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Sunday, April 29, 2007

LOVE ON THE JOB

Given how much time people spend at work, it's no wonder that workplace romances erupt on a regular basis. The challenge for anyone trying to maintain a relationship with a co-worker, however, is how to do so without letting it interfere with either employee's work.

With the real or perceived fear of sexual-harassment lawsuits, you'd think that most companies would have thought through how to handle workplace relationships. They haven't. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 72 percent of the companies surveyed in its most recent annual poll on workplace romance had no policy covering such relationships.

At most companies, in short, employees are on their own when it comes to navigating the often-choppy waters of romance with a co-worker.

When a manager dates a subordinate, the situation is even more complicated -- complicated enough that it's reasonable to wonder if it's ever OK to date someone when you have power over that person's job security.

A reader from Manhattan writes to tell me that she is romantically involved with her boss -- who, of course, is the one who praises her to upper management and will be recommending her for promotion.

She's confident that she deserves such praise and support, being "smart, capable, competent, responsible and inherently good at what I do," but she wonders how her relationship with her superior redefines her role in the workplace. Since the relationship began, she says, they are more prone to argument and spend more time together, both at and outside of their workplace.

Her company has no written policy against relationships, but nevertheless she's worried about crossing those ethical boundaries at work.

"How can you ever recover," she asks, "once you've headed down that road?"

Except in unusual circumstances, company executives have no business telling people with whom they should or shouldn't fall in love. But I do believe that they have a responsibility to make sure that romances between employees don't have an adverse affect on the company or on its other employees. If there's a relationship between a manager and a subordinate, it's critical for someone else at the company to be informed of that fact, to make sure that the relationship is consensual and that the manager isn't using his or her position inappropriately.

The right thing to do, in short, is for anyone involved in such a relationship to make it known, at least to some extent. So long as only the participants know of the relationship, the possibility for inappropriate effects is always present.

In this case, the couple should have talked to someone at the company about their relationship before it went very far. Since her manager has power over her career, it was his responsibility to talk to his manager or to someone in human resources. In a perfect world they would have received good advice on how to proceed, and in particular how to keep their private lives separate from the company's business. One possible result, for example, might have been my reader's being reassigned to a different manager.

But this isn't a perfect world. As it happens, the manager also has a live-in girlfriend who doesn't know about the affair. He has no plans to leave his girlfriend -- though he assures my reader that she is the only one with whom he is cheating on his partner -- so, under the circumstances, he's unwilling to disclose their relationship to any third party.

The circumstances make clear that the manager is an unethical manipulator who can't be expected to do the right thing. That leaves it up to my reader, who should see his inability to respond appropriately to this question as a warning flare signaling her to detour off this particular road as quickly as possible.

SOUND OFF: BOSS'S BONUS MISTAKE

All the readers who responded said that they would let their bosses know if they received a larger bonus than they'd been led to believe they'd be getting.

"The resolution is identical whether the bonus is too big or too small," writes Mary Jan Rosenak of Madison, Wisc. "You thank your boss for the generous bonus, even better than you expected. You thank your boss for the generous bonus, but less than you expected."

Another reader who asked not to be named would e-mail the boss to thank him for the bonus. As a result, she writes, it's much more likely that he'd reply by saying "I'm glad I could reward you even more than originally promised. Keep up the good work."

Without question you should tell your boss what happened, writes Jan Bohren of Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.

"Three things are possible," he continues. "Your boss decided to increase your bonus and neglected to tell you. A mistake has been made. This is a test."

Regardless of the reason, Bohren writes, the right thing is to let the boss know.

Check out other opinions or post your own by clicking on "post a comment" or "comments" 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.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Just Saying No to Gifts From Drug Makers

In August 2002, I wrote a Right Thing column for the Sunday New York Times about doctors taking gifts from drug manufacturers in spite of American Medical Association guidelines (AMA (Gifts to Phys CME) Ethical opinions and guidelines) that prohibited the practice.

In an article released today by The New England Journal of Medicine (Physician–Industry Relationships ), it looks as if things haven't changed all that much. In a national survey of 3,167 physicians, the authors report that 94 percent reported receiving gifts of some kind.

  • 83% received food in the workplace
  • 78% received drug samples
  • 35% received reimbursement for costs associated with professional meetings or continuing medical education
  • 28% received payments for consulting, giving lectures, or enrolling patients in trials
  • 7% received tickets to cultural or sporting events

You can read The New England Journal of Medicine article at Physician–Industry Relationships .

You can purchase my August 2002 article from The New York Times archives at THE RIGHT THING; Just Saying No to Gifts From Drug Makers. (If you are a college student or professor with an .edu address, you should be able to access this as well as other Times-Select articles for free.)

Joe Fahy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote about the NEJM findings this morning at Most doctors still take gifts from drug, device firms. And Denise Gellene wrote about it in the Los Angeles Times at Doctor freebies common, study says.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Ethics in America II

In the late 1980s, PBS aired a series called Ethics in America that was developed by Fred Friendly (www.fredfriendly.org). It is a 10-part series that looked at ethics in the media, government, medicine, law, business, military, and other aspects of life. It drew together distinguished panelists who were asked to respond to hypothetical cases posed to them throughout the series. After Fred Friendly's death in 1998, his company, Fred Friendly Seminars continued to produce programming.

Last year, Fred Friendly Seminars began production of an Ethics in America II series. The series is complete and will air later this year on PBS. In the meantime, you can view the various segments for free at
http://www.learner.org/series/ethics2. That site also has links to pdfs of discussion guides and an online source reader.

The business ethics show, “Risk, Reward, and Responsibility: Ethics in Business,” is at
http://www.learner.org/series/ethics2/risk_reward/.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

SOUND OFF: A SLICE OF LIFE

I've received several comments about a television commercial for Pizza Hut that offers three pizzas for $5 each. Here's how it goes: A delivery boy comes to a door to deliver the pizza, and a young man answers.

"That's only 5 bucks each, right?" he asks.

"Yes sir," the delivery boy answers.

The man runs inside and shouts. "Oh yeah! Honey, the Pizza Hut kid made the same mistake again! I got three medium Pizza Hut pizzas for the same price as those other guys!"

A reader in Laguna, Calif., writes that it makes her blood boil every time she sees this ad.

"He is so happy about the `mistake,"' she writes, "and is perfectly willing to let the pizza deliverer make up any difference."

My reader wants to know if she's being too picky. Is it OK that the man rejoices at the expense of the delivery boy? Is it OK for the advertiser to send the message that taking advantage of low-paid delivery boys should be celebrated? Or is it nothing more than a funny ad?

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 as well as where you read the Sound Off question. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column.

You can watch the commercial at Pizza Hut Commercial "Mistake" 3 for $5 with Erich Bergen.

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.

THE BOTTOMLESS LIST

You work for the training-and-development department of a midsized company in the Midwest. You're not crazy about a particular vendor's software product that you use to help manage your company's training procedures.

Then one day you get an e-mail from a survey company, asking you to complete a confidential online satisfaction survey about your vendor's software product. You're told that customers of your vendor's competitors are being surveyed as well, and that a list of customer-satisfaction rankings will be published.

Bingo! Payback time! Now you can let your honest reactions surge forth. Your bosses will see how poorly your current vendor's product stacks up against the other software on the market and, quicker than you can say "flush my cache," they'll be dumping the old vendor.

That's exactly what happened to my reader C.P. The trouble was, her bosses never got to see how poorly their current software vendor did because, when the results were published a few months later, that vendor didn't show up in the rankings.

C.P. called the survey company to find out what was going on. The company told her that the vendor in question had chosen not to participate after seeing the survey results -- in other words, C.P. surmises, her vendor didn't want to see its name at the bottom of the published list.

"How valid is a survey if those ranked at the bottom can choose to bail out?" C.P. asks. "How fair is it to the vendor's customers, who took the time to respond, to not see the final results?"

Part of C.P.'s anger stems from righteous indignation at being misled into seeing this survey as an opportunity to prove to others -- and particularly to her bosses -- that her company's current software vendor isn't cutting it. And of course the survey company isn't in business to give C.P. and, presumably, other dissatisfied customers ammunition for their dissatisfaction, and is under no legal obligation to publish the full results.

Nonetheless, I understand C.P.'s resentment. Allowing poorly ranked companies to remove themselves from the published list may not affect the validity of the results that are published, since the companies who fared better did so by pleasing customers who responded to the survey. But dropping the names of companies that didn't perform well suggests that this survey will never be exhaustive enough to be truly useful for customers looking to compare software vendors. If the survey company allows drop-outs, after all, why would any company that didn't finish at the top in the rankings allow itself to appear in print?

Such limited surveys may well be useful to some companies, such as those that end up at the top of the list and want to use those findings to promote themselves. However, it's not fair for the survey company to give respondents the impression that they're participating in one type of survey when in fact they're participating in another. People put their time into responding out of certain expectations, and might not want to participate if their expectations were different.

The right thing for the survey company to do, in order to be fair to all involved, is to prominently place clear and detailed information about who is paying for the survey, whether and when companies have the ability to opt out, and exactly what information the survey taker will be able to see.

But that's not what happened. C.P. was misled into believing that, if she took the time to fill out the survey, the results would be tabulated and her vendor would be ranked against its competitors. Her assumption was a reasonable one, and it was up to the survey company to make clear what was actually going on.

The fault here does not lie in the published list of rankings, though its usefulness is at best suspect. So long as the numbers presented are correct, the list as a whole is incomplete but not unrepresentative.

The fault lies in the survey company's having taken advantage of C.P. and her dissatisfaction with her vendor to involve her in a survey which, as matters turned out, was useless for her purposes. She's right to be annoyed.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

TWO FOR THE PRICE OF TWO?

Sometimes a single ill-considered decision can turn a minor problem into a major one.

B.M., a reader from Columbus, Ohio, learned that fact firsthand after she bought a modestly priced MP3 player as a Christmas gift for her daughter. A month or so later, the device stopped working. B.M. contacted both the store and the manufacturer, and was told that the player would be replaced if she brought it in with the original receipt.

Problem: "Try as I did," she writes, "I was unable to locate the original receipt."

Here's where things began to get complicated. Since she couldn't find the receipt for her MP3 player, which she had purchased with a bank debit card, B.M. decided to purchase a new MP3 player from the same store. She then returned the broken player with the new receipt, and received a working replacement. She now has two working MP3 players, both of which she has paid for, so she thought the outcome was a fair one.

B.M.'s 16-year-old daughter is not so sure that her mother's strategy was ethical, however.

"Because I am trying very hard to raise my children with a sense of ethics," B.M. writes, "I would appreciate your opinion, since I have begun to doubt my own judgment in this matter."

B.M. may have been motivated by a sense of justice, but using the receipt for one piece of merchandise to return another was dishonest. It's not unreasonable for the store to require a receipt for anything that's returned, and it's not the store's fault that B.M. ended up without her receipt. To lie to the store in an effort to make up for her own error is wrong, even if the final numbers worked out fairly.

In this particular case, the right thing for B.M. to do would have been to take what documentation she had -- such as the debit-card statement from her bank, which presumably showed the date, the name of the retailer and the amount of the purchase -- and bring it to the retailer and explain the situation. Then the retailer should have done the right thing by replacing the defective merchandise.

Likely the store would have done so. If retailers want to keep our business, they don't go out of their way to make it hard to return defective stuff. But it's not the store's fault that B.M. lost her original receipt, and they're entitled to stick to the letter of their policy if they choose -- though it would hardly be good customer relations to do so.

Having acted as she did, the right thing for B.M. to do is to call the store, explain the situation and see what the manager says. Granted that the store got an extra MP3-player sale out of the deal, and in light of her willingness to set things right, chances are that the store management would either leave matters as they stand or perhaps even give her a refund for the extra player.

I suggest making the initial approach by telephone, however, because this advice isn't without risk. It's conceivable that the management might take a hard line and prosecute her for the misrepresentation by which she obtained the third player. If that's the case, I wouldn't advise her to go back in person, since I'm not convinced that so severe a punishment would be a fair resolution for this wrong.

Should that be the case, she should consider her lingering sense of guilt -- and the cost of that second, unnecessary MP3 player -- a relatively small price to pay for a useful lesson: Doing the right thing may take more effort in the short term, but in the long term it's always preferable. Especially if you're trying to set an example for your kid.

SOUND OFF: MAKING AMENDS II

On March 15 William Beebe was sentenced to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to one count of aggravated sexual battery against Liz Seccuro, a woman he had attacked 20 years earlier when both were students at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Beebe, a recovering alcoholic, had written to Seccuro to apologize for the decades-old assault. She contacted the authorities, saying that she had forgiven Beebe but still desired justice.

I asked readers whether Beebe was right to contact Seccuro and whether Seccuro was right to press charges.

"He was right to contact her and try to make amends," writes Kaye Jones of Groves, Texas, "but he was wrong if he thought that this would make it all go away in a second. Choices have consequences."

Pat H. of Ontario sees the apology itself as a second assault.

"His need to atone actually came at the expense of the victim, who was, in effect, retraumatized via his e-mail," Pat H. writes. "It was a dramatic and selfish gesture on his part, and every bit as antagonistic as the original violation."

Finally Liz Seccuro herself checked in.

"Obviously, for me, as the victim, there is only one solution," she writes, "and that was to step forward as a citizen and, based on the laws of this nation, report the crime, even though it had been reported to no avail to university brass."

Check out other opinions at SOUND OFF: MAKING AMENDS or post your own by clicking on "post a comment" or "comments" below. Please indicate who you are and where you're from.

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, April 08, 2007

SOUND OFF: FALSE CREDENTIALS

In a routine check of resumes at your business, you discover that one of your employees has listed on his resume a degree that he has not really earned. He attended the college in question, but left while still a few credits short of receiving the degree. He is a star employee who regularly outperforms his colleagues, and the degree itself is not needed for the job he's doing at the company.

Do you give him a chance to correct the mistake on his resume? Do you insist that he complete the credits he needs to complete the degree? Do you fire him immediately for falsifying information on the resume he used to get the job at your company? Or do you take some other action?

Send your thoughts to rightthing@nytimes.com or post them here by clicking on "post a comment" or "comments" below. Please include your name, your hometown and where you read this column. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming "The Right Thing" newspaper 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.

AFTER THE LOVE HAS GONE

Let's say that you have this friend. You and she used to spend a great deal of time together, but then she met this guy, a smart guy. He got into medical school. They got engaged. They moved in together. She started pulling double shifts at work to help pay the household bills, so you didn't see as much of your old friend as you'd used to. For the six years her fiance went to medical school and fulfilled his internship and residency requirements, the time your friend had to spend with you or anyone else dwindled to practically nothing.

Then, barely one year into his life as a practicing doctor, her fiance left your friend for another woman. He has no plans to repay any of the support she gave to him while he was going through medical school.

That's the story reported to me by L.H., a reader from Boston whose friend went through exactly this experience.

"Since he never married my friend, there was no legal obligation to supply alimony," L.H. writes. "But what of the ethical obligations?"

It's clear to me that L.H. believes that her friend has been wronged, and feels that she's entitled to some restitution for the sacrifices she made during the six years that she and her fiance were together. The response she's hoping to get from me, I imagine, goes something like this: "Not only does your friend deserve financial restitution, but her former fiance should be forced to wear a sandwich board with the message `I am a cad. Ask me how."'

I hate to disappoint a reader, and -- though of course I don't know the details of their breakup -- I'll concede that the ex-fiance may very well be a cad, but even so I'm not convinced that restitution is in order.

Clearly L.H.'s friend and her fiance had discussed marriage, but they weren't married. For six years they simply lived together, sharing none of the obligations that come with being married. L.H.'s friend footed the yeoman's share of the household bills while her fiance was in school, yes, but she was well aware that there was no legal framework in place to make her a partner in his future, even if she was to a considerable extent paying for that future.

It's no surprise that they had no verbal or written agreement that, in the event of their breaking up, her fiance would repay L.H.'s friend for the expenses she was incurring while he went through medical school. Most couples who fall in love don't spend time making plans or framing agreements about what will happen should they fall out of love. It's the rare unmarried, heterosexual couple, even one in which the role of provider is unequally shared, that anticipates something going wrong and wants to be covered -- just in case.

If she wanted the financial protection that marriage might have given her, the right thing for L.H.'s friend to do would have been to discuss that with her fiance sooner. After the fact, she doubtless wishes she had -- but that wish doesn't create any retroactive ethical obligation for her former fiance. Would it be a generous and thoughtful thing for him to repay some of the money his former fiancee laid out on his behalf? Absolutely. Is he under any obligation, legal, ethical or otherwise, to make such a repayment? No.

After she had worked so hard to help support him while he was in medical school, it may have been a callous thing for L.H.'s fiance to leave her for another woman. But he certainly was under no obligation to stay in the relationship -- that's the whole point of the distinction between married and unmarried -- and has no ethical obligation to repay L.H.'s friend for the sacrifices that, after all, she chose to make.

Given that they weren't married, her ex-fiance presumably took with him all the debt that he took on during medical school. L.H.'s friend is left with the cold comfort that it would have been even worse if they'd married and then he'd left her for another woman, and with the useful lesson that there is no guarantee that sacrifices made today for love will have a payoff tomorrow.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

MAKING THE FINAL CHOICES

Somewhere a family is mourning.

For years their 95-year-old mother had been taking multiple daily doses of more than a dozen different prescription medications. Some helped keep her alive, while others mitigated the substantial pain caused by her various ailments. She finally grew tired of waiting to die. After discussing her options with her children, she decided that she would deliberately take an overdose of pain medication.

She let her children know when she planned to take the overdose, to ensure that she would be alone for a number of hours before her death. That way, she figured, no member of her family would be suspected of involvement in ending her life.

Her children accepted her decision. They saw it as her choice. There was no argument.

As their mother had planned, when the EMTs found her and when the coroner examined her, they all came to the same conclusion: She had died in her sleep, which was no surprise, given her age and how many medications she took on a regular basis.

One of the children confided in a friend, however, and that friend subsequently wrote to me. She was, by her own account, struggling to come to terms with the situation and what, if anything, she herself ought to do if she found herself similarly situated.

"I would have no qualms notifying the authorities if someone close to me was suicidal in a situation in which there was no imminence of death," she writes. "What would my ethical obligation be if a family member was contemplating the same decision under the same circumstances?"

In most locations where my column runs, including the place where this incident occurred, suicide is against the law and assisted suicide is legally a form of murder. My reader knows the legalities, however, and that's not what she's asking. She wants to know what would be the ethical thing, the right thing to do.

Frankly, this is a question I cannot answer. It's a question that most of us will never face, but if we do face it we have to answer it for ourselves, drawing on our own ethical and religious backgrounds, and any two people may well come up with different answers. What my reader's answer would be is beyond my capacity to predict, let alone to advise.

In most religions the subject of suicide is fraught with issues, and obviously that would come into play for many people facing this sort of crisis. For the woman in question, and for her family, religious conviction apparently posed no insuperable obstacle, but that wouldn't necessarily be the case for my reader.

What I can tell her is that this family, this mother and her children, made a choice that was not ill-considered.

Once the mother decided that she no longer wanted to live the way she had been living, she had several choices. One would have been simply to stop taking her medication altogether, for example. That decision would surely have brought about her death, but most likely would have resulted in a longer and much more excruciating end than the one she experienced.

Even after she had decided to overdose on pain medication, she might easily -- and, indeed, more surely -- have done so without telling her children of her plans, without letting them know why she planned to do this and without giving them a chance to say goodbye. Such a decision would have prevented any possibility of their interference, but it also might have left her children always wondering what had happened, tormented by the thought that her death had been an accident that could have been avoided if only they had been more attentive. At the very least, it would have left them without the chance for one last conversation with the mother they loved.

But she loved them too -- loved them enough to not want them to be left with any lingering doubt that they might somehow have been responsible for her death. And they in turn loved her enough to honor her wishes.

I don't know if I would have had the strength to do the same thing if I had been in the place of this mother or these children. And, even if I had had the strength, I'm not certain that I would have chosen the same path.

For this family, however, choosing to allow their mother to end a life wracked by pain that showed no sign of easing was clearly the right thing to do.

SOUND OFF: PAPER TRAIL

Most of my readers say that, if they found that their boss had inadvertently left a list of staff salaries in the office copy machine, they would return the list.

Bert Hoogendam of Sarnia, Ontario, Phil Clutts of Harrisburg, N.C., and Jan Bohren of Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., each voted for placing the list in an envelope and returning it to the boss in person.

"No copies, nothing cute," Bohren writes, "just return it to the original sender, telling him/her where you found it."

Kristine Savona would anonymously slip the item into the boss's office in an envelope, however.

"That might ease the boss's mind as well, seeing that someone cared enough to take some discretion in returning the item," Savona writes.

But M. Mason of Windsor, Ontario, writes that the any boss who would leave such a list in a copier for all to see is incompetent.

"Inform no one," Mason advises. "Take the salary list home. Use the salary list for future salary negotiations."

Check out other opinions at http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com/2007/02/sound-off-shock-of-find.html or post your own by clicking on "post a comment" or "comments" 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.