Sunday, December 30, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: WHAT WAS I THINKING?

As another new year rushes in, it's time to reassess the past 12 months, and in particular to reconsider a handful of columns that made some readers wonder, "What were you thinking?"

Four columns in particular drew responses that prompted me to revisit some issues. Links to these columns can be found in the text below.

FAULTY DRUGS

I advised Carla Hamilton of Orange County, Calif., that I saw no ethical breach if she took advantage of gift cards that pharmacies offer if she switches her prescriptions. (See THE RIGHT THING: A DRUG ON THE MARKET?)

A deluge of pharmacists responded: "Very bad advice."

What I failed to acknowledge, wrote Elizabeth Bolser, a registered pharmacist in Columbus, Ohio, was "the extraordinary care that pharmacists provide in reviewing their patient's medications and drug-to-drug interactions."

If a patient goes from store to store, she and others pointed out, "no one pharmacist has the opportunity to see the patient's complete drug profile."

Ernest Boyd, the executive director of the Ohio Pharmacists Association (OPA), says that the average pharmacist finds three prescription errors per day.

"One-third of them would have caused injury or death," he writes, "had the pharmacist not caught it."

He believes that people should choose their pharmacists as carefully as they choose their physicians.

Boyd is right. My ethical advice was sound, but on the practical side I should have stressed the importance of providing any pharmacy with a complete drug history when you bring it your business.

CATTY BUSINESS

I told the story of Brian Hurley, a reader who, on a redeye flight home from San Francisco to New York, was kept awake by a mewling cat brought on board by another passenger. Not every nuisance registers as an ethical lapse, I wrote. (See THE RIGHT THING: THE CAT THAT STOLE MY SLEEP.)

"I couldn't believe the sheer stupidity and insensitivity of your answer," writes Suzanne Kaszar of Worthington, Ohio.

It's not simply the incessant meowing that's an issue, writes Kaszar, who -- like many others -- is extremely allergic to cats.

"Please do not give your readers the green light to engage in such unethical and dangerous behavior," she writes "Thanks to you, I now feel that my health might be compromised every time I board a plane."

The point is well-taken. The ethical picture changes when health issues are involved. Passengers should try to find alternative means to transport their pets, and airlines should make an effort to alert fellow passengers if for some reason a cat has to be on board.

APPLE BURNS

I sided with a college student who had argued with her father about whether it's OK to circumvent copying procedures to get her legally purchased music onto her Apple iPod. She said yes, he said no. (See THE RIGHT THING: BURN, BABY, BURN!)

Readers didn't disagree, but Bill Kirkpatrick of Granville, Ohio, thinks that I should have chastised the record companies who make people jump through such ridiculous hoops to get their music onto their iPods.

"You need to call out those who would take away our fair-use rights, eviscerate the first-sale doctrine and lock us into monopolistic proprietary systems," Kirkpatrick writes.

Perhaps it's the fact that I've recently had to jump through some ridiculous hoops to copy music from my wife's PC onto her recently purchased MacBook that makes me inclined to agree. Regardless, he's right. Recording companies and technology companies should stop the nonsense.

NAMING NAMES

Finally, there were some occasions when readers hoped for a little bit more than what I dished out.
For example, I wrote about paying up for a piece of shareware that enabled me to repair an MSOE.dll problem with Outlook Express e-mail. (See THE RIGHT THING: PAYING UP EVEN WHEN I DIDN'T HAVE TO.)

Jim Carney of Orange County, Calif., points out that the column lacked one thing: the address of the site from which I purchased the software.

Excellent point. It's
www.softlakecity.com.

I trust that I can count on my readers to do the right thing by continuing to share their wisdom with me as the new year progresses.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: THE ANONYMOUS TRUTH

My readers agree with the writer who believes that, if the Boston City Council candidate who sent out anonymous literature about a rival candidate days before the election "lacked the spine to make the accusation openly, he lacks the character for public office."

"I wouldn't trust anyone who made anonymous comments," writes another reader, who chose to remain anonymous. "It's deceptive. Did he win?"

He did win. But, since it was an election in which the top four candidates won office, his rival also won. Should make for some interesting council meetings! (See Boston City Council candidate John Connolly acknowledges issuing ... and Analysts try to explain Boston's lowest poll turnout in years ...)

Check out other opinions at SOUND OFF: THE ANONYMOUS TRUTH, 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 and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, 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

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

SOUND OFF: BETTING THE HOUSE

As the economy has cooled in recent months, the subprime-mortgage meltdown has resulted: People who had been granted mortgages for which they likely shouldn't have qualified are finding themselves unable to make the payments on their houses and are faced with eviction.

Is it the lenders' responsibility to help keep people in their homes, because they enticed customers to take out mortgages that the lenders knew they might not be able to afford? Or should the borrowers be held solely accountable, because they entered into lending agreements that they should have realized were beyond their ability to repay?

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 BEST OF YEARS, THE WORST OF YEARS

Once again it's time to look back at egregious ethical lapses of the past year.

In keeping with my belief that as much can be learned from those who do the right thing as from those who don't, I continue with my tradition of offering positive alternatives to the misguided or wayward actions of many in the news.

SHOWING WHOLE LEADERSHIP

Apparently John Mackey, chief executive of Whole Foods Market, felt that his company wasn't
getting enough praise for its healthy foods and shiny stores. He made anonymous Internet posts touting the strength of his own company and besmirching its competitors. He found himself and his company facing an informal inquiry by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

On the other hand Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric, finds himself basking in a warm glow of positive response after committing his company to an "ecomagination" campaign to develop more environmentally friendly products. The company expects to have sold $14 billion such products by the end of 2007.

And, as reported in The Wall Street Journal, "it reduced its own greenhouse-gas emissions by 4 percent between 2004 and 2006, even as revenue grew 21 percent."

Immelt is not without detractors who believe his campaign to be more of an attempt to keep regulators at bay than a sign of real, altruistic commitment to the environment. Even if that's true, so what? His company and the environment still benefit.

A DOG IN THE FIGHT

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick received a 23-month prison sentence for financing and running Bad News Kennels, an illegal dog-fighting operation. At the sentencing United States District Court Judge Henry E. Hudson told him, "I think you need to apologize once again to the millions of people who look up to you." (See Vick Receives 23 Months and a Lecture - New York Times.)

The sports world is not without good role models. Consider Rita Benson LeBlanc, executive vice president of the New Orleans Saints. When her own neighborhood was preparing for Hurricane Katrina to hit, LeBlanc marshaled a successful evacuation for all Saints players, coaches, personnel and their families.

"Many citizens thought only of themselves and moved on," William Legier, founder of a Gulf Coast accounting firm, told Condé Nast Portfolio Magazine magazine. "Not Rita." (See Rita LeBlanc Benson Saints - Executive Articles - Portfolio.com.)

LeBlanc is the granddaughter of Saints owner Tom Benson, not known for his positive relationships with the New Orleans community. LeBlanc takes a decidedly different approach.

"We're trying to do everything we can to bring prosperity and economic investment to New Orleans," she told Portfolio.

Commitment to her personal, business and local communities, when it would have been simpler to focus solely on herself, is not a bad way to set a good example.

ENLIGHTED CELEBRITIES WHO GIVE BACK

After she finally decided not to fight her jail term for driving with a suspended license, Paris Hilton, the celebrity known for ....well, who knows? ... declared that she was "learning and growing" from the experience. Upon her release there was talk that her childish devotion to celebrity might give way to a more adult commitment to serious humanitarian issues. We wait with anticipation.

Other celebrities, people who enjoy far less media fanfare than Hilton does, have been devoting themselves to humanitarian efforts for years. Take actor Gary Sinise: Since 2004 his not-for-profit Operation Iraqi Children, co-founded with author Laura Hillenbrand, has been providing school-supply kits, nearly 200,000 of them, to Iraqi children. The kits, along with books, shoes, blankets, backpacks, sports equipment and toys, are distributed by American troops.

The effort has recently expanded into Afghanistan and Djibouti. OIC reports that 100 percent of donations go either to providing supplies for children or to covering shipping costs. For more information, visit www.operationiraqichildren.org.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, December 16, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: `THIS IS FOR YOU, NOW WHAT WILL YOU GIVE ME?'

I used to work for a company that had a policy prohibiting employees from receiving from vendors any gift that had a value greater than $25 or that couldn't be consumed in one sitting.

The second half of this edict always particularly irked me, since I knew that some of my colleagues had such voracious appetites that they could consume in one sitting an amount worth quite a bit more than my family's monthly grocery bill. Nevertheless the policy stood.

With the holiday season upon us, the question of when and whether it's appropriate to accept gifts from vendors reaches its apex. Does that basket of gourmet treats from Vendor X involve an implicit agreement to favor him over Vendor Y, whose prices are slightly better but whose gift of a magnetic calendar with her company's logo pales in comparison to Vendor X's?

Such decisions should, of course, be based on the best interest of your company, not on which vendor stuffs your inbox with the finest meats and cheeses. (Full disclosure: I've tackled this topic before in a column that looks at how some companies, large and small, handle gift giving from vendors. See THE RIGHT THING; In Ethics, It's The Thought That Counts. My take on the issue hasn't changed all that much over the past seven years.)

Some companies, such as my former employer, try to stave off such conundrums by setting guidelines on what's acceptable and what's not. These policies are premised on the notion that gifts of such a token value couldn't possibly influence an employee to make a biased decision.

Other companies ban gifts altogether. Wal-Mart, for example, has had such a policy on its books since its founding in 1962.

Doesn't a vendor expect something in return for any gift, no matter how minimal its value? Could a $12.95 bag of high-end coffee beans or a $59.99 box of steaks really result in you giving business to a vendor whose bids aren't otherwise competitive? Really, can any of us be bought that cheaply?

Unfortunately it isn't that simple. Even without an explicit quid-pro-quo, such a gift still might influence you, consciously or subconsciously, to accept that vendor's telephone call before someone else's on a busy day. You may convince yourself that you'll be able to remain impartial, but it's hard to be sure. And no, vendors wouldn't give gifts if they didn't expect something in return.

Some vendors are blatant about their expectations. A reader from Mission Viejo, Calif., writes that he received an unsolicited gift from a vendor, a small tool kit worth about $20. In the accompanying note the vendor offers to give him another gift if he'll meet with him for 30 minutes.

My reader has no intention of conducting any such meeting, but now he wonders if he's ethically obligated to return the tool kit.

Since his company has no policy forbidding such gifts, my reader has absolutely no obligation to return it. Were it me, however, I would return it with a note that politely asked the vendor not to send gifts in the future. If my business makes a meeting necessary or desirable, I'll go without the lure of a $20 gift or, for that matter, a $1,000 gift.

While a no-gifts policy is the cleanest approach to keeping things aboveboard, the practice is unlikely to be adopted universally. The right thing for companies to do, when it comes to gift policies, is to make it absolutely clear to employees what's acceptable and what's not.

A no-gifts approach might strike some as too harsh a response. But I'd like vendors to know that the way to win me over is by selling me on services and products that will help my company, not by sending over some tchotchkes for my personal use.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: I AM WHO I AM

Readers offered quite a bit of advice when I asked them how I should identify myself professionally, given that my two careers as a professor and as a journalist were at the opposite ends of the Gallup Organization's most recent annual survey of public opinion regarding honesty and ethics in the professions. (See SOUND OFF: WHO AM I?)

George Zahka of Bradenton Beach, Fla., kindly observed that I would "do more to build the reputation of both by professing my identity with both."

But Dave Marohl of Madison, Wisc., thinks that I should worry less about the issue. "If you care that much about how strangers perceive you at a cocktail party," Marohl writes, "you probably ought to do some realignment about your own perspective."

Phil Clutts of Harrisburg, N.C., agrees, and advises me that, if a new acquaintance uses the Gallup poll results to make a snap judgment, "he has a problem and you can comfortably move on to the next guest."

Check out other opinions at SOUND OFF: WHO AM I? 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 and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, 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)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Mitt Romney in 1986



If you click on the images at left you'll be able to read an interview I did with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for Venture magazine 21 years ago when Romney was starting Bain Capital.
The article, titled "Bain Practices Its Teamwork: A $37 Million Venture Fund Grows Out of a Consulting Group," will tell you absolutely nothing about Romney's political views.






Sunday, December 09, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: DEFINING MOMENTS

Several weeks ago I told readers about William J. LeMessurier, the architect who designed the Citicorp tower in New York (THE RIGHT THING: YOU TELL ME YOURS). In 1978, a year after the tower was completed, he was informed that, because a steel contractor had chosen a method of bolting joints inferior to the method LeMessurier had specified, hurricane winds might blow the building off its footings.

The contractor's decision was directly contrary to his instructions, and was not LeMessurier's responsibility. If he went public, however, it might sully his considerable reputation. Nonetheless LeMessurier decided that, regardless of professional consequences, he had to go public and get the problem fixed. By doing so LeMessurier, who died in June at 81, solidified his reputation as someone who put public safety ahead of his own interests.

I challenged my readers to tell me similar stories of defining moments in their lives, experiences that paint a picture of who they are. The stories I received demonstrate how such experiences can dramatically affect our sense of what it is to do the right thing.

THE FRUIT OF EARLY LESSONS

In the late 1930s, when Juanita Coulson of London, Ohio, was about 6, her mother took her to a grocery store. Coulson stayed outside to play while her mother shopped. Soon the store owner's daughter, about her own age, joined her.

Along the outside wall of the store was a mesh container of fruits and vegetables. The owner's daughter took two bananas and gave one to Coulson. When her mother saw her eating a banana, however, she questioned her.

"My explanation that the store owner's daughter `said it was OK' was not sufficient," Coulson writes.

Her mother gave her a couple of pennies and told her to pay the owner and to apologize for taking the fruit without first asking permission.

"I was not spanked or otherwise chastised," says Coulson, who is now 74. "But the lesson was permanently etched on my brain."

DID I DO ENOUGH?

Thirty years ago or so, Kate Nelson of Garnet Valley, Penn., was waiting in the downstairs bar of a Boston restaurant along with her parents, her brother and his girlfriend for their table to be readied upstairs. Unexpectedly, Nelson recalls, another patron collapsed at her feet.

"It was clear that the man was choking and couldn't breathe," she writes.

Her brother's girlfriend, a nurse, tried unsuccessfully to clear his airway with her fingers. Then her brother and father stood the man up so that they could perform the Heimlich maneuver. Again no luck.

When Nelson asked the bartender to call 911, he told her that the telephone was for restaurant business only. She found a public telephone. She then walked upstairs and asked the restaurant manager if he could ask if any of the diners was a doctor who could help.

"There's no doctor here," he said. "Go back downstairs."

She did so, and her family continued working on the man until the paramedics arrived. The next morning she called the police to inquire about him.

"The police told me that he had died," she writes.

Nelson continues to puzzle over the manager's callousness and why, as waitresses stepped over the man's body, no one else in the restaurant tried to help.

"I have spent 30 years," she concludes, "wondering why I didn't ignore the restaurant manager and yell out loud for a doctor."

HEALTHY YOUNG EXAMPLES

Maryanna Klatt, an assistant professor of clinical-allied medicine at Ohio State University in Columbus, challenged the students in her medical-ethics course to tell me their stories.

One writes about when she was 6 years old and her mother asked her to keep an eye on her year-old brother in the bathtub while she answered a ringing telephone. After her mother left, the girl decided to get a toy from her room -- but, when she returned, she found her brother lying flat on the tub floor. He wasn't breathing. Her mother called 911 and continued to try to revive her brother. It wasn't until the paramedics arrived and did CPR that he finally spit up water and regained consciousness.

"I'll never forget how that small moment of carelessness had turned into the worst day of my life," she writes.

Another student recalls entering the apartment she shared with two roommates to find drunken revelers.

"There was a burst of laughter as one attendee fell off a barstool onto the floor," the student writes.

An 18-year-old partyer was passed out and didn't respond to efforts to awaken her. Her friends didn't want to call for help, and she feared getting into trouble for allowing a minor to drink in her apartment.

Nonetheless she convinced her roommate to call 911 "because staying out of trouble was not worth risking a life."

Yet another student recalls how she stopped visiting the grandmother who had "practically raised me when I was a child" after the grandmother was placed in a nursing home with advanced Alzheimer's.

"I felt uncomfortable, scared and sad," she writes. But she now observes that Alzheimer's patients "sometimes have momentary recollections and can even experience moments of joy from having someone touch them or be with them."

She'd like to think that, if given the chance, she'd do things differently now.

An early lesson taught Coulson to do the right thing. In spite of misgivings about whether she did enough, Nelson and her family stepped up to help someone in need. And it's clear that Klatt's students' lives have been profoundly shaped by past experiences.

"They saw how past actions influence the people we become," Klatt writes.

The stories that many readers generously sent me suggest that such defining moments motivate them to do the right thing today. That is indeed a hopeful sign for all of us.

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, December 02, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: A BOY, A MOUNTAIN AND A SIMPLE ACT OF KINDNESS

[You can read an update on Evan, his climbing, and his efforts to use his avocation to raise money for his school at Summits for Evan's School.]

My oldest grandson, Evan, started a new family tradition last year by asking everyone around the Thanksgiving dinner table to tell a story about themselves or to sing a song. When his father's turn came this year, he told the story of a hike to the peak of Mt. Katahdin that he recently had taken with my daughter and their two sons.

Mt. Katahdin is the highest mountain in Maine, with its tallest peak reaching more than 5,200 feet. Getting to the top presents a challenging hike, particularly for an 8-year-old and his 6-year-old brother. Somewhere along the trail Evan's resolve began to waiver. He sat down and told his parents and brother that he would wait while they continued up to the summit.

Before they could convince him that this was not an option, however, a small group of young hikers from Quebec came upon them.

A young woman in the group noticed that Evan was distraught. She walked up to him and told him that she had had similar bouts of hesitancy on many hikes in the past. The thing that helped her, she said, was a special plaster she wore. She took out two seemingly ordinary bandages from her backpack and handed them to Evan.

"I have an extra one you can have," she said. "And here's another in case you need it on the way down."

Evan put on the plaster and headed on up Katahdin. Along the way they would occasionally spot the same group of hikers, who always greeted Evan with a thumbs-up signal.

The boy exuberantly completed the climb. When he and his family had descended the mountain and re-entered their campsite, the young women burst into applause when they saw Evan, his brother Luke and their parents.

The story of the young woman's small act of kindness brought into stark relief how great an impact it can have if we choose to reach out to another person in apparent duress. It begs the question of whether we're ethically obligated to help others when it's within our power to do so.

Fourteen years ago, as I was standing outside the entryway to a Manhattan hotel and looking for a taxi, a somewhat-unkempt man approached me.

"Do you ... ," he began.

Before he could even finish, I responded with a curt "I don't have any."

He paused, looked at me and said, "Of course you don't."

He walked on.

I had assumed that the man was approaching me for money. In my haste to hail a cab without having to deal with anything else, I was quick to brush him off. For all I know, he may have been trying to ask me for directions. I'll never know. I've regretted my knee-jerk response ever since.

We are not ethically obligated to help every stranger who crosses our path. But if helping others is something that we hold to be a core personal value, then the right thing to do is not to dismiss those who approach us for assistance -- certainly not the way I did, without even giving the man a chance to ask.

My experience 14 years ago changed how I have responded to similar situations ever since. But it paled in comparison with how a young woman's decision to be kind when she didn't have to gave an 8-year-old boy the confidence he needed to complete his climb.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


SOUND OFF: `I WAS IN A GREAT STORE THE OTHER DAY ... '

John Mackey, the chief executive of Whole Foods Market, was pilloried recently when it was discovered that he had been making anonymous posts touting the strengths of his own company and the weaknesses of its competitors on an Internet discussion forum. His postings resulted in an informal inquiry by the Securities and Exchange Commission, since Whole Foods is a publicly held company.

Now the board of Whole Foods Market has established a policy that prohibits any of its executives or directors from posting comments about the company or about its competitors to any discussion forums except ones sponsored by Whole Foods.

Assuming that they reveal no proprietary secrets and break no laws, is it wrong for company executives to anonymously participate in Internet forums? Is it right for the company to ban such participation?

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)

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

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