Sunday, April 27, 2008

SOUND OFF: CHANGING FACES, CHANGING NAMES

Joseph Groh likes the name of his Philadelphia restaurant fine the way it is. He bought the restaurant after the death of the guy who had opened it in 1949. Now, however, some Asian-American groups and individuals want Groh to change the name that's been in place since the doors opened: "Chink's Steaks."

"It's definitely a derogatory term," Ginny Gong, national president of the Organization of Chinese Americans, told The Washington Post.

On the other hand, Groh told the newspaper that he sees the name as part of the restaurant's tradition and sees no need to change it.

Should Groh consider changing the name, given that it clearly offends a particular ethnic group? Or is it right for him to hold to tradition and keep the name? (You can also answer the poll about the name on the right-hand channel of this blog.)

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: THE METAL MONEY-EATER

A guy walks up to a vending machine. He eyes the snacks, makes his selection, inserts his cash and then presses the appropriate combination of buttons that ought to result in the turning of a spindle that will drop the item into a tray from which he retrieve it.

All is fine and good up until the part when his deposit of money is supposed to result in the delivery of his snack. This time, nothing happens. Instead of his eating the snack, the vending machine eats his money.

He's miffed. But, practicing what he believes to be good vending etiquette, he writes a note -- "This Machine Is Out of Order" -- and tapes it to the machine. Still hankering for a snack, he returns to his cubicle and gets back to work.

The story seems to be over ... but it's only beginning.

Later that day the office manager comes around to talk to Snack-Seeking Guy. With her is a stranger, who turns out to be the guy who stocks the vending machines -- an outside contractor who doesn't himself own the machines and is responsible only for stocking them, not for maintenance.

The machine stocker, noting that he makes his living from the vending machines, complains that once a "broken" sign appears on the machine, people stop putting money into it. That means, he argues, that posting such a sign is like taking money out of his pocket.

Sounds crazy, maybe, but the stocker has a rationale: If Snack-Seeking Guy had not posted the sign, people would have continued to lose money in the machine -- but only temporarily, since they could get a refund by calling the toll-free number posted on the machine.

The stocker would get the money he needs to live on, the customers would break even -- except for not getting the snacks they wanted, of course -- and the only loser would be the company that owns the machines, which would be out the cost of the refunds. But that's only fair, the stocker argues, because it was their machine that failed in the first place.

Snack-Seeking Guy doesn't buy it. The stocker's premise, he says, ignores the customers' frustration and irritation upon not receiving snacks from a busted machine. Even if a customer bothers to initiate a claim for a refund of less than a dollar, most vending-machine companies refund money only grudgingly and slowly. Why should an office full of customers be expected to make a series of small, interest-free loans for the stocker's sole benefit?

While Snack-Seeking Guy -- who, in the interest of full disclosure, is the syndicate editor of this column -- remains convinced that his argument is the sounder of the two, he writes me that he was impressed by the ethical sophistication of the stocker's position, which, he writes, "doubtless reflected years of bitter rumination."

Was he right to post the sign? Or does the stocker have a right not to be financially punished for a problem that's out of his control?

The stocker's beef should be with the vending-machine company, not with his customers. It's the vending-machine company's responsibility to ensure that the machine works, and it ought to make good any losses that the stocker sustains -- say, by paying him an amount equal to his average daily take from that machine for each day that it's out of operation.

It may be hard or even impossible to get the company to see it that way, but the fact that the company is taking advantage of the stocker doesn't entitle him to take advantage of the customers. He should protect his cash flow, and the company's, by making sure that the company cares for its machines properly,

Snack-Seeking Guy did the right thing by posting the sign. It would have been irresponsible to do otherwise, since it would then have been his fault that other people later were vexed by having fed money into a busted machine.

Turnabout is fair play, of course: If he ever gets an extra bag of pretzels from the vending machine in the future, he should do the right thing by alerting the company or stocker. Broken machines work both ways.

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

Sunday, April 20, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: TO TATTLE OR NOT TO TATTLE?

Here's a new one: "The person I report to is incompetent."

OK, maybe it's not so new. Many of us have heard it dozens of times from friends, colleagues or loved ones ... or, heaven forbid, even thought it ourselves.

It's one thing to conclude that you're working for an incompetent, however, and quite another to decide that his/her incompetence rises to a level that merits taking the matter to a supervisor.

That's my reader's plight. She has reported some of her boss's mess-ups, such as inappropriate language in the workplace and inability to manage his employees, to his immediate supervisor. Her boss has confided to her that he has been told by his immediate supervisor that he is "close to being fired" -- and has enlisted my reader to keep any mishaps "between them" when he messes up.

My reader and her boss work for a state agency, and last year her boss misreported information that could have ended up costing the state a lot of money. When my reader caught the problem, her boss asked her to adjust the numbers.

"It was a manipulation of numbers to cover his mistake," she says.

Still she made the changes, because her boss told her to.

Now, a year later, her boss has made similar mistakes in reporting information to the state.

"I feel like a tattle if I report his incompetence," my reader says. " ... I am at a loss. If I tell, he may lose his job."

Making her decision even tougher is that her boss is in his late 20s, and his wife is expecting their second child.

Even if the mistake isn't caught, she says, "I will know."

Should she cooperate with her boss's efforts at concealment, or should she speak to the supervisor again and let the chips fall where they may?

If the boss's drawbacks were limited to routine incompetence -- tardiness, unresponsiveness or awkwardness at meetings -- his behavior likely wouldn't have risen to a level requiring his subordinate to report him to his supervisor. This sort of thing is subjective, after all, and the supervisor must be the judge of it.

But once her boss started fabricating numbers on a report and tried to enlist the help of his employees in doing so, he crossed a line. The right thing to do became to turn him in.

My reader complicated matters by following her boss's directive to change the numbers a year ago, even though she knew it was fraudulent to do so. If she goes to his boss now, she must expect the question, "Why did you participate in this cover-up last year?" Her "I was just following orders" response is unlikely to fly.

That's a prime danger in allowing yourself to participate in one small lie. It's difficult to avoid further lies to cover the initial one.

My reader would be wise not to agree to "fix" the numbers again this year. She should recognize that the harm her boss is causing her agency and herself outweighs any loyalty she may feel or any desire to save him or his family from the consequences of his actions. If he wants job security, he shouldn't be falsifying reports.

The right thing for her to do is to report his behavior.

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

SOUND OFF: Fake Memories

The author of a memoir about growing up during the Holocaust and surviving, partly by living with wolves, has admitted that her story was a hoax. My readers weighed in on whether it was right for her publisher to sue her, even though she had ignored professional advice when she published the book in the first place and sued only after losing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit in which the author charged her with not promoting the book as promised.

"Any decent book contract will include a clause where the author promises that all of the material she turns in for publication is true," writes Brian Hurley of Brooklyn, N.Y. "It would almost be a breach of trust for the editor to question the author's work after she has signed the contract."

"That some experts told her that `factual aspects of the story were troubling' does not by itself mean that she acted badly in publishing," writes Luis Villalobos of Newport Beach, Calif. "The publisher may have concluded in good faith that the work was not fake."

"I'm having trouble locating even one ethical person in this entire debacle," writes M. Lawrence of Culpepper, Va.

Check out other opinions at "A Great Deal More than Just the Facts," 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, April 13, 2008

SOUND OFF: DRUGS AND THE DOCTORS WHO PITCH THEM

[Note: Dr. Robert Jarvik has responded to this question via e-mail. His e-mail is posted in the comments section for this blog post.]

Pfizer has dropped Dr. Robert Jarvik, inventor of the artificial heart, as a spokesman for Lipitor, its cholesterol-lowering medication. The rub, apparently, was that, while Jarvik has a medical degree, he is not licensed to practice medicine. Some believe that this might be misleading to viewers of the Lipitor ads, since Jarvik appears to be giving medical advice.

Fuel was added to the issue after The New York Times reported that one of the ads featuring a rower who seemed to be Jarvik was actually a stunt double. Congressional leaders took issue with the ads, and Pfizer decided to dump Jarvik.

Was Pfizer wrong to use Jarvik in the Lipitor ads? Was there merit to the criticism that he shouldn't be pitching the product because he doesn't hold a medical license? Did Pfizer make the right decision to drop Jarvik as a Lipitor spokesman?

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: QUESTIONING `NO QUESTIONS ASKED'

Susan Simpson, a reader who lives in Windsor, Ontario, noticed an article in her local newspaper.

The story described an incident that had occurred in a nearby city.

"To my mind," she writes in a letter to me, "there is an ethical question involved, and I'd be interested in your opinion."

The story, as Simpson tells it, involved a Toronto man who for several years had paid someone to walk his dog on a daily basis.

"On one of these walks," Simpson writes, "the handler tied the dog to a tree while she ran a quick errand inside a store. When she came out, the dog was gone.

"The gentleman was devastated and had fliers put up around town," she continues. "Ads were taken out in the paper offering a $15,000 reward upon the return of the dog, `No Questions Asked."'

After the posters and ads started appearing, two men responded and returned the dog. Originally viewed as heroes, the two were subsequently arrested for involvement in the dog's theft.

The incident, which occurred in February, was reported widely in Toronto newspapers and by CBC News.

"It was negligent of the dog walker to leave the pooch unattended," Simpson writes, "and it was absolutely wrong of the two men to steal the dog."

Both are obvious -- but she wants to know where I stand on the idea of "No Questions Asked." To Simpson the phrase suggests, "I don't care when, where or how you got my dog. Just bring him back, and I'll reward you with $15,000."

Simpson believes that the dog owner was ethically wrong to include the phrase in his ads and fliers, since clearly questions would be asked, and were.

"What say you, sir?" she asks.

Well, for one thing, I say it was illegal.

There's actually a statute in Canada's criminal code that makes it illegal to publicly advertise "a reward for the return of anything that has been stolen or lost, and in the advertisement (use) words to indicate that no questions will be asked if it is returned."

Really. You can look it up in Section 143 of the Criminal Code. It falls under the category of "Misleading Justice."

Nonetheless, regular readers of my column know that I'm not of the mind that something is ethical simply because it's legal. And the authorities apparently don't plan to press charges against the dog owner, so the legalities are beside the point. The question is, was his conduct ethical?

As anyone who has ever lost a pet or something treasured will attest, a reward can be a great motivator for people to keep their eyes open. Nothing wrong with offering one in this case -- it's his money to spend as he sees fit.

Where he stepped over the line, ethically, was in his willingness to turn a blind eye to someone who might have broken the law. There's no value in rewarding criminals who might very well turn around and pull the same scam on other pet owners. To regain your own dog at the cost of others losing theirs is clearly unethical.

The "no questions asked" promise is unethical because it places the promiser in a position in which there is no entirely ethical way to proceed. His choice is to keep faith with other potential victims and call the police, at the cost of breaking his word to the dog thieves, or to keep his promise -- and get his dog back -- while likely placing others in the same awful position he's found himself in.

If there's no ethical way out of a position, the right thing is not to place yourself in that position. The owner should have advertised the reward and left it at that. If someone had responded and the owner had suspected them of involvement in the theft, he could then have turned to the police with a clear conscience.

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

Sunday, April 06, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: A SICK IDEA

You've cleared your calendar so that you have nothing scheduled for the upcoming weekend. You plan to complete several projects around the house that you have been putting off. All goes according to plan until the weekend rolls around and you are felled by a miserable cold that has been going around but that you had avoided ... until now. You find yourself sneezy, congested, lightheaded and relegated to a weekend of tissues and bed rest. No home projects for you.

By the time Sunday night rolls around, you're feeling better -- certainly well enough to go to work the next day -- but that's no help with your home chores. How can you ever hope to get this work on your house done?

That's the scenario painted by a reader in California. His question: "Would it be ethical to call in sick on Monday to work on my house, instead of going to work, even though you're 100-percent healthy?"

It's not his fault that he couldn't enjoy his days off, he reasons, so would it be reasonable to call in sick on a workday to make up for the day he missed?

If my reader calls in sick when he's perfectly healthy, he'll have plenty of company. In a survey conducted last fall for Careerbuilder.com, 32 percent of workers surveyed said that they had called in sick when they weren't sick at least once in the past year. Perhaps this is because 27 percent of workers said that sick days are equivalent to vacation days and can be used any way the worker sees fit.

Another study on health-care quality in the workplace pegged the cost to employers from absenteeism due to sickness at $74 billion -- a healthy portion of which is presumably due to fake sickness. There's even a fledgling industry booming around it: For $19.95 you can now buy software that generates fake absence notes from doctors.

Student interns have picked up the habit. When a student in one of my classes realized that she had forgotten to tell her employer that our class was scheduled to meet on a day when she regularly worked, another student's immediate response was to advise her to "call in sick."

Roughly one-third of all workers apparently see no harm in the practice, and employers are not likely to know if someone is fake sick or real sick. So, is my reader really all that wrong to consider bending the truth a tiny bit in the interest of fixing up his house?

Yes, he is. As wrong as you can get.

Calling in sick when you're not sick is unethical because, well, it's a lie. You can come up with all the justifications in the world -- an employer who gives too few sick days, a sunny Monday that would make a far better off day than a rainy Saturday -- but none of them change the fact that it's a lie, and lying is under most circumstances unethical by definition. There are exceptions to that rule, of course, but this isn't one.

That it could also backfire, if your employer finds out that you faked your sickness, might be a deterrent, but it shouldn't be the primary reason for a healthy person not to call in sick. Fake sick is real wrong, it's that simple.

It's not his fault that he got sick, but it's not his employer's fault either. The right thing for my reader to do is to take either a personal day or a vacation day to see to his home projects. If he's run out of those, he should be patient. There will be other weekends and holidays, times when he can get the tasks done without lying to do it.

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

SOUND OFF: SPIELBERG'S CHINA SYNDROME

My readers were split on whether movie director Steven Spielberg did the right thing by pulling out of his commitment to serve as an artistic adviser to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing after failing to convince China's president to exert his nation's influence on the government of Sudan to put a stop to the genocide in Darfur.

"I applaud Mr. Spielberg's stance on China," writes Daniel Allison of Kingsville, Ontario. "I am glad to know that I am not alone in my condemnation of the Chinese government and all those involved in the 2008 summer games."

"Mr. Spielberg's decision to quit as artistic adviser to the Olympics in Beijing this summer is unfortunate," writes Susan Hammond of Irvine, Calif., "and will cause him to miss a significant and timely opportunity to be a catalyst for change."

"The Chinese government has gotten too many people to forgive its human-rights abuses and involvement in places like Darfur through its seductive offer of cheap labor and a large market," writes Eric McNulty of Brookline, Mass. "Spielberg's decision is the right one for him. More should follow."

"What makes Steven Spielberg think that he has the right to tell China how to handle its international affairs?" asks Burl Estes of Mission Viejo, Calif.

Check out other opinions at "Olympian Decisions," 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)

Talking Politics Over Turkey

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