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Sunday, May 31, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: TYPHOID MARY AT THE RECEPTION DESK

"My company wants to discourage the use of sick days for financial and staffing reasons," a regular reader from Huntington Beach, Calif., writes.

At a time when many companies are exploring all options to trim costs, it's not surprising that some are looking at employee benefits for potential savings. As with many well-intentioned efforts, however, this one may have unintended consequences.

Her company has reduced the number of hours each employee is allotted for sickness each year, she reports. Employees are not permitted to accrue sick time and carry over hours into the following year.

Furthermore, to encourage employees not to use even the sick days they have, the company rewards them with a paid day off for every six months in which they have perfect work attendance.

"So now," my reader writes, "colleagues come in sick and spread their sickness to others."

My reader sees the new sick-day policy as shortsighted, in part because it pits co-workers against one another.

"An individual may well want an extra day off, rather than be home ill, but the rest of us don't deserve to risk exposure and sickness just for that person's pleasure," she writes. "Isn't this company policy unethical?"

It's natural for companies to reward employees for a desired behavior. Some companies have taken to rewarding employees who participate in wellness programs, for example. So offering employees an incentive to maintain perfect work attendance may be well intentioned, if company management sees it as an incentive for workers to take care of themselves better.

Where this policy goes awry, however, is that it also serves as an incentive for workers to retain their eligibility for the extra day by coming in even when sick. Workers who do so expose their co-workers to germs and risk spreading the illness within the company, which is obviously not something that management should want to encourage.

So the policy is flawed. But is it unethical?

It might be, but I believe that it isn't.

The question is one of intention: If management deliberately set out to entice sick workers to come in anyway, it's not only unethical but also counterproductive. An office can be crippled by an epidemic set off by one ailing worker showing up when he or she ought to have stayed home.

I don't believe, however, that this is the intention of the company's incentive program.

The elephant in the room here is that the company likely believes -- and rightly so, to judge by past surveys of my column's readers -- that workers are using sick days for reasons other than sickness. Management isn't trying to get sick people to come into work, but rather trying to get people who aren't sick not to call in sick.

That's a legitimate goal for the company to pursue, and thus the policy is not unethical, whether or not it has unintended consequences.

Part of the ethical responsibility here lies on the employees themselves. They should know that showing up to work while infected with a communicable illness is virtually never appropriate. Many of us are guilty of having done this very thing, of course, without thinking through how our choices might affect our co-workers. We should take time to rethink such behavior.

Nonetheless, if the company's new policy is actually causing employees who should be home sick to show up at the office instead, the company's managers do have an ethical responsibility not to ignore the situation.

The right thing for them to do is to reassess the program to see if this problem exists and, if so, how it can be addressed.

One solution might be to eliminate the six-months reward for individuals and instead reward all employees with an extra day if overall sick days are down at the end of the designated period. A solution that doesn't pit one employee's interests against another's is inherently better than one that does, because a team spirit is by definition better for the company's interests.

It's obviously possible for a program that is entirely ethical and conceived with the best of intentions to actually make things worse. That shouldn't stop companies from looking for solutions to their problems, but they should be prepared to evaluate the results and make the necessary adjustments if things go wrong.

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

SOUND OFF: TARZAN, GUV OF THE JUNGLE?

A federal judge in Chicago has prevented former Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois from traveling to Costa Rica to appear in an NBC reality show called "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!" Blagojevich is free on bail, but faces trial on corruption charges.

In an informal poll on my column's blog, 61 percent of the respondents disagreed with the judge, arguing that Blagojevich remains innocent until proven guilty and therefore should be allowed to make money in any legal fashion -- even if my readers don't seem to think much either of Blagojevich or of the show.

Shmuel Ross of Brooklyn, N.Y., finds the job offer fitting: "Given that Blagojevich is an accused criminal whose alleged crimes were committed while in public office," Ross writes, "he's a perfect choice for a network reality-television show."

"I would think that anybody hammered in the press for misdoings he did not commit would either want to keep a low profile until the trial or present facts that would vindicate him," writes Phil Clutts of Harrisburg, N.C.

"I wouldn't have a problem with Blago going to the jungles of Costa Rica if they'd give the show a more accurate name," writes another reader, who prefers to remain anonymous. "I suggest `I Think I'm Important -- Does Anybody Care?"'

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, May 24, 2009

SOUND OFF: DRINK AS MUCH AS YOU WANT?

Several weeks ago I wrote about a husband and wife who were eating at a restaurant that offered free refills on drinks. The husband wanted to know if it was OK to buy one drink to share with his wife and then refill it. His wife thought it was fine, but he had his doubts.

My take was that, so long as the company had no policy against it, it was fine for them to share the refillable drink. Readers were split on whether my advice held water.

So now I put the question to each of you: In a restaurant that offers refillable drinks, is it OK to buy one drink, share it with someone and then refill it? Or is a one-refillable-drink-per-one-person rule implied, even if not formally stated?

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: NOW HEAR THIS ... LIKE IT OR NOT

A reader from Colorado is hearing more than he wants to hear.

He drives a company car, and the vehicle is equipped with a citizens' band radio to allow drivers to communicate with company headquarters and with other drivers. It is supposed to be used strictly for business, and in particular the company has a clear policy prohibiting "cussing" or the telling of any sort of "sexual jokes" over the CB radio.

"But they will not enforce these rules," he writes. "Do I have to continually listen to foul language in my workplace if I find it offensive? Whom do I talk to about this?"

There is a difference between etiquette and ethics, though many situations straddle that boundary. In many contexts this would simply be an issue of etiquette: It's rude for anyone to indulge in obscene language or offensive jokes within the hearing of anyone who might object. If my reader was sitting in a bar and was being subjected to objectionable conversation from the next table, he could rightly condemn the offenders as rude.

In this case, though, there's an added component that makes this an ethical issue, and his fellow drivers' conduct not merely rude but wrong.

A workplace is not a bar, and the public airwaves are not any old workplace. What goes over the radio -- including over CB frequencies -- in the United States is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, and its provisions about "permissible communications" for CB users clearly prohibit "obscene, profane or indecent words, language or meaning."

By using profanity and telling obscene jokes over their CB radios, my reader's co-workers are not only being rude to him and to who knows how many others within range of their transmissions, but also they are probably in violation of FCC regulations. The penalties for such violations range from cease-and-desist orders to hefty fines or imprisonment. And because they are doing this as representatives of their company, they are exposing the company to potential liability as well, the way a casual obscenity uttered by the singer Bono on live television got NBC in trouble, though nobody suggested that the network had caused his remark or even had known it was coming.

By using the company's own radios to place it in jeopardy, his co-workers are being not only rude but also, yes, unethical.

For that reason, my reader shouldn't have to wait for the FCC to intervene in his situation. Since the company itself is at risk because of this conduct, it should enforce its own policy against such misuse of company-owned CB radios.

The right thing for my reader to do is to tell his supervisor that, while he himself finds such utterances offensive, he is also concerned that they are placing the company in legal jeopardy. If his supervisor is one of the offenders, he should report his concerns to the company's human-resources department.

In either case, he is under no obligation to list the names of those who might be violating company policy. If company bosses want to know, they can tune in like anybody else.

The right thing for the company to do is to address his concerns. It should begin by monitoring the radio frequency on which company dispatches are made. The company should also make it clear to everyone who uses a company CB radio that monitoring is ongoing and that infractions of this company policy will not be tolerated, not only because they could result in hefty government fines but also because they are inappropriate in any workplace and shows a lack of respect for co-workers.

If the company refuses to address the issue, it should be ashamed. Furthermore, in that case my reader and others at the company would be fully within their rights to report the behavior to the FCC.

Whatever happened to the company thereafter would be its own fault for not living up to its own policies.

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

Sunday, May 17, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: QUARTER NEITHER ASKED NOR GIVEN

There's a terrific scene in "Superman: The Movie" (1978) in which Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve), looking for a place to change into his Superman costume, runs to a telephone booth ... and stops short, confronted by a pay phone on an open pedestal, rather than the once-ubiquitous telephone booth.

These days, thanks to the proliferation of cell telephones, he'd be hard pressed even to find the open-air variety of pay telephone. Pay telephones do still exist, however, even if most of us can't remember the last time we used one.

One of my colleagues, however, had a pay-telephone encounter a couple of years ago that still perplexes him ethically.

Stopping to use a sidewalk telephone in Long Beach, N.Y., he put in his quarter. No dial tone resulted, however, nor did he hear his quarter drop. He had encountered that now-seldom-seen monster, the quarter-eating telephone.

He was about to walk away when he realized that he could actually see the edge of his quarter inside the coin slot. Using a nail file, he found that he could hook the quarter and drag it back out of the slot.

Again he started to walk away, but then he noticed that another quarter had moved into the space previously occupied by his.

It would be equally easy to remove it, using the same technique, but he wasn't sure whether it would be the right thing to do.

On the one hand, he had already retrieved his own quarter and the other quarter clearly wasn't his.

On the other hand, it wasn't the telephone company's either, since it had been given to the company in exchange for a service that hadn't been provided. It belonged to some previous frustrated would-be caller whom my colleague had no way of contacting. Should the telephone company be rewarded for its poor maintenance of the pay telephone? It seemed to him that this was more or less like finding the money on the street, in which case finders keepers.

My colleague chose the second option and extracted the second quarter, whereupon a third quarter appeared. Applying the same logic he extracted that one, and a fourth appeared. He ended up with $2.25 in quarters beyond his own initial one.

Feeling uncomfortable with the situation, he reports, he gave them to some people running a church bake sale at a table down the street. He realizes, however, that simply giving the money to a charitable cause doesn't change the rights or wrongs of taking the coins in the first place.

"If I was ethically entitled to them, I can do whatever I want with them," he writes. "If I wasn't ethically entitled to them, then they aren't mine to give away."

He's right ... in his second observation. The quarters weren't his to give away. The right thing would have been to take the one that was his and then walk away.

My colleague did leave a note on the telephone, warning future potential users not to risk their quarters. If he felt empathy for the telephone company -- yeah, right -- he might also have called in, from a telephone that didn't eat his quarter, to report that the first telephone was on the blink.

As for taking the coins, it isn't the right thing because of the effort involved in extracting them. If he'd found the quarters resting atop the telephone, he might reasonably have pocketed them. "I found some quarters inside a pay phone" isn't the same thing. And, as he says, it doesn't matter whether he used the money to buy a Jaguar or to restore a blind orphan's sight -- it's irrelevant to the ethical question.

Small frustrations often cause us to do things that we know are not quite right. Does this mean that my colleague is not to be trusted? Hardly. I don't for a minute suspect that his pay-telephone episode suggests that he will drive away in someone else's sports car simply because he happens to see the keys in the ignition.

In this one small pay-telephone exchange, however, the right thing eluded him.

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

SOUND OFF: MADONNA AND CHILD

While 75 percent of the readers responding to an unscientific poll on my column's blog feel that the singer/actress Madonna is entitled to privacy in matters such as adopting a child, most readers who commented believed that she has given up any such right.

"Until Madonna publishes a book entitled `Adoption' to follow up her auto-photographic book `Sex,"' one reader writes, "I think that she's foregone any right to privacy."

"Adoption should be private," another agrees, "but she chooses to put her life on display continually. She has a history of following fads and trends ... and leaving them behind once the cameras are gone ... By `outing' her in advance, perhaps we can save a child who likely will be adopted by a genuinely caring parent from becoming another of Madonna's moments."

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, May 10, 2009

SOUND OFF: A HAND-OUT TO THOSE NOT SO MUCH IN NEED

Your town has been hit by a natural disaster. Many area residents have been evacuated from their homes, and outside support quickly arrives. At various spots around town, residents can receive free assistance ranging from blankets and clothing to food and tickets to performances and recreational outings. All you need to do is to show identification proving that you're a resident of the disaster-stricken town.

You've got the right identification, but as it happens your home was spared, you lost relatively little in the disaster and your life is continuing much as before. Still, free stuff is free stuff and no one is asking any questions.

Well, no one except me: Do you go to get some of the relief that's being offered to everyone in town? Or do you decide that, because you weren't as hard hit as others were, you'll pass?

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: Minding Your Neighbor's Business?

A reader who is a member of the board of a condominium association in Ohio recognizes that, as a board member, he is responsible for making sure that the association's bylaws are followed.

One of those bylaws requires anyone buying a unit in the condo complex to pay $1,000 to the association's reserve fund. Wanting to know if a unit currently being rented to someone with an option to buy had actually been sold, the board member accessed the county auditor's Web site.

His search revealed that the unit had not been sold, so the association was not due the $1,000 fee. He discovered, however, that the condo's owner was receiving a 2.5-percent reduction in his property taxes because he stated that he occupies the unit ... which he does not.

This discovery leaves the board member in a quandary. Now that he has the information, what should he do with it?

"Is it ethical for me to notify the county auditor of the situation?" he asks. "Or would I be wrong in doing this?"

OK, no one likes a busybody. Few of us can stomach folks who stick their noses into other people's business. But an accidental discovery during a legitimate investigation is a different story from rummaging around looking for dirt.

So long as the board member did not break any laws by accessing the county auditor's site, he has every right to be concerned about what he found. If the condo owner is not paying the full property taxes due on the property, he is defrauding the community in which he lives, or in which he says he lives. That is not only illegal, but also unethical. His misrepresentation steals money from the community and forces others to pay more than necessary to run the local government's operations.

There is, of course, a risk that, if my reader fingers this owner, others in the condo association might turn out to be doing the same thing and, if so, surely wouldn't appreciate being called out.

That consideration should not stop him from reporting the scofflaw, of course. But the right thing for him to do, before reporting the condo owner, is to discuss the issue with his fellow board members. A good rule of thumb, when making an ethical decision, is to discuss the issue and possible responses with other stakeholders. They may offer valuable feedback both about the options in a particular situation and also about how it might affect the community more broadly.

The board might, for example, decide that it's time to remind all condo owners about the $1,000 purchase fee and also to point out that, if they are renting their units, they are not entitled to the tax reduction for residency. The board might feel that the best response is to tell the tax-ducking condo owner that the situation has come to the board's attention and that it will be reported unless he decides to report it himself -- and pay whatever back taxes are necessary -- by a specified date.

One thing my reader should make clear to the board, however, is that the option of not reporting the issue isn't on the table. If the board won't act on the matter as a group, he will do so as an individual.

Knowing that the law is being broken -- especially in this case, when the violation could directly affect the board's interests -- and doing nothing would make my reader and the rest of the board complicit in a situation that never should have happened in the first place. The question is not whether to sit on this information, in short, but only how to go about remedying it.

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

Sunday, May 03, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: HELPING THE PRIVILEGED POOR?

A reader from Orange County, Calif., is perplexed. A friend of hers has two children, and paid to send them to private schools from the time they were in preschool through their high-school years.

Now the friend is footing the college tuition for each child. Neither of the children has been required to hold even a part-time job while in college. The older child has earned some money from paid internships, but none of this money has been used to defray any of her education or living costs.

The mother continues to pay all expenses for each child, my reader writes, including "modest but brand-new cars, trips to Europe, the latest electronic gadgets and just about anything they may need or want."

My reader hastens to add that her friend and her friend's husband have worked very hard to provide for their children.

"Both kids are very nice, very respectful, and have never been in any kind of trouble," she writes. "So, while I would consider them privileged, I would not say that they are spoiled."

So where's the problem?

The daughter will soon graduate from college. Her mother is worried that, because of the current job market, she will not be able to find a job immediately after she graduates. Once she is no longer a full-time student, the daughter will not be covered by her parents' health-care plan.

"My friend is considering having her daughter apply for Medi-Cal," my reader writes, "rather than purchasing a private health-care plan for her daughter."

Medi-Cal is the state's Medicaid program that provides health-care coverage for low-income people, and my reader can't understand why, after spending so much money making sure that her children have the best of everything, she would consider drawing the line when it comes to their health care.

The answer, apparently, is simple economy: As we all know, health-care costs are high and rising, and her friend would rather not foot this particular bill.

My reader doubts that her friend will go the Medi-Cal route, but wonders whether I see any problem, from an ethical perspective, with her even considering it.

If the daughter qualifies for Medi-Cal, there is nothing ethically wrong with her applying for the coverage. Simply having lived a "privileged" life while under the care of her parents does not mean that she will never have to find her own way in the world, financially or otherwise. It's fair to assume that, even if she immediately finds a job, it won't be a high-income one, at least for awhile.

There's nothing in my reader's letter to suggest that the friend plans to continue showering her daughter with fancy electronics, new cars and trips to Europe. If she is planning to do that, then her daughter will not truly be low-income, so Medi-Cal would be inappropriate. Otherwise, there's no reason that the low-income daughter of high-income parents shouldn't take advantage of a program for low-income people.

Her parents might have considered easing their daughter's transition to self-sufficiency by asking her to contribute something toward her expenses during the course of her college career. But there is no ethical imperative that dictates how far parents should go in supporting their children financially. If they decide to pay for more extensive health-care coverage for her, or to lend her the money to enable her to do so for herself, that's OK. So is telling their daughter that, once she's out of college, she's on her own financially.

That these parents have been able to rear two respectful kids speaks well of their parenting skills. The right thing for them to do now, as their daughter prepares to graduate from college, is to speak with her about the responsibilities she will face as an independent adult and to lay out the options available to her. That's the kind of help that any good parent should offer and that any child should cherish.

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

SOUND OFF: ALL THE NEWS THAT'S FIT TO SPOOF

Does Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," have any obligation to do his daily send-up of the news in an accurate and well-researched manner, given that he is regarded as a journalist by many people? Yes, according to 36 percent of the readers who responded to an unscientific poll on my column's blog.

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. Katie Couric led at 5 percent. with Stewart tied with Tom Brokaw, Anderson Cooper and Brian Williams for fourth place.

"Perhaps," one reader writes, "Mr. Stewart could have a disclaimer at the beginning and end of each program: `Please don't be stupid enough to believe that everything you hear during this program is truthful."'

Not every reader is so caustic, however.

"Several of the people that I know who watch Jon Stewart do believe that they are getting the `real news,"' another writes, "from someone who is not afraid to `tell it like it is."'

Martin Maines of Middletown, Ohio, suggests that the real issue doesn't involve Stewart at all.

"(If) people can't tell the difference between him and the so-called legitimate, mainstream journalists," Maines writes, "maybe the question of ethical obligations should be raised about the way (mainstream journalists) present the news. After all, their reporting is supposed to be accurate and unbiased. If it were, then maybe it would be easier to tell the difference."

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)