Sunday, July 27, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: LIVING DOWN TO ONE'S REPUTATION

As fuel prices have risen, used-car prices have come down. Prices have declined since 2006, Scotiabank reports. Those declines have accelerated across North America in 2008, and promise to continue well into 2009.

Nevertheless, I recently found myself in need of a used car.

Immediately my thoughts ran to the most recent Gallup poll that asked people to rate the honesty and ethics of various professionals. Once again car salesman placed next-to-last on the list, slightly ahead of lobbyists. Of the people surveyed by Gallup, 53 percent said that they had a low or very low opinion of car salesmen.

Maybe, I whispered to myself, the car salesmen I was about to deal with would go against the stereotype.

No such luck. Shopping online, I found a used car that matched what I was looking for. I requested more information and was contacted by the dealer, who asked me to come in for a test drive.

I went to the dealership, tried out the car and liked it well enough. But the price was more than the maximum that I wanted to spend. I asked the salesperson if she could do any better, and she said that she'd have to speak to her sales manager -- a first step in a dance that's not uncommon in the industry.

She spoke with him and he came back to talk to me. He pointed out the car's bluebook value and its ownership history, both of which I'd already looked up, and said that the dealership couldn't budge on price because it needed to make some money. The Internet prices, he told me, were the lowest he could go. Nevertheless he came down by $700.

Then he asked me how much I wanted to spend. The answer: another $800 lower than his original price.

The sales manager told me that he would have to call the dealership's owner to get permission for such a discount. I found it curious that the owner of this large dealership would take calls on the weekend of the Fourth of July, so I watched as the sales manager scurried to his office and chatted with another salesmen in an adjoining office, never once picking up his desk or cell telephone.

He returned about 10 minutes later to tell me that he had talked to the owner, but that the owner wouldn't budge on price. He lied.

I thanked him and left the dealership.

Now, I know that a certain amount of posturing is to be expected in used-car transactions, or indeed in most negotiated deals. That's fine. The salesperson and the sales manager played a little game with me, and the sales manager let me cool my heels while he ran some numbers. That's all to be expected, part of the art of the deal. Everyone indulges in some give and take and holds back a few things. I didn't come in and give my bottom-line price to the first salesperson I met, after all. I was ready to play the game.

But I draw the line at blatant, transparent lying. Yank me around, OK, but lie to me -- and do it obviously enough for me to spot it, which is not one of my skills -- and you've lost my business.

The right thing for the sales manager to do was to dance me around as much as he wanted, but to draw the line at lying to my face.

That not being the case, the right thing for me to do was to shop elsewhere, which I did.

The right thing for you to do, when faced with a liar who wants your business, is to walk away. Who needs to build an already-suspect business relationship on a foundation of outright lies?

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

SOUND OFF: FLY THE FAKE SKIES

Is it OK for newspapers to run fake ads to gauge reader interest? Readers were split, but -- in an unscientific poll on my column's blog -- 31 percent thought it fine, while 69 percent thought it represented a breach of trust with readers.

"Because time is such an increasingly precious commodity," writes Phil Clutts of Harrisburg, N.C., "it is unethical for an organization to seek to benefit from an action that totally wastes the time of a responding party."

But Jo Melis of Los Angeles writes that fake ads "sound like a clever way to determine the level of reader interest. If no money changes hands, I can't see the harm."

Chris Beale of Columbus, Ohio, thinks that the effectiveness of the fake ads will gauge their appropriateness.

"As in any business," Beale says, "you try out new marketing techniques. If it works you are a genius. If not, then downsizing occurs."

"Anyone with some minimal French knowledge would have picked up on the fake name of the airline (Derrie-Air)," writes Emmanuel Tchividjian of New York. "Keeping a sense of humor is good for society."

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, July 20, 2008

SOUND OFF: SHIPPING MARK-UPS

Recently I was asked if I thought that sellers who add a 100-percent markup on actual shipping costs to items sold in online auctions on eBay or similar sites were being ethical. I've decided to pass the question along to you.

As long as the shipping cost is made known to the buyer, is it wrong for online-auction sellers to charge customers more than it actually costs to ship the items? If you don't think a markup is wrong, is there a limit to how much the markup can be before it crosses into unethical territory?

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 will appear on the right-hand side of the blog until polling is closed.

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: YOU SNOOZE, YOU LOSE?

I don't generally order pizza from Pizza Hut, but I do shop at IKEA, the massive furniture-store chain known for its low prices and for do-it-yourself furniture assembly.

About a year ago readers of my column responded to a reader's concern that Pizza Hut was sending the wrong message by airing a commercial in which a customer rejoices when he believes that he's taken advantage of a delivery boy who charged him too little for three pizzas.

"That's only 5 bucks each, right?" the customer asks the delivery boy.

"Yes sir," the delivery boy answers.

The man runs inside and shouts, "Oh yeah! Honey, the Pizza Hut kid made the same mistake again! I got three medium Pizza Hut pizzas for the same price as those other guys!"

Now IKEA seems to be getting in on the action as far as it concerns ads that condone taking advantage of other people's mistakes.

Christine Blouke of Orange County, Calif., tipped me off to an ad that my wife had been telling me for months I should address in my column. In the ad, set in an IKEA store, a woman checks out with several bags of goods, then takes a look at her receipt. Her pace to the exit quickens and, as soon as she is out the door, she shouts, "Start the car!" four times to her partner waiting in the car. The final scene shows the couple driving off and the woman shouting "Woooooo!" at the top of her lungs.

Amid the scenes of glee, two separate pieces of text appear: "It's not a mistake" and "We're having a sale."

Blouke finds the commercial annoying, and thus switches channels whenever it appears.

"Does IKEA really want its customers to run for the door if there is an error in their favor?" she asks. "Is this behavior to be commended?"

She certainly doesn't think so. (You can view the Pizza Hut and IKEA ads below.)

I have to admit that I find both the Pizza Hut ads and the IKEA ads amusing. They're deliberately meant to play on the ignorance of the customer who doesn't know about the advertiser's low prices. In each case it's the customer who comes off looking like a dope, not the business.

But do the ads send the wrong message, suggesting that it's OK to shortchange a store when a cashier makes a mistake? That's hardly a message that we want to send to our kids, and it's not one we should embrace ourselves.

As customers we expect stores to correct any mistakes that shortchange us, so by the same token the right thing is to correct a delivery person or cashier on his or her mistake, even if it's in our favor. It may turn out that there wasn't a mistake after all, but if you suspect that you've been undercharged or that not every item was rung up on checkout, the obligation falls on you to make the situation right.

What would either advertisement have looked like if, instead of depicting customers believing that they were getting away with something, it had featured a protracted argument during which the customer tried to convince the clerk that she must be wrong, when indeed she wasn't. Imagine the manager getting called in to confirm how low the prices are and then other customers chiming in. Chaos ensues, but no one takes glee in rushing to flee the scene of an assumed crime.

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



IKEA AD


PIZZA HUT AD

Sunday, July 13, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: A BLOOMING NUISANCE

Some ethical questions linger well past their freshness date.

A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from reader Louise Macaulay of Yorba Linda, Calif. The incident in question happened back in February, but she and her co-workers are still pondering whether the parties involved did the right thing.

On Valentine's Day a dozen roses were delivered to the office for one of Macaulay's co-workers. Within an hour, Macaulay writes, an identical bouquet was delivered. Her co-worker immediately called the florist to report the error and to make sure that her husband wouldn't be charged twice.

I suppose it never crossed her mind that her husband might deliberately have sent two stunning bouquets to emphasize his point. He hadn't.

The florist sent someone to pick up the flowers, and assured her that her husband would be charged only for the one bouquet.

Within an hour after the second bouquet was picked up, however, a third bouquet arrived, delivered by a different messenger from any of the earlier deliveries and pickup. The co-worker was out of the office when the third bouquet arrived, so another co-worker took it upon herself to call the florist to have the errant bouquet retrieved, even though she was not its intended recipient.

When the delivery person arrived to take back the third bouquet of flowers, the co-worker for whom they had been intended was upset.

"She had done the right thing the first time the florist made the error," Macaulay explains. "She felt justified keeping the third bouquet."

"It turned out to be a hilarious day for those of us watching the drama," she adds.

Once the laughter faded, however, she and her co-workers were left wondering two things: Was the co-worker who intercepted the third delivery out of line in notifying the florist about the error, given that the flowers weren't intended for her? And would the intended recipient have been justified in keeping the third bouquet, having already notified the florist of the first error and returned the second bouquet?

The third-party co-worker should have left it to the intended recipient to deal with the second errant delivery. While she may simply have wanted to save her co-worker a hassle, this wasn't her hassle to clean up. She shouldn't have called the florist, who in turn ought to have confirmed that it was the intended recipient who was reporting the error, not a third party. The florist might well have decided to let the woman keep the third bouquet as an apology for the time she'd wasted in sorting out three deliveries, two of them erroneous.

Unless the florist chose to do so, however -- and regardless of how much of a nuisance it undoubtedly was -- the intended recipient would not have been justified in keeping the third bouquet. Other people's ineptness is no license to help yourself to their property. The right thing was to call the florist and correct the error -- so the right thing was done, but by the wrong person. In any case, however, because the intended recipient knew that the extra flowers had not been purchased by her husband, the decision of whether or not she should keep them was the florist's to make, not hers.

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

SOUND OFF: OFF BY A YARD

Just in time to coincide with the world's longest yard sale -- this year it runs from Aug. 7 to Aug. 10 and stretches from Gadsden, Ala., to Defiance, Ohio -- we have reader responses to a recent "Sound Off" question about yard-sale pricing.

The results of an unscientific poll on my column's blog have 43 percent of my readers voting that you should tell the owners if items offered at a yard sale are worth far more than they're charging, while 57 percent disagree, arguing that all's fair when it comes to getting a good deal.

"Ethics have no place at a yard sale!," writes Charlie Seng of Lancaster, S.C. "When someone has a yard sale, they have the responsibility of knowing the value of their sale items. It is not incumbent on the buyers who happen along to alert the seller about valuable items that they are mistakenly or foolishly selling at bargain prices."

Bill of Somerville, Mass., works in an antiquarian bookstore.

"It is not uncommon for another dealer to buy something from us, turn around and sell it for much more," he says.

Recently, he adds, a dealer from the United Kingdom purchased a book for $100 and then pointed out that the book included an old map of California that was alone worth at least $1,000. All the same, Bill writes, the bookstore is ethically obligated to offer customers a fair price for any book they bring in to sell, which is generally 50 percent of the sale price in trade or 30 percent in cash.

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, July 08, 2008

Daily Ethical Dilemmas on Fox 25

Anchor Kim Carrigan on Fox 25 Morning News posing reader questions about everyday ethical dilemmas to me this morning (July 8). Click on video below to play or click here.

And below is a segment with Gene Lavanchy from last fall (November 9) on "Taking Measures to Prevent Plagiarism" that was part of Fox 25's College Week. You can also find the segment on plagiarism here.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

SOUND OFF: POLL POSITION

Black candidates for state and national office in the United States regularly poll higher than their actual vote totals. Frequently referred to as "The Bradley Effect" or "The Wilder Effect" -- named after former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and former Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder to reflect their experiences -- this phenomenon presumably reflects respondents' reluctance to express socially unacceptable attitudes, such as racism, when talking to pollsters.

With Sen. Barack Obama (D.-Ill) running for president, this phenomenon has received elevated scrutiny. Here's this week's Sound Off question:

Is it a breach of ethics to misrepresent yourself to a pollster?

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 will appear on the right-hand side of the blog until polling is closed.

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 RIGHT JOB FOR THE MAN?

Finding a new job, a job for which your talents and your temperament fit, can be challenging. To help make a match, executive-search professionals often work hard to help prospective employees find the best possible professional home.

Because the process of finding a new job through an executive-search firm can take time, it isn't unusual for an executive-search pro to become friendly both with the candidate and with those who are seeking to fill the job. A reader from the Midwest who runs an executive-search firm tells me that this has been his experience recently.

"Within the past year," he writes, "I placed a candidate with a firm. Both the candidate and the manager at the firm are my `clients,' but are also my friends."

Now, however, the candidate is questioning whether his move to the new firm was the right one for him. The client firm, on the other hand, is "absolutely enamored" with the hire.

While the client firm pays for his services, my reader needs both client firms and prospective employees to keep his business thriving. Given that he knows the new employee seems not to be satisfied with the current position into which he's been placed, he asks: "What should I say, and to whom?"

He wonders, that is, whether he has an obligation to let the current employer know that the employee is not overjoyed with his new job.

Similarly, if the employer had confided in my reader that the employee wasn't all he had hoped for, should he say something to the employee?

Ah, to get stuck in the middle of two friends, regardless of the situation. In the seventh grade, when one friend tells another about something concerning a third, what to do, what to do?

Judging from my reader's question, he seems inclined to say something to the employer. He just isn't sure when or what to say.

My advice to him, however, is that, unless the employee has asked him to relay a message of dissatisfaction to his new employer, he should not pass on the news.

The fact that he helped bring together job and job seeker does not make him a permanent intermediary between the parties, nor does it ethically obligate him to resolve future problems that may arise.

The right thing, both as a friend and as the person who recruited him, is to listen to the employee and see if he can offer any advice on how to make his new job a better fit.

If the situation becomes unpleasant at work, he would be wise to advise the employee to talk to his supervisors to see if they can rectify the situation. If it becomes unbearable, the employee should consider seeking employment elsewhere once he meets any short-term commitments on the new job.

My reader will retain the employee's trust and, in the process, he will learn valuable information about the employer in case he plans to place future candidates there who might be a better fit.

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