Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Name Game

Lynn Brezosky of the San Antonio Express-News had an article in today's paper about Arturo Guajardo Park in San Juan, Texas. The park bears the name of the then-mayor of the city.

Guajardo went on to become superintendent of schools. He has since been charged in a 22-count federal indictment that, among other things, included charges against him and others of accepting bribes. Guajardo has pleaded guilty to extortion.

Now the town is agonizing over what to do about the park's name.

It's reminiscent of the struggles
I wrote about at Ohio University which had named an athletic facility after Congressman Bob Ney who pleaded guilty to accepting bribes. (Ohio University has taken Ney's name off the building.) And it also brings to mind the situation at Ohio State University which has an inn at the business school named after Roger Blackwell, now serving time for insider trading. (Ohio State has not yet taken Blackwell's name off the Blackwell Inn.)

Countless other institutions have struggled with how to handle the renaming of buildings after the namesake has broken the law.

Brezosky spoke with me as she was reporting
her article. Local television in the area has also covered the issue in pieces featuring interviews with the mayor of San Juan and others.

"It happens all the time," Brezosky quotes me as saying in
her article. "You're always taking the risk of not knowing what's going to happen with that person down the road."

Sunday, January 27, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: THE DISHONOR ROLL

It's not clear exactly when adults stopped cleaning up after themselves. Perhaps they missed those days in kindergarten when the class sang: "Clean up! Clean up! Everybody do your share!"

Evidence indicates that this lesson didn't take. Many people, myself among them, complain that nowadays people constantly neglect to mop up after creating messes in office lunch rooms or break rooms.

One of my readers tells me that her office lunch room is filled with small appliances -- a microwave, a refrigerator -- that management and staff chipped in to purchase. While she was among those contributing, she says, she seldom uses the devices. On the few occasions that she has during the past seven years, she insists, she has always cleaned up any spill or mess, "whether it was pre-existing or not."

Others among the 60 or so workers in her office have not been cleaning up after themselves, however, and it has become a problem. A committee was formed to address the mess, and the committee recommended asking for volunteers for scheduled cleaning.

Like everyone else in the office, my reader was asked to participate. She declined, stating that she already cleans up after herself.

"I have reared my children and I taught them how to clean up after themselves," she writes. "I don't see why I now need to be a maid to these lazy people."

She was told that she would not be included on the clean-up committee, and indeed she wasn't.

When the clean-up schedule was posted in the kitchen, however, it took the form of a list of all employees. In one column were their names, in another their scheduled cleanup times. Opposite the names of my reader and two others, in capital letters, appeared the words: "NOT INCLUDED AT REQUEST OF EMPLOYEE."

Employees who hadn't responded at all nonetheless were assigned a clean-up time.

"We who did not volunteer have been ostracized by other office staff," my reader says, adding that she's heard under-the-breath comments and other nasty remarks.

The colleague who posted the list insists that it was OK to do so, since the list accurately reflected the facts. My reader disagrees.

"To be pointed out like a sore thumb, I believe, was totally unnecessary," she says.

Was this an appropriate way to address the situation?

No, it wasn't. It would have been gracious for my reader to volunteer, but there was absolutely nothing wrong in her not doing so. Calling extra attention to the names of the people who had chosen not to volunteer smacks of pettiness. It's one thing to praise those who do volunteer, another to single out those who don't. To penalize those who don't volunteer, be the penalty social or otherwise, is to miss the basic meaning of "volunteer."

Unless they explicitly told all employees that those who didn't respond would be included in the schedule anyway, the organizers were out of line there as well. No one would assume that employees who didn't respond to a charity-drive planned to donate, and it shouldn't be any different here. A request for volunteers is a request for people to actively put themselves forward, not a draft notice.

The right thing would have been for the organizers to list only the names of the people who had volunteered, along with their scheduled times. They should simply have omitted the names of the people who had opted out or who hadn't responded.

Instead the organizers have created a messy solution to their messiness problem.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: HOUSE POOR

In the wake of the subprime-mortgage meltdown, readers weighed in on whether it is lenders' responsibility to help keep people in their homes because they had enticed them to take on unaffordable mortgages, or if borrowers should be held accountable because they had entered into lending agreements that they should have known they couldn't repay.

Blaming the lenders: Steve Rhode, founder of The Ethical Banker website.

"This is not a balanced equation," Rhode writes. "Lenders are sophisticated businesses that have carefully crafted products in their favor. Borrowers are for the most part less sophisticated financially and more trusting."

Blaming the borrowers: Charlie Seng of Lancaster, S.C.

"Obviously it is the responsibility of the home owners to pay the mortgages they agreed by contract to pay," Seng writes. "If we continually allow persons to freely make financial decisions and then bail them out when they make foolish and unwise financial decisions, they will never learn their lessons."

Blaming both their houses: Mike Hart of Brea, Calif.

Hart's son, with a monthly income of $2,000, found himself with a condo that required $3,200 a month in payments. Hart blames the broker who knew that his son couldn't afford it, but also his son "for being stubborn and not listening to my advice."

Check out other opinions at Betting the House, 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.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, January 20, 2008

SOUND OFF: `I'VE DECIDED NOT TO SHOW YOU THE FOLLOWING'

Before the recent Iowa caucuses, Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, had prepared a television advertisement critical of fellow candidate Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts. It was ostensibly a response to Romney "attack ads" that had criticized Huckabee.

Immediately before the caucuses, however, Huckabee held a press conference at which he announced that he would not match his opponent's negative campaigning. He was not going to sling mud, he said.

Then, as an example of what he wasn't going to do, he showed his "attack ad" to the assembled press.

The ad was, of course, extensively reported in the media and was widely viewed on the Internet, presumably by many Iowans.

Do you think that showing the ad to the press was a fair way for Huckabee to make his point? Or do you, like Neal C. White, a reader from Atlanta, think that Huckabee's actions may have been unethical?

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.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

THE RIGHT THING: WOULD YOU BUY A USED CAR FROM THIS MANAGER?

Thank goodness for lobbyists. They're the only group keeping car salesmen from the bottom of the most recent Gallup survey on honesty in the professions, which was released last month. Of those surveyed, 58 percent ranked lobbyists low or very low on the honesty spectrum, while only 53 percent held car salesmen in similarly low regard.

Eking out a second-to-last-place finish is nothing to crow about, of course. But simply because people perceive car salesmen as teetering on the brink of lobbying doesn't mean that there isn't honor among them, or at least an attempt to find honor.

I received an e-mail from a used-car salesman at a dealership in Ontario. He wasn't trying to sell me on anything other than his story.

Another salesman at the dealership had been working on the sale of a used truck. Before he completed the sale, however, he had a disagreement with management, threw "a big temper tantrum" and quit, my reader reports. The sales manager turned over the sale to my reader.

Within two weeks the other salesman apologized to management and got his job back. In the meantime, however, my reader had completed the sale of the truck, done the paperwork with the customer, seen to the licensing of the vehicle and even topped off the fuel tank.

But the sales manager gave the credit for the sale, and the resulting commission, to the prodigal salesman. He told him that, if he wanted to, he could give my reader half the commission.

"I disagreed with the sales manager," my reader writes, adding that apparently there are "no consequences for quitting your job."

He believes that the sales manager should have consulted with him before giving the sale back to his colleague. He wouldn't mind sharing the commission, he says, given that the other salesman did lay the groundwork, but he believes that the choice should have been his to make. It galls him that something that he perceived to be his -- not only the money, but also credit for the sale -- was taken away from him through no fault of his own.

"Sales volume counts a lot in this business," my reader says.

The sales manager could do whatever he wanted to do, and he did. The question is, was his decision fair?

No. This decision is, well, off the lot.

After his colleague's "big temper tantrum" and abrupt departure, my reader took over the sale and saw it through to completion. It was his sale, and the credit should have gone to him. If anyone got to decide whether or not the commission should be shared, it should have been my reader, not the other salesman.

Giving credit for the sale to the returning salesman is unfair, pure and simple. In taking it away from him, the sales manager sends a message that fair play doesn't produce a fair reward.

Even if the sales manager ultimately arrived at the same decision, the right thing for him to do would have been to discuss the issue with my reader. As it is, he left a productive employee resentful, while letting a volatile employee get away with counterproductive behavior. If he wanted to send the message that employees who pick up the slack when others quit are unappreciated, the sales manager succeeded.

If that's not what he wanted to say, he might have given credit for the sale to the guy who actually completed it, and asked him to split the commission with his returning colleague. That would have sent a message that, while prodigals can be welcomed back into the fold, actions still have consequences and credit will be given where credit is deserved.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

SOUND OFF: THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND...TO A POINT

There's a potential battle brewing over Harvard University's plan to sell 99 acres of forest land that were willed to it in 1927 with the stipulation that it remain an "experimental station in forestry for the benefit of all persons and institutions in New England." Harvard would likely have to petition to have the trust revoked to be able to go forward with the sale.

There are plenty of institutions that have received donations with stipulations that ultimately were altered or ignored, without permission and without much outcry. Harvard's case is high-profile enough not to go unnoticed, however.

The donor did think enough of Harvard to give the gift, and the world is a different place than it was 81 years ago. Is it simply out of bounds for the university to use the assets given to it for any purpose other than the one the donor intended? Or should it be able to do so, if it deems the new purpose to be in the current best interest of the school?

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.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

THE RIGHT THING: RUNNING, BUT NOT TO WIN

Young athletes train hard to qualify to participate in national events. Only a limited number of spots are held open for the top performers in qualifying events, so competition can be brutal.

One such athlete wants to know whether, if he's scheduled to compete in a qualifying heat for a national event but has no intention of traveling to or participating in that event, he should withdraw so that someone else might have the chance to qualify.

He asks, not because he plans to sit out the national event if he qualifies, but because he was taken aback by the response to an Internet survey on that hypothetical situation when it was posted on a bulletin board for people participating in the same sport as my young reader, who's from Texas.

More than two-thirds of those responding said, "No, compete (and place highly) regardless of your plans," he reports. Only 17 percent would "do the honorable thing and withdraw."

"My gut instinct is to do the honorable thing and withdraw," my reader writes, but he wants to know what I think.

I think he's an honorable young man. He'd be willing to make room for someone else if he knew that he had no intention of taking advantage of any spot he might win to participate nationally. His response suggests that his sense of fairness guides him well.

Does this mean that the majority of his fellow athletes, the ones who responded that they wouldn't give up their spot regardless of their disinclination to follow through, aren't honorable? Not if there's even a remote chance that they might compete at the national event if offered a spot. If they're keeping their options open, then they're on safe ground.

But if they are absolutely certain that they would not take any spot offered them, they're being disingenuous about their intentions and ought, in fairness to others, to withdraw. A qualifying heat is not a random sporting event, but one held for a specific purpose: filling the field for the subsequent event. People who have no intention of participating in that event have no business being in the qualifier.

The same applies to candidates who go on job interviews for positions in which they have no interest. They may plan to use any job offer to wheedle more money out of their current employer, for example, or may want an inside look at the other company. There's nothing wrong with a worker aspiring to a better salary, of course, but this approach is hardly fair to a prospective employer who invests significant time and money in each interview, nor to a viable candidate who may be squeezed off the interview list by the noncandidate's presence. Like the qualifying heat, the job interview has a specific purpose, and to be involved for any other purpose is unfair to the interviewer and to other candidates.

This kind of behavior does in fact occur regularly, of course, and may even be implicitly encouraged by current employers to help them justify increasing a valuable employee's salary by citing another company's offer. It may be common practice, but it's shaky ethics.

Of course, if you're legitimately uncertain about whether you'll go on to compete in a national athletic event or if you'd consider a new job if an amazing offer came up, then all's fair. Participating in a preliminary event or attending a job interview does not impose a mandatory obligation to follow the process to its ultimate end, and being unsure is not the same as knowingly allowing valuable resources to be wasted on your participation.

My reader knows the right thing to do. If more people followed suit, there might be fewer instances of people deliberately misleading others because they believe that it's the only way to win.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Summits for Evan's School


I wrote about my nine-year-old grandson Evan's climb of Mt. Katahdin in a recent The Right Thing column. In it, I told the story of how a hiker from Quebec helped encourage Evan.

Now Evan has decided to give back. His goal is to climb ten 4,000-foot summits in 2008 in an effort to raise money to help his public charter school go green. (I am on the board of trustees for his school.) He's set up the Summits for My School blog where he explains his project and provides people with a way to sponsor him.

He's also explained his goal in the letter to his friends and family above. If you click on the envelope under my blog entry you can forward this on to others you believe might find Evan's cause worth supporting.






Sunday, January 06, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: QUALIFICATIONS WEREN'T THE POINT

One of my readers in the Midwest got a new job as a paralegal in an attorney's office, having previously held a similar position in a different state.

After three weeks, however, the attorney for whom she worked told her that she didn't meet the qualifications to be a paralegal in the state to which she had moved. The boss explained in an e-mail that, because she had been educated in another state, her qualifications were not up to par.

My reader's resume had clearly stated her education and other qualifications when the attorney hired her, so she found it odd that this should suddenly become a problem. She forwarded the attorney's e-mail to her new state's paralegal professional organization, which confirmed what my reader had suspected: She in fact had all the necessary qualifications to be a paralegal in her new home state.

She forwarded the information from the professional association to her boss, but the results weren't good.

"Upon receipt of this information," my reader writes, "she fired me."

My reader believes that her boss behaved unethically in accusing her of not having the necessary qualifications three weeks after she had been hired for her new job. She wants to know what I think.

After receiving her e-mail, I thought that there had to be more to the story, so I got in touch with my reader. We talked for awhile about her job and what had led up to her dismissal. Soon I had a better sense of the big picture.

What was missing from her original e-mail to me was whether she had noticed any indication that her boss was dissatisfied with her work prior to the point when she questioned her credentials.

It turns out that her boss repeatedly had been critical of the way my reader did her job. It sounded to me like lots of small stuff -- printing out documents to edit them, for example, instead of editing them onscreen, which her boss considered inefficient -- rather than big issues, but clearly the match between my reader and her new boss was a rocky one.

My guess is that her boss had decided to fire her and was using the credentials issue as a face-saving ruse, a way to fire her without having to tell her that she simply wasn't working out. My reader may have been doing a swell job, or may not have been, but either way there was something about the way she did it that irked her new boss.

The boss had every right to fire her employee. Because the job was in an at-will state, one that gives employers pretty wide-ranging ability to fire employees for any reason as long as said reason isn't discriminatory, she could simply have asked my reader to pack her stuff and leave, without providing any explanation whatever.

Hiding behind the excuse of faulty credentials, however, was not fair play. As it happens, her credentials were in order, but -- even if they hadn't been -- the boss had known her new employee's credentials when she hired her. Right or wrong, that excuse wouldn't fly.

If the boss was displeased with her new employee's work, the right thing would have been to tell her so and then, if the problems were unfixable, to dismiss her. By choosing a roundabout method that was, as it happened, factually inaccurate, she clouded the issue unnecessarily. Whatever her rationale, her course of action was dishonest and prolonged the inevitable.

Knowing this doesn't get my reader her job back. But perhaps her questioning will cause her boss to act more forthrightly in the future.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: THE WHOLE TRUTH

Readers weighed in as to whether the board of Whole Foods Market was right to prohibit its executives and directors from posting comments about the company or its competitors to any discussion forums except ones sponsored by Whole Foods. The decision came after the company's chief executive, John Mackey, was revealed to have been making anonymous posts touting the strengths of his own company and the weaknesses of its competitors on an Internet discussion forum.

"Anonymous touts of a commercial venture by an insider are reprehensible," writes H. Watkins Ellerson of Hadensville, Va.

Mike Padore of Irvine, Calif., agrees, but believes that no restrictions should be placed on blog postings by anyone, so long as the posters' names and company affiliations are clearly stated.

Walter Donlyuk of Orange County, Calif., writes that anonymous postings are no surprise from "execs who seem to have no ethics or principles when it comes to making money."

Jan Bohren of Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., believes that all companies should ban such activities by their executives.

"Of course it was wrong for Mackey -- or any other key executive -- to anonymously participate in internal forums," Bohren writes.

Check out other opinions at SOUND OFF: `I WAS IN A GREAT STORE THE OTHER DAY ... ' , 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.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

WHERE THE RIGHT THING READERS VISIT

Ever since The New York Times Syndicate encouraged me to maintain a blog in association with the weekly ethics syndicated newspaper column “The Right Thing,” I have been curious about how people use the blog site.

While I’m still not quite sure how the blog is used unless readers post a comment or e-mail me, I do have a sense of what specific columns they’re visiting while on the blog. Of course, this still doesn’t give me a clue about how people are using the blog or how they ended up at a particular column.

Still, I thought it might be of interest to take a somewhat random look at what columns have been visited over the past hour or so.

By far the two columns that readers are gravitating to most are the one I wrote this past Sunday looking back at the previous year’s columns based on some reader input into what I was thinking at the time I wrote some columns in particular (see
THE RIGHT THING: WHAT WAS I THINKING?) and the one I wrote the previous week about the most and least ethical people of the year (see THE RIGHT THING: THE BEST OF YEARS, THE WORST OF YEARS). Since these are the two most recent columns, I suppose it’s not a surprise that most blog traffic is to these two installments.

The reason for the other columns visited most often recently is a bit more baffling.

The top visited piece by different readers in the past hour or so was
A BANK ERROR IN YOUR FAVOR IS NO GAME, a column from April 2006 in which I looked at what people do when they receive too much money in error from a bank or other financial institution.

And then these columns ranked similarly in visits over the past hour or so:

SOUND OFF: WHEN BOSSES CHEAT, responses to the question about what to do when a colleague tells you that a boss asked her to help him cheat on his expense report. This column originally ran in June 2006.

A UNIVERSAL QUESTION, a column asking if universal blood donors are obligated to refrain from doing anything (such as international travel) that might take them out of the donor pool. This column appeared in September 2006.

SOUND OFF: MAKING AMENDS, which asks readers about whether Liz Seccuro was right to turn in William Beebe, the man who had attacked her 20 years ago when both were students at the University of Virginia after he got in touch with her to apologize. It appeared in March 2007.

The column about the man who kept his mailbox key so he could check in on his old mailbox that now belonged to someone else so he could get his catalogs (THE RIGHT THING: THINKING INSIDE THE BOX) is another popular destination. It originally appear in September 2007.

A May 2006 repost of a column I had written for the Sunday New York Times in August 2003 about using selective information when making your point (CAN TRUTH BE TOLD WHEN USING SELECTIVE INFORMATION?) got a bit of traffic as well.

So did the question I asked readers about in December 2006, about whether actress Patricia Heaton was right to spy on her kids' e-mail, an admission she made on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien and that appears at SOUND OFF: PARENTS WHO SPY ON KIDS.

The column about the reader who wanted to know if it was OK to burn CDs borrowed from her local library onto her computer so she could replace her old cassette tape collection (THE SOUND OF MUSIC) that appeared in March 2007 still was getting visits in this past hour.

And the update on Malden Mills and Hewlett Packard posted in January 2007 with links to earlier columns on the topics (MALDEN MILLS, HEWLETT PACKARD UPDATES) was among the columns visited as well.

When I wrote WHY OH WIRELESS? in March 2006 it resulted in a lot of references and discussions on other blogs and websites and it still is up there among the pieces frequently visited.
Last January I posted a column about the deleterious effects of naming a building after someone who gets convicted (see TAINTED NAMES REDUX). It was on the list of top columns visited in the past hour or so as well.

There were other columns visited less frequently in the past hour too.

As I said, I’m not sure what the list of top visited columns in the past hour or so says about readers since I have no idea why they visited where they did. Unless they tell me, I have no idea who they are.

I do have an idea where some of them are from including, in the past hour or so: Colorado, California, Florida, Ireland, DC, Seattle, Iowa, Virginia, France, Chicago, Canada, Boston, Italy, New Jersey, Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, United Kingdom, New York, Spain, Maryland, Connecticut, Germany, Mississippi, Arkansas, Idaho, Nebraska, Oregon, North Carolina, and Denmark. Some of this is driven by where the column appears in newspapers. But the international visits reflect the broader Internet audience the column has since so far it only appears in newspapers in the United States and Canada.

You can encourage your daily or weekly newspaper, regional magazine, or favorite website to carry the column. Ask them to contact Sales Manager Ana Muñoz at munoza@nytimes.com or 212.499.3333 or send them to the contact information that is available at http://nytsyn.com/saleinfo.html.

I’m glad readers continue to revisit current and past columns. I imagine if I waited an hour and then took another look at where readers were visiting a whole different group of columns would appear as most frequently visited.

In the meantime, I continue to respond to stories or questions from readers about challenging ethical situations in which they find themselves. You can e-mail me at rightthing@nytimes.com.

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