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)

Should I call a colleague on her tardiness?

How patient should you be when the person who asked for a meeting with you is late? L.L. works as a professional in a field that re...