Sunday, December 28, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: THE BEST OF YEARS, THE WORST OF YEARS

It's time for my annual look back at some of the more egregious ethical lapses that have plagued the previous twelve months.

As always, I also offer positive alternatives to the questionable actions of many high-profile people in the news. I believe that as much can be learned from those people who do the right thing as from those who don't.

GETTING OBAMA OFF ON THE WRONG FOOT.

On January 20, Inauguration Day, a sea of people will descend on Washington to witness the swearing-in of a new president. Lodging will likely be scarce. Some residents are offering up their well-placed apartments for $1,000 a day. Hotels are charging a premium for any rooms not already booked.

None of that is unethical per se, but some people are going too far. Recently ads on Craigslist were offering to sell hotel reservations for a nonrefundable $300. This doesn't include the cost of the minimum four-night stay at the hotel, which will add more than $1,000 to the tab. Essentially, as The Washington Post points out, some guy wants you to pay him $300 to make a reservation for you!

Compare this to Earl Stafford, founder of a Virginia technology company, who paid $1 million to book hotel rooms to accommodate wounded soldiers, poor people and others who couldn't afford to participate in the inauguration otherwise. According to The New York Times, "He said he wanted to help people who have worked hard and done everything right but who find themselves without a job or home."

EVERYONE (OF YOU) WILL HAVE TO SACRIFICE.

Not a week had passed, after the federal government's $85 billion bailout of the insurance company AIG, before some of its executives were treated to a spa vacation, running up a tab totaling more than $440,000. This, after AIG's CEO had told Congress that the company was facing a "financial global tsunami."

Financial tsunamis can make seasoned executives lose their poise, but doling out expensive vacations while crying poverty in an effort to get ahold of government funds suggests that these ones also lost their senses.

The incongruity was lost on AIG's leaders, but it didn't escape some university presidents who were asking their institutions to tighten their belts. Among them were Mark Wrighton, president of Washington University in St. Louis, who announced that he would take a 5-percent cut in his base salary come Jan. 1, and another 5-percent cut on July 1.

It packs a bit more ethical oomph, if you're asking people to tighten their belts, when you're willing to tighten your own.

WHEN GOOD MEN SAY STUPID THINGS.

To start with some disclosure: The actor and comedian Denis Leary is a graduate of, and a generous alumnus of, Emerson College, where I teach. My wife is a therapist who works with autistic children.

Leary has taken some hits for his new book, in which he attributes the boom in autism cases to "inattentive mothers and competitive dads" who throw money away to have their children diagnosed "to explain away their deficiencies."

His quote was taken out of context, Leary insists. And, to be fair, there are indeed some parents who look for any reason to explain their children's behavior other than their own lack of parenting skills. Had he simply stopped there, he might have done some good by addressing parental responsibility.

If you read on, however, Leary reveals a virtually complete lack of understanding of the process of autism diagnosis. In other words, in context the quote puts Leary in an even worse light than it does when pulled out and left to stand on its own.

OK, everyone has a right to an opinion, however wrongheaded. In the opinion of many highly trained professionals, including the one at my breakfast table, Leary's take on the issue is absurd. But that isn't itself unethical.

It reaches that level, however, when he uses his celebrity status to air his views to a readership who, themselves knowing little about the subject, don't realize how uninformed he is and may even take seriously the facetious byline, "Dr. Denis Leary" -- his only doctorate, I believe, is an honorary one from Emerson. It's especially unethical if, as I suspect, he overstates his own opinion for the sake of a laugh.

Also guilty of substandard ethics: Leary's publisher, Viking. Leary is used to spouting off-the-cuff rants onstage, and may not know any other way to work. Viking doesn't have that excuse. It's the job of any reputable publisher to make sure that what it prints is fair, accurate and not likely to do harm to others.

Groups such as Parents of Autistic Children -- at www.poac.net -- whose purpose is to help families with an autistic child get services and learn to cope day-to-day, don't enjoy Leary's spotlight. Nonetheless, they and the many service providers who work with them have a far deeper understanding of this issue, and it's a pity that their insights won't receive the circulation that Leary's have.

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

SOUND OFF: PARDON MY PARDON

Roughly 89 percent of the readers who responded to an unscientific poll on my column's blog thought that it was unethical for a president to pardon someone whose illegal actions may have involved him or his administration.

The most thoughtful response comes from Sean O'Leary, a reader in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

"Pardons of all kinds can be just, compassionate and even necessary," he writes, "because they can take into account a wider range of factors than might be considered pertinent in a court of law. Just pardons increase accountability by making more known and taking more into consideration ... Granting a presidential pardon to a crony whose crimes are a matter of public record is less troubling than granting a pardon for the specific purpose of preventing the crimes underlying the pardon from being fully investigated and becoming a matter of public record ... Just pardons increase accountability. Unjust pardons reduce accountability."

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, December 21, 2008

SOUND OFF: GET OUT OF MY FACEBOOK

The New York Times and other media have reported that people seeking to work in the White House for the Obama administration are being required to provide vetters with, among other things, links to any blog posts they've made, links to their Facebook pages and "all aliases or `handles' you have used to communicate on the Internet."

Granted, work in the White House is likely to involve more sensitive issues than you'll come across in most workplaces. But employers can use the way prospective employees project themselves on the Internet as a screen for employment decisions, even if these things are not part of the official application process.

Should employers use Facebook pages, Myspace pages or blog posts to determine whether an otherwise qualified candidate with a solid work history and strong recommendations gets a job?

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 THINGS WE LEAVE BEHIND

When my friend Bruce went to clear out his mother's house after she died, he found labels attached to every physical thing in the house, from furniture to trinkets in old dresser drawers. His mother had lived alone for some time and, preparing for the day when she would no longer be around, had decided to make life a little easier on her only child. The labels bore instructions about where each of her belongings should go after her passing.

Bruce's story reminded me of a time I was visiting one of my college professors. As I was leaving her house, I admired a framed, antique print of the college campus that hung in her foyer. She lifted the print off the wall and showed me how it had been passed from one professor to another, each leaving instructions on the back of the print as to who should receive it upon his or her death. Hers was only the latest among many handwritten notes on the print.

I've long thought that the approach taken by Bruce's mother and by my college professor in directing how their possessions should be disposed of shows great thoughtfulness. Their wishes upon death were made clear, avoiding any number of subsequent conflicts.

Sadly, more often than not, such desires are not made clear.

Ten years ago, for example, the mother of four sisters died. The oldest of the sisters always had thought that, as the eldest, she would be the recipient of her mother's jewelry. Upon her mother's death, however, one of her younger sisters took possession of the jewelry.

"It's mostly costume jewelry," the oldest sister adds, "having more sentimental than monetary value."

Initially the sisters could not bring themselves to discuss sharing their mother's jewelry, because it brought up too many emotions. But now my reader and her younger sisters are finally meeting to try to distribute the jewelry.

"Should the jewelry traditionally go to the eldest when there are four sisters?" my reader asks.

In this case, obviously, it didn't -- so apparently that wasn't this family's tradition. But my reader's real question is whether it's the right thing for the eldest daughter in a family to get all the jewelry.

The short answer: No. Absent legal instructions, or a note attached to the jewelry, there is no ethical reason for any one child to be favored over the others.

By not leaving instructions prior to her death, my reader's mother essentially employed a strategy used by many parents in an effort to help their children learn to get along: If you listen carefully, you can almost hear the words, "Work it out among yourselves," wafting over the four women.

The right thing for them to do now is to gather so that each can express her desires. My reader can express her view that, as the oldest daughter, she is entitled to keep the whole lot. Because her mother never expressed that desire, however, she may have a hard time convincing her sisters. A better goal would be to achieve some agreement on how the jewelry can be shared to everyone's satisfaction.

Granted, 10 years is a long time to wait to decide the right thing to do. But we can't read the minds of those who have died. Some things simply take time to work out among ourselves.

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

Saturday, December 20, 2008

ECONOWHINER.COM ON ETHICS

"How has this economic downturn forced you to make ethical choices in your business or personal life? What do you see happening in the world around you?"

Those two questions are the tag on an interview with me posted this morning on the Econowhiner website, a website whose tagline is: "Surviving and Thriving in Tough Times."

The interview grew out of a question Econowhiner received from a reader about choosing not to layoff her employees and instead cutting her own paycheck to keep them on. I've written about the ethics of layoffs before in The Right Thing column, in "In Downsizing, Loyalty is a Two-Way Street." That was back in 2001, during an economic downturn that pales in comparison to what we're experiencing today.

What the Econowhiner interview gets at is whether very tough economic times force people to make ethical decisions differently. You might want to take a look at the interview by clicking here.

You can post comments here or on the Econowhiner website.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: A DEATH THREAT IN THE TRASH

"Here's an ethical question for you," the mother of a fourth grader writes. "If a student writes a note in anger, threatening to do something, but then throws the note away before giving it to anyone, should he still be punished?"

My reader's 9-year-old son was playing with a folded-up piece of paper that he had made into a football that he could flick around his school desktop with his fingers. Another student in the class kept grabbing the paper football from the 9-year-old. This upset him, but he continued to grab back his football until his classmate finally captured it and held it too firmly for the 9-year-old to retrieve.

The 9-year-old took out a piece of paper and scribbled a note to the football thief.

"Give me back my football," he wrote in pencil, "or I'll kill you."

He stared at the note for a moment, then thought better of delivering it. Instead he crumpled it up and threw it into a waste basket.

A third student saw the paper in the wastebasket and retrieved it. He uncrumpled it, read the scrawled message and was alarmed. So he gave the note to the recess monitor.

All of this took place late on a Monday afternoon, with no school that Tuesday. As the 9-year-old was getting ready to go home, the monitor approached him.

"You will have to meet with your teacher and me on Wednesday," the monitor said, "to discuss that note you wrote."

When the 9-year-old's mother, my reader, picked him up at school, he settled into the back seat. She asked how his day had been, and he burst out crying.

"I never want to go back to that school," he repeated over and over through his tears.

It's important to know that the 9-year-old never had been in trouble at school for any minor misbehavior, let alone anything violent. His grades are strong, and he has many friends. And it's even more important to remember that, while the language in the note was strong for an era of zero tolerance of any hint of violence in schools, he had crumpled it up and thrown it away.

After sweating it out for two days, my reader's son returned to school. During recess he was told to stay in and talk to his teacher and the recess monitor. His punishment: Writing a letter of apology to the student who had been spooked after retrieving the original note.

Calming the garbage picker seemed wise, so my reader's son wrote the apology without complaint.

From an ethical standpoint, however, the 9-year-old had nothing to apologize for. He did the right thing at the outset, when he used his judgment to discern that the note he had written in haste was wrong and again when he threw it away.

On the other hand, the teachers failed by not addressing the incident on the day that it happened, particularly since there was no school the next day. Making the 9-year-old agonize about what his punishment might be, imagining everything from no recess to expulsion, showed poor judgment at best. They weren't trying to teach him a lesson by making him wait, they simply failed to use common sense in resolving the issue.

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

SOUND OFF: LOVE IN THE WORKPLACE

Is it a company's place to dictate who can and cannot fall in love in the workplace? According to 37 percent of the readers who responded to an informal poll on my column's blog, the answer is yes. The remaining 63 percent said no.

"Only bad things can happen during an office romance," one reader writes.

On the other hand, while Megan Chromik of Cambridge, Mass., thinks that a workplace relationship can make work difficult, she still doesn't believe that "a company should have the right to say who can and can't date and fall in love."

R.K., a reader in Florida, thinks the company should and does have that right.

"Aren't employers entitled to prohibit such employee relationships?" R.K. asks. "It's sad when trouble arises from the deceit that secretive office couples sometimes engage in."

"It crosses an ethical line for a boss to `strike up an affair' with someone at the office," writes Phil Clutts of Harrisburg, N.C. "But, if genuine romance evolves from working together, it's not the company's business if the relationship doesn't affect the company or either party's future in it in any way."

R. Brooks of Fullerton, Calif., takes a similar hands-off line.

"How else are hardworking people to meet other people?" Brooks observes. "The workplace is a prime place to meet people with similar interests."

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, December 07, 2008

SOUND OFF: GAMBLING ON A RESUME

Recently J. Terrence Lanni resigned as the CEO of the MGM Mirage hotel in Las Vegas. He did so after The Wall Street Journal raised questions about whether he actually held an M.B.A. from the University of Southern California, as company publicity materials claimed he did. USC told the Journal that it had no record of his degree. Lanni said, however, that his resignation had nothing to do with the allegations.

More and more top executives are finding their academic credentials questioned. Do you think an executive should be asked to resign if it is discovered that he or she has listed false academic information on a resume?

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 CAN PLAN CRUSHED

Many neighbors seek out Dodie for advice. A regular reader of this column in southern California, she tries her best to help out when she can -- but sometimes she is simply flummoxed as to how to respond.

That was the case recently, when a friend came to her with a question about her trash company.

It seems that her friend regularly puts out her trash on the curb alongside her recycling bins for pickup. Recently, however, the garbage men not only picked up what had been left on her curb, but also walked into her yard and carried off the recycling that she had stored in bags leaning against her house.

The bags clearly had not been left for trash pickup, so the friend called the trash company to see if she could "get the situation fixed." The company explained that, unfortunately, the driver was new and didn't know better than to walk into her yard and take something that was on her private property.

This fell a little short of an apology, but my reader's friend was hoping for more than an apology. She is a single mother, raising a young teenager, and had counted on the money from recycling her own cans to help with her daughter's soccer costs. An apology would be welcome, but wouldn't address her basic problem.

Dodie wants to know the right thing for the trash company to do.

Every municipality has its own code regarding things such as trash pickup. Apparently there's nothing explicit in Dodie's town code that indicates that a law was broken, but it seems pretty clear that the trash collector overstepped his bounds here.

What's more, in its list of residential services, the disposal company specifically defines the type and size of trash containers and stipulates that all trash must be placed at curbside. Trash improperly packaged or not placed at curbside will not be picked up. Therefore the trash collector broke his own company's policy when he went into the friend's yard to pick up the garbage bags full of recycling.

Clearly there's no malice involved here. The trash collector was doubtless well-intentioned and thought that he was doing the resident a favor by hauling off garbage bags that he wasn't technically obliged to remove. Nonetheless, he had no right to go into the yard to do so. Grabbing every bag in sight is beyond his call of duty, and sooner or later was bound to result in him taking stuff that people had no intention of throwing away. I can recall some early moves to new apartments in which I carted all of my belongings in green garbage bags.

Placing aside the law -- since I am, after all, not a lawyer -- and focusing on the ethics of the situation -- since I am, after all, an ethics columnist -- an apology would be a good first step. If the trash company wants to do the right thing, however, having admitted that the bag of recyclables was taken mistakenly, it should consider reimbursing her for the cash value of the cans that she lost. Or it might consider crediting her trash-collection bill for that day's pickup.

Even when the economy is not forcing people to watch costs and be more meticulous about returning cans for deposit, the stuff we store on our lawns should be safe from over-vigilant garbage collectors. The company should do whatever it can to ensure that a young girl's soccer plans are not trashed.

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

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Right Thing Stories

For the weekly newspaper ethics column I write for the New York Times Syndicate called "The Right Thing," I am always looking for stories of ethical challenges, dilemmas, and perplexing situations. If you have such a story or question based on an incident and would like it to be considered for the column, please email it to me at rightthing@nytimes.com. (Or you can post it here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below.

Please make sure to include enough details about the story, the issue that you're wrestling with, and your name and the city and state or province where you are located. Include a way for me to contact you.

If you know of others who might have interesting stories, please forward this email on to them.

If you're local paper doesn't carry The Right Thing column and you'd like it to, you can send an email to the editor of the paper suggesting they contact the New York Times Syndicate. Contact information is available at http://nytsyn.com/saleinfo.html. (Or contact Sales Manager Ana Muñoz at munoza@nytimes.com or 212.499.3333 and tell her the name of your local newspaper that you believe should be carrying the column.)

Thanks in advance for your stories.

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