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Sunday, February 22, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: HAS THIS PARENT CROSSED THE LINE?

Walking in a store shortly after Christmas, a frequent reader of this column saw a parent "tap" an apparently misbehaving young girl who looked to be about 7 years old.

"I almost followed them to their car to get their license plate and report them," he writes, but decided not to because he didn't want to neglect his own children.

So what is a "tap?"

"It was more than a pat, but less than a hit," my reader says.

He goes on to say that he considers a pat to be a gentle touch, while a tap has the kind of force you might use in swatting a fly, enough to make an audible noise if applied to a piece of wood.

"I wanted to do something," he writes. "But what was the right thing, not knowing what happened before the incident?"

It's a normal impulse to want to ensure the safety of children. It's also common, however, for even a good parent occasionally to lose composure when dealing with a child in a public place.

I make the latter observation not in an effort to condone striking a child, but merely to acknowledge that not everyone who does so is a confirmed child-batterer. Even the most well-intentioned parent can't always control his or her own behavior in trying to control a child -- which my reader knows perfectly well.

"I am not perfect myself," he admits. "I've had my own share of problems to deal with."

If it is absolutely clear that a child is being abused and physically beaten, no one should hesitate to intervene -- or to ask store security to do so -- or, later on, to report the incident. But this episode didn't involve that level of abuse.

In the past, my reader says, when he has witnessed parents who he believes have "crossed the line" by striking or yelling at a child, he has intervened, but gently: He asked the parents, "Is there a problem I can help you with?" or "Do you need help?"

By engaging these parents by offering help, I believe my reader did the right thing. Such an approach is less antagonistic than "He is only a child!" or "Stop beating your kid, you wacko!" The confrontational approach, by placing the parent in question on the defensive, has a good chance of escalating an incident.

In situations such as the one my reader raises, in which you really don't know the specifics of the situation, the ethical response is to engage the parent and let him or her know that others are witnessing what's going on, even if you don't say so directly. The shock of having another adult express concern might force the parent to recognize that "tapping" might not be the best solution to a child's unruliness. Hearing another member of the community offer help or express concern gives the parent a moment to step back and reassess how he or she is behaving.

In this case, my reader's response was proper, proportionate and, yes, ethical. The key phrase in his report of the incident is "less than a hit." If he saw a parent hit a child -- or, indeed, saw any adult hit any child -- he would have a clear ethical responsibility to intervene. Because this case did not rise to that level, his obligation did not rise to the point of intervention.

His concern is understandable, but it is not my reader's responsibility to chase every parent who taps a child out to the parking lot. We should always err on the side of caution when it comes to protecting children, but it's also important to use common sense.

Some parents simply need to reassess how best to discipline their occasionally unruly children and, while my reader may be right in thinking that this parent's approach was inappropriate, it did not reach a level requiring him to take further action.

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

SOUND OFF: THE COACH GOT SACKED

Jeff Jagodzinski, the former football coach for Boston College, was fired after he interviewed for a job as head coach of the New York Jets, a higher-paying job in professional football. He had been warned by the college's athletic director that he would be fired if he interviewed for the Jets job, which he didn't get.

I asked readers if they thought that it was right to fire someone for interviewing for another job. Of the readers who responded to an unscientific poll on my column's blog, 22 percent thought that such firings were OK.

"If my employer warned me, and then I interviewed anyway," Clayton Eads opines, "I'd deserve a firing."

But another reader writes: "This is America, and since when is it not legal to better oneself, as long as it is done on your time, not company time?"

Patrick Harvey of Mission Viejo, Calif., acknowledges that, though the practice of tearing up contracts is often tolerated, Boston College had the right to enforce its contract.

"The downside," he writes, "is that it may make it difficult for the college to recruit future coaches if they know that they will be unable to break a contract and move up."

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, February 15, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: THE ETHICS OF SHOPPING

My 7-year-old grandson, Lucas, doesn't watch much television. He is, however, a connoisseur of infomercials.

For several months Lucas went on about the Iron Gym pull-up bar.

"It slides right over any door frame, Nana," he would tell my wife. "Have you seen it, Nana? It's really cool. If you act now, instead of two payments of $29.99, it's only $29.99 total."

My wife, of course, had no idea what an Iron Gym was. We decided to get Luke one for Christmas, though, and looked up the ad online. Before we purchased it, however, we shopped around a bit and saw that our local bed-and-bath store had the same product on sale for only $23.99.

We had done all of our research online and Luke had seen the product on television, but -- strange as it may seem -- the lowest price we could find was in fact at the "bricks and mortar" alternative, the bed-and-bath store, though it had done nothing to make us aware of that fact or to woo us as shoppers.

I was reminded of our Iron Gym experience when I received an e-mail from Jeff Eales, a reader in Mission Viejo, Calif.

He wanted to buy a certain item for his son, so he went to a store that he knew to have good prices and online specials. Unfortunately that item was out of stock, so Eales drove to a second store that had the product in stock. His son tried it on and decided that this was indeed what he wanted, but the price was quite a bit higher than the first store typically charged. No sale.

After returning home, however, Eales decided to look on the first store's Web site. He ordered the product online and had it delivered to the first store, where he picked it up about a week later. He ended up spending about 15 percent less than he would have paid at the second store, where his son actually tried on the product.

His son didn't believe that they were cheating the second store by going there and "touching, feeling and trying on the product" before buying it elsewhere, my reader writes. Eales, on the other hand, had some misgivings, since the second store has rent, employees and other costs incurred in displaying its wares.

"But since the price was about 15 percent more there," he says, "we knew we wouldn't buy it there. In a sense we were `using' the store."

Since they knew they were ultimately going to buy the product at the first store, Eales asks, was he ethically wrong in his visit to the second store?

Retailers may cringe at my answer, but no -- Eales not only acted ethically, but also acted sensibly. As a frequent patron of the second store, where he has spent thousands of dollars through the years, he might have told its manager that he had seen the same product offered for 15 percent less elsewhere and given him the opportunity to match that price. He was under no ethical obligation to do so, however.

Shopping for the best price is smart and ethical. Eales did the right thing by finding a place where he could let his son try on the product, to make sure that it was indeed something he wanted, and then to go buy the product where he could get the best price.

When Lucas opened his present at Christmas and saw the Iron Gym, he was downright gleeful. He and his father went off to assemble it, but he quickly returned to the room with a question for my wife.

"You didn't pay $60 for this," he asked, "did you?"

He may be only 7, but Luke is a strong shopper.

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

SOUND OFF: HOUSE BAIL-OUT

Are people who contracted for mortgages which they couldn't afford, and should reasonably have known that they couldn't afford, entitled to expect relief from the government when they're faced with foreclosure? Are people who signed for mortgages which they could afford, but then lost their jobs, entitled to such relief?

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 two polls with these questions 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)

Sunday, February 08, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: TWO RINGS AND `DR. PHIL'

Elinor Kohler, a reader from Columbus, Ohio, was perturbed by a recent episode of the television program "Dr. Phil." The segment in question asked, "Would you return a diamond ring if a jeweler gave you the wrong one by mistake?"

The gist of the issue was that Eddie had proposed to Ashley and given her a lovely diamond ring, one that apparently they had picked out together. Crying, celebration and ring attachment ensued. The next day, however, Eddie received a call from the jeweler telling him that he had been given the wrong ring. The one he got was worth about $639 more than the one they actually had picked out.

The jeweler asked Eddie to return the ring. Eddie didn't want to, because by now he and Ashley were so sentimentally attached to this particular ring that he couldn't simply swap it for another one.

The jeweler asked Eddie to pay the difference in price. Eddie didn't want to, because the mistake had been the jeweler's, not his.

The jeweler took the issue to court, but Eddie didn't show up for the court date.

And they all ended up talking to Dr. Phil McGraw.

What irked my reader, though, was not the actions of either side in the dispute, but rather the solution that McGraw came up with.

"My first thought was that of course he should give back the ring or pay the difference," Kohler writes. "Dr. Phil thought otherwise."

He started by reminding the jeweler that it would cost more than $639 to sue the couple for the ring. So far, so good. The jeweler offered to settle for $500.

The couple still balked, so McGraw asked the jeweler if he would split the difference and take $320. He said yes, and the couple agreed.

Then -- and here's the kicker that really tossed my reader for a loop -- McGraw told the couple that he would pay the $320, and even treat them to a really nice dinner to celebrate getting the matter resolved.

"That just didn't seem right to me," Kohler writes. "What do you think?"

No matter how many jewelers have schooled me, I'm not sure I could tell the difference between similarly sized diamonds if they were in the same setting. But whether or not Eddie and Ashley made an honest mistake is not my reader's question.

Was the host wrong to negotiate a lower price, pay off the difference and then reward the couple with a nice meal?

Because the couple and the jeweler came to the show to seek McGraw's assistance in finding a solution, he did the right thing in trying to get the parties to reach a compromise.

And, while it may seem that his decision to pay the difference himself and send them out to dinner gave the couple everything they wanted and the jeweler only half, there was nothing untoward about that decision, so long as the outcome was not prearranged between McGraw and the couple.

It isn't relevant to the current discussion whether the court would have found for the couple or for the jeweler. The jeweler, in reaching a compromise, willingly waived whatever his legal rights might be, and he's perfectly free to do so. This isn't a case of McGraw imposing a verdict on the jeweler, willy nilly, but rather a case of his convincing both sides to give up part of what they hoped to get.

I understand Kohler's displeasure at McGraw's picking up the price of the ring. If the host, a wealthy man to whom the money isn't consequential, was going to open his own wallet, why not give the jeweler $639 at the beginning and save everyone the trouble?

But there's no reason -- again, assuming that things weren't arranged beforehand -- for McGraw not to be generous in this instance. And by waiting until after the compromise had been struck, he allowed the process of compromise to work its way to fruition, which may well have offered valuable lessons to both parties and to the viewing audience, and certainly made for more compelling television.

It may sit uneasy with those of us who pay full freight for the things we buy. But when someone wants to help someone else out of a financial pickle because they feel their pain, good on them. Next time I'm given merchandise that's more expensive than whatever I actually purchased, I'm still likely to return it rather than call Dr. Phil to help me out. But if you want to ring him up, go right ahead.

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

SOUND OFF: CAFFEINATED VOTERS

Most readers would not tell their local Starbucks clerk that they had voted, if they hadn't, simply to get a free cup of coffee. Still, 15 percent of the readers responding to an unscientific poll on my column's blog said that they would take the free cup of joe if they planned to vote later in the day.

"I was faced with specifically this quandary on Election Day," writes William Jacobson of Cypress, Calif. "While I did consider jumping for the free cup of coffee pre-voting, I did relent and do the ethical thing by holding off. I had my fiancee's free cup instead."

"I would turn down the offer," writes Phil Clutts of Harrisburg, N.C,, "and say that it's my responsibility (and everybody else's) to vote, so thanks anyway, but I'll pass up your offer."

"Anything to encourage people to get out and vote is a good thing," writes Megan Chromik of Cambridge, Mass.

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, February 01, 2009

SOUND OFF: `LET'S TALK ABOUT YOU'

You're a reference for a friend who is applying for a job. He's a serious enough candidate that you get a call from the prospective employer. In the course of the conversation, however, the discussion turns from your friend's qualifications for the job to your own.

Is it OK to pursue this line of conversation, even if you suspect that you might be offered the job rather than your friend?

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: SOME OLD TRUTHS ABOUT VALUES, MORALS AND ETHICS

Last week, on the first night of a class in professional ethics that I team-teach at Emerson College in Boston, I wrote these words on the board: "hard work," "honesty," "courage," "fair play," "tolerance," "curiosity," "loyalty" and "patriotism."

Then I turned and asked the class: "What are these things?"

"Values," a few of the students responded.

"Where have you heard them before?"

"In Barack Obama's inaugural address this afternoon," one of the students piped up.

He was right, of course. These are the values President Obama listed in his speech, the ideals upon which he thinks our success in meeting new challenges is based.

"These things are old," he said. "These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history."

Typically I start any ethics class by telling the students that I cannot teach them values, nor can I hope to change their values. The values they have coming into the class are likely to be the same ones they have leaving it.

Our values are shaped early in life, I tell them, by our earliest experiences and, above all, by the examples -- positive and negative -- supplied by our families.

The priorities we place on these values may change, though, depending on where we are in life. If we're in our early 20s and single, for example, we may prioritize our value of fairness and tell off an unreasonable boss. In our 40s, when we have a family to support, that urge for fairness may be trumped by our concern for our family's well-being, leading us to forgo the urge to put a workplace ogre in his place.

Our values don't change, in short. Our priorities do, though, and we act accordingly.

These personal values that help us determine right and wrong are the morals that guide us. How we apply these morals to particular situations ... well, that's ethics.

People with wildly different political views may share similar values, as then-Sen. Barack Obama (D.-Ill.) and Sen John McCain (R.-Ariz.) demonstrated in the recent presidential campaign.

The two men clearly had fundamental differences of opinion on many of the issues, but at different points in the campaign each showed a similar sense of fair play -- McCain when he castigated a conservative talk-radio host for raising insinuations about Obama's religion and Obama when he rejected his supporters' attempts to capitalize on the pregnancy of the unmarried, teenage daughter of McCain's running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin (R.-Alaska).

The difference between the two men, in short, is not one of values but rather of how they choose to apply these values to various situations. That's what defines them as politicians, but it's their values that define them as human beings.

When Obama said, in his inaugural address, that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, "so defining of our character, (as) giving our all to a difficult situation," that's what he was talking about: how we choose to apply our values to a task. He was talking about ethics, about doing the right thing when faced with "common dangers."

Each time I face a new class of students, deliver a talk or sit down to write a column on ethics, I do so fully aware that I cannot change my audience's values. It's a daunting task to stand before a group of people, some of whom I know will choose to behave unethically regardless of what I say or write, and make an attempt to influence their ethics or at least to inspire them to think those ethics through.

The right thing for me to do, based on my values, is to give my all to such difficult tasks. And the right thing for you to do, whether you are a student, a listener or a reader, is to decide whether the way you choose to behave reflects the values you say you hold dear. If not, you either don't have the values you think you do or you need to rethink your behavior. There is nothing new about this observation. But it is true.

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