Sunday, March 29, 2009

SOUND OFF: START SPREADING THE NOT-QUITE-NEWS

Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," is quick to stress that his program, though styled after a television newscast, is actually "fake news" played for comedy.

Nonetheless, in a 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, Stewart was named by 2 percent of respondents as the journalist they admired most. That doesn't sound like much, but no single journalist was named by more than 5 percent of the public, and at 2 percent Stewart was tied with Tom Brokaw, Anderson Cooper and Brian Williams.

Does the fact that he is regarded as a journalist by so many people impose any ethical obligations on Stewart -- say, to offer his send-up of the news in an accurate and well-researched manner?

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 with 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: `WITHOUT YOU, WE WOULDN'T BE WHERE WE ARE TODAY'

Years ago I wrote an article for a business magazine about the CEO of a company that remanufactured engine parts for jets. He had received word that 11 airline jets, some of which contained parts supplied by his company, had been grounded. The groundings were due to engine problems, the causes of which were at that point unclear.

When he received word of the groundings, the CEO was about to sign his annual financial-audit papers. These papers, which the CEO must sign, include a statement that he does not know of any issues that would adversely affect the financial condition of the company.

Should he sign the audit papers or not? All he had, after all, was incomplete information on the jet groundings. What if it turned out that it wasn't his company's parts that had caused the problems, but he caused a panic among his lenders by raising the subject at all?

The first lawyers he consulted advised him to note the jet grounding in the statement. Dissatisfied with this response, however, he consulted another set of lawyers. This time he got the answer he wanted: Don't report the incident and go ahead and sign the papers.

While many readers disagreed with me, I thought then -- and think now -- that the CEO had made the wrong decision. If there was the remotest cause for concern about other jets which used his company's parts and were still in the air, I believed, he had an obligation to make passenger safety his highest priority, even if that meant raising an alarm by reporting the groundings.

His ability to find lawyers who would give him the advice he was looking for strikes me as particularly salient in light of the recent brouhaha over the $165 million in bonuses that have been paid to AIG executives, despite the fact that the company would have collapsed if it hadn't received almost $200 billion in federal bailout money.

The bonuses had to be paid to retain top employees who could turn around the company, one explanation ran, ignoring the fact that 52 of those employees, people whose bonuses had totaled more than $33 million, had already left the company.

Last fall, shortly after the initial bailout money -- a now-trivial $85 million -- had been doled out to AIG, it was reported that the company had spent $440,000 on a California spa retreat for its executives. Strong public outrage greeted the revelation. The sequel, the bonus blowup, has proven even more controversial, enough to draw personal criticism from the president of the United States.

It need hardly be said that to accept a hefty bonus when the company's performance has been so dismal as to place it on the verge of bankruptcy is unethical on the face of it. Virtually nobody at AIG had the kind of year that merits a bonus.

The unethical conduct does not necessarily stop there, however. Apparently the bonuses were a matter of contractual record, and anyone running a company in financial trouble -- and the federal government now owns 80 percent of AIG -- should make it his or her business to be aware of proposed outlays of this magnitude.

The bailout was intended to keep a major company afloat as it found a responsible way to right its business affairs. It wasn't meant to buy new country houses for its executives. Those in the federal government who didn't care, didn't know or made it their business not to know how AIG intended to spend the money fell short of their ethical obligations to AIG, to the Congress and to their ultimate bosses, the taxpayers.

Mind you, like the airplane-parts executive I wrote about, the bosses of AIG ought to have reported this potential problem rather than waiting for it to hit the newspapers and splatter even more egg on their faces. In the current climate, it didn't take a business wizard to tell that people weren't going to be very pleased with the idea of failed executives taking home huge bonuses.

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

Sunday, March 22, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: SLIPPING A DISK

In the world of movies, the big heist isn't always on the screen.

A few weeks ago a reader from southern California wrote to ask if she was doing anything wrong by accepting DVDs of current movies given to her by a friend, if she knew the DVDs to be illegal, bootlegged copies.

"I was happy to get the DVDs," she writes. "I watched and enjoyed the movies. And I thanked my friend who gave them to me."

The ethics of accepting bootlegged movies never crossed her mind until another of her friends told her that she "could not have even watched them, knowing that."

"Am I wrong to accept these DVDs, even from a second party?" she asks. "I do not want to get anyone in trouble. I am just wondering what your opinion is of my participation in it."

My opinion is that, legally, it stinks. Making, selling or buying bootleg movies is illegal everywhere in the United States.

I'm not a lawyer, so I can't say how much legal trouble my reader might be in, but I'd guess not very much, since she didn't pay for the movies and I doubt that watching them is illegal. At most, I suspect, she's guilty of failing to report a crime or something of that nature.

Some things are illegal but not unethical, however, the same way that many things are legal but not ethical. Setting aside the legalities, how does my reader's situation stack up?

My opinion: It still stinks. Ethically speaking, bootleg films -- and all other illegal replicas of copyrighted books, CDs, software and so forth -- are stolen goods, pure and simple. The person who made them was stealing from the rightful makers and distributors of the film, and anyone who knowingly watches them is aiding and abetting the crime.

From an ethical standpoint, it doesn't matter that my reader didn't pay for the movies she watched. Surely watching them made her less likely to pay to see them in a theater, and that's as good as taking money from everyone involved in the film.

Does it matter if she wouldn't have gone to the theater or paid for a legitimate DVD, whether or not she had seen the bootlegs? No. The viewing of a copyrighted film is not a human right, but rather a privilege with a cost associated with it. Because neither she nor anyone else involved in the bootleg paid anything to the rightful owners of the film, any viewing of it -- except by law-enforcement people trying to track down the bootlegger -- is unethical. Simple as that.

Granted, I have a vested interest in this issue: I make my living partly through royalties from my books and this syndicated column. Understandably I am loath to blithely accept that it is OK for people to make copies of my material without my permission.

Longtime readers of my column know that I always have taken a strong stance against illegal copies of copyrighted material, regardless of who's doing the copying or what their motives may be. Parents who make multiple copies of DVDs or videotapes to give to their children's friends set a terrible example. So too do professors who Xerox large portions of books or articles for their students' classroom use, without obtaining permission from the publisher or author.

People's work should not be stolen, whether by a bootlegger or by private citizens downloading or otherwise making illegal copies of DVDs, CDs or printed material for their own use. Those who own the rights to goods should decide who gets to use them and how. If it's wrong to steal a dress without paying, and thus depriving the dressmaker and the store owner of the fruits of their labor, then it's wrong to steal a movie and rob the filmmakers and distributors.

That one is a physical object and the other an intangible work of art is irrelevant. The movie is equally intangible in the theater, yet most people who buy bootlegs would probably feel it was wrong to sneak in the theater's back door and see the movie for free.

Are DVDs too high-priced? Does little of the purchase price actually go to the creators? No matter. This isn't a Robin Hood situation, and movies aren't essentials like food or shelter. If you don't like the business model, don't buy DVDs ... and don't watch them.

The right thing for my reader to do, should her friend offer her any more illegal DVDs, is to refuse to accept them and to tell her why: Doing so is both illegal and unethical, and she doesn't care to have any part in condoning such activity.

In the meantime, my reader should destroy any bogus DVDs, whether bootlegged or copied illegally, that she may have in her possession. If she wants to see a movie, she should go to the theater or, alternatively, wait until it's legally released on DVD and then either buy it, rent it or borrow it from her local library.

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

SOUND OFF: DON'T BET THE HOUSE

In an unscientific poll on my column's blog, 92 percent of readers who responded said that people who contracted for mortgages which they couldn't afford, and should reasonably have known that they couldn't afford, should not be entitled to expect relief from the government when they're faced with foreclosure.

"The government should not bail out former homeowners in these instances," one reader writes. "My husband and I scrimped and saved and bought a little house. Where is our reward for not putting America into this crisis?"

But 63 percent of my respondents believe that people who signed for mortgages which they could afford, but then lost their jobs, are entitled to such government relief.

People who committed to a mortgage that they couldn't afford shouldn't be given relief, writes Debbie of Corona, Calif., but those who are facing foreclosure because of job loss or other life disaster "should be able to renegotiate their mortgages."

"I do not feel that the government should bail out homeowners who wanted to buy into the American Dream but couldn't afford it," says Deanne Dillenbeck of Cypress, Calif. "Nor do I feel that those who have lost their jobs should be bailed out ... The decline, and in some instances the lack of, ethics, morals and personal responsibility has in large part contributed to our current and dire circumstances."

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, March 15, 2009

SOUND OFF: BONUS QUESTION

Here's a seemingly straightforward question for you. Assuming that it is legal and consistent with company policy for a CEO to be given a sizable bonus, is it right for the CEO to receive a bonus in a year when the company hasn't meet the predetermined expectations for earnings, profits and overall company performance? Does it matter that the shortfall may be due to overall economic conditions over which the CEO has no control? Does it matter if bonuses are typically part of the standard compensation for the job? Does it matter if executives in comparable positions at other companies are receiving comparable bonuses?

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 with 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: A DRINKING PROBLEM

The other day Marty Haynes, a reader from Plancentia, Calif., was enjoying a hamburger with his wife, Julie, at a Carl's Jr. restaurant in Yorba Linda.

"Due to the current economic situation," Haynes writes, "I succumbed to my wife's insistence that it was OK to share a small fountain drink from the self-serve fountain."

What made Haynes uncomfortable was that the restaurant offers free refills on drinks, meaning that, when he and his wife finished their small-sized beverage, they could refill the cup and continue sharing.

"There is no sign saying `One per customer, please' or `Only one refill, please' or anything like that," he writes. "I think it is assumed that each consumer should purchase their own drink."

Later that day, Haynes mentioned his concern to his son and to his daughter-in-law. They told him that they frequently shared a drink in similar situations and saw nothing wrong with it.

But Haynes sees a slippery slope here, since he doubts that anyone would agree that it would be OK for, say, a family of eight to share one small soda with many free refills.

"So what do you think?" he asks. "Is it OK for a couple to share a small drink and take advantage of the free-refills policy?"

My initial impulse was to consult the person with whom I would be most likely to find myself in a similar situation.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with it," my wife said, "as long as you buy the drink and are willing to drink it out of the same cup."

She reminded me that she rarely finishes her beverage when we go to a shop with a self-service fountain. Since she typically gives the drink to me to finish, we often buy only one drink instead of two.

"How is this any different?" she asks.

But nonetheless something about the practice still felt a bit hinky to me. Surely the restaurant didn't intend its policy to allow for multiple drinkers from the same refillable cup, I thought. The right or wrong of the situation had to be based, in part at least, on the intent of the offer.

Instead of trying to guess, I checked the Carl's Jr. Web site. No guidance there, though there were some coupons for a free drink if I wanted to buy the new Crisp Burrito. I didn't, so instead I called the company's toll-free customer-service hot line. There a customer-service representative looked up the refill policy for me.

"You have to purchase a drink to get a refill," she told me.

She kept looking through the guidelines.

"There is nothing in our policy about limiting how many people can drink from that same refillable cup," she said.

"So it would be OK for me to buy a drink, share it with my wife and then refill it?" I asked.

"Unless a local franchisee sets its own rules not allowing that," she said, "there is no written company policy against that."

From a strictly ethical point of view this practice passes muster only if you ask first. Rather than trying to guess the intentions of others, the right thing is simply to ask them. As for the restaurants, if they want to place limits on their refill policies, the right thing for them to do is to let customers know as clearly as possible.

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

Sunday, March 08, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: VOTE FOR THE NAME YOU (SORT OF) KNOW

Several months ago I received an e-mail from an acquaintance who is the head of a certain organization. She wanted me to vote for a young entrepreneur, an alumnus of her institution, who had been nominated as a leading young entrepreneur.

"Please log onto the link below and vote for him as this year's best young entrepreneur," she wrote in a mass e-mail to seemingly everyone she knew.

She was pulling for the young man to win the contest, regardless of her e-mail recipients' perception of the other candidates, and it was clear that his winning would yield significant bragging rights for her organization.

I was reminded of her e-mail when a reader from Tustin, Calif., wrote to tell me of an e-mail he had received from a friend of a distant friend. This friend-of-a-friend wanted him to vote for a video created by his son's first-grade class, which had been entered in a contest to win $25,000 in technology equipment for their classroom. The class was one of five finalists in the competition.

"I would like to ask that you take time to sign up and vote for their video," the friend-of-a-friend wrote.

At first my reader thought that this was a good way for the boy's class to benefit from new technology. Thinking it over, however, and realizing that he hadn't seen the other four videos, he wondered how he could cast a vote saying that theirs was the best.

Examining the e-mail more closely, my reader found an attachment: a note from the class teacher explaining how to view all five videos on a Web site and then vote for his class's video. So my reader could in fact view each video and then vote based on their merits.

"But clearly that is not the intent of the parent who sent me the e-mail or of the teacher," he writes. "What kind of lesson does this send to those 6-year-olds? If they win because the voting has been padded, and not on merit, then they will have won fraudulently. How should the other classes feel if they lose because `well-meaning' parents sought to manipulate the vote?"

Many years ago, when I was in graduate school and an election for house council was being held, a classmate of mine -- now a minister -- explained it to me this way: "You vote for your friends."

That point is more reasonable than it may seem at first glance. We know our friends, after all, and have a clearer window into their values and integrity than we do with strangers. It's therefore possible to support them with greater conviction than it is with someone we don't know. But of course our knowledge of that person might also provide incentive not to vote for them, if we think that they aren't up to the job or don't deserve it.

Supporting a child's class is a noble goal, but the right thing to do in any election is to understand your choices and vote only for the person or idea that truly most deserves your support. That's true whether you're voting for a bunch of 6-year-olds or for the prospective leader of your country.

If my reader deemed two of the class videos to be of equal merit, there would be nothing wrong with him using the personal connection, admittedly a tenuous one in this case, as a tiebreaker. But it would be irresponsible to vote for one video without having seen them all. And if one of the other four videos truly outshines the others, the only honest choices are to vote for that one or not to vote at all.

As for the "young entrepreneur of the year" contest, I did not vote for any candidate, since I didn't know them well enough to judge. The candidate my acquaintance was promoting nonetheless was one of the winners.

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

SOUND OFF: FRIENDS DON'T LET FRIENDS TAKE THEIR JOBS

"Friends don't let friends drive drunk," writes a reader who continues, "Friends don't steer a conversation about a friend's references to their own qualifications for the job."

My reader agreed with 71 percent of respondents who responded "no" to an unscientific poll on my blog that asked if it is OK to talk about your own qualifications if a friend's prospective employer pursues this line of conversation.

"Don't say this `friend' didn't steer the conversation," another reader writes. "The qualifications being discussed were clearly those of the job applicant. Just how did this supposed `friend' insert his or her qualifications into the conversation?"

However, 29 percent of readers responding thought it perfectly fine to answer such questions.

"Isn't it possible that the prospective employer wants to know if you are qualified enough to judge your friend's qualifications?" one of them asks. "If you get asked about applying for the job, you can simply say, `No, thank you."'

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, March 01, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: IF THE SHOE FITS ...

A reader from Miami took a part-time job selling women's shoes in a department store. After being on the job for five weeks, he sold a pair of shoes to a woman who, after the sale, saw that a friend of hers was also working in the shoe department that day.

"According to the rules of working on commission," my reader writes, "once a customer is yours, he or she stays yours from start to finish. It is the salesperson's responsibility to ask the customer whether or not he or she has already been helped. I always ask, because I want to avoid any confrontations with my co-workers."

Once the customer saw her friend, however, it was the friend whom she had help her find two more pairs of shoes.

"I rang her up for the one pair I got for her," my reader writes. "And then her friend rang her up for the other two.

"There is a way for one employee to ring up another employee's customer," he adds, "and still give the commission to the employee who brought them the shoes, but it is up to the ringing employee to do the right thing and honor the commission."

Would the other salesperson credit him for the sale of the other two pairs of shoes? My reader wasn't sure, so right after ringing up the customer he printed out his own sales statistics. When the customer left 10 minutes later, after being helped by her friend, he printed out his sales statistics again.

He wondered whether he'd see the extra two pairs credited to him, but was surprised to see that not even the one pair he had personally sold was still listed.

"My sales number had decreased by the exact commission on the price of the shoes I had sold that woman," he writes. "Not only did (the saleswoman) steal my customer, but she had her friend return the shoes I sold her, only to resell them along with the other two pairs she bought."

My reader did not confront his co-worker -- "It wasn't worth the $3.97 I lost to her," he writes -- but he can't help feeling that he was wronged both by the sale of the additional two pairs of shoes to his established customer and especially by the return and resale of the pair that she had bought from him.

Can't a friend sell another friend a pair of shoes?

Of course she can. Had the customer sought out her friend to begin with, there would have been nothing wrong with tossing the commissions her way.

Once the customer had made the initial purchase from my reader, however, his co-worker was obligated to honor the fact that the customer was his. If she convinced her friend to return the shoes she had already bought and buy them again, it not only did her colleague an even greater disservice but also was a de-facto acknowledgment that she knew the customer to be his and took the commissions regardless.

It's quite possible that the co-worker knew her friend's taste in shoes better than my reader did, but that doesn't outweigh the store's established practice. The right thing for her to do was to help her friend, if she wanted to, but to credit any sales to her colleague.

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

SOUND OFF: OCTO-MOM

Many readers have e-mailed to ask whether I thought it ethical for Nadya Suleman, a California mother of six, to receive fertility treatments that resulted in her giving birth to octuplets.

Given the wide variety of opinions coming in, I put the questions to my readers: Was there anything wrong with Suleman's decision to have the procedure? Was it wrong for her doctor to implant six eggs, two of which later split, in one woman, or should this be a private decision between a mother and her doctor? Does it matter to your response that the mother is unmarried? Does it make a difference if the children may depend at least in part on public assistance?

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 four 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)

Don't let the personal get in the way of the bigger picture

What ethical issues concern people the most? This September marks the 19th year I've been writing "The Right Thing" c...