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Sunday, December 30, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: WHAT WAS I THINKING?

As another new year rushes in, it's time to reassess the past 12 months, and in particular to reconsider a handful of columns that made some readers wonder, "What were you thinking?"

Four columns in particular drew responses that prompted me to revisit some issues. Links to these columns can be found in the text below.

FAULTY DRUGS

I advised Carla Hamilton of Orange County, Calif., that I saw no ethical breach if she took advantage of gift cards that pharmacies offer if she switches her prescriptions. (See THE RIGHT THING: A DRUG ON THE MARKET?)

A deluge of pharmacists responded: "Very bad advice."

What I failed to acknowledge, wrote Elizabeth Bolser, a registered pharmacist in Columbus, Ohio, was "the extraordinary care that pharmacists provide in reviewing their patient's medications and drug-to-drug interactions."

If a patient goes from store to store, she and others pointed out, "no one pharmacist has the opportunity to see the patient's complete drug profile."

Ernest Boyd, the executive director of the Ohio Pharmacists Association (OPA), says that the average pharmacist finds three prescription errors per day.

"One-third of them would have caused injury or death," he writes, "had the pharmacist not caught it."

He believes that people should choose their pharmacists as carefully as they choose their physicians.

Boyd is right. My ethical advice was sound, but on the practical side I should have stressed the importance of providing any pharmacy with a complete drug history when you bring it your business.

CATTY BUSINESS

I told the story of Brian Hurley, a reader who, on a redeye flight home from San Francisco to New York, was kept awake by a mewling cat brought on board by another passenger. Not every nuisance registers as an ethical lapse, I wrote. (See THE RIGHT THING: THE CAT THAT STOLE MY SLEEP.)

"I couldn't believe the sheer stupidity and insensitivity of your answer," writes Suzanne Kaszar of Worthington, Ohio.

It's not simply the incessant meowing that's an issue, writes Kaszar, who -- like many others -- is extremely allergic to cats.

"Please do not give your readers the green light to engage in such unethical and dangerous behavior," she writes "Thanks to you, I now feel that my health might be compromised every time I board a plane."

The point is well-taken. The ethical picture changes when health issues are involved. Passengers should try to find alternative means to transport their pets, and airlines should make an effort to alert fellow passengers if for some reason a cat has to be on board.

APPLE BURNS

I sided with a college student who had argued with her father about whether it's OK to circumvent copying procedures to get her legally purchased music onto her Apple iPod. She said yes, he said no. (See THE RIGHT THING: BURN, BABY, BURN!)

Readers didn't disagree, but Bill Kirkpatrick of Granville, Ohio, thinks that I should have chastised the record companies who make people jump through such ridiculous hoops to get their music onto their iPods.

"You need to call out those who would take away our fair-use rights, eviscerate the first-sale doctrine and lock us into monopolistic proprietary systems," Kirkpatrick writes.

Perhaps it's the fact that I've recently had to jump through some ridiculous hoops to copy music from my wife's PC onto her recently purchased MacBook that makes me inclined to agree. Regardless, he's right. Recording companies and technology companies should stop the nonsense.

NAMING NAMES

Finally, there were some occasions when readers hoped for a little bit more than what I dished out.
For example, I wrote about paying up for a piece of shareware that enabled me to repair an MSOE.dll problem with Outlook Express e-mail. (See THE RIGHT THING: PAYING UP EVEN WHEN I DIDN'T HAVE TO.)

Jim Carney of Orange County, Calif., points out that the column lacked one thing: the address of the site from which I purchased the software.

Excellent point. It's
www.softlakecity.com.

I trust that I can count on my readers to do the right thing by continuing to share their wisdom with me as the new year progresses.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: THE ANONYMOUS TRUTH

My readers agree with the writer who believes that, if the Boston City Council candidate who sent out anonymous literature about a rival candidate days before the election "lacked the spine to make the accusation openly, he lacks the character for public office."

"I wouldn't trust anyone who made anonymous comments," writes another reader, who chose to remain anonymous. "It's deceptive. Did he win?"

He did win. But, since it was an election in which the top four candidates won office, his rival also won. Should make for some interesting council meetings! (See Boston City Council candidate John Connolly acknowledges issuing ... and Analysts try to explain Boston's lowest poll turnout in years ...)

Check out other opinions at SOUND OFF: THE ANONYMOUS TRUTH, 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 and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, 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," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

SOUND OFF: BETTING THE HOUSE

As the economy has cooled in recent months, the subprime-mortgage meltdown has resulted: People who had been granted mortgages for which they likely shouldn't have qualified are finding themselves unable to make the payments on their houses and are faced with eviction.

Is it the lenders' responsibility to help keep people in their homes, because they enticed customers to take out mortgages that the lenders knew they might not be able to afford? Or should the borrowers be held solely accountable, because they entered into lending agreements that they should have realized were beyond their ability to repay?

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at rightthing@nytimes.com.

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 The Right Thing, 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," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

THE RIGHT THING: THE BEST OF YEARS, THE WORST OF YEARS

Once again it's time to look back at egregious ethical lapses of the past year.

In keeping with my belief that as much can be learned from those who do the right thing as from those who don't, I continue with my tradition of offering positive alternatives to the misguided or wayward actions of many in the news.

SHOWING WHOLE LEADERSHIP

Apparently John Mackey, chief executive of Whole Foods Market, felt that his company wasn't
getting enough praise for its healthy foods and shiny stores. He made anonymous Internet posts touting the strength of his own company and besmirching its competitors. He found himself and his company facing an informal inquiry by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

On the other hand Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric, finds himself basking in a warm glow of positive response after committing his company to an "ecomagination" campaign to develop more environmentally friendly products. The company expects to have sold $14 billion such products by the end of 2007.

And, as reported in The Wall Street Journal, "it reduced its own greenhouse-gas emissions by 4 percent between 2004 and 2006, even as revenue grew 21 percent."

Immelt is not without detractors who believe his campaign to be more of an attempt to keep regulators at bay than a sign of real, altruistic commitment to the environment. Even if that's true, so what? His company and the environment still benefit.

A DOG IN THE FIGHT

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick received a 23-month prison sentence for financing and running Bad News Kennels, an illegal dog-fighting operation. At the sentencing United States District Court Judge Henry E. Hudson told him, "I think you need to apologize once again to the millions of people who look up to you." (See Vick Receives 23 Months and a Lecture - New York Times.)

The sports world is not without good role models. Consider Rita Benson LeBlanc, executive vice president of the New Orleans Saints. When her own neighborhood was preparing for Hurricane Katrina to hit, LeBlanc marshaled a successful evacuation for all Saints players, coaches, personnel and their families.

"Many citizens thought only of themselves and moved on," William Legier, founder of a Gulf Coast accounting firm, told Condé Nast Portfolio Magazine magazine. "Not Rita." (See Rita LeBlanc Benson Saints - Executive Articles - Portfolio.com.)

LeBlanc is the granddaughter of Saints owner Tom Benson, not known for his positive relationships with the New Orleans community. LeBlanc takes a decidedly different approach.

"We're trying to do everything we can to bring prosperity and economic investment to New Orleans," she told Portfolio.

Commitment to her personal, business and local communities, when it would have been simpler to focus solely on herself, is not a bad way to set a good example.

ENLIGHTED CELEBRITIES WHO GIVE BACK

After she finally decided not to fight her jail term for driving with a suspended license, Paris Hilton, the celebrity known for ....well, who knows? ... declared that she was "learning and growing" from the experience. Upon her release there was talk that her childish devotion to celebrity might give way to a more adult commitment to serious humanitarian issues. We wait with anticipation.

Other celebrities, people who enjoy far less media fanfare than Hilton does, have been devoting themselves to humanitarian efforts for years. Take actor Gary Sinise: Since 2004 his not-for-profit Operation Iraqi Children, co-founded with author Laura Hillenbrand, has been providing school-supply kits, nearly 200,000 of them, to Iraqi children. The kits, along with books, shoes, blankets, backpacks, sports equipment and toys, are distributed by American troops.

The effort has recently expanded into Afghanistan and Djibouti. OIC reports that 100 percent of donations go either to providing supplies for children or to covering shipping costs. For more information, visit www.operationiraqichildren.org.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, December 16, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: `THIS IS FOR YOU, NOW WHAT WILL YOU GIVE ME?'

I used to work for a company that had a policy prohibiting employees from receiving from vendors any gift that had a value greater than $25 or that couldn't be consumed in one sitting.

The second half of this edict always particularly irked me, since I knew that some of my colleagues had such voracious appetites that they could consume in one sitting an amount worth quite a bit more than my family's monthly grocery bill. Nevertheless the policy stood.

With the holiday season upon us, the question of when and whether it's appropriate to accept gifts from vendors reaches its apex. Does that basket of gourmet treats from Vendor X involve an implicit agreement to favor him over Vendor Y, whose prices are slightly better but whose gift of a magnetic calendar with her company's logo pales in comparison to Vendor X's?

Such decisions should, of course, be based on the best interest of your company, not on which vendor stuffs your inbox with the finest meats and cheeses. (Full disclosure: I've tackled this topic before in a column that looks at how some companies, large and small, handle gift giving from vendors. See THE RIGHT THING; In Ethics, It's The Thought That Counts. My take on the issue hasn't changed all that much over the past seven years.)

Some companies, such as my former employer, try to stave off such conundrums by setting guidelines on what's acceptable and what's not. These policies are premised on the notion that gifts of such a token value couldn't possibly influence an employee to make a biased decision.

Other companies ban gifts altogether. Wal-Mart, for example, has had such a policy on its books since its founding in 1962.

Doesn't a vendor expect something in return for any gift, no matter how minimal its value? Could a $12.95 bag of high-end coffee beans or a $59.99 box of steaks really result in you giving business to a vendor whose bids aren't otherwise competitive? Really, can any of us be bought that cheaply?

Unfortunately it isn't that simple. Even without an explicit quid-pro-quo, such a gift still might influence you, consciously or subconsciously, to accept that vendor's telephone call before someone else's on a busy day. You may convince yourself that you'll be able to remain impartial, but it's hard to be sure. And no, vendors wouldn't give gifts if they didn't expect something in return.

Some vendors are blatant about their expectations. A reader from Mission Viejo, Calif., writes that he received an unsolicited gift from a vendor, a small tool kit worth about $20. In the accompanying note the vendor offers to give him another gift if he'll meet with him for 30 minutes.

My reader has no intention of conducting any such meeting, but now he wonders if he's ethically obligated to return the tool kit.

Since his company has no policy forbidding such gifts, my reader has absolutely no obligation to return it. Were it me, however, I would return it with a note that politely asked the vendor not to send gifts in the future. If my business makes a meeting necessary or desirable, I'll go without the lure of a $20 gift or, for that matter, a $1,000 gift.

While a no-gifts policy is the cleanest approach to keeping things aboveboard, the practice is unlikely to be adopted universally. The right thing for companies to do, when it comes to gift policies, is to make it absolutely clear to employees what's acceptable and what's not.

A no-gifts approach might strike some as too harsh a response. But I'd like vendors to know that the way to win me over is by selling me on services and products that will help my company, not by sending over some tchotchkes for my personal use.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: I AM WHO I AM

Readers offered quite a bit of advice when I asked them how I should identify myself professionally, given that my two careers as a professor and as a journalist were at the opposite ends of the Gallup Organization's most recent annual survey of public opinion regarding honesty and ethics in the professions. (See SOUND OFF: WHO AM I?)

George Zahka of Bradenton Beach, Fla., kindly observed that I would "do more to build the reputation of both by professing my identity with both."

But Dave Marohl of Madison, Wisc., thinks that I should worry less about the issue. "If you care that much about how strangers perceive you at a cocktail party," Marohl writes, "you probably ought to do some realignment about your own perspective."

Phil Clutts of Harrisburg, N.C., agrees, and advises me that, if a new acquaintance uses the Gallup poll results to make a snap judgment, "he has a problem and you can comfortably move on to the next guest."

Check out other opinions at SOUND OFF: WHO AM I? 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 and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, 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," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Mitt Romney in 1986



If you click on the images at left you'll be able to read an interview I did with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for Venture magazine 21 years ago when Romney was starting Bain Capital.
The article, titled "Bain Practices Its Teamwork: A $37 Million Venture Fund Grows Out of a Consulting Group," will tell you absolutely nothing about Romney's political views.






Sunday, December 09, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: DEFINING MOMENTS

Several weeks ago I told readers about William J. LeMessurier, the architect who designed the Citicorp tower in New York (THE RIGHT THING: YOU TELL ME YOURS). In 1978, a year after the tower was completed, he was informed that, because a steel contractor had chosen a method of bolting joints inferior to the method LeMessurier had specified, hurricane winds might blow the building off its footings.

The contractor's decision was directly contrary to his instructions, and was not LeMessurier's responsibility. If he went public, however, it might sully his considerable reputation. Nonetheless LeMessurier decided that, regardless of professional consequences, he had to go public and get the problem fixed. By doing so LeMessurier, who died in June at 81, solidified his reputation as someone who put public safety ahead of his own interests.

I challenged my readers to tell me similar stories of defining moments in their lives, experiences that paint a picture of who they are. The stories I received demonstrate how such experiences can dramatically affect our sense of what it is to do the right thing.

THE FRUIT OF EARLY LESSONS

In the late 1930s, when Juanita Coulson of London, Ohio, was about 6, her mother took her to a grocery store. Coulson stayed outside to play while her mother shopped. Soon the store owner's daughter, about her own age, joined her.

Along the outside wall of the store was a mesh container of fruits and vegetables. The owner's daughter took two bananas and gave one to Coulson. When her mother saw her eating a banana, however, she questioned her.

"My explanation that the store owner's daughter `said it was OK' was not sufficient," Coulson writes.

Her mother gave her a couple of pennies and told her to pay the owner and to apologize for taking the fruit without first asking permission.

"I was not spanked or otherwise chastised," says Coulson, who is now 74. "But the lesson was permanently etched on my brain."

DID I DO ENOUGH?

Thirty years ago or so, Kate Nelson of Garnet Valley, Penn., was waiting in the downstairs bar of a Boston restaurant along with her parents, her brother and his girlfriend for their table to be readied upstairs. Unexpectedly, Nelson recalls, another patron collapsed at her feet.

"It was clear that the man was choking and couldn't breathe," she writes.

Her brother's girlfriend, a nurse, tried unsuccessfully to clear his airway with her fingers. Then her brother and father stood the man up so that they could perform the Heimlich maneuver. Again no luck.

When Nelson asked the bartender to call 911, he told her that the telephone was for restaurant business only. She found a public telephone. She then walked upstairs and asked the restaurant manager if he could ask if any of the diners was a doctor who could help.

"There's no doctor here," he said. "Go back downstairs."

She did so, and her family continued working on the man until the paramedics arrived. The next morning she called the police to inquire about him.

"The police told me that he had died," she writes.

Nelson continues to puzzle over the manager's callousness and why, as waitresses stepped over the man's body, no one else in the restaurant tried to help.

"I have spent 30 years," she concludes, "wondering why I didn't ignore the restaurant manager and yell out loud for a doctor."

HEALTHY YOUNG EXAMPLES

Maryanna Klatt, an assistant professor of clinical-allied medicine at Ohio State University in Columbus, challenged the students in her medical-ethics course to tell me their stories.

One writes about when she was 6 years old and her mother asked her to keep an eye on her year-old brother in the bathtub while she answered a ringing telephone. After her mother left, the girl decided to get a toy from her room -- but, when she returned, she found her brother lying flat on the tub floor. He wasn't breathing. Her mother called 911 and continued to try to revive her brother. It wasn't until the paramedics arrived and did CPR that he finally spit up water and regained consciousness.

"I'll never forget how that small moment of carelessness had turned into the worst day of my life," she writes.

Another student recalls entering the apartment she shared with two roommates to find drunken revelers.

"There was a burst of laughter as one attendee fell off a barstool onto the floor," the student writes.

An 18-year-old partyer was passed out and didn't respond to efforts to awaken her. Her friends didn't want to call for help, and she feared getting into trouble for allowing a minor to drink in her apartment.

Nonetheless she convinced her roommate to call 911 "because staying out of trouble was not worth risking a life."

Yet another student recalls how she stopped visiting the grandmother who had "practically raised me when I was a child" after the grandmother was placed in a nursing home with advanced Alzheimer's.

"I felt uncomfortable, scared and sad," she writes. But she now observes that Alzheimer's patients "sometimes have momentary recollections and can even experience moments of joy from having someone touch them or be with them."

She'd like to think that, if given the chance, she'd do things differently now.

An early lesson taught Coulson to do the right thing. In spite of misgivings about whether she did enough, Nelson and her family stepped up to help someone in need. And it's clear that Klatt's students' lives have been profoundly shaped by past experiences.

"They saw how past actions influence the people we become," Klatt writes.

The stories that many readers generously sent me suggest that such defining moments motivate them to do the right thing today. That is indeed a hopeful sign for all of us.

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 The Right Thing, 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," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, December 02, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: A BOY, A MOUNTAIN AND A SIMPLE ACT OF KINDNESS

[You can read an update on Evan, his climbing, and his efforts to use his avocation to raise money for his school at Summits for Evan's School.]

My oldest grandson, Evan, started a new family tradition last year by asking everyone around the Thanksgiving dinner table to tell a story about themselves or to sing a song. When his father's turn came this year, he told the story of a hike to the peak of Mt. Katahdin that he recently had taken with my daughter and their two sons.

Mt. Katahdin is the highest mountain in Maine, with its tallest peak reaching more than 5,200 feet. Getting to the top presents a challenging hike, particularly for an 8-year-old and his 6-year-old brother. Somewhere along the trail Evan's resolve began to waiver. He sat down and told his parents and brother that he would wait while they continued up to the summit.

Before they could convince him that this was not an option, however, a small group of young hikers from Quebec came upon them.

A young woman in the group noticed that Evan was distraught. She walked up to him and told him that she had had similar bouts of hesitancy on many hikes in the past. The thing that helped her, she said, was a special plaster she wore. She took out two seemingly ordinary bandages from her backpack and handed them to Evan.

"I have an extra one you can have," she said. "And here's another in case you need it on the way down."

Evan put on the plaster and headed on up Katahdin. Along the way they would occasionally spot the same group of hikers, who always greeted Evan with a thumbs-up signal.

The boy exuberantly completed the climb. When he and his family had descended the mountain and re-entered their campsite, the young women burst into applause when they saw Evan, his brother Luke and their parents.

The story of the young woman's small act of kindness brought into stark relief how great an impact it can have if we choose to reach out to another person in apparent duress. It begs the question of whether we're ethically obligated to help others when it's within our power to do so.

Fourteen years ago, as I was standing outside the entryway to a Manhattan hotel and looking for a taxi, a somewhat-unkempt man approached me.

"Do you ... ," he began.

Before he could even finish, I responded with a curt "I don't have any."

He paused, looked at me and said, "Of course you don't."

He walked on.

I had assumed that the man was approaching me for money. In my haste to hail a cab without having to deal with anything else, I was quick to brush him off. For all I know, he may have been trying to ask me for directions. I'll never know. I've regretted my knee-jerk response ever since.

We are not ethically obligated to help every stranger who crosses our path. But if helping others is something that we hold to be a core personal value, then the right thing to do is not to dismiss those who approach us for assistance -- certainly not the way I did, without even giving the man a chance to ask.

My experience 14 years ago changed how I have responded to similar situations ever since. But it paled in comparison with how a young woman's decision to be kind when she didn't have to gave an 8-year-old boy the confidence he needed to complete his climb.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


SOUND OFF: `I WAS IN A GREAT STORE THE OTHER DAY ... '

John Mackey, the chief executive of Whole Foods Market, was pilloried recently when it was discovered that he had been making anonymous posts touting the strengths of his own company and the weaknesses of its competitors on an Internet discussion forum. His postings resulted in an informal inquiry by the Securities and Exchange Commission, since Whole Foods is a publicly held company.

Now the board of Whole Foods Market has established a policy that prohibits any of its executives or directors from posting comments about the company or about its competitors to any discussion forums except ones sponsored by Whole Foods.

Assuming that they reveal no proprietary secrets and break no laws, is it wrong for company executives to anonymously participate in Internet forums? Is it right for the company to ban such participation?

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at rightthing@nytimes.com.

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 The Right Thing, 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," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Ford Settles Rollover Class-Action Suit

The Associated Press reported yesterday that Ford settled a class-action lawsuit involving rollovers of some of its sport utility vehicles. The Associated Press story appears at Ford Agrees to Settle Rollover Case.

Early on Ford and Firestone pointed the finger at one another about who was responsible for the rollovers. I wrote about it for The Right Thing column that appeared in the Sunday New York Times on June 17, 2001. You can read it at: A Blame Game Hurts Both Ford and Firestone.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: WHO'S WATCHING THE KIDS?

I'm a parent. Each of my grown children is a teacher, and each has two young children. When I observe them with their children or their students, I am struck by their ability to convey the importance of embracing strong values.

My son, for example, teaches high-school literature. His school prides itself on several core values that it believes each student should embrace. This fall, believing that some of these values might be too abstract, my son decided to incorporate them into his lesson plan and teach a separate piece of writing for each of the core values -- a technique I wished I'd come up with myself.

My kids are among the people I turn to when I find myself perplexed by particularly thorny ethical
issues.

Yet they were once teenagers.

Those years brought me the fears that all parents have about the health, safety and mindset of their children. While my wife and I were committed to helping them find their own way in the world, our chief concern was always their well-being.

A reader from Washington feels the same way, but worries that his 13-year-old daughter -- a near-perfect student who also turns out for crew -- is growing more and more distant.

"Throughout her childhood we have always talked freely and openly," he writes. "She now constantly complains of boredom in school and life. [The daughter] spends hours a day in online chat sessions with her friends."

Her father is worried that something is wrong, but he can't identify what.

While I survived my children's teenage years and know that it is normal for children to seek to exert control of their own lives, I am not an expert in childhood development.

My reader doesn't want psychological advice, however. He wants to know about the ethics covering the balance between a child's right to privacy and a parent's need to know and protect her. Specifically, he wants to know if it would be ethical to install an invisible keystroke-recording program on the computer so that he can monitor his daughter's online conversations.

It's perfectly ethical for a parent to restrict a child's computer use. Blocking access to certain Web sites, for example, is a parental prerogative.

If my reader wants to maintain the trust he's established with his daughter, however, the right thing for him to do is to let her know that he is concerned about what he sees as her excessive use of online chat rooms. If he's considering monitoring her messages, he should make clear that he will do so if and when he feels it's appropriate.

No self-respecting teenager will greet such news with shouts of joy, granted. But if this father values trust between him and his daughter, he has no choice but to be open and honest about the possibility of monitoring, even if it stirs up a hornet's nest he'd rather not deal with. If he sticks to his guns, in the end at least his daughter will appreciate that he was frank with her. And if the disclosure makes her consider her online chats more judiciously, that's not a bad outcome.

Regardless of what he decides to do, however, if at any point the father truly feels that his daughter may be in danger, he will not be wrong to read her online missives. Her safety always trumps her right to privacy.


c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: OCEAN'S MEDICAL RECORDS

While he was being treated for injuries sustained in a motorcycle mishap, actor George Clooney's medical chart was looked at by as many as 40 hospital workers, most of them unauthorized to do so and therefore in violation of federal law. After more than two dozen of them were suspended, Clooney issued a statement supporting a patient's right to privacy but adding that he wished the matter hadn't resulted in workers' suspensions.

My readers had little sympathy for the hospital workers' plight. A rule is a rule, they felt, and a law a law.

"Policies should not be subject to the wishes of a celebrity patient," writes Ileana Liel of Riverside, Calif., "no matter how well intended."

"Once again we demonstrate the spineless wish for someone to be held accountable other than ourselves," writes Elizabeth Himelson of San Clemente, Calif.

"It is all about self-responsibility," agrees Barbara Riddle of Mission Viejo, Calif., "of which there is a definite lack nowadays."

"They were caught and are now dealing with the consequences, just as anyone else who violates laws," writes Marion Bruening of Riverton, Utah.

"How would the health workers feel if someone else who had no responsibility for a person's care looked at their private health information?" asks Paula d'Hulst of Orange County. "Shame on them."

Check out other opinions at SOUND OFF: PEEKING AT GEORGE, 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 The Right Thing, 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," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, November 18, 2007

SOUND OFF: THE ANONYMOUS TRUTH

Days before a recent citywide election in Boston, an incumbent city councilor accused a rival candidate of sending voters anonymous literature questioning the councilor's commitment to the position he held. The fliers documented how the incumbent allegedly had been looking for other positions while in office.

After being accused in print by a columnist for The Boston Herald, the challenger acknowledged that he was indeed responsible for the anonymous fliers. (See Unsigned fliers muddy today's race for council.)

If the accusations were true and if the anonymous mailings did not break any laws, was there anything wrong in the rival candidate making the accusations anonymously?

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at rightthing@nytimes.com.

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 The Right Thing, 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," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

THE RIGHT THING: DON'T FORGET TO READ THE VIRTUAL PRINT

A big-box retail store sold S.E. of Middletown, Ohio, a new computer. The computer manufacturer provided a one-year warranty, but S.E. bought two extra years of coverage from the department store. When he bought the extra coverage, he was told that the store would cover all three years if any problem arose with his computer.

Only six weeks later, a problem arose.

After spending a long time on the telephone and going through all the steps the service department asked him to follow to check on his computer, it was determined that the likely culprit was a faulty power supply or mother board. He was told that the store would send him the parts and that someone would appear in about three weeks to install them.

S.E. wasn't happy with the idea of a three-week wait, so the next day he called the computer manufacturer directly. After spending another long time on the telephone, he was told that the problem definitely lay in the power supply. The manufacturer would ship a new one overnight, and S.E. could change it himself.

Sure enough, the equipment showed up the next day, complete with simple-to-follow instructions. S.E. made the fix, and the computer worked fine.

He might have left it at that, but instead he called back the department store to let them know that his computer had been fixed, so he wouldn't be needing the parts the store had sent -- which did, in fact, arrive shortly thereafter.

"I thought that was the right thing to do," S.E. writes.

After spending more time on the telephone, he was told by a technician from the retailer that, by changing the part himself, he had voided his extended warranty.

When he asked the retailer where in the warranty information he had received when he purchased the computer it said that he could not change a part without voiding the warranty, he was told that it was mentioned on the retailer's Web site.

"Sorry," the store representative said, "there's nothing we can do."

S.E. wants to know if the store should reinstate his extended warranty. He also wants to know if he's obligated to give back the new parts the retailer sent him. He figures that he can sell the parts for about the amount he spent on the extended warranty.

While the store may have legally covered itself by burying the conditions of its extended warranty on its Web site, what's legal is not necessarily what's ethical. Since the relevant information wasn't in any of the documentation S.E. received upon making his purchase, the right thing would be for the store to make good on the remaining term of the extended warranty.

Ideally S.E. would have informed the store of his intention before calling the manufacturer directly. Presumably he would then have been warned of the risk of voiding his warranty, and could have made an informed decision as to how to proceed. Under the existing circumstances, however, S.E. seems to have acted in good faith in his effort to get his computer repaired in a timely fashion.


Will the store reinstate the remainder of the warranty coverage? It sounds unlikely. If it won't, S.E. should offer to return the extra parts if the retailer will pay the shipping costs. If the store refuses to pay shipping, he is not obligated to return the parts at his own expense, and can simply hold onto them and use them to repair his computer if he ever needs to.

It may be that the store will tell him to keep the parts instead of paying for shipping. If so, they're his, and he can sell them with a clear conscience. Otherwise, his dissatisfaction with the terms of the warranty does not entitle him to sell the parts for his own benefit. They're two different issues.
Many consumers are dubious about the value of extended service contracts. If retailers want to erase those doubts, they would be well advised to make the conditions of those warranties absolutely clear at the time of purchase.


c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Plagiarism, Education, and Family Business

Last week, I spoke with the Virginia Council on Economic Education as part of its program "Does Capitalism Encourage or Discourage Ethical Behavior?" VCEE is a nonprofit whose mission is to help middle school and high school students better understand economic principals. VCEE regularly runs workshops for middle school and high school teachers who teach economics -- VCEE Workshops.

I also spoke to the Virginia Family & Private Business Forum in a session: “The Right Thing: Ethical Dilemmas that Pull the Family & the Business Apart." The Virginia Family and Private Business Forum is housed in Virginia Commonwealth University's Business School and was set up to provide education and consultation to family businesses. Its upcoming sessions are featured at Virginia Family & Private Business Forum - VCU.

When I returned from Richmond, I spoke about plagiarism with Gene Lavanchy of Fox 25's Morning News program as part of its College Week series. A clip of that interview is at Taking Measures to Prevent Plagiarism .

THE RIGHT THING: AND NOW THIS WORD FROM OUR SPONSOR

A middle-school teacher in the Midwest who teaches English as a second language was required to attend a training session. He'd get to meet 15 or so other ESL teachers from his school district, but mostly it was to be a presentation by an expert in the field. The teachers were told by the district's ESL coordinator that the presenter had taught ESL students in the past.

Fair enough. Fresh ideas for use in the classroom are always welcome.

When the presenter appeared, however, something seemed amiss. All of the teaching materials she presented, which it was made clear would be available for purchase after the seminar, were from a single company -- the company, as it turned out, for which the presenter worked.

"To me she was no more than a shill," writes the ESL teacher from the Midwest. "This was not a learning experience for us, but a sales presentation."

He's miffed that he went to the event expecting one thing but wound up with something wholly different. Nor was it without cost, he notes: Even if the presenter's company footed the bill for running the "seminar," the district still had to pay a chunk of change to hire substitute teachers to cover for the ESL teachers that day -- a waste of money, he thinks.

He believes that the whole setup was unethical, and wants to know what I think.

Unless the school district has a specific policy against having single-sponsored events like this, there's nothing inherently wrong with the setup. As public schools look to defray costs, product providers seem more than glad to pick up some of the slack. It's up to school officials to ensure that the content being provided is on the up and up and that the investment of the ESL teachers' time, in this case, is well spent.

In an ideal world the presenter would be an expert without a vested interest. That way, even if only one company's products were used, the presenter presumably would base her presentation on her expertise, not on a desire to move her company's products.

In this less-than-ideal world, however, a presenter with a vested interest is still acceptable -- so long as that vested interest is made clear in advance. That's where the district fell short in this case.

"We were not told that the presenter worked for a publishing company," the Midwest ESL teacher writes, adding that the teachers learned this only at the seminar, when the presenter started pushing her company's products.

Frankly, that's dumb. The right thing for the district to do would have been to tell the ESL instructors ahead of time about the presenter and her ties to a single company. The instructors then would have known what to expect. By concealing the fact that this was a single-sponsored event, and not a teaching session in the strictest sense, the district planners ensured that the ESL teachers would be irked, at the least, to find themselves attending a seminar that turned out not to be as advertised.

Offering a presentation from someone who clearly has a bias is not unethical, as long as nothing is done to try to hide that bias, and it may even be informative. But there's nothing ethical about misleading a group to persuade them to attend an event. If the deception was unintentional, the district should take more care in the future, so that days like this don't result in more raised suspicions than enlightened instructors.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: ON FURTHER REVIEW...

After one of his assistants was caught videotaping the New York Jets' defensive signals during a game, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000, and his team was fined $250,000 and lost either a first-round draft pick or two second-round picks.

I asked my readers whether high-tech theft of an opponent's signs is simply part of the game in professional sports, and found them of at least two minds on the subject.

"Using technology and deception to try to determine what the other team is going to do constitutes a flagrant foul," writes Phil Clutts of Harrisburg, N.C., "and deserves severe punishment."

Some readers believe, however, that if every team steals signs, that makes it OK.

"Stealing is wrong," writes Lyman Woodman of McFarland, Wisc., "but if everyone agrees that, if you can get the signs within reasonable limits, then it isn't stealing."

Mary Beth Harris of Charlotte, N.C., disagrees.

"Just because everyone does it, it does not make it right," Harris writes. "Stealing is stealing, whether it is a penny, $1,000 or a signal."

And as far as Watkins Ellerson is concerned, the question of videotaped signals is merely the tip of the iceberg.

"Anything that happens in professional sports is immaterial from a morality point of view," Ellerson writes, "even use of so-called performance-enhancing substances ... I expect the worst."

Check out other opinions at SOUND OFF: ON FURTHER REVIEW , 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 The Right Thing, 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," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, November 04, 2007

SOUND OFF: WHO AM I?

The Gallup Organization's most recent annual survey of public opinion regarding honesty and ethics in the professions (Honesty / Ethics in Professions) suggests that 58 percent of the American public rank the honesty of college teachers as high or very high. Only 26 percent of the American public rank journalists equally high. As both a college teacher and journalist, I fare much better in the former role when it comes to the public's perception of my honesty and ethics.

Knowing this, if I am at a social gathering and want to be thought well of by new acquaintances, would it be wrong to introduce myself as a college teacher and leave out my other affiliation? Would others with dual professions be wrong to do the same?

Full disclosure: This dichotomy first perplexed me years ago when, shortly after I began working as a college professor, I first heard the Gallup poll results. I wrote about it then (THE RIGHT THING; Telling the Truth, or at Least Most of It). And, for the record, nurses fare best on the list at 84 percent and car dealers hit bottom at 7 percent.

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at rightthing@nytimes.com.

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 The Right Thing, 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," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

THE RIGHT THING: TELL ME WHAT I THINK OF ME

An employee of a major company had a tough year. Her company was reorganized, creating more work for her. She lost her assistant and wasn't allowed to replace him, even after a company-wide hiring freeze was lifted.

Still she toiled on, completing all of her own projects as well as another that was tossed her way, and achieving results that surpassed expectations.

At the end of every year, all employees at her company are required to evaluate how well they believe they have met the goals set for them at the beginning of the year. They then review their assessments with their supervisors.

For the past decade this hard-working employee had always chosen to give herself a "very good" rating instead of an "excellent." This year was exceptional, however, so she checked off "excellent" without hesitation.

Her boss thought differently. At her evaluation meeting, he urged her to change her "excellent" rating to "very good." She reminded him about her work throughout the year and made her case for the "excellent" rating.

When she was through, though, he had one question for her: "Would you rather have an `excellent' rating or the promised new assistant who will make your work easier?"

She capitulated, and changed the evaluation as requested.

Later she told two other people, one a former colleague and the other a current one, what had happened. The former colleague told her that she should have gone to human resources to report the issue. The current colleague responded by telling the former colleague that she didn't understand how the company was now being run, and saying that the hard worker had done the right thing.

The former colleague still believes, however, that what the boss did was unethical.

Bosses have a right to evaluate their employees honestly and directly. Not everybody is above average or excellent at every workplace.

The hard-working employee's boss would be justified in discussing whether or not her self-rating accurately reflected the work she had done. Good evaluative tools provide a means for supervisors and employees to discuss an employee's strengths and weaknesses in order to come up with goals for improvement. But the boss stepped over the line when he bluntly insisted that the employee change her evaluation of herself or he would withhold the promised hiring of an assistant.

Granted, he may have felt that he could make a stronger case for the need for the assistant if he could show that the worker needed the assistant to improve her work -- after all, if she can do excellent work without an assistant, why hire one? He offered no such explanation to her, however. His response came down to a threat: Do it my way or I will withhold something that has been promised to you.

That's bad managing and, yes, bad ethics. A promise is a promise, not an invitation to further negotiation, nor is it a weapon to be wielded in employee management.

As for the hard-working employee, she did the right thing: She chose the option best suited to what she needed to be able to do her job well. The boss's approach was unethical, her response was not.

Should the human-resources department have been alerted? I say yes. The boss's actions make the end-of-year self-evaluations dishonest and meaningless. If his behavior can't be reformed and if it's determined that others behave similarly, the evaluation tool is a waste of everyone's time and should be dropped.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: WORKING FOR THE BAD GUYS?

Going over to the dark side. Selling out. Compromising your values for a buck. These are accusations that people often hear when they decide to take a job with or do business with someone whose values clearly conflict with their own.

I wasn't surprised, then, when I received an e-mail from a reader asking if it would be unethical for his company to bid for a contract to design the exhibits for the George W. Bush Presidential Library, given that Bush's values and beliefs run contrary to those of the owners of the company.

It's a terrific question. The library is, after all, designed to promote the legacy of a president whose policies they dislike. The better the design of the exhibits, the more persuasive those policies will be.

Ultimately, though, the answer has to do with the designers, not with Bush.

If they feel confident that they can deliver the same high-quality work that they would for, say, the Al Gore Presidential Library, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with making the bid. Anything short of their best professional effort, however, would be unacceptable, and if they can't promise that then they are ethically bound to pass up the opportunity.

Would helping to promote views with which you disagree make you an unethical hypocrite? No, not unless the purpose of your company is to promote particular values. The Catholic church couldn't ethically design a rabbi's vestments, since it is based on values that are in some degree contradictory to a rabbi's, but a Catholic tailor -- who is informed by his beliefs but whose business is not meant to disseminate them -- could make the vestments.

In short, if a company's purpose is to produce the best product while making a living from doing so, it needn't apologize for any distance between its values and those of its clients. A useful example is provided by Cable Neuhaus, a former editor at Entertainment Weekly and People who is now the editorial director of Newsmax (Newsmax.com), a monthly conservative magazine. He considers himself a longtime moderate Democrat, and most of his current colleagues are conservative Republicans.

"We hold different views on lots of topics," he says.

When his nephew, a recent graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, learned that Neuhaus was working for Newsmax, he wasn't pleased.

"You work for the enemy," he told his uncle.

Neuhaus doesn't see it that way. He doesn't see his work for Newsmax as a personal endorsement.

"I work for people who hold a different world view," he says. "The views explored in Newsmax are legitimate, even when they're not mine."

He realizes that not everyone would be able to handle the dissonance that he faces in his workplace. So how does he do it?

"I remind myself each and every day that I am a communications professional," Neuhaus says. "I make magazines. I owe them my best work as a magazine journalist."

In a similar vein, the right thing for my reader and his colleagues to do is to provide their best work for each of the clients they take on, regardless of whether they share those clients' world view. A Republican can hire a Democrat to fix her car, or vice versa, without compromising her integrity.

Nonetheless, my reader's crew would not be wrong if they decided not to bid on the job, simply because they didn't believe that they could work for someone whose values were so different from their own. If they truly believe that their discomfort with Bush and what he stands for would get in the way of their ability to do good work and to be satisfied with the job, they not only can pass on the job but ethically are obligated to.

The time to decide, however, is before they make the proposal, not afterward. Once they win the job and agree to do it, it's too late for any second thoughts about the client.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: CLOSET THIEVES

An office manager noticed that executives in her firm pilfered office supplies every fall, when their kids were starting back to school. No harm, no foul, she figured, so she felt entitled to take an occasional package of Sharpies, bottle of ibuprofen or pair of scissors for her own home use.

My readers disagreed, shouting down the idea that the office manager was in the clear simply because the executives also stole.

Stealing office supplies has become so commonplace at some companies that they've changed the way they order them. Mike Padore of Irvine, Calif., used to work for a company that, shortly before Christmas each year, would experience a run on flashlight batteries. It became such a tradition, he writes, that they began tripling the battery order two weeks before Christmas.

Joe Read of Anaheim, Calif., believes that office supplies should be for office use only.
Taking them home, he writes, "regardless of the person's station or executive level," is "an obvious transgression."

"There is no right way to do a wrong thing," agrees Neal White of Atlanta, Ga., who also believes that the office manager should tell the boss that the pilfering is going on.

Check out other opinions at SOUND OFF: SUPPLIES AND DEMAND, 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 The Right Thing, 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," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, October 21, 2007

SOUND OFF: PEEKING AT GEORGE

The Health Professionals and Allied Employees Union in New Jersey reports that 27 of its members have been suspended for taking unauthorized looks at actor George Clooney's medical chart in violation of federal law. Clooney was being treated at Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen, N.J., for injuries sustained when he was knocked from his motorcycle, and as many as 40 hospital workers reportedly looked at the actor's chart.

Union spokeswoman Jeanne Oterson criticized the suspensions, arguing that the hospital had "rushed to judgment" and, in addition to holding these people accountable, should have ensured that its own systems to ensure patient privacy were stronger.

Clooney subsequently issued a statement supporting a patient's right to privacy, but adding that he wished the matter could have been settled without the medical workers' being suspended.

Who is more culpable: the medical workers, for sneaking a peek at Clooney's chart, or the hospital administration, for not having in place a system that would protect against such unauthorized viewings? If Clooney, the patient, doesn't believe that the unauthorized viewers should have been suspended, should they have been?

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at rightthing@nytimes.com.

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 The Right Thing, 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," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

THE RIGHT THING: THE CAT THAT STOLE MY SLEEP

On a recent overnight flight from San Francisco to New York, one of my readers settled into his seat for the six-hour flight east. He figured that he'd be able to catch some sleep on his way home.

Boy, was he mistaken.

A few rows ahead of him, another passenger was settling into her seat. She had brought company: a carry-on bag containing her cat.

From the time they boarded, the cat began a frightened whine. At first, my reader writes, the other passengers made light-hearted comments such as, "Gee, that cat sure isn't happy." The stewardess stopped by to make sure that the cat was settling in.

"But soon after takeoff it was no longer cute to hear the crying of a caged animal," my reader writes.

There was nothing to be done, however. For six hours the cat whined, keeping him and other headphone-less passengers awake.

After the flight landed, my reader was determined to let the owner know that her cat had ruined his sleep, but she disembarked first and he lost the opportunity. He thought about saying something to the stewardess, but -- since he knew it was airline policy to allow cats on board -- he simply dragged his weary body on through the terminal.

Even if an airline allows cats onto its planes, he writes, isn't there "something unethical about bringing a loud, nocturnal creature on a long overnight flight?"

It's a loaded question. If the owner deliberately set out to destroy the evening's sleep of a planeload of passengers by bringing aboard a cat that she knew would be a nonstop mewling nuisance, her ethics could be called into question. And if she was deliberately inflicting pain upon her pet by stuffing it into a carry-on bag and lugging it along, her ethics would certainly be suspect.

It is highly unlikely, however, that the owner's intention was anything other than to get herself and her cat from San Francisco to New York, so it's difficult to see anything unethical in her bringing her nocturnal creature aboard.

My reader's question is loaded because it's based on the idea that the cat's owner created an inconvenience for him and other passengers. She certainly did, but not every inconvenience thrown into our aisle can be chalked up to an ethical lapse on the part of the thrower.

Was it thoughtless of the owner to bring her cat aboard, if she knew that the animal might whine all night? Perhaps. But she broke no rules, and her motivation doesn't appear to have been malice toward her fellow travelers.

Sure, this passenger's decision turned out not to be in the best interests of her fellow passengers. She might want to rethink how her cat travels in the future.

But the right thing for my reader to do is to recognize that, simply because something is an annoying inconvenience that causes us a sleepless night, that does not mean it's a big, furry ball of unethical behavior.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Good, the Bad, and Your Business

A trade paperback edition of my book The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart is now available at The Good, the Bad, and Your Business.

Here's how the publisher describes the book:

Does the need to make a profit outweigh the need to reward employees fairly? Should you tell your staff why you fired someone and risk being sued for defamation? Is it more important to make payroll or pay your vendors?

Business professionals face ethical decisions like these every day. Such dilemmas will keep even the most seasoned managers tossing and turning at night. You can rest assured that at some point in your career you'll be faced with making, or witness the making of, an ethical decision-and the action you take will not only define you, but also what your company stands for.

The pressure to make the right choices is incredible; indecision or one small misstep can be the kiss of death in today's highly competitive, fast-moving economy. Productivity can drop off, employee morale can plummet, dissatisfied customers can flee, and your competitor may take a large bite out of your profits-while the dilemma remains unsolved.

The Good, the Bad, and Your Business shows companies how to run more efficiently by improving their navigation of everyday moral business dilemmas. Respected writer and journalist Jeffrey Seglin reveals how otherwise decent people can make mistakes and find themselves in serious ethical trouble. His practical approach uses real-life examples to help you see the difference between a "gray area" and an outright misdeed so you can act faster when faced with such ethical decisions.

Without being preachy or theoretical, The Good, the Bad, and Your Business looks at how others have faced moral dilemmas and gives you the tools to help you reach your own decisions. You'll see firsthand how businesspeople have grappled with difficult issues, from how to draw the line between lying and posturing, to whether it's ever ethical to spy on competitors, to how to align personal beliefs with business practices.

You'll also discover the common misperceptions about ethics in business and learn how to define your "comfort" level so that you can conduct business knowing you've made thoughtful decisions with full knowledge of the possible consequences.

The Good, the Bad, and Your Business:
  • Looks at how company owners and managers make difficult decisions as they try to keep cash flow strong enough to stay in business
  • Examines how to deal with employee issues, from how far to go to help a troubled employee to what policy-if any-to take on romantic relationships between coworkers
  • Reveals the motivations that lie behind how people decide where to "draw the line" on what they will and will not do
  • Focuses on how the decisions you make can affect the common good-the larger community in which you're doing business

Here are what some reviewers of the books have to say:

..."a thoughtful reminder that professionals can 'do the right thing' and thrive." -- Publishers Weekly

"...will guide you through the minefields of decision-making involving ethical issues. It is insightful and informative as it reveals the real motivations behind decision-making." -- HR Magazine

"With a refreshing lack of condescension, this well-written guide delves thoughtfully into problems that business people have to struggle with every day." -- Harvard Business School Working Knowledge

"Jeff Seglin is one of the most thoughtful writers on business ethics today. Well-written and lucid, this book does not preach; it teaches the reader how to think intelligently about hard choices. Every executive who wants to build a successful business -- and wants to do so with integrity -- should read this book." -- Jim Collins, co-author of Built to Last and author of Good to Great

"For any business person dealing with money, people, or society, The Good, the Bad, and Your Business should be required reading."—Jim McCann, CEO, 1-800-FLOWERS.COM

"The Good, the Bad, and Your Business demonstrates what we have always believed-that we do well in business only when we are also doing good." —Jeffrey B. Swartz, President and CEO, Timberland

"It's a rare business book that can truly change your life, and Jeff Seglin's latest is just that. You'll find no grandstanding or buzzwords, but rather a compelling blend of research and worldly experience, written by a master. He's the perfect travel guide for the examined life we all must lead to achieve meaningful success. Don't miss this one!" —Steven Leveen, Co-founder and President, Levenger

"Finally--a book about modern ethics and business that you don't have to get all dressed up to read! Writing with a sure touch, lively language and a wonderful wit that, until now, have been depressingly absent from all those dreary ethics debates, Jeff Seglin has found a way to wake up his subject without once getting bogged down. He never lectures, finger-points, gets cute, or drones on, and in the process he's built something entirely fresh and new: he knows his stuff and he respects his readers' intelligence. This terrific book is the next best thing to talking to your smart, warm, and funny best friend about the toughest decisions you'll ever have to make. It's flat-out superb." —Nancy K. Austin, co-author, A Passion For Excellence

The Good, the Bad, and Your Business can be purchased at bookstores or at Amazon.com or bn.com or other online bookstores or by clicking on the links within this post or at the right-hand channel of the homepage of
The Right Thing blog.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: 24,000 POINTS OF DISAGREEMENT

Our daily newspaper used to be delivered by a neighborhood paperboy. We rarely saw him, but without fail our paper was on our front porch by 6 o'clock every morning.

It should have crossed our minds that he never came by to collect what we owed him. It should have, but it never did.

One afternoon our doorbell finally rang. It was the paperboy's father. He explained that his son had gone months without collecting on any of his accounts.

We owed more than $200, if we were to pay both what the paperboy had paid for the newspapers and the small markup he got as his fee for delivering them. The father said that he'd understand if we wanted to pay only for the cost of the papers, and left us a bill.

My wife and I discussed it. On the one hand, we thought that it was irresponsible of the boy not to routinely collect and to leave us with an unexpected whopping bill. On the other hand, we had enjoyed receiving the paper and had no complaints about the service. We talked it over and decided to pay the bill in full.

We felt obligated to pay for what we received, including the delivery service, regardless of the paperboy's tardy billing practices. What's his is his, we figured. He was entitled to it.

When a reader wrote me about his experience with frequent-flier miles, I was reminded of my experience with the paperboy. The details are different, but the lesson is the same: What's someone else's, someone else is entitled to. It's not ours, regardless of how we came upon it.

A few years ago, without warning, an airline's frequent-flier program deleted 24,000 points from my reader's wife's account without warning. He complained in writing, and the airline reinstated the points -- twice. She ended up with the 24,000 points she should have had all along, plus another 24,000 that she shouldn't.

He telephoned the frequent-flier program and reported the error. He was told that the account would be corrected, but it never was. About a year later he and his wife were taking a trip, and they decided to use their points -- including the erroneously duplicated ones -- to purchase their plane tickets.

"Did I have the right to use the duplicated points?" he asks.

I have no doubt that my reader truly wanted to do the right thing by correcting the error that had been made by the airline. No question, the airline did a lousy job of correcting a mistake.

But no matter how they got into his account, where they stayed despite his good-faith efforts to remove them, the points didn't belong to him and weren't his to use. If the points had been cash in his bank account instead of points in his airline account, I daresay that it wouldn't have crossed his mind to use it for his trip. Essentially, however, they were the same thing.

Many people with whom I generally agree on ethical issues don't see eye to eye with me on this one. They believe that at some point, if the company is stupid enough not to correct the error, the reader should be free to use those points as he wishes.

I disagree. Another party's stupidity is no excuse for illegitimate personal gain. If the frequent-flier program could not find a way to correct the statement, the right thing for my reader to do was to treat the points as unusable, since he knew that they weren't his.

I know, I know. If no one knows he's traveling on someone else's points, who's the victim? My reader knows. And it's precisely because he's an honest man that the issue still gnaws at him.


c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: A BURNING DESIRE

Knowing that Mother Teresa had requested that letters in which she confessed to spiritual doubts be destroyed, was it wrong for the Catholic Church not to destroy her letters? My readers were unequivocal in their response.

"As a nun she was always subject to the rule of her church, and owed ... obedience to its hierarchy," Frank Snyder of Fort Worth, Texas, writes. "Thus, while it would be proper for the church (leaders) to consider her personal preferences, they would have no obligation to agree with her if they believed that what she wrote would be of value to others."

Jan Bohren of Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., goes a step further.

"The church had no right to destroy the letters," Bohren writes. "Given the letters, Mother Teresa continued to contribute to the health of the human race by showing that she too was human."

Check out other opinions at SOUND OFF: A MOTHER'S LETTERS, 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 The Right Thing, 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," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)