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Sunday, April 26, 2009

SOUND OFF: GET BLAGOJEVICH OUT OF HERE?

The Associated Press reports that disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois may be among the stars of an NBC reality show called "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!" The show is to be filmed in the jungle of Costa Rica, however, and Blagojevich cannot leave the country without a court's permission to do so, since he faces trial on corruption charges and is free on bail.

Given that Blagojevich is an accused criminal whose alleged crimes were committed while in public office, is it unacceptable for him to be featured in a network television show? Or, since he remains innocent until proven guilty, should he be allowed to make money in any legal fashion?

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: GOTTA HAVE IT FRIDAY (OR SO I'D LIKE YOU TO THINK)

I'm driven by deadlines.

Meetings, articles, social obligations, family events ... Every week more than one deadline looms. Hitting various deadlines often requires me to intricately orchestrate tasks so that everything can get done on time.

Even so, it's rare that I miss a deadline. Partly this is out of a feeling of obligation to meet the commitments I've made, but there's also the sense that, if I miss one, the result will be akin to my experiences at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, where one late aircraft can trigger a chain of delays that snarls thousands of people who have nothing to do with that first plane.

That's why I hate it when colleagues, family or friends give me a false deadline. You know, one that has been set weeks before the actual deadline, because the deadline setter doesn't trust people to get things done when they say they will.

Last week a reader told me that his boss, the owner of the company, is notorious for missing deadlines on projects. As a result, my reader and his co-workers have taken it upon themselves to lie when the boss asks them about the deadline for any given project.

"Is it wrong for us to do this?" he asks.

Short answer: Yes, it's wrong. There's a basic ethical obligation to be truthful to your superiors, and nothing about this situation changes that.

We all have colleagues who simply cannot be counted upon to get things done on time. Even when they are gifted, talented people, they are officially among those who drive us nuts.

It's even more challenging when your boss is such a person. When the boss misses a deadline, the whole company misses it and the whole company pays the price. And, of course, there's nobody to call the boss on the carpet and demand that he or she get organized or else.

If you're looking for the ethical approach, however, lying to the boss is not the way to go.

It's ultimately the boss's job, not yours, to see that projects get done on time, even ones that he has entrusted to you. Your job is to make your best effort to accomplish this, and that doesn't mean lying to your boss. All you can ethically do is make clear the consequences of his failing to meet the deadlines: "This is when we need your signoff, and if we don't get it by then the project will inescapably be late."

Once you've done that -- and make sure that what you tell him is true -- you've done all you can do. If he still doesn't come through, devote your unscheduled down time to coming up with a diplomatic way to demonstrate, in the inevitable post-mortem, that the project's lateness was indeed due to his missing the deadline.

Hopefully being burned once or twice will convince him to get serious about time management. In any case, however, you'll know that you did your best and were honest and straightforward throughout.

Please, however, give colleagues who regularly make their deadlines a break by not misleading them into thinking that their work is due before it actually is. I'll appreciate it very much.

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

Monday, April 20, 2009

FOLIO: Blog: Ads on Magazine Covers

See my blog post on Folio: magazine's blog about the recent spate of magazines blurring the line between editorial and advertising on their covers. You can read the post and makes comments by clicking here.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: THE STREET WHERE YOU LIVE ... AND NOTHING MORE?

A reader and her husband recently received a letter from the federal government that has put each of them in a slightly different ethical bind.

For several years my reader and her husband have been friends with a couple who live near them in Providence, R.I.

"The wife has always been a bit `crazy,"' my reader writes, "but in a fun, life-of-the-party kind of way."

Last year the wife volunteered for the Obama campaign. As she got more and more involved, she would travel to other cities and then to other states for extended stays. Gradually the volunteer wife's contact with local people, including her friends and even her husband, started to wane. After the election the volunteer wife still didn't return home. When my reader was able to reach her on the telephone, my reader reports, she found her evasive and "slightly manic."

Finally she returned home to collect her things and to move to Washington, hoping to get a full-time job with the new administration. She never contacted my reader while she was home to retrieve her stuff.

"Our friendship seemed pretty faded," my reader writes.

Three months into the new administration, though, the volunteer wife called my reader at work. She was in a hurry, she said, but she was applying for a job and asked my reader if she could serve as a "sort of reference" by confirming her address in Providence. My reader agreed. When she started to ask a few questions about the prospective job, however, the volunteer wife quickly excused herself and hung up.

She also tried to call my reader's husband, but wasn't able to reach him directly.

My reader and her husband received a letter shortly thereafter. They were indeed asked to confirm her address -- but were also asked if they had "any reason to question this person's honesty or trustworthiness" or if they had any "adverse information about this person's financial integrity."

Neither is crazy about the idea of vouching for anything about this woman other than her address, which is all that my reader had agreed to do.

"Are we ethically obligated to contact her and say that we aren't interested in serving as this type of reference and refuse to respond to the letters?" my reader asks. "I'm pretty sure that we shouldn't continue ignoring these letters and hoping they'll go away."

Yes, generally speaking, letters and obligations rarely disappear. And there is indeed an obligation in this case, no matter how shabbily the "friend" may have acted toward my reader.

Because she told her friend that she would confirm her address, my reader can't simply ignore the letter. The right thing for her to do is either to answer the letter -- she can, if she wishes, confirm the address but leave blank the rest of the letter, since it goes beyond her commitment to her friend -- or to contact her friend to let her know that she does not plan to do so because the letter isn't what she had been led to expect.

My reader's husband is in a different situation, of course. Since he never agreed to be a reference, he is free to ignore the letter, if he likes, or to fill it out any way he pleases. It was bad form for the volunteer wife not to get his agreement before having the letter sent to him, and the letter itself imposes no obligation on him.

Few people are comfortable turning down such requests from friends, no matter how distant they have become. If the volunteer wife had been more forthcoming about the type of reference she wanted, my reader might have felt more comfortable in telling her that she was not the best choice. If she now sends back the form only confirming her friend's address, it will likely speak volumes to those who asked for the reference -- but that's the volunteer wife's own fault for not being more forthcoming.

Everyone seeking a reference would be wise to choose their references carefully and not to mislead them about what they are being asked for. A bad or mixed reference is worse than no reference at all.

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

SOUND OFF: Bonus Question

In an informal poll on my column's blog, 75 percent of respondents said that it is never OK for a CEO to receive a bonus in a year when the company hasn't met its predetermined expectations for earnings, profits and overall company performance. Of the remainder, 16 percent thought it was OK only if bonuses were a standard part of the compensation for the CEO's job, while 5 percent thought it was OK only if the shortfall was due to economic conditions beyond the CEO's control. Only 2 percent of readers thought it was always OK to pay a CEO a bonus even in years when expectations aren't met.

"It's part of a CEO's job to evaluate the risks of how the economy or other factors ... might affect operations," writes Phil Clutts of Harrisburg, N.C. "If the company has done poorly because of misfortune or planned losses, the top dog is not entitled to a bonus."

"In these times when companies are receiving huge amounts from the U.S. government, that money should be used in total to revive the company, not the executives or employees or shareholders," writes George Zahka of Bradenton Beach, Fla. "If the company's condition is due to malfeasance or dishonesty, then they should be prosecuted."

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, April 12, 2009

SOUND OFF: WHOSE CHILD IS THIS?

The singer/actress Madonna is in the news again with another attempt to adopt a child from Malawi. In 2006 her adoption of a Malawian boy drew press scrutiny, and the public's ire, amid suggestions that the adoption process might have been unfairly expedited due to her celebrity status and to lavish gifts she had given to the country.

When I asked my readers about the propriety of that first adoption, some were outraged that the adoption process might have been speeded up because it was Madonna applying. Others believed that because the cause was virtuous -- "saving that child from poverty and disease," one reader wrote -- any criticism was unwarranted.

The press coverage this time around has been equally vigorous, and at this writing it seems that she will be unsuccessful in a second adoption.

So here's my question for you: Regardless of her celebrity status, in a matter such as this -- the adoption of a child -- should Madonna's privacy be respected? Or do the press and the public have a right to the inside scoop on her adoption?

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: THE CHIME OF THE CENTURY

"Have you tackled wind chimes?" a reader from Watertown, Mass., asks me in an e-mail.

My reader's choice of a verb is no accident. Her neighbor's wind chimes are driving her nuts, and she's on the verge of violence against either the chimes or the neighbor.

"I know that, if this is my biggest problem, I should count myself lucky," she adds.

She recently moved into a new neighborhood, and the wind chimes hung at the house next door clank round the clock. She knows this, because she works from home and is therefore subjected to the noise day and night.

"I am trying to talk myself into liking wind chimes," she writes, "because I can't bear to approach my neighbor. I know some communities ban them."

She knows this because she has spent some time researching the issue on the Internet. She has sent me links to stories, including one from Denver about a lawsuit that forced a resident to take down his wind chimes by nightfall and not rehang them until 9 a.m. There are countless stories of homeowners waking to find their wind chimes duct-taped together to keep them from chiming.

"Am I in the right to not want my neighbor to subject everyone to wind chimes 24-7?" my reader asks. "It seems cowardly to go to the city to ask for a solution, rather than to approach my neighbor first."

My reader is wise to recognize that, if the wind-chime nuisance is the biggest problem she's faced since moving into a new home, she's fortunate.

Still, as anyone who has ever been kept awake by neighborhood noise knows, sleep deprivation can magnify the urgency of even the pettiest nuisance.

While she would be within her rights to call the city about the noise, it's good that my reader is reluctant to make that her first step. Calling the authorities on a new neighbor is not a good way to cultivate warm relations over the picket fence. It would be the best way to go if she had reason to fear that her neighbor might respond violently to her request, but since that is not the case -- there is no direct correlation between rage and wind chimes of which I'm aware -- contacting him directly is the civil and sensible thing to do.

As for the options, willing herself to like wind chimes seems futile, and is likely only to increase her frustration at the unwanted clanging. A judicious duct-tape strike by dark of night would be trespassing, and in any event wouldn't convey the message she wants to send. Her neighbor would be more likely to think it a children's prank than a request by a nearby adult for abatement of the noise.

The key point here is that the neighbor probably doesn't realize that the wind chimes are bothersome. He hung them, presumably, because he enjoys the sound. If my reader doesn't tell him that he's annoying her, he may never know. It's quite possible that, upon realizing that he's disturbing her, he'll voluntarily take them down altogether.

The right thing for my reader to do is to approach her new neighbor, introduce herself and ask him, as civilly as possible, if he would mind bringing in the wind chimes after dark. Granted, she may not get the results she wants, but she may also be surprised by how effective an honest and direct approach can be.

She might be doing the whole neighborhood a favor.

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

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Sunday, April 05, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: `WE'LL CUT YOUR PAY TO SAVE HIS JOB'

During a minor economic downturn in the early 1990s, a former employer of mine was seeking ways to save money.

For years the company had staged lavish holiday parties around Christmas, often renting out a museum or a large catering hall for a sit-down dinner and party. Because money wasn't flowing as freely this year, however, he took a different approach.

Each department was allocated a modest budget to stage an event in its offices to which the rest of the company would be invited. One department hired a photographer to shoot group photos. Another hired a tarot-card reader. Employees brought food and drink to share with colleagues. Our department ordered pizzas and hired an accordion player from the North End of Boston who took requests.

I don't remember much about the more expensive offsite parties, but the self-made, in-house party sticks with me more than a decade later. I haven't forgotten the accordion player, who didn't know Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" (1971) and instead broke into the Gershwins' classic "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" (1922).

In other words, sometimes saving money actually produces a better result -- a heartening thought at a time when the economic troubles of the early 1990s seem quaint compared with what we face now. A party of any sort feels extravagant when you're facing the prospect of job cuts.

In March the heads of 13 medical departments at a Boston-area hospital each contributed roughly $27,000 from their salaries so that the hospital could avoid layoffs. That was a voluntary decision. At other companies, however, employees are being asked to consider taking salary cuts to avoid having co-workers laid off.

When faced with such a question, is it wrong for an employee to respond that he or she would prefer not to take the cut? And does it matter how other employees decide?

Some management experts believe that it's foolhardy to ask employees to stick around at a diminished salary and expect them to be motivated to perform at their highest level. Better, they say, to lose a few employees while allowing those who remain to be fully compensated to do their jobs.

It seems to me that seeing your co-workers begin to drop like flies can be equally demoralizing. Besides, who wants to be the guy who argues against making any sacrifice at all to keep jobs? "I'd hate to see you go, Lenny, but if it's between you and 1 percent of my salary, see ya."

There is no ethical obligation, however, for any employee to offer to take a pay cut or, given the choice, to agree to one if she doesn't want to. The right thing for each employee to do is to weigh all the factors involved in the choice: If I agree to take a pay cut, will it be difficult to meet my family's financial obligations? If I don't agree and others are laid off, will my additional workload diminish the time I have to spend with my family? And so on.

Of course, even if an employee doesn't agree, he has no assurance that across-the-board pay cuts won't be made anyway, leaving him with only the option to quit or not to quit. And, of course, if he turns down the pay cut, it's possible that it will be his job that is cut to make ends meet. There are no good options in this situation, and thus no easy choices. There is no ethical obligation to accept a pay cut for the benefit of others, however, and someone who refuses to do so isn't falling short ethically, even if others decide to accept the cut.


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

SOUND OFF: EIGHT IS MORE THAN ENOUGH

In an unscientific poll on my column's blog, 88 percent of my respondents thought that there was something wrong with Nadya Suleman, a Californian mother of six, being allowed to receive fertility treatments that resulted in her giving birth to octuplets.

It didn't matter to 55 percent of my respondents that Suleman was unmarried, but 85 percent said that it did matter if she was on public assistance. Only 15 percent believed that the whole issue should be a private decision between the mother and her doctor.

Californians seemed particularly outraged.

"There appears to be a profound lapse in judgment by everyone involved," writes Bill Wotring of Fullerton, Calif.

"Everything was wrong with her decision," writes Carole Heston of southern California.

"The doctor blew it," writes Carroll Straus of Orange County, Calif. "Big time."

"Basically it comes down to what is best for the child," writes Merrilee Gardner of Irvine, Calif. "There is nothing I see in this that was best for the children."

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)