Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Lies vs. Metaphors

Here's a short clip from The Colbert Report where presidential inaugural poet, Elizabeth Alexander, tries to explain the difference between a metaphor and a lie to Stephen Colbert.

[Sent to me by friend and colleague Leslie Brokaw.]


Sunday, January 25, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: THE COST OF DOING GOOD

More often than not, doing the right thing results in a good outcome. In the workplace that makes sense, since good ethical behavior often parallels good management decisions: Treat your employees with respect, for example, and they're likely to be more productive and more inclined to work for the greater good of the company.

Let's face it, though: There are times when doing the right thing can cause pain. Sure, the action may have a payoff in the long term, but that doesn't diminish the pain in the short term.

A reader who is a licensed therapist learned this firsthand after leaving her most recent job as a supervisor for a mental-health agency.

One of the therapists whom she had been assigned to supervise had memory problems which led her to make significant billing errors. When my reader brought the problem to the attention of the agency's administration, the memory-impaired therapist was transferred to another supervisor. No action was taken to correct the billing.

Soon afterward my reader was assigned to coordinate one of her agency's specialty programs. The therapist she had reported previously was seeing clients through this program. Again my reader brought this therapist's billing errors to the attention of the administration, and again nothing was done to address the issue or to correct the resulting errors.

"When I left the agency for another position," my reader writes, "I felt I had done all I could to solve this problem and could not do anything further."

For her new position, however, she attended a compliance-training program and learned that the type of errors her former supervisee repeatedly made were considered fraud. If a licensed therapist has knowledge of fraud and doesn't report it, the trainer told the group, her license is at risk.

So my reader called the county fraud hot line and reported the errors. As a result of her call, her previous employer's billing was audited and her complaint was substantiated.

The call itself was confidential, but the fact that the audit team looked specifically at one particular therapist's work led the agency staff to conclude that it was my reader who had made the fraud complaint. Since the audit, none of her former colleagues will talk to her or respond to written communication.

"The difficult part of this is that I have lost all of my friendships at the agency," she writes. "I have accepted that the relationships are over, but I still wonder if I did the right thing."

I'm rarely one to quote scripture, but there's a terrific passage in the Book of Isaiah that captures the essence of this experience: "So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance. Truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. Truth is lacking, and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey."

Because my reader stood up when those around her refused to acknowledge a serious ethical lapse -- and, as it turned out, serious illegality -- she has been left open to the judgments of her former co-workers, even though the audit confirmed what she had been saying all along.

She was correct to report the billing errors, first to her administrators and then to the hot line when it was clear that otherwise no action would be taken to correct the issue. In the long run her profession benefits from her willingness to report the issue, not solely because of any legalities, but also because it was the right thing to do.

As for her former colleagues, they did and are doing the wrong thing. That my reader was forced to go to an outside authority is their own fault, and they should not blame her personally for taking an action which, if left undone, might have placed her own career in jeopardy.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: MY OPEN FACEBOOK

My readers were split on how far an employer should go in using Facebook pages, Myspace pages or blog posts to determine whether or not to hire an otherwise qualified candidate with a solid work history and strong recommendations. In an informal poll on my column's blog, 52 percent of my readers said that employers should be able to use these pages and posts in evaluating a job candidate.

"Anyone who thinks that they can have an anonymous online life while living a public life needs to get real," writes Andrea Useem of Virginia.

But another reader wonders "(where we) draw the line with our personal life becoming professional business and vice versa." This reader is very careful to keep professional information out of her profiles, partly to keep employers from "nosing around my dating profiles."

Thomas Ward of Wisconsin thinks that anything aired publicly, whether actually or virtually, is fair game.

"When we publish information about ourselves and put it on the Web for anyone to consume," Ward says, "we open a door that has consequences. As a professional recruiter, I use every tool I have to read a candidate. Web search is a common tool."

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.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Steve Jobs Health Disclosures

Discussion about Steve Jobs and disclosures about his health on WGBH's Greater Boston.

video

[Read earlier discussion of Steve Jobs on the blog by clicking here.]

SOUND OFF: MOVING UP OR MOVING OUT

Jeff Jagodzinski, the football coach for Boston College, recently interviewed for a job as coach of the New York Jets, a higher-paying job in professional football. He had been warned by the college's athletic director, Gene DeFilippo, that he would be fired if he interviewed for the Jets job, but did so anyway and was fired shortly thereafter. He apparently will not get the job with the Jets.

Jagodzinski was under contract to Boston College, but it is not unusual for college coaches under contract to leave for NFL jobs. Do you think it's right to fire someone, with or without a warning, for interviewing for another job? Or is an employee entitled to seek to better him/herself?

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.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

THE RIGHT THING: WHEN THE END IS NEAR FOR A PET

When I was a freshman in college, my mother called to tell me that she and my father had decided to euthanize our family dog, a beagle-terrier mix that my father had bought for the family at an animal shelter when my sister and I were very young.

P.J. -- named for my sister, Patti, and myself -- had been sick since before I went off to school, suffering from a tumor that the veterinarian believed to be inoperable.

It was a difficult telephone call, but I remember feeling odd that I wasn't as upset as I thought I should have been. Partly I was preoccupied with settling into my first semester of school, but also for several months I had understood that our dog would likely not make it through the end of the fall semester.

The memory wafted up after a reader from Waunakee, Wisc., wrote with a question about her pets.

"We love our dog and cats," she writes, "and they have been a source of great comfort and love for us. But now they are getting old. At what point do we let them die in peace or put them to sleep?"

My reader knows that her veterinarian can sell her many medical supplies that will help keep the animals alive for a few more years. She points out, however, that these items cost a great deal of money.

"Just a few years ago," she continues, "there was no treatment for these illnesses, and we would have kept them comfortable until we had to euthanize them."

Advancements in veterinary science have made it possible to prolong a pet's life longer than before, but she's not sure that it's the right thing to do.

"How do we make these decisions now?" she asks. "How do we take care of our pets, whom we dearly love, without wiping out all of our savings? Where do we draw the line without betraying our pets?"

Hers is a question that will likely be faced eventually by all pet owners except the very elderly and those who live with long-lived parrots or tortoises. It's a highly personal decision, but one that requires some pointed questions.

To start with, how will keeping a pet alive affect its quality of life? Simply because there are surgeries that can be performed, or medicines that can be administered, doesn't guarantee that a pet won't continue to suffer from an underlying disease or from the decline brought on by the aging process.

My reader also needs to consider how taking extraordinary measures will affect her own quality of life, however. Will the expense of medicine or surgery for her pets leave her unable to pay her day-to-day bills? Will it force her to forgo putting aside money for a child's education or the purchase of a home?

The questions about costs should, of course, be asked by anyone with a pet, regardless of its health. If you can't afford to own a particular pet without jeopardizing your own standard of living, then -- for the sake of the pet and for your own sake -- it's best to find a home for the pet with a family that can better afford it.

The right thing for any pet owner to do, when the pet nears its end, is to discuss these issues with a veterinarian who can lay out the options. As long as it is made thoughtfully and not capriciously, the decision to conclude a pet's life is not a matter of betrayal but rather of deciding how best to let a beloved member of the household live out the end of its life.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: A PASSING AGGRAVATION

Not long ago, while driving on a long, flat stretch of freeway in central Wyoming, a reader from Salt Lake City faced a dilemma.

My reader, P.W., tries not to exceed posted speed limits, he says, for "ethical and safety considerations." Typically he stays in the right lane and watches as other drivers barrel by on the left.

That's what he did for most of the drive on the Wyoming freeway, which was divided, with two lanes running in each direction. The posted speed limit was 75 miles per hour, and even at that rate people were whizzing past P.W.

But then P.W. came to a stretch of at least 10 miles where road work was underway. The freeway narrowed to only one lane in each direction, and the posted speed limit was reduced to 50 miles per hour.

After a short period of driving at 50 miles per hour, P.W. noticed that, while there were no cars in front of him, a long line of cars was strung out behind him.

"It was clear," he writes, "that, by following what I thought was right, I was inconveniencing many other people."

So P.W. accelerated, violating his ethical beliefs and risking a speeding ticket -- in a construction area, no less, where fines are doubled.

"I let public pressure force me to go against my values," P.W. writes. "I'm sure it was the practical thing to do, but I'd like to have your take on the ethical viewpoint."

Public pressure can work in unusual ways. Once, while I was driving in Georgetown, a suburb of Washington, I made a right-hand turn when the traffic light was yellow. Awaiting me was a police officer who had already pulled over three or four drivers at the same intersection.

As she took out her ticket book, one of the other drivers shouted out his window, "Give him a ticket! Give him a ticket!"

Presumably he wanted me to have a ticket to match the one he already had received. He didn't get what he wanted, though: The officer looked over at the yelling man, looked down at her citation book and then stepped back. With an exaggerated, sweeping motion of her arms she directed me to drive on.

Public pressure, in the form of the other driver's shouting, apparently changed her mind about giving me a ticket.

In P.W.'s case, he knew that he was wrong to break the speed limit while driving through the construction zone on that Wyoming freeway. But the drivers lining up behind him made him feel that he was inconveniencing them and/or annoying them by keeping them from driving as quickly as they would ordinarily have been doing ... regardless of the posted limits.

Often we're faced with situations in which we choose to do or not do something -- to turn a blind eye to inappropriate behavior at work or not to turn in a classmate for cheating, for example, or to speed because everyone else is speeding -- because we don't want others to think ill of us. So we do the wrong thing in order to fit in.

No lives were at risk when P.W. observed the speed limit, only the patience of the drivers behind him. It would have made for an awkward 12 minutes or so of driving, but the right thing for him to do was to follow his values and observe the speed limit, regardless of how many cars accumulated behind him. As soon as it was possible, of course, he should have pulled over and let the speeders pass.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: FIRE THE LIAR

One of the most responded-to of the informal polls on my column's blog also resulted in one of the most lopsided tallies: Of the readers who responded, a hefty 95 percent believed that an executive who is discovered to have listed false academic credentials on his or her resume should be fired.

"Why would a company want dishonest people working for them?" one reader asks. If an executive lies on a resume, he adds, "why would you trust this same person with confidential company information?"

Marguerite Rathbone of California absolutely agrees.

"An executive should be fired, not allowed just to resign, if they gave any false information on a resume," Rathbone says. "If they lied on something so easily verified, what else would they lie about?"

Bill Chase of Mission Viejo, Calif., would terminate any employee after verifying that false claims had been made on his or her resume. He'd go further, though, and, if called for a reference, would tell prospective future employers of the reason for termination.

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.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, January 04, 2009

SOUND OFF: THE COFFEE VOTE

On Election Day a national coffee-shop chain in the United States offered a free cup of coffee to anyone who told the clerk that he or she had voted. Would you consider telling the clerk that you already voted, in order to get the free coffee, even if you hadn't, if you knew that you were going to vote later in the day?

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.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

THE RIGHT THING: WHAT WAS I THINKING?

As always at the turn of the year, it's time to reassess the past 12 months -- which, for me, means to reconsider a handful of columns that made some readers wonder, "What were you thinking?"

Four columns in particular drew responses that prompted me to revisit some of the issues therein.

COUPON RETURNS.

Back in March I advised Jennifer Schwanke of Columbus, Ohio, that she had done the right thing by deciding not to use the coupons that were given her for purchasing a freezer, after she had decided to return the freezer. The coupons provided discounts at various area food stores.

Laurie Marshall, owner of Kelly's Coffee and Fudge Factory in Anaheim, Calif., and Rachael Ritchie, owner of GoodFella's Pizza in Athens, Ohio, both took me to task for missing the retailer's point of view. Coupons are meant to draw business, they pointed out, and the stores that issued the coupons don't care whether or not she kept the freezer.

"I am struggling to get people in my door," Marshall wrote. "Using the coupon would get her into my store when she might not otherwise come in."

Ritchie and Marshall are correct, and I was wrong. As long as the retailer from whom Schwanke almost bought the freezer attached no strings to use of the coupons, using them would be perfectly fair. Nobody would suffer for it, and she and the food stores might both benefit.

THY NEIGHBOR'S TRASH.

A reader was concerned that, when their trash can was filled, her husband was putting their excess trash into the trash can of their neighbor, who has unused space. The neighbor had noticed, grown irate and eventually expressed her displeasure by depositing the garbage atop the husband's car.

In May I told my reader that her husband was wrong, and that he should seek permission before placing his excess trash in his neighbor's barrels.

"This is ridiculous," one reader wrote. "What difference does it make to the woman if he puts trash in her trash to be picked up? It's ludicrous that she gets upset."

Trash pickup seems to trigger vehement emotions among my readers. I had another 2008 column relating to this subject -- concerning an overzealous trash collector who made off with a reader's recyclables -- and it too drew some passionate responses.

In this case, though, I have to stick with my original response. I agree that the neighbor overreacted, but she was right to resent the husband's trash deposit. Her trash cans are not public wastebaskets and, in any case, many municipalities prohibit the depositing of household trash in public wastebaskets. They're her cans, so she gets to decide what goes in them. If he wanted to do the right thing, the husband should have asked permission.

IKEA ADS DISASSEMBLED.

"You'd have to be pretty dense not to pick up on the humor of the Ikea ads that poke fun at shoppers mistakenly thinking that they are taking advantage of what are permanently low prices," wrote Charlie Seng of Lancaster, S.C. "Your reader who was annoyed by the ad is a person looking to be annoyed."

I found the ad amusing, but wondered if Ikea had missed the boat by not considering having a consumer in the ad argue with the clerk that she had rung up a price that was too low. This would have shone a light on customers who try to be honest, instead of on those who try to get away with something.

I don't believe my reader missed the humor of the ad, any more than I did. I think that serious points can be made through humor, however, and I'd have liked to see Ikea work harder to do the right thing in its ads.

UNFORBIDDEN FRUIT.

Finally, in August a reader in Cypress, Calif., wondered if it would be wrong to pick a lemon or two from a tree that hangs over the fence of a nearby house and onto the nearby sidewalk. Her husband had told her that it would be wrong. She wasn't so sure.

I felt that the right thing to do would again involve getting permission from the tree's owner.

Gerald Boyden of Anaheim, Calif., was among a number of readers taking issue with my response.

"That fruit is considered to be residing `in the public domain,"' Boyden wrote. "It belongs to anyone who cares to claim it. There is no violation of ethics involved."

I noted in the original column that there was nothing wrong with helping oneself from a legal point of view, because Cypress has no ordinance against picking overhanging fruit. But what's legal is not always what's ethical, and most of the time ethical behavior requires more than simply not violating the law.

The law may not take cognizance of the fact that the tree has been raised, watered, nourished, tended and maintained by its owner, not by passers-by. Ethical considerations do take that fact into account, however, so I still think that the right thing is to ask the owner's permission. Legalities aside, it's the civil and fair thing to do, and therefore it's the ethical choice to make.

I know my readers will continue to do the right thing by sharing their wisdom with me by e-mailing me at rightthing@nytimes.com as the new year progresses.

c.2009 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...