Thursday, November 30, 2006

SOUND OFF: NO SMOKERS NEED APPLY

Mike Hofman, the executive editor at Inc. magazine, posted an item on the magazine's blog about a Massachusetts man who sued Scotts lawncare company after he was fired after failing a drug test that showed nicotine in his system...even though he didn't smoke on the job. (Read the item at http://blog.inc.com/archives/2006/11/30/smokers_firing_sparks_lawsuit.html)

It reminded me of a Sound Off question I posed to readers back in January 2005, shortly after Weyco, an employee-benefits company in Michigan, announced it would begin testing its employees for nicotine use. Most of my readers were outraged. You can read their unedited responses at http://marketing.nytsyn.com/nytsyn/editorial/rightthing24.html if you scroll down the page.

If you'd like to post a comment on the current case that's in Mike's blog item or written about in more detail at http://www.boston.com/business/globe/articles/2006/11/30/off_the_job_smoker_sues_over_firing/, or about the issue of employers testing employees for nicotine use in general, you can click on "comments" below.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

SOUND OFF: INFLUENCING ELECTIONS

The day after the recent midterm elections, President George W. Bush announced the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld, his secretary of defense.

Not long before the elections, the president had been quoted as saying that he would not replace Rumsfeld and that he hoped Rumsfeld would serve for the rest of the Bush administration. As it turned out, however, the two men had been discussing Rumsfeld's resignation for quite some time and the departure was planned whether or not the Democrats took control of the House or Senate.

Bush told reporters that he had not wanted to influence the elections by making an announcement beforehand, even though he knew what he planned to do. Some Republicans who lost close races complained, arguing that Rumsfeld's resignation, had it been announced prior to the election, might have given them enough of a boost to hold onto their seats.

Do you believe that it was ethical for Bush not to announce Rumsfeld's resignation until after the midterm elections? If so, was it ethical for him to say that he planned no change, even when he now says that he was in fact planning a change?

Send your thoughts to rightthing@nytimes.com or post them here 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.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

AN AWKWARD MATTER OF CONSCIENCE

Several weeks ago I wrote about Dr. Mary Hanna, who had received $184,000 toward her medical education from the U.S. Army in exchange for committing herself to four years of active duty and four years of reserve duty once she had become a doctor. In December 2005, however, as she was completing her medical residency, Hanna notified the Army that she wanted reclassification as a conscientious objector, based on religious beliefs that she recently had embraced.

As reported in The Boston Globe, Hanna wrote in her application for conscientious-objector status that she felt that she would betray "moral and religious principles by participating in war in any way." The Army denied her initial request, but she appealed.

I asked my readers if they thought that Hanna was morally bound to carry out the commitment she had made to the Army, even if she repays the money with interest, as her lawyer says she is willing to do? Or did her new religious obligation trump her previous contractual agreement?

Not surprisingly, I received a tremendous amount of reader response.

"A contract is a contract," writes Red Wolfe of Melbourne, Fla., speaking for many of my readers. "Buying out is not, nor should it be, an option. So suck it up and do the honorable thing and do your duty as per your contract, regardless of second thoughts."

Jean Crawford, a former Army nurse who now lives in Charlotte, N.C., served three years of active duty in exchange for receiving a salary from the Army while completing her nursing degree. Hanna's offer to repay the debt doesn't resolve anything, she writes, because the Army could have used that money to help someone else through medical school "who would have served without whining."

Crawford believes that being a conscientious objector is perfectly consistent with being an Army doctor.

"She would have the opportunity to treat not only her fellow soldiers, but also the wounded enemy and wounded civilians -- a very, very conscientious thing to do," she says.

Many readers point out that physicians are noncombatants who do not carry guns.

"They are not expected to fight," writes Gwen Wooldridge of Huntington Beach, Calif., "just cure."

A number of readers expressed suspicion of Hanna's recent, "convenient" conversion into a conscientious objector.

Even some of those who are willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, however, believe that it should be the Army's decision, not hers, as to whether Hanna should serve her terms of active and reserve duty. If the Army needs medical staff, writes Dave Marohl of Sun Prairie, Wis., it would be wrong to let her off the hook.

"The choice should be their option," he writes, "rather than given to the person who has chosen to duck her responsibilities."

Readers such as Phil Clutts of Harrisburg, N.C., believe that the Army should accept Hanna's offer to repay the money and relieve her of her obligation.

Requiring her "to meet her contractual -- and moral -- obligation to the Army could backfire," writes Clutts, who is concerned that she might be so distressed by her internal conflicts as to be unable to function effectively. "Why take the chance, if the government can get its money back?"

Since I posed my question to readers, the case has gone to trial and a federal judge has reversed the Army's decision, ruling that Hanna must be discharged from the Army as a conscientious objector.

That was the legal verdict, but was it, independent of the niceties of the law, the right thing to do? I don't believe so.

Hanna would have been wise to raise her concerns well before the precise moment that her call to duty was coming due. But faith doesn't work on a timetable, and I don't question her claim that this is a matter of faith.

What troubles me, rather, is her conclusion that she cannot conscientiously be involved with the military in any way.

As several of my readers point out, her role as a physician would make her a noncombatant. If she feels that, even so, she cannot treat soldiers or civilians who are injured during war because she disapproves of war, how does that translate into nonmilitary contexts? I agree with Mary Burson, a reader from Laguna Niguel, Calif., who finds Hanna's objections too simplistic.

"As a civilian physician," Burson writes, "she would conscientiously object to smoking, drug addiction, overeating and gang activity, but she would not refuse to treat patients whose ailments or injuries resulted from these causes. It would be morally wrong."

Hanna made a commitment, and that commitment does not vanish because she now sees it in a different light. She is obligated to avoid viewing the situation in black-and-white and instead to make more of an effort to find a way in which her newfound religious sensibilities and her earlier contractual obligation can be rationalized.

Her faith may, for example, prohibit her from doing anything that would enable a wounded soldier to return to the battleground and prolong the war. But that prohibition would probably not extend to barring her from using her skills stateside, at a veteran's hospital, treating wounded soldiers who will never see battle again. Perhaps this sort of compromise would satisfy the Army, perhaps not -- but it is Hanna's responsibility to explore every alternative, rather than simply folding up her cards and going home.

As for the Army's responsibilities in the case, Hanna has the same right to apply for conscientious-objector status that anyone else has, and the Army has the moral obligation to take her application seriously. It would be wrong for reviewers to approach her application prejudiced by the suspicion that her religious conversion is the result of cowardice or the desire to earn more money in civilian practice.

It is obligated to consider her application carefully and without prejudice, in short, but it is not obligated to grant her conscientious-objector status if, in the Army's opinion, she does not qualify for it. And, like Hanna herself, the Army leadership should avoid either/or scenarios and try to find a way for her to serve out her obligation without dismissing out of hand her religious objections.

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://www.jeffreyseglin.com, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

To post a response to this column click on "COMMENTS" below. You can choose to post anonymously so you don't have to register, but plese include your name and location in your post.

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, November 12, 2006

SOUND OFF: SHUT UP AND READ THIS COLUMN

On Oct. 21, in his inaugural address as the 26th president of Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va., Kenneth Ruscio said: "...at precisely the time we need mutual understanding, we are descending inexorably into a public discourse of incivility and mistrust."

A cry has arisen for more civil behavior in everything from political advertising to college campuses, but for Ruscio civility requires more than simply polite behavior. (Here's a link to his complete address: http://www2.wlu.edu/web/page/normal/1247.html )

Here's my question for you: Is a cry for civil behavior the same thing as a cry for concealment of one's honest feelings? Or are civility and candor compatible?

Send your thoughts to rightthing@nytimes.com or post them at http://www.jeffreyseglin.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" (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://www.jeffreyseglin.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 RIGHT THING: FOR WHOM THE BOOTH TOLLS

"If they don't know how to merge, they shouldn't be on the road," my wife often mutters -- if you consider a mutter an utterance that could be heard from several cars over through closed windows -- when we get stuck behind a line of traffic that bottlenecks because of drivers who don't know how to seamlessly move from two lanes into one.

As a native Bostonian, my wife learned to drive among those whose offensive-driving skills are legendary. She knows the ways of the road, including who has the right of the way in a rotary -- or a roundabout, depending on where you live -- and, while she can get from any point A to any point B faster than I can, she's never had a speeding ticket. There was the time that a stray policeman's horse crashed into the back of her Chevy Impala as she was waiting at a stop light on Dorchester Avenue, but no one could have seen that one coming.

So when a question about proper toll-booth ethics arises, I turn first to my wife.

Here's the question: If there are only three booths accepting cash and a long line at each booth, what obligation, if any, does a waiting driver have to someone who drives past in another lane until, right before the booths, he or she signals a desire to cut into the line of waiting cars, all of whom have been waiting for much longer than has the new arrival?

My wife ponders the question, but before she can answer I introduce an additional consideration: Does it matter that there are always big signs warning that backing up at a toll booth is illegal?

And then, as she's about to utter her pronouncement, I add a final twist: Does it make a difference whether the driver was clueless until the last moment or simply too impatient to wait in a long line?

My wife's answers, based on her estimable knowledge of the road, match my own take on the ethics of the situation.

First, a waiting driver has no obligation to let another driver cut into line in front of her. She earned the place she occupies fairly, and is not obligated to give it up to another driver simply because that driver has placed himself in an awkward position.

That said, because the cutting driver cannot legally back up at the toll booth, it could present a traffic hazard not to let him cut into line. The driver may have been heading to a booth that registered scanning devices and not have realized until the last minute that he was in the wrong lane. If he doesn't get out of that lane, he could be in the way of other cars, especially if other drivers make the same mistake and the line to cut builds up.

Because safety is an issue, despite the absence of any ethical obligation to give way, the right thing to do is to let him cut into line in front of you. Fairness to the drivers who have waited patiently behind you comes into play, but safety trumps patience in this scenario.

The situation is different in a grocery store, where there is no meaningful safety consideration. There it's wrong to let a person cut in front of you when there are people waiting behind you, unless they too give their OK.

My wife and I agree that it does make a difference whether the driver was clueless or simply too impatient, at least in terms of how we feel about yielding, but that, by the time he's up there waiting to cut into line, the safest course is still to let him in. One incivility should not breed another, particularly when safety is at stake.

And, my wife adds, it wouldn't kill you to turn off your windshield wipers when it's raining, so that the toll collectors don't get soaked.

Monday, November 06, 2006

FOR WHOSE EYES ONLY? PART II

After reading this week's column (The Right Thing: FOR WHOSE EYES ONLY?) in the Charlotte Observer, reader Ralph Lowrance of Charlotte, wrote me:

Mr. Seglin:

I read with interest your comments about whether someone should look at a document, inadvertently left on his desk or on a copier, which showed confidential information. In short, you said that looking at confidential information is "tantamount to theft."

A recent column by your colleague Randy Cohen defended not only looking at confidential information (the salaries of all employees, in this case), but also advocated disseminating the information to everyone in the company.

In a future column, would you reconcile your position with his?

Thank you.

Ralph Lowrance
Charlotte, NC

The column by Mr. Cohen that Mr. Lowrance refers to appears at

Salary Exposure - New York Times

As for reconciliation, in this instance, Mr. Cohen and I disagree on the appropriate ethical response to the situation and I continue to maintain, as I did in my column, that it is inappropriate to take advantage of confidential information that you have inadvertently received.

I encourage other readers to read both columns and to weigh in.



Sunday, November 05, 2006

FOR WHOSE EYES ONLY?

A reader in Madison, Wis., alerted me to a political battle that is brewing in her city, which is the state capital. The issue revolves around campaign documents detailing the Democratic Party's strategic plans for the November election that somehow ended up in Republican hands.

The Republicans say that the documents were found in a copy machine in the state Capitol building, suggesting that someone in the Democratic Party may illegally have used state resources for campaign purposes. The Democrats claim that a Republican operative came across the documents that had been inadvertently left in a binder near the copy machine and rifled through them.

A reporter for The Wisconsin State Journal reports that the executive director of the Wisconsin Committee to Elect a Republican Senate told him that the documents were "used to further the cause of Republican candidates."

My reader wants to know how careless a competitor has to be before it is fair to copy found documents and use them for your own purposes.

"How public does the place have to be?" she asks. "Is it never right? Is it sometimes right?"

From an ethical standpoint, where a document is found does not matter. If it was clearly marked, the person who found it knew that its contents were confidential and belonged to someone else. It may be a political windfall to find documents that reveal your opponent's game plan, but using material that clearly belongs to someone else is tantamount to theft. The material doesn't, after all, leap from the copier into your hands.

The right thing to do in such a situation is either to walk on by or, better yet, to return the material -- unread, of course -- to its rightful owners. The owners may suspect that you read the material, but their suspicions are their own problem, though not as great a problem as their carelessness with sensitive documents.

Such considerations aren't limited to the political world, of course. The same sort of questions that my reader raises can be asked about any documents that clearly are meant to be confidential but are left within your easy view or grasp. What if, for example, a list of confidential salary information for your entire company is left at the copy machine by a human-resources employee?

While it's a natural temptation to want to know how you stack up against your colleagues, it would be wrong to study the material if you know that it's confidential and has been accidentally left behind. You may want to seize the opportunity to prove how underpaid you are compared to others, but there is no honor in capitalizing on someone else's mistake to further your own career.

Chances are that you wouldn't even think of popping into your boss's office to read her e-mail if she had left it up on her screen. Reading printed material that is clearly confidential, simply because you have accidental access, is every bit as wrong.

Professionals should certainly be taken to task when they are careless with sensitive information.

The negligent Democrat in Madison has doubtless gotten an earful from his or her superiors, and if he or she used a state-owned copy machine for party purposes, there will probably be legal consequences as well.

But someone else's carelessness is no justification for doing the wrong thing -- even if you stand to gain from doing so.

SOUND OFF: YOUR TEAM AIN'T DOODLEY-SQUAT

My readers had mixed reactions to Boston University's new zero-tolerance policy for foul language and sexist or racist comments from fans at university sporting events. Most applauded the university's policy, however.

"Emotions can run strong and can get out of control at sports events," writes Bert Hoogendam of Sarnia, Ontario, "but nobody has the right or privilege to use swear words and any other vulgar expressions."

"A ticket to a paid event is not a license for the `fans' to personally assault a participant," agrees Anthony Elia of Mission Viejo, Calif.

"Sometimes the parents of these students don't teach their own kids about citizenship and how to be good people in this society," writes Connie Alvarez of Orange, Calif., "and schools sometimes have to step in and play that role."

"The students who feel that they need to use such language -- anywhere -- need an extensive vocabulary course," writes Merrilee Gardner of Irvine, Calif.

But Chuck Jones of Anaheim, Calif., disagrees."Seems that, because something offends them, it's OK to suspend that pesky First Amendment," Jones writes. "Just another example of hypocrisy in our society."

Check out other opinions at http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com/2006/10/sound-off-watch-your-mouth.html or post your own at 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.

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