Sunday, July 29, 2007

SOUND OFF: PREMATURE MAGIC

According to The Baltimore Sun, Jon Hopkins of Davidsonville, Md., was among a small number of people who received their mail-order copies of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows ahead of the book's widely publicized July 21 release date -- four days early, in his case (The spell is broken -- baltimoresun.com). Granted that the book was legally obtained from its legitimate publisher, and that the publisher's embargo is legally binding only on vendors, not on purchasers, it was still obviously sent in error.

Should Hopkins have returned the book? waited four days before opening the package? Devoured it in a single sitting, like thousands of other Pottermaniacs? Or done something else?

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.

THE RIGHT THING: A DRIVING CONCERN

Most guys like to fix things. If a friend calls for help, most of us will assist if we can. The more dire a friend's need, the more likely it is that we'll want to help.

So it's no surprise that my reader wanted to help out when he got a call for aid on the night of Super Bowl Sunday. My reader and his wife had watched the game together and were headed toward bed.

"I'd had my share of drinks and was tired," he recalls.

He was alarmed when the phone rang. It was an acquaintance from his homeowner's association, whose car had broken down and left him stranded in the parking lot of a restaurant with his wife and their infant granddaughter about seven miles away from my reader's home. The parking lot wasn't well-lighted, and the restaurant wasn't in a great area of town. The acquaintance wanted to know if my reader could pick them up, since their car had to be towed.

My reader knew that his acquaintance was part of a close-knit religious community, however, and figured that he must have exhausted all of his other possibilities before calling him, because they weren't particularly close friends.

"What was the right thing to do?" he asks. "Come to the aid of a nice-guy colleague and his wife and grandchild, putting all of us at risk because I had been drinking? I do hold my liquor well, or at least I like to think I do, but I am sure that I was over the legal limit. Or tell him, `Sorry, but you've got to find another way home, friend'?"

The stranded couple faced mounting medical bills, my readers adds, and a taxi would have strained their resources -- "although they were eating out."

As gallant as he might have felt driving to rescue his acquaintances, it would have been a fool's errand and ethically wrong to boot. By driving when he was in no condition to do so legally or safely, he would have been putting at risk not only himself, his friend, his friend's wife and their granddaughter, but also others on the road. Seven miles may seem a short distance to cover, but one mile is too long for someone who's been drinking, and if something went wrong a lifetime would not erase the damage caused by such a foolish choice.

The right thing for my reader to do was to tell the acquaintance that he couldn't pick him up. He might, instead, have offered to help him find a ride. If it had been me, I'd have come straight out and told him that I'd been watching the Super Bowl and had had enough drinks that I didn't think it wise for me to be driving. But my reader may be more private about such things and, if so, he could simply have said that he wasn't in a position to drive but that he'd be glad to help find someone else. Whether this involved paying for a cab to get them home or calling someone else from the homeowner's association would have been up to my reader and his acquaintance.

Of course, my reader was not obligated to help out his acquaintance at all. But as fellow members of a homeowner's association, wouldn't it be nice to think that from time to time, in addition to heated discussions about fence heights, paint colors and roofing materials, they could reach out to help one another like good neighbors?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: A LITTLE TOO MUCH INTERSTATE COMMERCE

Perhaps I'm not the ideal person to address this week's topic, which concerns automobiles. I live in a city. My wife and I own only one car, which she primarily uses to get to work. I rely on public transportation as often as possible.

Partly our choice to own only one car stems from the recognition that, as a city dweller who lives three blocks from a subway stop, I have other methods of transportation available. But another big reason is that the insurance premiums for my neighborhood are among the priciest in the city. I'd rather not pay such a steep price for a car that will sit idle most of the time.

When our kids were younger and we did own two cars, though, we paid those hefty insurance bills. It never crossed our minds to register the cars in some other town or state where one of our relatives happened to live so that we could cut our insurance premiums.

For one thing, it would have been illegal to misrepresent where we lived simply to get a lower insurance rate. For another, this is the neighborhood in which we chose to live, all its benefits and all its drawbacks included.

Most often the decision to play fast and loose with vehicle registration in order to garner lower insurance rates doesn't require such active deceit. Instead drivers who move into a new neighborhood with higher insurance rates choose to do nothing, rather than change their registration and pay higher premiums.

That's the case with a reader who moved from rural Tennessee to San Francisco, where the insurance rates are much higher. She continued to register her car in Tennessee.

"I believed that, as long as the car was registered in the United States, that it was fine," she writes.

A co-worker took issue, however, after my reader boasted that her premiums were less than a tenth of what he was paying for a similar car that he'd registered in San Francisco.

"He told me that my actions were patently illegal and unethical," she writes.

My reader has since left California, but she continues to be bothered by the accusation, which she believes was made simply because her co-worker was miffed that she'd found a way to pay less.

"Was registering my car out of state really unethical?" she asks.

In a word, yes. Her co-worker wins this fight hands down. In acting as she did, my reader cheated other San Franciscans who were paying their fair share.

What's more, she was breaking the law: In California, once she got a job, she was required to register her vehicle there within 20 days.

Laws vary from state to state as to how long you have to register your vehicle after arriving, but once you start living someplace you're obligated to register your car there. If you don't, you're subject to hefty fines if you're caught. And, if you should have an accident, you might have difficulty collecting from your insurance company. Furthermore, since all state departments of motor vehicles post their rules about switching registration online, there's no excuse for ignorance. (50 State DMV Links & Links to Canadian DMV Sites)

The urge to save money by taking advantage of what looks like a loophole is understandable, but the right thing for my reader to do was, and is, to register her car where she lives. Anything short of that is a lie.

She would have been wise to research the cost of owning a vehicle in San Francisco before moving there. If she couldn't afford it, she should have considered leaving the car home and using public transportation instead.

SOUND OFF: TELLING TRANSLATORS

Asked about the U.S. military's recent expulsion of 58 desperately needed Arabic-language experts because they were gay, my readers predictably voiced strong opinions about whether the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on homosexuality should stay in place.

"I'm assuming that the 58 linguists knew the law, and thus the consequence," writes Joe Read of Anaheim, Calif. "The only assumption I can draw is that they did not want to be in the military any more."

Abandoning the "don't ask, don't tell" policy "specifically for Arabic translators, without scrapping it altogether, adds just another layer of unethical behavior," writes Mark Shirilau of Irvine, Calif. Until the government lifts the ban on gays in the military, he believes, it shouldn't "discriminate in discrimination."

"I can understand why the military would expel 58 Arabic-language interpreters who are gay," writes Burl Estes of Mission Viejo, Calif, "even though we need people with their skills. In Muslim countries homosexuality is a crime. The argument that homosexuality should be tolerated in Muslim countries is fine, but that's as far as it goes -- an argument."

"It's time to admit the truth that the men and women who are defending our freedom have the God-given right to openly live as gay and lesbians in the military," writes Jack Raab of Westmont, Ill.

Check out other opinions at The Right Thing: SOUND OFF: DON'T ASK, DON'T TRANSLATE? 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.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

SOUND OFF: GIVE OR GIVE BACK?

Like many of us, Beverly Smith of Lake Forest, Calif., frequently receives mailing labels, greeting cards and other token gifts from charitable organizations along with requests for donations. She resents attempts to shame her into giving, she says, and most of the time she dumps the gift because she didn't request it and doesn't want it.

"But sometimes," she admits, "the greeting cards are nice and tempting to use, even though I have no desire to support the charity."

What's the right thing to do? If you use the labels, the cards or the other gifts, are you obligated to give a donation to the organization?

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.

THE RIGHT THING: SHOCKED, SHOCKED AT CONFLICT OF INTEREST

Therapists -- full disclosure: my wife is one -- are fond of saying that the first step on the road to recovery is acknowledging that you have a problem.

Ethics writers are also keen on problem recognition. Many of us love to cite former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis' chestnut, "Sunshine is the best disinfectant," to make the case for individuals to fully disclose any potential conflicts of interest that they may have.

But sometimes simply acknowledging that you have a problem falls woefully short unless you also take the steps necessary to address that problem. Nor is fully disclosing conflicts of interest a particularly useful antidote to bad behavior if no one tells you to stop doing whatever it is that poses enough of a conflict that it should be stopped.

Bosses or colleagues may turn a blind eye because it's not in their best interest to thwart behavior that may be questionable but seems to be helping the overall interests of the organization and perhaps of the individuals themselves.

It's reminiscent of the scene in "Casablanca" (1942) in which Captain Renault (Claude Rains) decides to close down a casino run by Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart): "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here," Renault says severely, as a casino worker hands him his winnings.

As long as questionable behavior appears to help all involved, in short, the status quo is likely to be preserved.

One of my readers appears to be caught in the middle of such a scenario. She works for one of her town's emergency-response departments. Her boss also sits on the board of a nonprofit organization that is totally separate from the emergency-response department. The nonprofit wants to buy some land owned by the emergency-response department, and her boss is trying to facilitate the sale. He is responsible for building new buildings for the emergency-response department, and believes that the money from the sale of the land could be used to build a new facility downtown.

Because her state's ethics-commission guidelines state that contracts should not be negotiated on behalf of business associates, my reader believes that her boss has a conflict of interest. She has told him so, but he disagrees.

The conflicts don't end there, however: His relationship with the nonprofit spills further into his full-time job via, among other things, an annual calendar sale that he spearheads for the nonprofit. He has made it part of my reader's job to track sales of these calendars. In other words, part of her salary, which is funded by the town's taxpayer dollars, is being used to do something that has nothing to do with the town's business.

My reader was right to express her concern to her boss. The right thing for her to do now is to ask that she no longer be assigned to tasks related to her boss's board responsibilities but not to the emergency-response department. Her town's taxpayers should not be footing the bill for her boss's work outside the department, regardless of how praiseworthy that work may be. And, being aware of the conflict, even if she cannot stop it, she should not participate in it.

The right thing for her boss to do would be to recuse himself from the property-sale process. The fact that he's facilitating a purchase for the nonprofit that stands to help his primary employer does indeed raise the specter of a conflict of interest. If the deal is one that really does benefit both parties, better not to sully it by raising suspicions that someone stood to gain personally.

If he doesn't, it will come back to bite him. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of his life.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Speaking of E-mail...

Sometime between June 20th and July 6th, the rightthing@nytimes.com e-mail address was not working properly. Those of you who e-mailed me at that address may have received an error message in response.

The problem has now been fixed and the rightthing@nytimes.com e-mail address should be working fine. If you e-mail me, your message should get through to me without you receiving any kind of error message in return.

If you e-mailed me at rightthing@nytimes.com with a question, comment, or anything else between June 20th and July 6th, there's a good chance I didn't receive your message, so please try again.

I apologize for the nuisance of this, but thank you for your patience.

THE RIGHT THING: I KNOW WHAT YOU E-MAILED LAST SUMMER

According to the technology-research firm IDC, by the end of 2007 we'll be sending 97 billion e-mails every day this year worldwide. (IDC Reveals the Future of Email As It Navigates Through A Resurgence of Spam and Real-Time Market Substitutes) That's an awful lot of e-mail. It may even be, dare I say it, enough.

I'm increasingly convinced that it's time for us to take a breather from e-mail. The time we spend reading it, responding to it, misconstruing it, over-reacting to it and, all too often, misusing it has outpaced its time-saving features. Too often people hide behind e-mail and write things to people that they'd never think of saying face to face. Confiding in someone via e-mail can be fraught with peril, since you can't prevent the recipient's index finger from clicking on the "forward" button and sharing your deepest secrets with any number of other people.

An indiscreet forwarding of a mutual friend's e-mail led a reader to, ahem, e-mail me about her mother.

After my reader's mother asked her to read an e-mail that she'd written to a cousin about another relative's medical condition, she left the room. My reader noticed from the subject line of another e-mail recently sent by her mother that it was forwarded from their mutual friend. The 40-something daughter clicked on this e-mail and saw that it discussed the mutual friend's infirm parents as well as her lay-about spouse. It shocked my reader that her mother had forwarded the e-mail to someone who, the daughter knows, the sender would not want to know about her problems.

As her mother returned to the room, the daughter quickly clicked back to the e-mail her mother had asked her to read. She didn't tell her mother that she'd read the forwarded e-mail.

"She'd feel betrayed if she knew that my mother had forwarded her e-mails to this person," my reader writes. "Is there anything a person can do with e-mails they write to prevent them from being forwarded? I'm worried that my mother might be forwarding my e-mails too."

She's right to worry. So far as I know, there's no technological remedy for her problem, no quick fix to render e-mail unforwardable. The only certain way to prevent her mother from violating her confidence is to stop e-mailing her.

But because she read the e-mail her mother had forwarded from one third party to another, my reader faces a more difficult question. Now that she knows that her mother has been injudiciously forwarding her friend's e-mail, is she obligated to let her friend know? Remember, she gained this information only by violating her mother's privacy by reading her outgoing e-mail without her permission.

Ah, e-mail!

The right thing for my reader to do is to come clean with her mother. She should tell her that she noticed that another of her mother's e-mails was from their mutual friend and that she wondered why she had forwarded it. If her mother doesn't have a good reason, my reader should ask her to promise to discontinue the practice. I'd also encourage the mother to ask the mutual friend to choose an option other than e-mail to discuss personal problems.

I would stop short of alerting the friend to her mother's impropriety, however, and instead focus on trying to correct both it and her own.

Confronting her mother is a risky gambit, of course, since she knows what she knows only because she peeked where she had no business peeking. Her mother would be justified in being upset with her for doing this. But if the two of them can get beyond the indiscretion on the daughter's part, they can focus on what's best for their mutual friend. Ideally her mother will stop forwarding e-mail inappropriately, my reader will stop reading other people's e-mail and all three parties will be better off.

SOUND OFF: CONCEDING TO MOVIE CONCESSION PRICES

Few readers sought to justify bringing their own food into movie theaters by citing high concession prices, but Julianne Corey of Cambridge, Mass., sneaks in her own based on selection.

"If I'm going to spend two hours watching a film," Corey writes, "I should be able to select quality snack food."

Karl Wirsing of Washington sympathizes with moviegoers who balk at paying $11 for nachos, but likens sneaking in food to "smuggling rolls into an upscale restaurant to trim the expense of appetizers." He'd do neither.

"If there's a sign notifying you, before you buy your ticket, that no food or drink is allowed, then it would be unethical to sneak food in," writes Gilbert Socoon of Orange County, Calif. "It's a contract. You buy their ticket. You accept their terms."

But Socoon finds it equally egregious that, before the movie, theaters subject their captive audiences to the kind of advertisements which they go to the movies to escape.

If you must have snacks while watching a movie but can't afford concession prices, Ileana Liel of Riverside, Calif., offers a solution. "Rent the DVD," she writes, "pop a pack or two of popcorn in the microwave and enjoy."

Check out other opinions at The Right Thing: SOUND OFF: A CONCESSION TO CONCESSION PRICES? 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.

Friday, July 06, 2007

TSA, Microsoft, ASAE, Integrity, Honesty, and Leadership

On the website it has developed to assist primary, secondary, and higher education communities "address education challenges while improving teaching and learning opportunities," Microsoft has included my book, The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, among the resources listed for its education competencies of integrity and trust (Microsoft Education Competencies: Integrity and Trust).

The American Society of Association Executives has designated The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart as one of the leadership titles in its "authoritative literature" list for ASAE members studying for certification (CAE Authoritative Literature - About Us - ASAE & The Center for ...).

And the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) includes both 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 as recommended books for gaining competency in integrity and honest (TSA: Developing TSA Competencies).

Now if only Microsoft would give each purchaser of Windows and TSA would give each passenger passing through airport security a copy of my books, I'd be all set.

Monday, July 02, 2007

SOUND OFF: KNOCK IT OFF

You swore that you'd never do it. But, while you're on a trip to mainland China, your tour guide has taken your group to a spot where you can buy products that are clearly made to look like designer goods ... but aren't. $200 "designer" handbags go for $25. Those pricey fountain pens you love, but can hardly afford, sell for only $4. They're fakes, of course, but they look exactly like the real thing.

You know that the knock-offs are illegal, but more than half the people in your group are loading up on them. One fellow buys a "designer" suitcase to lug home all the stuff he's bought. You know members of other tour groups before yours, and they've had no trouble bringing such products home.

You're really tempted by that $4 fountain pen, knowing that the real thing would run at least $350 back home. Would you buy one little something for yourself? And maybe something for a loved one? And a friend? Or would you absolutely stick to your guns and buy nothing?

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

THE RIGHT THING: PUTTING WORDS IN THEIR MOUTHS

I would have been surprised by the letter I received from a reader in Yorba Linda, Calif., if a conversation with an English teacher from Indianapolis some weeks earlier hadn't prepared me for her question.

My Yorba Linda reader wanted to know what I thought of college-bound students who paid professional letter writers to write letters of recommendations for them. Several colleagues had told her that they'd hired writers to compose such letters for their children, letters to be given to prospective recommenders in hope of improving their children's chances of college acceptance.

The Indianapolis English teacher told me about a parent who had e-mailed him with suggested language to use in a college recommendation that she had asked him to write for her son. The teacher was taken aback by her e-mail. Never before had anyone dictated what to write about a student in a recommendation letter. If the mother tells him what to write, he figured, doesn't that make it a letter from her? What kind of message does that send her son? Where's the honesty in that?

Granted, the quest to gain acceptance to college is an anxiety-laden process for children and their parents. Increasingly parents with sufficient resources are turning to consultants to guide them in gaining their children admission to their colleges of choice. Even the Indianapolis English teacher runs workshops on how to write an effective college-application essay.

But he stops short of actually writing the essays for his students. He simply gives advice on the best way to think about responding to the essay questions on college applications.

For years students have given their application essays to favorite teachers for feedback before sending them off to colleges. It's one thing, however, to tell a student that a portion of her essay is unclear and that she should consider rewriting it. It's quite another thing to rewrite it for her.

It's a giant leap, and not in a good direction, for students -- or their hired guns -- to write their own recommendation letters and then hand them, fully formed, to be signed by people they've asked to recommend them to colleges. Forget for a moment that it's insulting to ask someone to do something and then act as if he or she is not up to the task, and that it's not much of a way to enhance that person's opinion of you. The core issue is that it's downright dishonest.

Hiring someone to write a college recommendation letter for you, and then expecting a teacher or other recommending person to simply affix his or her name to it, falls short by any ethical yardstick. Colleges should prohibit the practice and toss out any applicants whom they discover to be guilty of the practice. High-school counselors should steer students clear of any such activity. Parents who have engaged in it should be ashamed of themselves.

The right thing for high-school students to do, and for parents and advisors to guide them to do, is to be sure that the people they ask to recommend them are capable of pointing out their strengths as people, citizens and prospective college students. If they can't find two or three people who are both willing to write positive things about them and capable of doing so, that in itself speaks volumes about their character.

THE RIGHT THING: COPYING BAD BEHAVIOR

Let's say that you really, really dislike someone for whom you work, and that you and your colleagues are working really, really hard to build a case against her to management. Then, as if by magic, a piece of information appears that might provide that last extra nudge needed to convince the bigwigs to show her the door.

Do you use it?

A reader from the Southeast -- let's call him "Perry" -- recently found himself in exactly that position when he discovered, in the shared office printer, a letter that his manager "Sue" had written to her personal attorney. After realizing that it wasn't his document, Perry immediately returned it to the printer without reading it. Sue never returned to reclaim it, however, and it remained in the printer all day.

At the end of the day, Perry suffered what he's calling "ethics lapse No. 1": He again removed the letter from the printer, and this time read it. He learned that Sue was going through an ugly divorce and that in her deposition she would be admitting to a substance-abuse problem.

That's when Perry committed "ethics lapse No. 2." He made a copy of Sue's letter and then returned the original to the printer.

Perry went on to "ethics lapse No. 3" when he shared the letter with his co-workers, who were assembling a case against Sue. One of them argued that they should go directly to management with the information, since it would make their case stronger. Another disagreed, arguing that it would make Sue more sympathetic and might postpone management's decision to fire her.

"In the end we agreed that the letter was personal information that we had no business knowing," Perry writes. "The letter was shredded, the case presented, and Sue left the company soon after." But one of Perry's colleagues still believes that they should have shared the information with their office supervisor, who "had a right to know." Perry argued strongly that the letter should be shredded and mentioned no more, but isn't certain of his own motives.

"I'm not sure if I did that because it was the right thing to do," he says, "or if it was because I felt that I needed to make amends for ethics lapses 1 through 3."

I see no reason to doubt Perry's assertion that in Sue he and his colleagues had been dealt "a real lemon." She was inadequate, he reports, was unaware of her own incompetence and had dumped all of her responsibilities onto Perry and his co-workers. Management had appointed the wrong person to this supervisory post.

Assuming this to be the case, Perry and his colleagues were well within their rights to bring their problems to the attention of management. Respect for a superior and for the chain of command doesn't amount to a blanket prohibition of any effort to point out when an error has been made.

That said, I can't approve of Perry's behavior in dealing with Sue's letter. There are times when it may be necessary to do something wrong in an effort to achieve a greater good, but -- regardless of Sue's limitations -- this was not one of those times.

Perry got it right the first time: Having recognized Sue's letter for what it was, he was wrong to read it. He did the right thing in replacing the letter in the printer -- it would have been better yet to place it in Sue's inbox, to ensure that no other third party would see it -- and did the wrong thing in later returning and reading it. That was indeed was an ethical lapse. So was copying the letter, and so was showing the copy to his co-workers.

He can't undo the damage he did by sharing Sue's personal information with others, but Perry did the next best thing in convincing his colleagues not to use the information that he had provided. His co-worker was dead wrong in arguing that the office supervisor "had a right to know" -- the supervisor had a right to know about Sue's slipshod work, but not about her divorce or even her substance-abuse problem, unless it was affecting her work -- and Perry, perhaps spurred by recognition of his three previous ethical lapses, did the right thing by talking his co-workers out of it.

We all make mistakes. But there's a silver lining to those mistakes if we use them to motivate us in doing what's right, once we realize how far we have gone astray.

SOUND OFF: ARE CASINOS STACKING THE DECKS AGAINST ASIANS?

My readers were split on whether it was wrong for casinos to aggressively target the Asian community.

"Seems to me like just good marketing," writes Tom Steel of Windsor, Ontario, who likens the practice to Las Vegas casinos that have marketed to Hawaiians for years.

"We can't fault the casinos for pressing their advantage with a certain demographic," writes Brian Hurley of Brooklyn. "It's a free market. We can't pick and choose which people to defend from an industry's marketing plan."

But Jason Wiener of West Hartford, Conn., believes that it's appropriate to condemn this approach.

"(Casinos are) as immoral as any tobacco company," he writes. "They design their product to be as addictive as possible, and feed off the weakness of their clientele."

On the other hand, Shmuel Ross of East Boston, Mass., considers the question about targeting Asians to miss the point.

"If the effective marketing of gambling has detrimental effects," Ross writes, "it really doesn't matter what group is being targeted. The real question is whether there ought to be any marketing at all."

Check out other opinions at The Right Thing: SOUND OFF: CASINOS TARGETING ASIAN CLIENTELE, 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 (city, state or province), as well as where you read the column.

Don't let the personal get in the way of the bigger picture

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