Sunday, June 29, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: UNBREAKABLE

When Richard Robinson tried to use a $50 bill to pay for $38 worth of tickets to the Oakland Zoo, he was told that the zoo did not accept payment with any bill larger than a $20.

Soon after the zoo incident, Robinson tried to pay for an order at McDonald's with a $100 bill. Again he was told, "We do not accept any bill larger than a $20."

Robinson protested, arguing that it states right on the bills, "This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private." In neither case, however, could he convince the cashier to accept the bill.

And yes, I admit that I had to take a bill out of my wallet to confirm that the bills actually do carry this proclamation.

Robinson wants to know if such refusals constitute unethical behavior by the companies concerned.

Let's get the law out of the way first: Robinson is correct that the cash is legal tender, regardless of the denomination. According to the U.S. Treasury, the Coinage Act of 1965 makes the money legal to use for payments. There is no federal law in the United States, however, that requires retailers -- or anyone else -- to accept any form of legal tender as payment, unless there is a state law that requires them to do so. There are comparable statutes in Canada.

In short, while it's an annoyance to be refused service because you have only large-denomination bills, it's not illegal.

As longtime readers of my column know, however, I believe that the fact that a given action is legal does not always make it ethical. Too frequently, individuals or corporations use the law to justify behavior that is blatantly unfair or unjust.

Are companies being unfair to Robinson by refusing the large denominations with which he chooses to pay? Should he have to carry around smaller bills, or pay with a credit card, when it's inconvenient or when he simply doesn't want to?

It may be a major inconvenience for some customers, but there is nothing unfair about the policy as long as it is posted clearly for all to see.

Businesses miss the ethical mark, however, if they don't make their policies clear before their customers place their orders. The right thing is both to post it clearly on site and also to include it in any other marketing materials such as Web sites -- as indeed the Oakland Zoo does on its Web site. If Robinson had known the McDonald's policy before he arrived, for example, he could have made sure that he had the right currency on hand.

Robinson has a choice, of course. He doesn't have to carry around smaller bills or use credit cards if he doesn't want to. If he finds doing so excessively inconvenient, he can choose not to do business with establishments that place limits on what currency they will take.

There's nothing unethical about a company setting its own policy, but there's also nothing unethical in Robinson responding by taking his business elsewhere.

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

SOUND OFF: WORDS JUMBLED

[UPDATE: July 29, 2008, Scrabulous is no longer available to users of Facebook in the U.S. and Canada.]
[UPDATE: On July 24, 2008, Hasbro filed a lawsuit against Scrabulous creators.]

One reader felt torn about playing the online word game Scrabulous on the Facebook networking site, because the game's developers hadn't sought permission from Hasbro -- which owns the rights to Scrabble, the board game that Scrabulous replicates. I asked my readers to decide whether it is OK to continue playing Scrabulous if they feel that it infringes on Hasbro's rights.

The results of an unscientific poll on my column's blog have 10 percent of my readers voting it OK to continue playing Scrabulous, 37 percent voting it not OK and another 53 percent voting it not OK -- but adding that they'll continue playing anyway.

Patrick Burris of Charlotte, N.C., believes that it should be left to the courts to decide whether one company's game infringes upon another's intellectual property.

But Carroll Straus, an attorney in Orange County, Calif., points out that the doctrine of fair use takes into account the degree to which such usage confuses the public and reduces the profitability of the original owner's use of its trademarked product. It will fall upon Hasbro to show how it has lost sales due to Scrabulous, she writes.

Check out other opinions here, or post your own 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, June 22, 2008

SOUND OFF: FAKE ADS

In early June The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News ran a series of fake advertisements to see how well online and print ads performed. One ad in particular, for a fake airline called Derrie-Air, attracted a sizable number of readers who clicked on the online ad.

Many observers felt that, in running the fake ads, the newspapers were deceiving their readers. As a result, they said, readers might distrust other information in the newspaper.

What do you think? Is it OK to run fake ads to gauge reader interest? Or is it a breach of trust? And did the newspapers damage their credibility as a result?

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.

You can also respond to the poll about this question that appears on the right-hand side of the blog.

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: THE PRICE IS RIGHT ... FOR NOW

I envy no one who has to go through the process of buying a house.

An endless search for a house that suits your needs and matches your budget. Negotiating a price that seems fair to the buyer and acceptable to the seller. Mind-numbing paperwork and details to get the deal closed and then, finally, you can collapse into your dream house ... and get to work on broken screens, rusty storm doors, suspicious traces of pests among your woodwork, peeling paint and the fireplace that blows smoke into your living room.

The process is no less taxing for a seller. After months of trying to unload your property, you finally find the perfect buyer. But he can't sell his former house, can't get financing or reneges on the deal because the building inspector tells him that an outlet plate in the garage is missing and an attic door is short a few screws.

Sellers mistrust buyers. Buyers mistrust sellers. It's a wonder any house ever changes hands.

While it would be nice to think that a handshake and someone's word were enough to seal a deal, they aren't. Even when specific conditions are written and agreed to as part of a sale, it's often a challenge to hold all parties to their commitments.

A reader from Ohio learned the importance of getting everything in writing not long ago, after he and his wife decided to sell their house and move to Florida. One of their longtime neighbors expressed an interest in buying their house, so, instead of putting it on the market, my reader had it appraised, after which he and the neighbor agreed on a selling price. Because they hadn't listed the house with a broker or advertised its sale, there were no counteroffers.

The day before he was to leave, however, the neighbors - one of whom is a real-estate agent - told my reader that her bank had appraised the house for $14,000 less than the agreed-upon price. With the move upon him, my reader negotiated and was able to get his neighbor up slightly, but the final price was still $6,000 less than the original agreement.

My reader's brother believes that the neighbor used the pressure of the imminent move in an unethical way by not revealing the lower appraisal earlier, enabling her to use it to coerce a lower price. He asked what I think.

It's impossible to get inside the head of the buyers to know what motivated them. All the same, it wasn't right for them to wait until the absolute last minute to change the deal. The right thing would have been for them to get the appraisal before they agreed to the price in the first place. There's no virtue in making a last-minute change, especially in doing so at what had to be the most inopportune time for the seller.

But my reader also had a responsibility to protect his and his wife's interests by getting that offer in writing. He may have been well-intentioned and trusting, but he was reckless with his family's fortunes. While he was able to salvage some of the lost price, the right thing would have been for both parties to agree to a deal in writing and stick to it.

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

Sunday, June 15, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: PARTY OF THE OTHER PART

I don't write about etiquette. If you're looking for advice on how many months you have to give a couple a gift after their wedding or whether you should wait for a hostess to unfold her cloth napkin before you unfold yours, I'm not your guy.

But there are occasions when questions about ethics, which involves the moral rightness of a decision, and etiquette, which is concerned with how you should behave in social situations, overlap.

A reader from California writes to me that she is known for her "wonderful dinner parties." For these sit-down events she sets two tables, one for 12 people and the other for six. She places her married guests apart from their spouses so that they can mingle with people who will be "new and interesting."

Both tables are in the dining room, but the smaller table is slightly closer to the kitchen.

At a recent dinner party, one couple called her after they had left -- while the party was still going on -- and screamed at her that they had never been so humiliated in their lives.

"You are so Beverly Hills," the couple yelled. "You put us at the B table! Why did you put us with those old people instead of our friends?"

As someone who spends little time in Beverly Hills, I have no idea what they meant by "so Beverly Hills," but I do know that it wasn't meant as a compliment. My reader provides some guidance by noting that the callers seemed particularly incensed because there was a celebrity at the larger table, which in their minds made it the A table. She adds that she had deliberately separated the couple from their friends because the pairs had been giving one another the cold shoulder for several weeks.

"I found the rudeness uncalled for," my reader writes. "What should I have done?"

It was probably a breach of etiquette for the couple to berate their hostess while the party was still going on, but was it also a lapse in ethical judgment?

I believe so. They might have expressed their disappointment at not being seated with their friends in a civil manner, but instead chose to verbally attack my reader and accuse her of deliberately slighting them. Their behavior crossed into ethical territory when they decided to attack her. Not sending a thank-you note would have been a breach in etiquette, but shouting expletives about being seated near the kitchen goes a step further. That they called while the party was still in progress makes it a full-blown leap into doing the wrong thing.

The right thing for my reader to do was to let them know that she was sorry they were upset, explain that she had a dinner party to get back to and then seriously consider striking them from her list of future invitees.

Treating people badly lands firmly in unethical territory. Granted, how people behave at a swank dinner party ranks low on anyone's list of most egregious ethical lapses. It's how we behave in our day-to-day dealings that ultimately defines who we really are, though. Learning to be gracious is a lesson that will improve both our etiquette and our ethics.

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

SOUND OFF: SICK CALLS

I asked my readers whether or not it is OK to call in sick when you're not really sick, and the vast majority who responded came down firmly on the side of it not being OK. The results of an unscientific poll on my column's blog have 47 percent voting it not OK, 17 percent voting it OK, 19 percent voting it sometimes OK and another 17 percent voting it not OK but adding that they've done it anyway.

"If a person is not sick, they have no right to call in sick," writes Delaine P. Whitehead of Tustin, Calif. "A person can use any number of euphemisms to excuse such behavior, but it is still just a lie."

"If a large number of people are not honest with employers," writes Brenda Levy of Richmond, Va., "then the employer may be forced to change its policy, which would put everyone at a disadvantage."

Madilyn Bruening of Riverton, Utah, highlights how one employer has addressed such issues.

"A good friend has a job where employees are given two extra sick days per year to be used for their well-being," she writes. "The idea is that, when her job gets too stressful, she then can take one of these days to ditch work and recuperate."

Check out other opinions here, or post your own 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)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Right Thing Stories

For the weekly newspaper ethics column I write for the New York Times Syndicate called "The Right Thing," I am always looking for stories of ethical challenges, dilemmas, and perplexing situations. If you have such a story or question based on an incident and would like it to be considered for the column, please email it to me at rightthing@nytimes.com. (Or you can post it here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below.

Please make sure to include enough details about the story, the issue that you're wrestling with, and your name and the city and state or province where you are located. Include a way for me to contact you.If you know of others who might have interesting stories, please forward this email on to them.

If you're local paper doesn't carry The Right Thing column and you'd like it to, you can send an email to the editor of the paper suggesting they contact the New York Times Syndicate. Contact information is available at http://nytsyn.com/saleinfo.html. (Or contact Sales Manager Ana Muñoz at munoza@nytimes.com or 212.499.3333 and tell her the name of your local newspaper that you believe should be carrying the column.)

Thanks in advance for your stories.

Best,

Jeffrey Seglin

Sunday, June 08, 2008

SOUND OFF: YARD-SALE SCORES

As summer approaches and yard sales pop up around the country, a frequent question from my readers is whether it's OK to take advantage of an unsuspecting seller who is offering what you know to be a valuable item for a fraction of its true worth.

I've previously written about specific instances of yard-sale finds in the column. (See Found Art and Knowing More than You're Telling.) In general, however, do you think it's right to take advantage of a yard-sale seller's ignorance of an item's value? Or should you point out to the sellers that they might want to do some quick research on their Faberge egg before putting it out with the shrimp-cocktail glasses at a nickel apiece?

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.

You can also respond to the poll about this question that appears on the right-hand side of the blog.

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: DOG-DAY AFTERNOONS

"I know it's spring when the dog calls start," says Bill Hedrick, first assistant city prosecutor for Columbus, Ohio.

Hedrick has had city residents call his office in the wee hours of the morning -- "almost in tears," he says -- and leave voicemail messages saying, "Listen to this," followed by the sound of neighbors' dogs barking incessantly.

I spoke with Hedrick after a reader from Columbus, himself a dog owner, e-mailed to tell me that, every time a particular neighbor leaves her house, she leaves her dogs on her sun porch to allow them access to the backyard.

"They bark at every moving thing when the owner is not home," my reader writes.

After having had his fill of the noise one weekend, my reader went next door to talk with the owner. When there was no answer he left, but returned later with a printout of tips on how to control barking dogs. When there was still no answer, he left the tips along with his name, address and telephone number, as well as a note asking the owner to call him. She never called.

"At least six other neighbors agree that the dogs bark excessively," he says. "I'm at my wit's end."

While it's always risky to confront a neighbor you don't know, particularly in the middle of the night, my reader did the right thing by contacting his neighbor and trying to resolve the issue between them. Her lack of responsiveness, however, forces him to enlist his fellow neighbors and take the next step.

Some municipalities have no laws regulating barking dogs. Columbus is not one of them, though: Its "noisy animals" law is Article 2327.14 of the city's general-offenses code. So, if a dog barks excessively and the owner can't or won't curtail it, residents don't call animal control, they call the city attorney's office -- which is where Hedrick comes in.

If owners don't respond to a warning letter, Hedrick says, his office will schedule mediation. If mediation doesn't alleviate the problem, prosecution is possible. Fines run as much as $150, plus court costs, but cases rarely make it past the mediation stage.

"Typically," Hedrick says, "the warning letter takes care of the problem."

Hedrick's office does not disclose to the dog owner the name of the person who filed the initial complaint.

If a warning letter doesn't do the trick -- and, given her lack of response to my reader's note, it might not -- my reader and his neighbors may have to take the step of requesting mediation to resolve the problem.

There's nothing unethical about reporting the situation to the authorities. If the dogs' barking is a neighborhood-wide issue, it's entirely proper to want it stopped. It's not "tattling" to pursue peace and quiet, and my reader has gone out of his way to resolve the problem without involving the city.

At least one of my reader's neighbors has already shown willingness to put his name and face behind the complaint, and other neighbors should step up and do the same, if they agree that the dogs are a problem.

The more who come forward, the less likely it is that the dogs' owner can claim that the complaints come from a single neighbor with whom she has personal issues, as is often the case in such matters.

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

Sunday, June 01, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: THE PRICE IS RIGHT ... OR IS IT?

In a well-landscaped neighborhood in southern California, a new homeowner got involved with her homeowners association shortly after she moved in. Not long thereafter she became treasurer of the association's board.

As the new fiscal year approached and the association's budget was being updated, one of its service providers -- the landscaping service -- raised its rates by 67 percent compared to the previous year. The treasurer asked the board to entertain competitive bids to make sure that the rate increase was warranted, but the rest of the board refused.

Soon afterward the janitorial-service provider indicated that it was raising its rates by 20 percent. Again the treasurer asked the board to consider getting competitive bids to determine whether the increase would bring the service charges up to market rate or if they were exorbitantly out of whack. Once again the board refused.

"My frustration isn't that we're paying a lot," the treasurer writes. "It's that we don't know if we're paying a lot."

Perhaps the association was getting great deals in the past, she explains, and the service providers are merely bringing their charges up to established market levels. Then again, they may have raised their rates way above the current market.

"I just hate that we're making decisions out of ignorance or laziness," she says.

She asks if her board has an ethical responsibility to validate that it is spending the homeowners' money as efficiently as possible, rather than being carefree with expenses.

That's a loaded question, of course, since any board officer -- and I am myself on the boards of a couple of not-for-profit organizations -- knows that it's never ethical for any board to be reckless with its constituents' money.

My reader wonders, however, if she is being arrogant in insisting that her idea of getting competitive bids is correct, and can't decide whether her choice to be a thorn in the sides of the other board members by pushing them to live up to their responsibilities is worth it.

The information about the association's budget and its expenses is not hidden from the home owners. Most of the time, however, homeowners pay scant attention to specific details of the association's business. Only a quarter of the homeowners in my reader's neighborhood chose to attend the association's most recent annual meeting.

Still, their disinterest isn't a license to ignore their interests. The right thing for the board to do is to inform the homeowners about the sizable increases in the service providers' rates. It may be the members who decide how to proceed, or they may choose to leave that decision to the board. It doesn't matter -- what's important is that the issue should be raised.

My reader has a point, though. It may be that the homeowners like the service they're getting so much that they are willing to pay a premium for landscaping and janitorial work. Without knowing what others charge for comparable services, however, they have no way of knowing if they are paying above market rates.

It's the board's responsibility, as a steward for the families it represents, to see that they do know what the market rates are. The community members can't make an informed decision, one way or the other, unless the board does its job and alerts them to these significant increases and provides them with the information they need to understand the situation.

If they decide to stick with the current providers, well and good -- the board still will have done its job of protecting the interests of the homeowners it represents.

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

SOUND OFF: WHAT'S IN A NAME?

My readers had various opinions as to whether the owner of a Philadelphia restaurant that opened in 1949 should change its name -- Chink's Steaks -- since it might well offend a particular ethnic group. The results of an unscientific poll on my column's blog have 57 percent of readers voting that the name should not be changed and 43 percent voting that it should.

"The owner has every right to keep the name," writes Maggie Lawrence of Culpepper, Va., "and people who want to be offended have every right to not eat there."

"There will always be someone who is offended by something," writes Jerry Wright of San Juan Capistrano, Calif. "Since the name has been around for years, it should remain so."

"On probably more than half of the reviews I read of Chink's, customers said that they liked the cheesesteaks despite the name," writes Kim Liao of Somerville, Mass. "Why force customers to `get over' an obvious linguistic issue in order to recommend your product?"

"Anything that might possibly be construed as a racial or derogatory term, as such, should not be a source of financial gain or empowerment at the emotional expense of others," writes Patrick Burris of Charlotte, N.C.

Check out other opinions here, or post your own 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)

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