each other and shared test questions on a daily basis."

Kwon and her friends are not alone. The Josephson Institute's Survey of American Youth found that 62 percent of high-school students surveyed said that they had cheated on a test and 83 percent had copied someone else's homework. Sadly, Kwon recognized that she and her friends "were the future leaders of America and we were the biggest cheaters in school."

But then something happened that forced Kwon to recognize that what she was doing was wrong. A friend called to tell her that he had found the password to a teacher's online grading book and that he could easily change their grades.

"He was excited," Kwon wrote. "I felt like throwing up."

The suggestion shocked her. Copying homework was one thing, hacking into a teacher's computer was quite another.

"It jolted my common sense," she wrote, "and woke me up from the nightmare I was living." She realized that her previous offenses, "no matter how petty, were all forms of cheating."

Kwon's essay can be found at http://www.district5300.org/essaycontest/2006-2007a/2006WinningEssay.pdf and the Josephson Institute's findings are at http://www.josephsoninstitute.org/Survey2004/data-tables_2004_behavior.pdf.

It took a specific incident to shake Kwon into acknowledging that, regardless of the degree, cheating is wrong. But she is not the only one who has had to decide the right thing to do in a difficult situation.

So now it's your turn to tell me what kinds of ethical dilemmas nag at you. Draw them from any aspect of your life -- work, romance, family, community -- in which you find them.

Provide as much detail as possible, but keep your submission to no more than 300 words. I'll run some of these stories in an upcoming column. Those whose stories are used in that column will receive a copy of my book, "The Right Thing" (Smith Kerr, 2006).

Include your name, address and telephone number, and submit your story by Oct. 10 to: rightthing@nytimes.com or The Right Thing, The New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.

SOUND OFF: GIVING SECOND CHANCES

Readers felt that it was not an option to simply ignore the situation of a talented employee who failed to show up for a meeting with a customer, losing his company a $100,000 contract, because he had resumed drinking after having been sober for many years.

"Under no circumstances is overlooking it the right choice in this matter," writes Peggy Lawson of Middletown, Ohio. "(This) is more than just a missed opportunity for my company -- this is a health issue for this employee, and will impact his performance in the future, as well as his position on the team."

"As much as it hurt financially, I wouldn't fire a loyal, productive employee over a single episode," writes Tom Gebell of Minneapolis. "I would require the employee to go for treatment."

Phil Clutts of Charlotte, N.C., agrees.

"In view of his excellent work history," Clutts writes, "I would tell him that I was putting him on two weeks of unpaid leave and that, if he swore that it would never happen again, he could then go about his business as usual."

"He has to be a full partner in any real solution," writes Vaughn Brink of Mission Viejo, Calif.

Check out other opinions at http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com/2006/08/sound-off-second-chances.html, post your own by clicking on "comments" below, or e-mail them to me at rightthing@nytimes.com.

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.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

SOUND OFF: DOES A PERSON'S PAST FORGIVE HIS PRESENT SINS?

Recently, reports have surfaced that movie star Mel Gibson, Sen. George Allen of Virginia and civil-rights leader Andrew Young have each made negative comments about particular races or religions.

Gibson has apologized for his anti-Semitic comments when he was pulled over by police officers for driving under the influence. Allen has apologized for referring to an Indian gentleman taping one of his rallies for his opponent as "macaca." And Young resigned from his job helping to improve Wal-Mart's public image after he suggested that Jews, Koreans and Arabs have ripped off the black community by overcharging them in mom-and-pop stores in urban settings.

Each incident begs the question of whether a person's accomplishments or behavior leading up to the incident in question should make a difference in how we respond.

What do you think? How would you respond to the comments of Gibson, Allen and Young? And do their past accomplishments color your reaction?

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" (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.

TIPS FOR DOING GOOD BUSINESS

We've all experienced moments when a sudden shock of recognition makes us want a do-over on an action just taken. For L.M. of Yorba Linda, Calif., it came the morning after she had hosted a birthday dinner for a group of 10 relatives and her husband at a restaurant at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.

"We all had a wonderful time eating, drinking and celebrating," L.M. writes. "The service was good, but not outstanding. When the bill came, I added an appropriate 20 percent tip and charged the meal to my credit card."

L.M. was surprised when, as she was leaving, the waitress gave her a big hug. The next morning she had a good idea why.On the bill for breakfast, she noticed that a gratuity had been automatically added. When she checked her bill from the night before, she realized that she had added a tip to one that had already been charged.

When L.M. made the reservation, she was not told that because of the size of her party a gratuity would automatically be added. She wants to know if the restaurant has a responsibility to let its customers know ahead of time.

L.M. is right in thinking that it's good service to tell customers when gratuities will automatically be added. At many restaurants, a note to this effect is included on the menu.

But as long as the automatic gratuity was itemized separately and clearly on the bill for the meal, the restaurant technically fulfills its minimal obligation of informing the diner of the charge.

L.M. also wants to know if the waitress did the right thing by accepting the double gratuity without checking to see if it was an error. "Is it OK to take advantage of someone who is in the throes of entertaining guests who are celebrating a special occasion?" she asks.

The assumption that the waitress took advantage of L.M. and should have said something presumes she knew the double tip was a mistake. She easily could have thought that L.M. was simply being overly generous on this special occasion.

L.M. says that her letter to the manager of the MGM Grand's restaurant asking for clarity on the policy has gone unanswered. Even if the manager doesn't agree with L.M.'s complaint, it's wrong for him not to respond. That's just good customer service.

The right thing for the restaurant to do is to make its automatic-gratuity policy clearer to diners. On the Web site for its restaurants, there is a note that all parties over six must call ahead. When called, the restaurant representative should inform the customer when an automatic gratuity will be charged. The customer shouldn't have to ask.

But that doesn't mean that L.M. shouldn't be held responsible for paying the bill she signed off on. The right thing for her to do is pay it. You can bet that from now on she'll read her dinner bills much more closely, regardless of whether she's caught up in the celebratory moment.

Talking Politics Over Turkey

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