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)

Sunday, October 07, 2007

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 a first-round draft pick or two second-round picks.

There was a great deal of talk, however, that trying to steal an opponent's signs is simply part of the game in professional sports. Belichick's only sin, some observers argued, was trying to videotape signals rather than pick them up visually -- and, of course, getting caught at it.

"Stealing signs isn't cheating in baseball," Troy Renck wrote in The Denver Post. "It's as much a part of the game as peanuts and Cracker Jack."

If every team in professional sports does indeed steal signs, does that make it an OK practice?

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: BURN, BABY, BURN!

Kim Hohl and her father constantly argue about ethics. One of their regular disagreements concerns downloading and uploading music.

It's not that there's a great divide between them over downloading music illegally, an issue that, among other things, can sometimes result in heated discussions about stealing someone else's property and copyright-violations charges from the recording industry. Both agree that this practice is out of bounds.

Where the 19-year-old college student and her father, both of Sunbury, Ohio, part ways is on whether it's OK for her to play music that she downloaded from a site other than iTunes on her iPod. To be able to do this, she says, she sometimes has to download the song to a blank CD and then upload it back onto her computer using the iTunes software. It's a bit convoluted, but it allows her to play songs that aren't available from the iTunes store.

"My dad believes that it is unethical to do this," Hohl writes. "He thinks that, when I bought the iPod, I agreed to use its software. I disagree, because I only go to other Web sites when iTunes refuses to carry a song I want."

Hohl wants to know if she's ethically bound to iTunes or if it's OK to use other services when iTunes doesn't carry what she wants.

When you buy an iPod, it comes with software that you load onto your computer to enable you to upload music from most music CDs and also to move music that you've downloaded to your computer onto your iPod.

Some Web sites other than iTunes already sell songs that are compatible with the iTunes format. Amazon.com, for example, recently announced that it is opening an online music store to compete directly with iTunes. Music downloaded from the new site should be playable on iPods and other mp3 players without any problem.

But Hohl and her father want to know about those occasions when the downloaded music isn't compatible, preventing her from listening to it unless she goes through the rigmarole she describes.

As regular readers of my column know, I'm a diehard when it comes to respecting the copyright of musicians. I've shown little tolerance for people who burn illegal copies of CDs to give to friends or to those who believe it's OK to replace their cassette-tape collections by burning illegal copies of a public library's CDs of the same titles.

But Hohl's question is wholly different. She's going out of her way to legally purchase or download the music she wants. It's no fault of hers that some of what she wants is not available at the iTunes online store.

Perhaps a clever reader could figure out a way for Hohl to avoid some of the steps she's taking to get the music she wants onto her iPod, but it doesn't strike me that she's doing anything wrong. It's not all that different from uploading music from pre-recorded CDs that she happens to already own.

The right thing for Hohl to do is exactly what she's doing. And the right thing for her father to do is to continue to challenge his daughter to make decisions that reflect the honesty of her intentions. In that regard, each of them seems to be succeeding.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate

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