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Sunday, May 25, 2008

SOUND OFF: CROSS WORDS

André Mora, a reader from Seattle, is an avid player of the online word game Scrabulous, which he plays on the Facebook networking site. He feels torn, however, because the developers of Scrabulous designed their game to replicate the board game Scrabble -- without seeking permission from Hasbro, which owns the rights to that game.

"Discussions" between Hasbro and the developers of Scrabulous are ongoing, but in the meantime my reader and others are left to sort things out for themselves: Is Scrabulous a legitimate game in its own right, or an infringement on Hasbro's rights to Scrabble? And, if the latter, is it OK to continue playing Scrabulous, even if you believe that it was wrong for the company to have developed the game without Hasbro's consent, or should you stop playing Scrabulous until a Hasbro-approved version is available?

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: `DON'T CALL US ... '

What does a potential employer owe a prospective employee who comes in for a job interview?

Certainly not a job, if she doesn't meet the company's needs. But, if that proves to be the case, is the prospective employer obliged to contact the interviewee to let her know that she didn't get the job?

A reader from California is a senior citizen and is looking for part-time work. She's not alone: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, in 2006, 38 percent of people 55 and older were working. In 1996 that number was 30 percent, and it's expected to reach almost 43 percent by 2016.

She has gone on several interviews, she writes, armed with a positive attitude and a willingness to answer every question to the best of her ability.

By the time the process was over, however, she ended up feeling like "a second-class citizen." Not because she didn't get the jobs, though -- it was how she learned that fact that sticks in her craw.

On two occasions, as her interview was coming to a close, the interviewer told her that the company would get in touch within a few days.

Would she get a response regardless of whether or not she got the job?

"Yes," each interviewer told her.

Each time, she never heard from the company.

She wants to know if the interviewers had an ethical obligation to let her know the outcome of her interviews. She also asks me if I think there was something she should have done differently that might have ensured that the interviewers would respond.

It's standard procedure for many employers, faced with a pile of submitted resumes, to winnow out the top candidates and discard the rest. Not a good practice, if you ask me, since those same employers never know when they might need to fill jobs in the future. Retaining resumes can be useful, and to have the basic courtesy of responding to all applicants can potentially result in positive future relationships.

Are employers ethically bound to respond to all applications, though? No. While it may be poor etiquette, there's nothing unethical about not responding, if that's the company's standard practice.

My reader's interviewers, however, fall into a different kettle of smelts.

First of all, a face-to-face interview is much different than a resume in the mail. It creates a relationship, however temporary, and thus makes etiquette more important. If someone makes the effort to come in and interview, the least the company can do is give them a courtesy call of rejection.

But is there an ethical obligation, as opposed to a duty by etiquette? Still no.

The equation changes, however, once the interviewer -- who is under no obligation to do so -- tells her that the company will call. At that point the interviewer has an ethical obligation to fulfill that promise and either get back to her or see that someone else from the company does.

Telling her that she'd get a call after the interview, either way, may have been a means of avoiding the uncomfortable task of revealing that it was each company's practice to notify only those candidates who made it to the next phase in the process. That awkwardness is understandable, but that doesn't excuse the violation of a specific commitment from one person to another.

My reader did nothing wrong by asking if the interviewers would contact her. In fact, it was an excellent question. The fault lies entirely with the interviewers, who should not have made promises that apparently they had no intention of keeping.

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

Sunday, May 18, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: `FREE STUFF' THAT NEEDS TO GO BACK

Several months ago, as I was descending the steps of a busy subway station, I saw an oversized change purse on the stairs. I picked it up.

The change purse contained a bank card, a credit card, a university identification card, a library card from a small town, some folding money, a handful of other cards and, well, change. I took a quick glance around the station, but saw no one resembling the photo on the university card. Whoever she was, she was long gone.

I tried e-mailing her at her college address, but the e-mail bounced back. I then called directory assistance and asked for a listing for her last name in her small town. Only one number came up, so I tried it. Busy signal. A few hours later, I tried again. Still busy.

The incident came to mind recently when I received an e-mail from a reader in Columbus, Ohio. While in the parking lot of a home-improvement center a few weeks ago, he discovered a bag in a shopping cart. Inside were some recent purchases from the store -- nothing too expensive, only a few garage hooks and an outlet strip.

"My first reaction was, `Goody, free stuff,"' he writes. Then, after placing the bag in his car for safekeeping, he went to the service desk to explain what he had found. The clerk told him that such things happen frequently. Sometimes the purchaser returns for the goods, sometimes not.

My reader figured that, if he left the goods at the service desk, chances were that they would be returned to the shelf within 48 hours if no one claimed them. So he left his telephone number with the clerk and asked him to give the number to anyone calling or returning to claim the goods.

"I figured, if anyone called and could give me a reasonable guess at what was in the bag, we could make arrangements to get the merchandise to its rightful owner," he writes. "I guess I did the right thing."

I might have simply left the goods with the store, but my reader's effort to get the stuff to its rightful owner, rather than keep it for himself, was indeed the right thing to do. Of course, he's now taken responsibility for storing a bag in his house in hope that someone will claim it.

When I found the change purse in the subway, I wasn't stuck with it for long. I eventually reached the owner -- her younger sister had been tying up the phone, she said -- and we made arrangements for me to return the purse to her at the subway station the following morning.

It's often simpler to return something yourself when a name happens to be attached to the goods. My reader went the extra mile by trying to return goods that he knew didn't belong to him, even when the absence of a name made things more complicated. Well done!

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

SOUND OFF: DRUGS AND THE DOCTORS WHO PITCH THEM

When Dr. Robert Jarvik agreed to appear in commercials for Pfizer's cholesterol-lowering medication, Lipitor, some people felt that it was misleading because, while he has a medical degree, Jarvik is not licensed to practice medicine. So Pfizer recently dropped Jarvik as the medication's spokesman. I asked readers if the company made the right decision in dropping Jarvik.

"He did nothing unethical," writes Carroll Straus of Orange County, Calif.

Helen Homer of Santa Ana, Calif., agrees.

"Removing Dr. Jarvik from the ad was unnecessary," Homer writes.

Bill Wotring of Fullerton, Calif., has "no problem with the Lipitor ads showing an endorsement by Dr. Jarvik," he writes. "I found them informative and professional ... It is the reputation and endorsement of someone who knows something about hearts which make the ad credible."

On the other hand, George Zahka of Bradenton Beach, Fla., is glad that Jarvik is no longer with Pfizer, finding it "demeaning that the man who invented the artificial heart would lower himself and the profession by touting a product, as good as it may be."

Finally I received a long response from Jarvik himself.

"In my opinion Pfizer was wrong to capitulate to political pressure and the unfavorable publicity it generated," Jarvik writes. "The Lipitor ad campaign was truthful and tasteful. I believe it motivated hundreds of thousands of new patients to see their doctors, patients who never before had treatment for their high cholesterol. Many heart attacks and strokes will be prevented, and many people will avoid the disaster that otherwise awaited them."

Read Jarvik's full response, 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, May 11, 2008

SOUND OFF: ARE YOU SICK OR WHAT?

Last month I wrote about a reader who wanted to know if it was OK to call in sick on a Monday because he had fallen ill over the weekend and hadn't been able to complete his planned chores. By Sunday night he was feeling better, so he wanted to use Monday to get the chores done.

My response was to say that, while it was his prerogative to take a personal day, it was wrong to call in sick when he wasn't.

A greater-than-usual response from my readers argued that I had missed the mark, maintaining that it's perfectly OK to call in sick if you want to ... even if you're not sick.

I'm not convinced. Sure, businesses could do a better job by simply giving people a certain number of personal days per year and letting them use them however they wish. But if sick days are meant for use when you're actually sick, shouldn't you be honest with your employer?

So I'm putting the question to my readers at large: Is it OK to call in sick when you're not really sick?

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 TRASH DONOR

In a suburban neighborhood in Texas, residents roll out their trash receptacles for curbside pickup each week. Each residence is permitted three cans' worth of trash, with any extra incurring an additional charge.

Excess trash is supposed to be placed in sturdy trash bags and tagged with a sticker that can be purchased for $2 at the local grocery store. If the bags are untagged, the city adds a $2.50-per-bag charge to the resident's monthly bill.

One of my readers lives in that neighborhood, and she keeps a supply of stickers on hand for those times when her household has excess trash.

"The problem," she writes, "is that my husband thinks it is fine to take our excess trash bag and place it in one of the neighbor's half-empty trash cans, once they have been rolled onto the street."

One of the neighbors, described by my reader as "a crotchety woman who never speaks to us or makes eye contact," has taken issue with the husband's practice.

"We've lived here for 13 years," my reader writes, "and only had one conversation with her. She never waves like the other neighbors or steps to our yard to chat like other neighbors do. We just accept it and go on."

Until now.

After the husband put trash in her receptacle, the neighbor took the trash out of the can, held onto it until the sanitation truck had come and gone, and then placed the trash bag on top of the husband's car.

Later in the day the neighbor went to my reader's house and began to "rant and rave" at her, she says. She denounced the husband and made clear that she was sick of him putting his trash in her cans.

"Couldn't you just pay the $2 for excess trash or get a bigger trash can, instead of stinking up my trash can with your trash?" the neighbor asked. "I will report him to the authorities if he is ever observed doing this again."

My reader apologized for upsetting her neighbor and said that she would talk to her husband, but the situation still irritates her -- especially because her husband is adamant that there is nothing wrong with what he does.

"I happen to agree with her that it is inappropriate," she writes. "But the way she handled it was inappropriate, in my opinion."

My reader's husband is wrong. The right thing for him to do would be to ask permission of any neighbors before putting his extra trash in their cans. It's the neighborly thing to do, and the ethical thing as well. That their neighbor is aloof and uncommunicative doesn't in any way justify his intrusion into her trash.

Was the neighbor right to put the trash bag on top of the husband's car? Well, it did get his attention, and some people might have emptied it over the car. But it seems like an overreaction: The neighbor's right response would have been to simply tell the husband that she knows he's been making the unwelcome deposits and ask him to stop.

My reader would rather simply use the $2 stickers and not upset her neighbor. She should do exactly that -- and her husband should respect her wishes and do the right thing as well.

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

Sunday, May 04, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: TEN CHARMS, TEN HEADACHES

Before she died in the late 1980s, my reader's mother gave him and his wife some of her jewelry. For years the cache sat ignored in an obscure corner of my reader's home.

One of the items was a gold charm bracelet featuring 10 charms, one for each of his mother's grandchildren. Each has the child's name on one side and his or her birth date on the other.

"I thought my two older sisters might want to have it," my reader says, "as opposed to our children having to decide what to do with it when my wife and I pass on."

If his sisters weren't interested in the bracelet, my reader suggested having it appraised, since gold prices were soaring, peaking at $1,020 an ounce in mid-March, before sliding back to $925 as I write this column. My reader offered to split the proceeds with his sisters, if they decided to sell the bracelet.

"I thought this was better than the risk of it being lost through theft, natural disaster or loss in the old-folks home," he says.

A rational discussion followed, but one of the grandchildren objected strongly to the notion that they would even consider selling such a keepsake. Instead, she thought that it should go to the grandchild who had been closest to my reader's deceased mother.

My reader believes that he did the right thing by offering the bracelet to his sisters.

"Since it was mine," he reasons, "I could have had it melted down and made a few bucks ... if my sentimental wife would have let me. Is there a right thing to do when the choices are between sentimentality and profiting from an inherited but unwanted item, when it seemed like a good time to do so?"

I regularly receive letters from readers who are struggling with how to be fair in disbursing goods to heirs. However hard they try to be fair, they invariably end up annoying or alienating some member of the family who doesn't agree with how the prospective disburser plans to dole out the goods.

My reader is absolutely correct in saying that, since the bracelet was his, he was well within his ethical rights to do with it whatever he pleased. But he went the extra ethical step by seriously considering the effect his actions might have on other stakeholders -- namely, his sisters.

Regardless of the negative response from one of the grandchildren, my reader did the right thing by contacting his sisters for their thoughts about the proper handling of the charm bracelet. Even after getting their response, however, he is still free to do whatever he wants with the bracelet, even if they disagree. It is, after all, his.

As it turns out, another grandchild came up with a solution that satisfies everyone, at least in the short term: Each child will receive his or her charm, to do with as he or she pleases. After the charms are gone, all my reader needs to decide is what to do with his leftover gold bracelet.

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

SOUND OFF: VIDEO VIGILANTE

My readers thought that the guy in Oklahoma City who videotapes customers soliciting prostitutes and then posts the video on his Web site, in an effort to expose these men to public shame, is out of line.

"If this man is into humiliating bad behavior to discourage it, and not just exploiting it, the same as the solicitor himself," writes Robin Brooks of Fullerton, Calif., "then he should approach them, tell them that they have been filmed and ask them to sign a release, as would anyone else using the picture of a stranger as a model for monetary gain."

Charlie Seng, of Lancaster, S.C., agrees.

"As with most do-gooders and busybodies," Seng writes, "this guy who videotapes supposed clients of prostitutes should be taken off the streets and put in jail for being a public nuisance."

"Let's hope that none of us who have ever gotten lost in a big city and asked a stranger for directions get photographed by a creep trying to capture people talking to strangers so he can sell the video," writes Jan Bohren of Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. "This is a pretty lame occupation, don't you think? Does the phrase `get a life' ring a bell?"

Check out other opinions at "I Know What You Did Last Night," 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)