Sunday, February 24, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: LOOKING A GIFT DINNER IN THE MOUTH

The steak dinner was superb. There were no complaints about the food, the service or the company.

My reader was treating her daughter and son-in-law to a fancy meal, and everything went off without a hitch ... until the bill came. "I just glanced at the bill," my reader recalls, "and ran my eyes down it to make sure it was accurate before I gave the waitress my credit card."

That's when her son-in-law "barked softly," as she puts it.

"You are not supposed to check the bill, mom," he said. "It's unethical."

Having heard assorted horror stories about servers adding extra items to bills or getting the math wrong, my reader says, she usually double-checks her bill.

"Maybe guys find it awkward," she speculates.

She's noticed that, when her son-in-law is buying, he doesn't check the bill, no matter how many people are in the dinner party.

"He whips out his credit card," she says, "and gives it to the server right away without looking."

Figuring that she works hard for every dollar she earns, my reader believes that she should be able to check her restaurant bills for accuracy without having her ethics challenged.

"I would like to be able to tell my son-in-law that it is OK," she says, "that it is ethical and downright smart to check the bill, even briefly, for accuracy."

Of course it's OK to check your dinner bill when it comes. It's smart to make sure everything's correct, so that you don't have to deal with any problems later in the process.

What's baffling is why the son-in-law would even raise this as an ethical issue. Even if this is something that he happens not to do himself, what could possibly make him question his mother-in-law's ethics -- especially since she is, after all, treating him to dinner?

Aha! It's something that he thinks she shouldn't do because he doesn't. That's the issue. He finds her examination of the bill embarrassing -- perhaps he thinks it makes them look cheap or implies that they don't trust the waitress -- but, instead of telling her that, he elevates the behavior he finds disagreeable to an ethical breach.

There's a far cry between something that we merely don't like and something that's unethical. Sometimes the stuff we don't like is simply stuff we don't like. Not everyone can or should be expected to behave the same way that we behave.

My glib advice to my reader was that, the next time her son-in-law raises such an issue, she should hand over the bill to him and let him pay. If he's so troubled by her sensible behavior, let him do it his way.

She doesn't want to cause any unnecessary tension among the three of them, however -- "I love them too much," she says -- so my reader won't take that step.

The right thing for my reader to do, then, is to continue to discreetly check her restaurant bills, if that practice gives her comfort. And the right thing for her son-in-law to do, after he's finished his 28-ounce, prime Porterhouse steak, when the check arrives and his mother-in-law dons her reading glasses to do a quick double-check of the bill, is to lean forward and say, "Thanks, mom, for the terrific meal."

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

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

Every reader who responded to my question about Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee's decision to show an "attack ad" to members of the press, even after he had declared that he wasn't going to succumb to mudslinging and wouldn't air the ad, found that choice to be disingenuous.

"A candidate for the presidency should set the tone for his campaign early on by making it clear that he or she is going to take the high road in campaign ads," writes Phil Clutts of Harrisburg, N.C. "Maybe rising above it all doesn't work in hard-bitten campaigns, where so much is at stake and the opposition is going negative, but in a more instantly informed society I think voters look at negative ads, well, negatively."

"Do Huckabee and his handlers think we're all idiots?" one reader asks. "He apparently reasoned that he could get credit for being ethical while dissing his opponent at the same time. A plague on both their houses!"

"Huckabee is as slick as another former governor of Arkansas," writes George Zahka of Bradenton Beach, Fla. "It's insulting to the voters, and the media naturally jumps for the bait. `Ethical' is not a word easily used in political situations."

The final word, perhaps, belongs to Clutts: "Since Mike Huckabee is a minister, for crying out loud, this pushing the edges of ethics diminishes him considerably."

Check out other opinions at "I've Decided Not to Show You the Following," 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, February 17, 2008

SOUND OFF: I'M NOT GOING ANYWHERE

Recently a member of a job-search committee told me that he had been disappointed to learn that a finalist for a high-level position in his organization had lied to his current employer when asked if he was a finalist for the new job.

It's often the case, however, that people looking for new jobs would prefer that their current employers not know about it. To protect your current standing, is it wrong not to tell your employer that you're a finalist for a high-level position somewhere else? Is it wrong, if asked the question directly, to say that you're not, even though you really are?

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: TO GIVE OR NOT TO GIVE?

Bill Wotring of Fullerton, Calif., wants to make it clear that his town does not have "a significant problem with beggars" asking for money. However, he has been struck by how increasingly often he has been asked for spare change by young kids both inside and outside of a restaurant he frequents that happens to be close to a community college.

When asked for money, Wotring usually responds by giving the requester a card with information about his community's 211 telephone service that directs callers to various social services. The 211 telephone-number network is an initiative of United Way and the Alliance for Information and Referral Systems to establish support numbers through the United States and Canada -- for further information visit www.211.org or www.211canada.ca.

Wotring gives out the cards, he says, because he "rationalizes that these agencies are better equipped to assist and not fund someone's drug or alcohol addiction or their possible irresponsibility."

He's increasingly concerned, he adds, about "why so many more young, college-aged kids are asking for money when they do not appear to be poor, homeless or anything else other than in immediate need of coffee at Starbucks."

He wonders if the actions of these kids reflect some change in values that makes it OK to panhandle even when, to all appearances, there is no immediate need.

But what's really eating him is what to do when he wants to help someone who does appear to be in need. If he hands over money, he worries, he may be funding a true need, but may equally likely be supporting an addiction or some irresponsible behavior.

"I may be biased," he admits, "having worked since before high school to prevent myself from going hungry."

All the same, he wants to know if his decision not to give out money is the right thing to do.

I don't know if Wotring's observation of young kids panhandling for money when they don't appear to need it reflects some shift in values. Based on my experience with college-age kids as a teacher and as a parent, I tend to doubt it. While many struggle to get on firm financial footing, it's highly unlikely that begging on the street would be their first solution to raising money, whether for a cup of coffee or for their next college-loan payment.

That raises a bigger issue, however. As I've said before, none of us can really know the true reason that someone asks us for money, nor can we know how he or she plans to use any money we may provide. We can't know, and we shouldn't expect to.

The right thing to do, when someone asks you for money, is to decide whether or not to give it, based on whatever criteria you may see fit: whether the person looks truly needy, when and where the approach is made, what your financial situation may be at the moment, whether the pitch sounds sincere, original or even amusing...all of these are legitimate considerations, if you choose.

You should not, however, have any expectation that you can control how that person spends whatever money you may give. Once you give a man your money, it's his money, and he can spend it any way he likes.

Not to give money is an entirely acceptable decision, ethically speaking -- asking you for money in no way creates an ethical obligation for you to give it. In Wotring's case, he has decided that handing out money is not the right answer for him, so his decision to direct people to agencies that can provide help is a good compromise solution.

Helping others in need is a good thing. How to do that without causing more harm than good is a challenge each of us must face, and different people can come up with different, equally justifiable solutions.

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

Sunday, February 10, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: ABSOLUTELY FREE -- MORE OR LESS

Penney Adams wanted a new car radio. She and her husband, Marc Leroux, shopped around, visiting several big-box stores before settling on the radio that had the best options and price.

Among the deciding factors, Adams says, was that the store they eventually chose offered free installation.

When the bill was rung up, the two found that they had to pay extra for a dash kit, cables and harnesses. Adams wasn't too surprised about these additional costs, however.

"Nothing `free,"' she says, "is ever actually free."

What did surprise her, though, was that the bill included a $35 charge for "shop radio installation."

She called the sales clerk's attention to the charge for something that had been advertised as free. He pointed out that, though the advertised price for her radio was $139.99, she was being charged only $104.99. That cost, plus the $35, equaled the total advertised price.

"Even though I wasn't being charged an additional cost for the installation," Adams says, "I was still actually paying for the installation."

This doesn't sit right with her.

"If you are still paying for the installation as a separate line item," she asks, "then doesn't that mean that the installation is in fact not free at all, but rather included in the price? Shouldn't their advertising change from `free installation' to `installation included?"'

She understands that the difference may be nothing more than a technicality, since she would end up paying the same amount for the radio either way. And she knows from her initial shopping around that she got the best price on the radio, better than she would get from other stores that would add on installation charges to their advertised price.

Still, she considers this a hidden cost that should have been disclosed. Should it?

Adams didn't end up paying more for the radio than she wanted to, so ultimately she got a fair deal. But she raises a good point.

That she would have ended up paying the same amount either way doesn't mean that the store shouldn't be as clear as possible in revealing what customers are paying for when they buy a product. If the store has to bill the item the way it does -- because, for example, of a need to allocate certain costs and income to particular store departments -- that seems a fair practice. But how difficult would it be to change the wording of the advertising to more accurately reflect what the customer is paying for?

Conversely, if store management believes that it's more effective to advertise "free installation," then they should consider changing their billing to actually provide free installation and sort out the accounting some other way.

The right thing for the store to do is to make every effort to avoid anything that might leave customers wondering if they were being misled. In this case, the customer and the store would end up exchanging the same amount of money, so the change to a clear procedure would be a no-expense investment in building trust.

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

SOUND OFF: SAVING THE FOREST FOR THE TREES

After I reported that Harvard University was trying to get approval to sell 99 acres of forest land that it had been willed in 1927 on condition that it remain forest, Harvard reversed course and announced that it had abandoned plans to sell the land.

The decision will sit well with my readers, most of whom thought it out of bounds for the university to use assets given to it for any purpose other than the one originally intended.

"If Harvard agreed 81 years ago to accept the 99 acres by promising to keep it in use as an experimental forest, then it is committed to continue keeping it in that use," writes Lee Quarnstrom of La Habra, Calif.

"The interest of the donor is the primary interest to be upheld," writes William Halbert of Laguna Beach, Calif. "About the most unethical/immoral offense anyone can commit is to violate the trust of the departed."

"The purpose of the bequest must be respected, maintained and not changed," write Fred Peet of Brentwood Bay, Ontario. "Further, in my view, organizations are taking a risk in changing the purpose of bequests, since others who are contemplating giving a gift for a specific purpose will think twice about giving if they think that there is a chance that their wishes will not be followed."

Veronica Ross, of Garden Grove, Calif., seconds that notion.

"Why would anyone want to will land to anyone ever again after reading this?" Ross writes. "Disgusting!"

Merrilee Gardner of Irvine, Calif., is looking for common ground.

"Harvard should be able to break the trust to sell the land," Gardner writes. "However, I think that, in the spirit of the trust, the land should only be sold to an organization involved in experimental forestry or something similar, such as environmental studies of some kind."

Check out other opinions at "This Land is Your Land...To A Point," 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, February 03, 2008

SOUND OFF: THIS IS FOR YOUR OWN GOOD

The Center for Public Integrity has launched a Web site that allows users to search comments by President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others in the Bush administration relating to the decision to go to war in Iraq. Officials at the center say that they've documented at least 935 false statements involving, among things, Iraq's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction and the country's supposed links to al-Qaeda.

Is it ever OK for national leaders to deliberately issue false statements, not to mislead enemies but to mislead their own people, in order to justify an undertaking that they believe will lead to a greater good such as, in this case, bringing down a tyrannical leader or establishing stability in a violence-wracked region?

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: SCREAMING FOR ICE CREAM

Gus Rancatore opened Toscanini's Ice Cream in Cambridge, Mass., a couple of blocks from the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 1981. It quickly became a haven for students, Cambridge locals and others craving flavors ranging from cardamom to burnt caramel.

Rancatore became known for his civic involvement, supporting local schools as well as neighborhood associations and arts groups. His neighborliness paid off: In the course of more than 25 years, he built a loyal following of former students, employees and others who became rabid devotees.

In late January, however, the Massachusetts Department of Revenue shut down Toscanini's for failure to pay back taxes. With penalties and interest, the DOR says, Rancatore owes $167,000.

"In legal terms I violated my fiduciary responsibility by not paying the 5-percent meals tax to the state," Rancatore admits.

He takes full responsibility for the mess he's in, Rancatore says, and understands that everyone knows "you should never not pay your taxes." He stresses, however, that he didn't spend the money on himself, but instead put it into the continued operation of his business. His real problems began with a failed effort to expand to more locations.

"It's sort of plain that I'm an occasionally stupid small-business owner," he says.

When news of the shutdown broke, one Toscanini's employee set up a Web site to help Rancatore raise funds to pay off the tax bill. Last I checked, more than $23,750 had poured in from customers, employees and fans.

Shortly after the "Save Toscanini's" Web site went up, however, a regular reader of my column e-mailed me to ask whether I thought it was ethical for Rancatore to be asking for help to pay off the taxes he should have paid when he originally collected them.

While most of the comments on the Web site are supportive, several posters say that there is no way they will contribute.

"How is it ethical," one post asks, "for a for-profit business to ask its customers, whose taxes it apparently pocketed, to pay AGAIN?"

To some, however, the ethics aren't the point.

"I don't really care about the taxes or the ethics," another poster responded. "I just want to keep Burnt Caramel in Cambridge!!"

Rancatore's decision not to pay his taxes was both illegal and unethical. He violated people's trust by collecting tax money from them and using it to operate his business instead of paying those collected taxes to the Department of Revenue. He's being punished for that, and appropriately so.

But that isn't the question posed by my reader. She wants to know if there's anything wrong with Rancatore accepting financial help from loyal customers or fans.

No, there's absolutely nothing wrong with it. It's their money and, if they believe that the value of having his store open outweighs the impropriety of his actions, that's a valid choice for them to make.

"It's certainly voluntary," says Rancatore, who adds that he has been current with his taxes for some time now. "If people don't want to do it, they shouldn't do it."

He's correct. The right thing for people to do is to decide whether or not they want to help Rancatore out of the fix that he has gotten himself into. If they decide that they do, then they can do so without guilt.

And the right thing for Rancatore to do is to pledge that, if he is able to use the raised funds to pay off his sizable tax bill and reopen his shop, he will never again flout the law by spending the tax money he collects for any other purpose, no matter how hard-pressed he may be to cover operating expenses.

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

Talking Politics Over Turkey

For those wrestling with how to have a civil discussion over a holiday meal, a discussion with HKS PolicyCast