Sunday, November 30, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: LIVING UP TO IT

Here's a tip to all service providers, from retail establishments and contractors to teachers and medical professionals: If you say that you're going to do something, do it.

Now, this isn't a call for these professionals to do any more than they're already doing, and it's not a swipe at the quality of care being offered. Instead it's a demand -- when it comes to doing something you commit to do -- to put up or shut up.

A reader from Columbus, Ohio, recently booked an examination with her physician. During the exam several tests were performed, and shortly after the appointment she called to ask for the results of these tests. She was told to call back a week later. When she called back, a nurse did tell her the results. My reader wanted to know if she would get a fuller report in writing, however, and the nurse told her that she would get it by mail, but that it would take some time.

Several weeks after the initial exam, no written test results having arrived, my reader called again. The nurse told her that something must have happened to the report in the mail, and said that she would send it again.

Once again, however, my reader never received the results.

She has gone online to find a "Patient Bill of Rights," which she plans to print out. Then she'll write a note demanding her test results and take both documents in person to the doctor's office to get a copy of her test results.

"What do you think of putting a patient off," my reader asks, "not giving the patient what is rightfully his or hers? This smacks of unethical treatment, especially when the matter could be serious/important to one's health."

If the doctor's office indeed was putting off my reader, or if it merely takes a long time to send off test results, that is certainly a nuisance for my reader to deal with, but I'm not convinced that it would rise to the level of unethical conduct. Everything that inconveniences us cannot be chalked up as unethical. Some things are simply a pain in the neck -- not my reader's medical issue, by the way.

Granted, our need to know about medical issues is far more urgent than our need to hear back from a contractor for whom we've been leaving messages. But not getting information or service as fast as we want it doesn't usually indicate a moral failing on the part of the provider.

Where my reader does have a legitimate ethical beef, however, is with the nurse who told her that she would send the material and then apparently didn't follow up by sending it. If she had no intention of sending the material, she should have told my reader so and also told her why. Or, if she didn't plan to send the results for several weeks, she should have told her that.

To promise to do something that you have no intention of doing is lying, nothing more or less. None of us should feel cozy about doing business with anyone who lies to us to get us off their backs. The right thing to do, for the nurse and for all service providers, is not to make promises they don't plan to keep.

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

SOUND OFF: IS COMPUTER ART CHEATING?

An overwhelming number of readers -- 83 percent of those who responded to an unscientific poll on my column's blog -- see no harm in sculptors using computers to help them with the design of their art. It's not cheating, they feel.

"Oh, please," Shmuel Ross of Brooklyn writes. "Of course, it's legitimate."

"As long as the final product of this artist is his own work," another reader agrees, "it is `straining at a gnat' to worry more than one minute over the computer-assisted work."

"Artists need to plan their works somehow," Chase March of Hamilton, Ontario, writes. "In the end, art is art. We are left with the final piece, and a computer can't ever produce that."

Or, as Chris Rand of Boston puts it, "Da Vinci had notebooks."

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, November 23, 2008

SOUND OFF: PARDON ME?

It is common practice for outgoing presidents of the United States to grant pardons as they are heading out the door. Among the recent notable pardons were those by President George H.W. Bush of Iran-Contra convicts to whom Bush may have had a connection, and by President Bill Clinton of indicted financier Marc Rich, whose ex-wife had contributed to Clinton's campaign fund.

Such pardons are unquestionably legal, and indeed are a long tradition of the presidency, but are they ethical? In particular, is it ethical for a president to pardon someone whose illegal actions may have involved him or his administration?

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: FRONT-ROW CHEATS?

As teenagers growing up in northern New Jersey, my friends and I would regularly hop the Lakeland Bus for the 45-minute ride into Manhattan. There we would catch the subway up to the Bronx and get off at Yankee Stadium.

We'd purchase the cheapest box seats we could get our hands on. Occasionally, however, by the time the fourth or fifth inning rolled around, we'd notice that some of the better, more expensive seats closer to the field were unoccupied. We'd make our way down the stadium steps and plunk ourselves into seats that were beyond our means but were more suited to our desired view.

Only once did an usher ask to see our tickets -- in that case, it turned out, the seats' rightful occupants had simply gone on a beer run and been upset to find their seats usurped. We didn't get kicked out of the park, though, simply sent back to our cheap seats.

Christie Coombs of Orange, Calif., can afford more expensive seats to sporting events than I could as a teenager, but she nonetheless found herself in a similar situation recently.

"I bought the most expensive daily seat for a day at a tennis tournament," she writes, "and the seat was so high that I almost needed binoculars."

The best seats in the front sections are often gobbled up by sponsors, she says, but nonetheless go empty. Toward the end of the day, Coombs and some friends moved down to sit in the most expensive seats.

"I felt guilty," she writes, "but they were great seats."

Coombs knows that it's wrong to sit in seats you didn't pay for, she says, but she thinks it would be nice if sponsors would release any seats they don't plan to use so that others can be allowed to move into them. At another tournament she attended, the public-address announcer told spectators that they were welcome to move down into the empty seats in front.

But when no such go-ahead is given, Coombs wants to know, "Is there any harm in moving into the empty seats?"

Ideally, organizers would make an announcement when it's OK to move forward, but it may be that they don't do so for fear of a stampede of fans.

Absent such an announcement, the ticket you buy entitles you to sit in the seat printed on the ticket. It is not a license to use that seat as a base from which to secure the best seat you can find. You have, therefore, no right to sit in a better seat, regardless of whether or not that seat is empty.

Rights and opportunities are two different things, of course. So long as you don't buy the cheaper seats solely with the intention of sneaking into the more expensive ones once you're inside, I say no harm, no foul in taking an opportunity to move into empty seats for a better view, if such an opportunity arises.

You might, of course, ask an usher if it's OK to move into the empty seats, or you might simply take your chances. Remember, though, that if told by the usher that moving is not permitted, or if ejected from seats you've moved into without tickets, you are not being treated unfairly. You don't have a right to those seats, and you aren't being deprived of what's rightfully yours.

The right thing is to go to the event with the intention of staying in the seats you've paid for. If you see empty seats further forward, however, it's not wrong to move.

Some venues may have a policy of evicting any fans who try to move to better seats. That's their privilege, of course, and, so long as the policy is clearly stated, you should comply with it. If caught in seats not your own, you should leave the stadium quietly.

At a time when revenues are paramount and those revenues are driven by fan satisfaction, however, that's a silly policy, if you ask me. As long as the fans are willing to move back to their seats when asked, why not let them enjoy the game?

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

Sunday, November 16, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: WHERE I STAND

This column marks the 250th time "The Right Thing" has appeared as a weekly newspaper column. What began in September 1998 as a monthly business-ethics column evolved into a weekly general-ethics column in February 2004.

Throughout the life of the column, there have been serious ethics eruptions in the news. Sometimes these take the form of corporate CEOs engaging in behavior that is not in the interest of shareholders, employees or the public. Occasionally they involve politicians who stridently portray themselves as protectors of the public good while themselves engaging in lascivious, illegal or unethical behavior. And don't get me started on celebrities who cross ethical lines as often as they partake of the latest herbal wrap.

When such eruptions occur, readers or others invariably chime in with the observation that, in an era of abundant malfeasance, it must be good to be an ethics columnist. That may be true, but it has nothing to do with the plethora of ethically questionable targets that happens to be available to me. There is no joy in seeing others stray wildly from doing the right thing.

It's not, after all, these egregious ethical lapses that present us with our great daily challenges. We know outright wrong when we see it. What has been the challenge for many of my column's readers -- and for me -- is to choose the best answer when we are faced with multiple right choices. Whether you're wondering how fully to disclose your intentions to an employer, how careful to be about using someone else's copyrighted work, how to leave a relationship with your character intact or how to run for office without losing your soul, the challenge is how to think through the choices to come up with the best right answer.

Because people approach ethical choices from different perspectives, it's not surprising that different people choose different right answers. Someone guided by rules might likely arrive at a different conclusion than someone who is driven by the interest of the greater good for the most people, regardless of the rules. My job is to help sort out the questions you should ask in trying to decide the right course of action.

I bring up all of this because readers regularly ask me why I can't simply tell them what to do in a given situation. Short answer: Because that's not how ethical decision-making works. My job is to tell you, my readers, what I believe to be the right thing to do and why I feel that way, based on the information you provide me and the details I collect myself. To think through the situation and decide the best right choice to make is not my job, but yours.

What I hope is that, through seeing how other readers cope with ethical choices, every reader can come away wondering how he or she would react in the same situation, and perhaps begin to give more thought to the consequences of actions before engaging in them.

And, no, Dave in Massachusetts, I do not believe that advising your wife to hit her co-worker back, simply because the co-worker didn't receive a sufficient reprimand from the bosses, is the right thing to do.

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

SOUND OFF: MINING THE DUMP

The majority of readers -- 64 percent -- who participated in an unscientific poll on my column's blog didn't see anything wrong with taking goods from public-dump swap shops, turning around and selling them on eBay or Craig's List.

Some questioned the practice: "I would think very poorly of an individual who deprived a would-be needy user of the free item by taking it to sell for his or her own personal gain," writes Phil Clutts of Harrisburg, N.C.

But William Jacobson of Cypress, Calif., sees nothing wrong with it.

"These swap shops are merely repositories for items that would otherwise be destroyed," Jacobson writes. "If the new owner can resell them for a profit, more power to him. Capitalism is founded upon the notion that one man's junk is another man's treasure."

Alan Sechrest of Mission Viejo, Calif., agrees.

"If the items are offered by the dump with no stated preconditions such as `only for personal use,' then the items may be sold with no ethical concerns," Sechrest says. "It's like a gift: Once received, the recipient is free to do with it whatever they please."

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, November 09, 2008

SOUND OFF: CONSENTING ADULTS IN THE WORKPLACE

The head of the International Monetary Fund has been cleared of wrongdoing in having had an affair with one of his staffers. The fund's board decided that, because the relationship was consensual, no harm, no foul.

The news reminded me of the first "The Right Thing" column I wrote, a little more than 10 years ago, which was about relationships in the workplace and the havoc they can wreak. At that time some institutions were beginning to introduce "love contracts," in which both parties agree to indemnify the business should the relationship turn sour.

According to a more recent survey by the Society of Human Resource Management and Careerjournal.com, as of 2006 48 percent of companies permitted but discouraged workplace romances, while 31 percent did not permit office romances.

Where such affairs can really run into trouble is when a boss has a relationship with someone further down the employee ranks. But is it a company's place to dictate who can and who cannot fall in love in the workplace? Does a boss cross an ethical line when he or she strikes up an affair with someone at the office?

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: JUDGING A MEAL BY ITS BOX


"Election year or not," Dennis Akren writes, "this is what folks really want to know."

Is he talking about the economy? Health care? The wars in Iraq, in Afghanistan or on terror?

No. What has Akren flummoxed is shrimp scampi.

Akren, a teacher in Ladera Ranch, Calif., is none too happy about the shrimp scampi sold in the frozen-foods section of his supermarket.

Recently he purchased a 10-ounce, single-serving package of the dish, basing his decision on the mouthwatering photograph on the cover of the box -- a tantalizing color photo depicting 11 shrimp on a plate mixed with some pasta and diced tomatoes.

I've seen the photo. It is indeed tempting to any hungry shopper who hankers for a serving of shrimp sauteed with garlic and lemon butter.

When Akren cooked up his meal, however, only six shrimp graced his plate. Compared to the box illustration, he was five shrimp short.

Granted, many recipes for shrimp scampi call for 1.5 pounds of shrimp to serve four people. If we're talking large shrimp, that translates roughly to 33 shrimp, which is eight shrimp per helping. So six shrimp doesn't seem far off the mark for a reasonable single serving.

That's beside Akren's point, though. His issue is the packaging.

"Showing 11, yet giving only six, seems hardly fair or ethical," he writes.

Thinking his first experience might have been a fluke, he cooked up another batch two nights later. Still only six shrimp, from a box that still showed 11.

When he buys a six-piece Chicken McNuggets dish from McDonald's, Akren says, he expects to get six McNuggets, and does. But in that case the number is clearly specified on the menu.

"But what about when you can only go by the picture?," he asks. "Is it unethical for the company to clearly have less product in the actual meal than the picture may show? Shouldn't the company be called on it? They are essentially doubling their profit because they are only putting half of the featured food in the actual meal."

Government agencies in both the United States and Canada do have regulations forbidding deceptive advertising. Nothing on the packaging lists the number of shrimp in a given package, however, and the photo bears the caption "serving suggestion," so it's unlikely that regulatory agencies will take these companies to food court.

Still, however legal it may be, is it ethical for companies to pump up their plates to draw in consumers? Clearly, when it says "serving suggestion," the company isn't implying that the consumer should purchase another five shrimp to toss into the meal -- or is it?

There's nothing wrong with companies doing their best to make their food look as scrumptious as possible on the packaging, utilizing professional preparation, expert lighting and clever camera angles to show themselves at their best. In this case, however, Akren does have a legitimate gripe. It's wrong for companies to package their products in depictions that clearly misrepresent the contents.

Gifted food stylists can make a plate of six shrimp on pasta look as good as one with 11 shrimp. The right thing for this company to do is either to beef up the shrimp content to match the depiction on the box or to reshoot its packaging photography to more accurately reflect what's inside. Not to do so is misleading. Whether or not this is the issue that people really want to know about this election year depends, I suppose, on how hungry they are.

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

Sunday, November 02, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: IT TAKES A THIEF ... OR DOES IT?

A reader from London, Ontario, manages the lawn care for the condominium complex in which she lives. One of the lawn-care workers came to her residence after finding several identity cards while working in a garden in the complex.

My reader knew the owner of the cards, who was another resident of the condominium, so she took them and returned them to their owner. In doing so she learned that the resident's wallet had been stolen. The thief apparently had ditched the identity cards while going through the wallet, which remained unaccounted for, along with the rest of its contents.

Later that day the same worker came to my reader's door again. He hadn't found the stolen wallet, but he had come across drug paraphernalia in the same vicinity where he had found the identity cards. The paraphernalia was sitting on the rear-window ledge of a condo unit where a young man lives with his father.

"Maybe the two incidents are related," my reader writes, "maybe it was just a coincidence."

Motivated by concern and, she insists, "without making any judgments," she went to speak with the father of the young man. She let him know what had been found on the rear windowsill of his condo, and the father said that he would "handle it."

My reader has not told anyone else in the community about the incident, nor has she asked the father what action he took, if any.

"It seems, however, very likely that the son was the owner of the `stuff,"' she writes.

Her concerns were given a new immediacy, however, when a second neighbor told her how wonderful she thinks the son is, and mentioned that he helps her with all of her electronic questions in her condo.

"So he is in her house fairly often," my reader writes.

You know what's coming: My reader wonders whether or not she should tell the second neighbor what happened earlier.

She is, of course, wrestling with a common and often agonizing question. Does she owe it to the son not to sully his reputation, granted that she has no proof that the drug paraphernalia was his, let alone that he was involved in the theft of the wallet? Or does she owe it to her second neighbor to share her suspicions about the son, since if her suspicions are correct her neighbor's security is obviously at risk?

The right thing for my reader is not to say nothing. If something were to happen to the second neighbor, she would be rightfully upset at my reader for not alerting her to the situation.

That doesn't mean, however, that she should rush over to warn her friend that there's a thieving drug addict in her living room. As she points out, the two incidents may or may not have been connected, and for that matter she has no real proof that the drug paraphernalia belonged to the son -- it might have been the father's, for example. If she said as much to the second neighbor, she might be wrongfully accusing her teenage neighbor.

The right thing for my reader to do is to urge the second neighbor to exercise extreme caution about letting people into her apartment. It's entirely fair to mention that a neighbor had his wallet stolen and that drug paraphernalia has been found in the area -- these are facts, and she not only can but should share them with her neighbor.

Armed with the facts, but not with unproven speculation, the second neighbor can draw her own conclusions. It's quite possible that she'll decide to find someone else to help set the clock on her VCR. If she doesn't, however, my reader should back off. Having conveyed the facts of the situation, she's done all she can or ought to do.

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

SOUND OFF: A TAXING SITUATION

The majority of readers who responded to an unscientific poll on my column's blog believe that Rep. Charles Rangel (D.-N.Y.) should step down as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, as a result of his failure to include in his tax return rental income from a vacation home he owns in a Dominican Republic resort.

Neal White of Atlanta shares the opinion of 66 percent of my readers who believe that Rep. Rangel should step down from his committee post.

"Absolutely, Congressman Charlie Rangel should resign his post as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee," White writes.

Should his misstep also cost him his seat in the House? Yes, replied 19 percent of my respondents.

But 15 percent of those taking the poll said that Rangel should keep both his seat and his chairmanship.

"Tax laws are convoluted," writes William Jacobson of Cypress, Calif., "and any of us might be guilty of the same lapse under IRS review. Let him do what the rest of us do: Pay the lapse, pay a (probably very stiff) fine and move on."

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)

An ancient text teaches us that life's too short not to get along

"Soon you will be dead," can be a great admonition to yourself when trying to put things in perspective. It's also a comm...