Sunday, February 25, 2007

SOUND OFF: THE SHOCK OF THE FIND

You're working late in your office. You're the only one there. What with all the meetings and telephone calls, increasingly you find that this is the only time of day you can actually get any work done.

You walk to the copy machine shared by your department and lift the cover. Inside you see a sheet of paper that turns out to be a list of the salaries of everyone in your department, inadvertently left there by your boss.

What do you do? Do you make the copies you came to make and then return the boss's list to the machine as if you had never come across it? Make a copy of it for yourself? Shred it and say nothing to the boss? Call your boss at home and ask him what to do? Put it in an envelope and slide it under your boss's door -- and, if so, do you include a signed note explaining how you found it? Or do you do something else?

Send your thoughts to rightthing@nytimes.com or post them here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name and your hometown. 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.

WHEN IS A SCALPER NOT A SCALPER?

When I checked eBay this morning, there were 35,629 tickets being resold, covering events ranging from concerts and plays to boxing matches and NASCAR races. Many were being offered by professional ticket brokers, but some were listed by individuals. Plenty of people sell tickets that they can't or don't want to use.

Mary Nolan of Mission Viejo, Calif., wants to know when it's ethical to resell tickets and when it's not OK.

Obviously, it's not OK anytime it's against the law. Some U.S. states and Canadian provinces prohibit the resale of tickets or place restrictions on how much profit you can make. There's a list of these restrictions on eBay that's easy to find if you click on "help" and search for "tickets." It lists no restrictions for California. The only thing the state prohibits, according to Kevin Flanagan of the California Department of Consumer Affairs, is the resale of tickets on the premises of an event without permission.

Nolan has a more specific issue in mind, however: She wants to know if someone who is given or wins tickets at work is obligated to give them back if he or she can't use them.

A friend's company sponsors events such as concerts, sporting events and fashion shows. When it has extra tickets, it raffles them off to its employees. On one occasion, however, an employee who won the tickets couldn't go and instead sold them on eBay -- which Nolan's friend thought was problematic.

"Was this the right thing to do?" Nolan asks. "Or are they considered property of the company, and should only that employee have used the tickets?"

Company policy is of no help, since there is no current rule covering such circumstances. Even his fellow employees were divided on whether he should have returned the tickets once he realized that he couldn't attend the event.

The issue resurfaced recently when Nolan's husband was given tickets to a sporting event by his company.

"We were unable to go at the last minute," she writes. "We gave them away to a friend of a friend, but were unsure of the propriety of this."

There is nothing wrong with Nolan's friend selling his tickets on eBay, nor with her husband giving away his tickets. Unless the company has a specific policy stating otherwise, the tickets are given unconditionally, and become the property of the person who receives them, to do with as he or she wishes.

It's no different than if the company had given the employee a hundred-dollar bill or an alarm clock. No one would question the employee's right to hand over the money or the clock to someone else. It's none of the company's business what happens to the tickets once they've been given away, whether they're used, left used or either given or sold to some third party. Selling the tickets rather than using them may feel different to some colleagues, but feeling something doesn't make it so.

Obviously, if either company had a policy stating that tickets must be used by the person to whom they were given or returned to the company, that would be a different story. If the gift of the tickets is conditional, it's unethical to violate the conditions. In neither of Nolan's instances, however, was that the case.

If the tickets were given out to a group of company employees who were expecting to go to the event together, it would be understandable if some employees were upset at having a stranger turn up among them on the night of the show. But when a prize is given out with no strings attached, the right thing to do is to let the winner of the tickets do whatever he or she wants with them.

Instead of griping, simply hope to win the tickets yourself the next time around.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

FINDING THE `I' IN `TEAM'

In football, baseball, basketball or hockey, one of the worst things you can say about a person is "He's not a team player."

Appearing recently on a CNBC talk show, former NFL coach Mike Ditka commented that one reason for the recent resignation of coach Bill Parcells after four years with the Dallas Cowboys was that star wide receiver Terrell Owens was not a team player. After spending a season struggling to overcome various distractions from "T.O.'s" antics, the old coach simply felt burnt out.

If so, who can blame Parcells for being frustrated? In a team sport such as football, 11 men have to work in close coordination to succeed on a single play, and all 45 players on the team have to be on the same page if the team hopes to win. A player who thinks only of himself can cause his team to fall apart.

Hence the old sports cliché "There is no `I' in `team,"' a saying that is also popular in the business world, where bosses use it to rally their workers to get a big job done.

But what happens when the boss takes advantage of his position to ask employees to do things outside of the normal parameters of their job, anything from picking up the boss's laundry to OKing a few vouchers that that they know to be inaccurate to hushing up a possible sexual-harassment case, "for the good of the team?" Is an employee obligated to fall in line and follow the boss's game plan simply because everyone else seems to and because he or she wants to be "a team player?"

Absolutely not. Good employees serve their boss best by speaking up when they believe that a decision could cause harm. The decision may stand, but at least the employees have had a chance to offer alternatives.

In some cases, of course, employees may feel reluctant to speak up out of fear. If that is the case and if the company in question asks employees for reviews of their supervisors, they should not hesitate to let the boss's bosses know when a manager is reluctant to listen to his employees. Listening is part of his job, and making employees too fearful to speak is no substitute.

Nor does being a team player mean covering for a boss who's doing something wrong. Several months ago I told readers the story of a manager who asked one of his employees if he could use the employee's name on his expense report to justify an expense that wasn't business-related. Readers were justifiably appalled.

That kind of boss typically chooses a target carefully before making an inappropriate request. The employee chosen might have been in trouble in the past and been gotten out of it by the boss, or he or she might be up for a promotion and really need a positive review from the boss.

The right thing to do when a boss asks you to do something wrong is to say no, and then either call an ethics hotline, if your company has one, or report him to his boss. Agreeing to do it implicates you in the action -- "I was only following orders" isn't a good excuse anymore. Don't worry about the same situation recurring: You can bet that, if you turn him down once, it will color his perception of you as a team player and cause him to move on to his next victim.

The concept of being a team player doesn't mean letting go of your individual self-interest. It's merely a recognition that in many situations the long-term good of the team is also to the long-term good of the individual. When that isn't the case, when the "team spirit" that's being solicited actually works against your long-term interest, you're under no obligation to comply.

All too often, in fact, this sort of request isn't in the long-term interest of either you or the team, and it's up to you to take individual action to make things right.

SOUND OFF: DO YOU HIT THE BUTTON?

A train is speeding along the tracks, I told my readers. If it continues on its current route it will hit and kill five people. If the engineer hits a button, however, the train will switch tracks and hit only one person -- who will die as a direct result of the engineer's action. If you were the engineer, I asked, would you continue on your course or hit the button?

Predictably, readers visiting my column's blog engaged in a heated discussion about which option they'd choose.

"Either way someone will get killed," writes William Dyson of Fairburn, Ga. "The right thing to do is to have as few people as possible die. He should hit the button."

That opinion was seconded by Ron Davis of Huntington Beach, Calif.

Rick Randolph of Fountain Valley, Calif., disagrees, however. By doing nothing, he says, the engineer "would have caused an additional four deaths." By pressing the button, he saves four lives.

But Dave Hosseini of Sacramento, Calif., would not change tracks.

"The engineer has no right to determine that the one person should die rather than the five," he explains.

For Beverly Canton of Newport Beach, Calif., the question isn't that simple.

If she saw that the five "were mainly elderly citizens and the one was a child or young adult," Canton writes, she would continue on course so that the young person could live -- a bold position for Canton, who at 75 acknowledges that she might find herself among those five on the tracks.

Check out other opinions at http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com/2007/01/sound-off-full-speed-ahead.html or post your own by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below or sending them to 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 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.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

JOHNSON & JOHNSON VOLUNTARILY DISCLOSES IMPROPER PAYMENTS

Yesterday, Johnson & Johnson issued a statement that it had voluntarily disclosed that subsidiaries made improper payments to two small-market countries in connection with the sale of medical devices. It also announced the retirement of Michael Dormer, its worldwide chairman of Medical Devices & Diagnostics. In his letter to the company Dormer cited the internal review of this issue and his ultimate responsibility because of his position. Johnson & Johnson did not name the two countries in its statement. The full statement, which can be found at http://www.jnj.com/news/jnj_news/20070212_192452.htm, reads (the statement is in boldface):

Johnson & Johnson Statement on Voluntary Disclosure

New Brunswick, N.J. (February 12, 2007) - Johnson & Johnson today voluntarily disclosed to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that subsidiaries outside the United States are believed to have made improper payments in connection with the sale of medical devices in two small-market countries. The actions were contrary to the Company's policies, and the payments may fall within the jurisdiction of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The Company will provide additional information to DOJ and SEC, and will cooperate with the agencies' reviews of these matters.

Effective today, Michael J. Dormer, Worldwide Chairman, Medical Devices & Diagnostics, has retired from the Corporation. In a letter to Johnson & Johnson, Mr. Dormer cited the internal review of these matters and noted he had "ultimate responsibility by virtue of my position" for those subsidiaries that were the subject of the disclosure.

Effective immediately, all worldwide businesses within the Medical Devices & Diagnostics segment will report to Nicholas J. Valeriani, Worldwide Chairman, Medical Devices & Diagnostics, a Company executive with nearly 30 years experience. Mr. Valeriani will now have responsibility for businesses previously under the management oversight of Mr. Dormer, in addition to those for which he is already responsible.

# # #

In light of this voluntary disclosure and Johnson & Johnson’s storied history of ethical behavior in the marketplace based on its Credo, I thought it appropriate to link to The Right Thing column I wrote that originally ran in July 2001, after Johnson & Johnson faced another crisis with one of its subsidiaries. You can find that column at THE RIGHT THING; A Company Credo, as Applied or Not. (There should be no charge to view it online via this link.)

Sunday, February 11, 2007

SOUND OFF: ACTIONS AND DEEDS

In 2006, for the first time, Microsoft topped the annual Harris Interactive Reputation Quotient Survey list that gauges the public's perception of corporate reputation. Microsoft's prestige was undoubtedly elevated in part by the philanthropic efforts of its chairman, Bill Gates, even though those efforts are conducted separately from the company.

But recently the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has come under fire. A series of articles in The Los Angeles Times reported that some of the foundation's endowment is invested in businesses, such as oil companies, that pollute the air and cause some of the health problems that the foundation seeks to cure. The foundation's initial response was that it will not review each investment to look at a company's environmental record or other policies. Instead it will stay focused on the foundation's core issue of helping to "reduce inequities in the United States and around the world."

The Gates Foundation is hardly alone among foundations whose missions conflict with the activities of some of the companies in which they invest. The question is: Should foundations make sure that they don't invest in companies that run counter to their efforts, or are these two separate and unrelated issues? What do you think?

Send your thoughts to rightthing@nytimes.com or post them here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name and your hometown. 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.

PARKING PRINCIPLES

During a particularly busy holiday season, I came around a corner and headed into a just-opened space in the crowded parking lot of my local supermarket. I was halfway into the space before I noticed a sedan that had been waiting for the same spot with its blinker on. Before I could either pull the rest of the way in or back out, the driver of the sedan had parked directly behind my car and jumped out.

"Didn't you see me waiting?" he shouted, finishing his question with a colorful epithet.

"Not until I was halfway in," I replied. "Back up and I'll let you in."

He turned to walk back to his car muttering the same colorful word, loudly enough to be heard by me and by his young daughter, who was sitting in the back seat of his car.

He was right about the space being his. He'd been waiting for it and, if I'd been paying more attention when I sped around the corner, I would have noticed him waiting. I would have driven on and looked for another opening. Had I been waiting when someone else swooped in to take the space, I would have been equally annoyed.

Did his lack of civility change his dibs on the space? Not as far as I was concerned. His use of foul language in front of his daughter may suggest questionable parenting skills, but my choices were either to be uncivil in return or to do the right thing by giving him the space and moving on. I chose the latter.

Scott Latzky, a reader from Queens, N.Y., wrote to me about a similar experience. The differences were that there wasn't any colorful language involved and that he was not the interlope but rather the guy who had been waiting for a space to open up near his home in Jackson Heights.

One Sunday afternoon Latzky had been waiting for several minutes when another car came along and double-parked to wait for a second space to open up. On the crowded streets in his neighborhood, such jockeying is common practice.

After another five minutes, a car began to pull out. The other car, which was parked a little closer to that spot, began to go for it, but Latzky cut him off and reminded him that he had been waiting longer.

"He complained that he thought that I had gone for a spot further back," Latzky writes.

The other driver indicated that, when he had lived on Manhattan's Upper East Side, whoever parked closest to the spot was the one who got it. Latzky reminded him that he wasn't on the Upper East Side and that this is how it works in Queens.

"He wasn't happy," Latzky concludes, "but he gave up the spot."

Latzky was in the parking space, but was he in the right?

He and the other driver both did the right thing. In matters of this nature, in which the law provides no guidance, local custom -- not to mention simple courtesy -- prevails. The fact that both drivers managed to avoid colorful language in sorting things out speaks well of them and of Jackson Heights.

Doing the right thing won't always make us happy. But the marginal convenience of beating someone to a parking space or the ephemeral pleasure of retaliating in kind when someone behaves badly are not the type of factors we should allow to define our own characters.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

KEEPING CONFIDENCE WHEN OTHERS DON'T

For four years one of my readers in northern California worked for a privately owned company at which, she says, she loved her job and respected her co-workers. Then, a few months before Christmas, she learned something that none of her co-workers knew: The company would begin layoffs around the holiday.

"My heart told me to stay and sink with the ship," she writes. "My head told me to start looking for another job as a backup, in case the flood waters got too high."

By the time the layoffs hit, right before Christmas, she was already in a new job.

"Just about everyone was oblivious to the situation," she writes. "I tried to be ethical and not tell what I knew."

Now, however, she wonders if she did the right thing. Was it right to keep quiet about confidential information? Or should she have sounded the alarm?

The dilemma in which my reader found herself is a classic one: Do you stay loyal to your company and not disclose information that could cause panic? Or do you stay loyal to your friends and tell them what you know, even if you promised to keep the information confidential?

I pressed my reader about how she found out about her company's fortunes, which obviously makes a considerable difference in what obligations she may or may not have had: Was she part of the executive team making the decision about layoffs? Did she overhear a conversation at a private meeting? Did she come across documents that someone had carelessly left in the open?

As it turns out, the answer is none of the above. There was no way for her or any employee to know what was in store, she says, unless he or she happened to be one of the less than half a dozen people who made up the company's executive team. These executives had been ordered not to disclose the information to anyone else, but one of them broke that confidence by telling my reader and asking her to keep the information confidential.

Apparently that executive did not feel bound by his commitment. My reader did feel bound by hers, however, so she kept quiet -- a decision with which I fully agree.

A more interesting question, and the one she should have asked me, is this: What should I have done when the executive offered to tell me confidential information about the company?

That executive was wrong to single out my reader. Not only did he betray the trust of his colleagues running the company by breaking his word to keep quiet, but also he put my reader in an awkward position. While other employees believed that their jobs were secure, she knew that hers wasn't and could plan accordingly. This gave her an unfair and unasked-for advantage over her co-workers, some of whom were doubtless personal friends.

The right thing for my reader to do would have been to stop the executive as soon as he offered to share confidential information, and either tell him that it was inappropriate or tell him that she was uncomfortable hearing the information. If he told her the information anyway, she should have reported the conversation to the other members of the executive committee.

That may seem harsh, given that the executive was probably trying to do her a favor, but if she truly respects her fellow employees as much as she says she does, she owed it to them to tell the executive committee. Who knows how many other people this executive selectively told and why he told some and skipped over others?

The other executives should know that, if they want to treat all employees fairly, they need to deal with this untrustworthy executive first.

SOUND OFF: SNOOPING ON KIDS' E-MAIL

My readers differed on whether it's OK for a parent to read his or her teenager's e-mail without permission:

"At the age of 13 children are vulnerable," writes Bert Hoogendam of Sarnia, Ontario. "Hence parental vigilance is not only advisable, it is necessary."

Mary Dodge of Lynchburg, Va., agrees, adding that a parent is not a child's friend or buddy, and needs to know what's going on in his or her child's life.

On the other hand, both M.W. Bruening of Salt Lake City and Janice Eisen of Brookfield, Wisc., believe that parents should never read children's e-mail without their knowing.

"Reading your kid's e-mail without his knowledge is a violation of trust that, if discovered, is likely to drive your child away from you," Eisen writes.

Renee Chapman of Yorba Linda, Calif., writes that, when her children -- now 25 and 22 -- were growing up, she knew their friends, ate meals with them, kept the computer in a common area, supported their educational activities, talked with them and worshiped with them.

"And, yes," she writes, "when our parental radar sounded, we snooped."

The answer, perhaps, lies in balance: "It is a 50/50 call," writes Patrick Burris of Charlotte, N.C. "Supervision is one thing and intrusion another."

Check out other opinions at http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com/2006/12/sound-off-parents-who-spy-on-kids.html or post your own by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of http://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.

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