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Sunday, September 28, 2008

SOUND OFF: TAXING MATTERS

Recently Rep. Charles Rangel (D.-N.Y.) conceded that it was "irresponsible" of him not to report on his taxes rental income from a vacation home he owns in a resort in the Dominican Republic. Rangel, who is under investigation by the House Ethics Committee, argues nonetheless that the income he didn't report should not affect his standing in Congress.

Rangel is the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, a panel which, among other things, is responsible for shepherding tax law. So far Rangel is ignoring the call of some Republican leaders for him to step down from the committee.

Given his admitted tax lapse -- Rangel says that his staff was delegated responsibility for preparing his taxes, but concedes that he bears "the ultimate responsibility" -- is he ethically obligated to step down from his position as chairman and/or to resign from the House?

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: A SHATTERING REALIZATION

A regular customer of a prescription-eyeglasses chain, one that examines patients and readies their glasses within a few hours, is perplexed.

During the past two years he has purchased more than 10 pairs of prescription glasses and sunglasses from the store. Part of my reader's attraction to this store is that, if you don't like the glasses you've purchased for any reason, you can return them within 30 days for a full refund, no questions asked.

The frames by the particular designer whom he favors are on the expensive side, costing $600 to $700 per set. After keeping his most recent pair of frames for two weeks, he decided that they simply weren't right for him. He arranged to return them, in order to purchase a new pair that suited him better.

When he was ordering the new frames, however, he asked the clerk if the store wanted his old pair back. He was told no, that he should keep them until his new pair was ready.

Curious, he asked what the store would do with the old pair: "Did they donate them to people who needed them? Were they sold to employees at a reduced price? Did they receive credit from the manufacturer?"

The answer to each of these questions: no.

According to the clerk, the store staff "stepped on them."

They destroyed the glasses by crushing them, in other words. Having learned this, when my reader returned to pick up his new glasses, he did not offer to give back his old pair, and the clerk never asked for them. He left the store with both pairs, and gave the ones he didn't care for to a needy person.

"I just could not stand the thought of a perfectly good pair of glasses being crushed for no good reason," he writes. "Did I do the wrong thing?"

Yes, he did.

Not requiring people to return their old glasses when getting a refund would allow unscrupulous customers to take advantage of the policy to keep both pairs, essentially misrepresenting themselves to get something for nothing. It's only fair for the store to ask customers to leave the old pair with the store, even if it doesn't send them to the manufacturer for a credit.

My reader's instinctive distaste for the idea of the wasteful destruction of glasses that could help someone else is praiseworthy. It's not an excuse, however, for him to keep something that doesn't belong to him, however well-intentioned he may be and however little it may ultimately benefit him. The store has a right to set its policies as it sees fit, and his initial agreement obligated him to respect those policies.

The right thing is for the store itself to establish a process by which returned glasses are recycled, resold or donated to those in need, and there's nothing wrong with him speaking to the store management to encourage such a process. If the management is reluctant to do so, for whatever reason, he might then ask if it's all right for him to keep his old pair and dispose of them in an appropriate way. If it's OK with the store, then there's nothing wrong with it.

It is admirable that my reader tried to do something right, but he didn't go about it in the right way. The fact that he didn't feel comfortable telling the clerk what he planned to do with the glasses is the tip-off that his plan, though well-intentioned, wasn't the right thing.

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

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Climb Every Mountain

Last December, I wrote in The Right Thing column about how a young woman hiker from Quebec went out of her way to encourage my oldest grandson Evan the confidence he needed to complete his hike up Mt. Katahdin.
About a month later, Evan set as his new year's resolution the goal of climbing ten, 4,000-foot summits and raising $5,000 dollars for his school's environmental efforts. He called his project "Summits for My School" and started a blog where he writes about his climbs, offers environmental tips, and accepts donations via PayPal.


To date, Evan has received $5,120, from 123 people who have supported his project. That's 102 percent of his goal. And last weekend, Evan -- along with his younger brother, Lucas, his father, David, and me -- climbed Mt. Lincoln and Mt. Lafayette in New Hampshire to reach his goal of climbing ten summits this year.

I am very proud of Evan and Luke (who joined in on six of the ten climbs) and the project to try to accomplish a personal goal and make the world a little better place in the process. Evan's report on the latest climbs is on his blog.



Sunday, September 21, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: ALL IN THE FAMILY?

A reader from southern California is troubled by the state of ethics in America and, more particularly, among some members of his own family.

"Ethics are vital to quality of life," he writes, "and there simply is no room for unethical behavior. It is, unfortunately, common in all strata of society, as we experience and also read in the news every day. Lies appear to be acceptable, and even expected, in business, politics, relationships and many other areas of life."

He sees American society "tearing itself apart" because of unethical behavior.

Clearly, he posits, there is a trickle-down effect: "The housing-market collapse was caused by lies from unqualified mortgage applicants, lies from commission-seeking real-estate agents and mortgage bankers, and lies from investment promoters selling the packaged mortgages to investors."

But what troubles my reader the most is his discovery that many members of his own extended family have a totally different idea of what it means to be ethical.

"It's almost an hourly mental struggle for me to view them with love and not to be critical all the time," he says.

Their transgressions range from buying products, using them and then returning them for refunds to taking advantage of people "who are desperate to make a bare living" by asking them to do extra work for free, knowing that they have little choice because they fear not being paid for the original work they agreed to do.

My reader consulted a psychologist, who told him that this negative behavior is most likely born out of growing up in an impoverished environment.

"So," he wonders, "poverty early in life is a reason, if not an excuse, for dishonest behavior?"

He wants to know what happened to the concept of "you reap what you sow" -- or, to put it in New Age parlance, "karma."

His description of how hired workers might be compelled to do tasks without pay, out of fear of losing any payment at all, shows that my reader understands how financial pressure can cause people to do things that they know are wrong. These workers aren't the ethical transgressors in this situation, but their plight points to how financial need can be a powerful force in determining how we behave.

Even so, however, and regardless of any psychological explanation for how people decide to do what they do, there is no ethical justification for allowing your past to influence how you behave when you know that a given action is wrong.

I'm not sold on the idea that karma is the motivation we need to do the right thing. The choice to do what's right should be driven by the understanding that, as a society, we continue to function precisely because individuals opt for the right course of action when faced with tough choices.

I agree with Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner Rogers, who wrote in A Simpler Way (Berrett-Koehler, 1999): "Ethics is how we behave when we decide we belong together."

The right thing for my reader to do is to continue to let his family members know that he disapproves of their actions and why he disapproves, explaining how their actions are unfair to the retailers, workers or others of whom they take advantage. He doesn't have to harp on it, but neither should he give up and go along to get along.

After all, if we can't trust our family members, who love us, to try to set us on the right path, whom can we trust?

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

SOUND OFF: CABLE HOOK-UPS

A majority of responding readers said that it would be wrong to use cable-television service that had inadvertently had been left connected when you moved into a new house. In an informal survey on my column's blog, only 15 percent said that it was OK to continue using the service without notifying the cable company, and 55 percent said that it was not OK. Still, 30 percent of those who considered it wrong admitted that, in that circumstance, they'd continue using it anyway.

Brenda Levy of Richmond, Va., is not one of those who would continue using the service.

"My integrity is worth more than the money I'd be saving," she writes.

"Why should one enjoy something that others are paying for?" asks Patrick Burris of Charlotte, N.C. "In the long run, thefts cost us all more."

Finally, one reader pointed out that it's not only unethical to continue to use the service, but also "a violation of law, and could subject the homeowner to criminal charges."

Check out other opinions here, 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, September 14, 2008

SOUND OFF: WHEN ARE KIDS OFF LIMITS?

Shortly after Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican presidential nominee, announced his selection of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate, the pregnancy of her unwed, 17-year-old daughter made headlines. McCain's campaign and that of his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, agreed that candidates' children should be off limits to the media in their coverage of the election.

Do you think that the media crosses a line when it reports on candidates' children? Or is such coverage OK, once someone becomes a candidate for a public political office? Does the child's age make a difference and, if so, to what extent?

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 FINANCIAL COMPANY YOU KEEP

I shouldn't have been surprised, really, when the letter came in the mail.

We had spent weeks in a mortgage-approval process, during which the financial institution had scrupulously examined various aspects of our financial wherewithal.

It was a painstaking and occasionally annoying process -- my wife gleefully learned, for example, that she has a credit score 30 points higher than my own. But the institution had a reputation for being rigorous in its due diligence about prospective borrowers. For instance, the day before closing it called the college where I teach to confirm that I hadn't been let go since the last time it had called ... two weeks earlier.

We were pleased to be doing business with a company that not only gave us a decent rate, but also had managed to stay above the fray in the recent subprime-mortgage crisis, which had come about in large part due to some institutions making loans to people whom they knew weren't likely to be able to afford their monthly payments.

But then, shortly before our first mortgage payment was due, we received a letter informing us that our mortgage had been sold to another lender. We knew that this was a possibility, of course, since it had happened to us in our prior home-ownership experience. But this time the mortgage was sold to Countrywide Home Loans, an institution that had been caught up in the subprime mess.

We learned this in late August, which is when we also learned that Indiana had joined four other states in suing Countrywide for its lending practices. When Connecticut announced that it was suing Countrywide earlier in August, its complaint said that Countrywide's lending practices were "oppressive, unethical, immoral and unscrupulous."

Given the choice, my wife and I would not choose to do business with an institution that has a reputation for any one of these things, let alone all four. But our original lender was perfectly within its legal rights to sell our mortgage to another lender.

"This is another collision of ethics and reality," says Steve Rhode, the founder of The Ethical Banker, a Web site focusing on ethics in financial services. "From a consumer point of view it is wrong, and I think a consumer could demonstrate that they have been harmed to be sold to a lower-quality lender."

He also points out, however, that any effort to undo the sale would be a costly legal battle in which the consumer would be significantly outgunned.

If we wanted to, we could try to refinance our mortgage with another lender, absorbing a higher interest rate and more closing costs. Even then, however, doing so couldn't ensure that the new lender wouldn't turn around and sell us right back to Countrywide.

"It's dishonest for an institution to advertise `We're here for you' when really you're nothing but an asset that can be bought and sold," says John Waggoner, author of Bailout: What the Rescue of Bear Stearns and the Credit Crisis Mean for Your Investments. "Expecting kindness from your mortgage lender is like expecting kindness from a soft-shell crab."

So what's the right thing for us, or other consumers in similar situations, to do?

There's some solace in knowing that Countrywide is under new ownership, having been purchased by Bank of America in July. There's also comfort in knowing that the scrutiny under which Countrywide now finds itself is likely to keep it from behaving as questionably as it allegedly did in the past.

This doesn't eradicate the past behavior, of course. And it's unconscionable that consumers don't have more say in choosing the lenders with whom they ultimately do business.

But if Countrywide is forced to clean up its own house, perhaps we can live with having it finance ours.

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

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Right Thing Book Review

Connie Glaser wrote a review of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsiblity in Today's Business that appeared in bizjournals around the country on Monday.

In her review, she writes: "All too often, business writers focus solely on financial issues that affect bottom-line profitability. But New York Times syndicated columnist Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, has carved out a successful career by focusing on personal responsibility in today's business world."

She continues: "The Right Thing is not the book to read if you want to unlock the secret to becoming a billionaire, a CEO, or even the most "successful" graduate of whatever B school you attended. But if you are interested in ethical behavior in the workplace, this may be the best book available for conscientious as well as fair-minded employees and bosses alike. Seglin addresses a variety of thorny issues that are familiar to both bosses and their employees -- and does so in a way that encourages the reader to ask, 'What would I have done?'"

You can read Glaser's complete review here and purchase copies of The Right Thing here.

[Thanks to Christopher Hennessy of Emerson College's Public Affairs Office for pointing out Glaser's review to me.]

Sunday, September 07, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: AN EASY FIX AND A DIFFICULT BILL

I recently received a letter from an 84-year-old widow in Bountiful, Utah, about a dispute she was having with her car dealer.

After her car's "check engine" light came on, she called her dealer's service department to seek help. On the gas cap is printed the warning: "A loose cap may turn on check-engine light." Instead of advising her to check her gas cap, however, the service-department representative told her to bring in her car.

The service department tightened her gas cap ... and charged her $52.39 for the procedure.

My reader, who has purchased multiple cars from the dealer in years past, thought that this was quite a bit to charge for tightening her gas cap, so she wrote to the service manager.

"Is your service department so in need of business," she asked, "that you do not help out loyal customers with a problem such as mine?"

A month passed with no answer. She wrote to the owner of the dealership, enclosing copies of her earlier letter and of the bill, and asked him if he deemed her letter worthy of a reply.

Another month passed, without any response from the service manager or from the owner, so she wrote to me.

I called the owner and told him about the situation. He said that he hadn't been aware of the matter -- which, given the size of his operation and the relatively small amount in question, is likely true -- but he took my reader's contact information. I e-mailed her to let her know that I had spoken with the owner.

She e-mailed back to let me know that the general manager of the dealership had called her. He had known nothing of her situation until the owner alerted him, he said, and, because he did not want unhappy customers, he was returning her $52.39.

"Of course they missed the whole point," she writes, "and that is that they did not reply to a customer's inquiry. Only when they got a call from a guy with The New York Times did they decide to get in touch with the old lady."

She's right, of course. Even if the dealership had retained the charge, explaining that it reflected the time it took a mechanic to check out her car, the right thing would have been to respond to her letter. Even better would have been to suggest in the first place that she try tightening her gas cap.

It's good ethics, basic civility and good business to treat customers fairly and responsively.

As the summer drew to a close and I was about to make a final pruning of the hedge around my house with the power clippers, I couldn't get them to work. I called my favorite hardware store -- Curry Hardware in Quincy, Mass. -- and asked if I could bring in the 2-year-old set of clippers for repair. The young woman on the phone asked the brand and then suggested that I loosen the bolts on the blades before bringing them in. It worked.

Curry didn't get my money, but it has earned my loyalty.

My reader, however, may think twice before buying her next car from the same dealership, even though she's done business there for years.

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

SOUND OFF: ENDOWING TUITION

Readers were split about whether colleges and universities are ethically obliged to spend part of their endowments each year to make college tuition more affordable. According to an unscientific poll on my column's blog, 50 percent of my readers think that colleges are obliged to do so, while 50 percent believe that colleges have no moral obligation to ease tuition pain.

"Public universities, founded by and for the people, would seem to have an ethical obligation to offer affordable college tuition to a portion of their citizenry," Eric Erickson of Minneapolis writes. "Private universities should have the option to decide whether or not to discount the value of their services."

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

"The endowments of colleges provide for allowing the institution to continue to exist and grow in these troubled financial times," he says, "not to provide tuition for needy students."

Phil Clutts of Harrisburg, N.C., concurs.

"Why should the state or federal government require anybody to do anything with funds that they privately and legitimately raised," Clutts asks, "as long as the contributors know how the money is being spent?"

Christopher Lincoln of Minnesota takes the same view, but with a cautionary note: "Private universities have the right to price themselves into oblivion," he writes.

Check out other opinions here, 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)