Sunday, June 28, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: WHEN THE BOSS ASKS FOR MORE

A reader has a part-time, hourly job with a six-month contract that is due to expire within a month. Her contract calls for her to work 20 hours a week, but from the very start she has been clocking in from 32 hours to 38 hours a week.

Before committing to the job, she had told her boss that she planned to take a vacation _ her honeymoon, in fact _ a few weeks into the job. As the time for her honeymoon drew near, however, her boss asked her to move back the date of her vacation. She agreed, and rescheduled the trip for a few months later.

When the newly appointed time for her honeymoon rolled around, her boss again asked my reader to move it. Again she complied.

"Now," she writes, "I plan to take my honeymoon in four months, about three months after the end date of my current contract."

Even though her contract is soon to expire, however, her boss talks as if she will still be on the job in three months, despite the fact that no new contract has been signed or negotiated.

My reader is starting "to feel taken advantage of," she writes. "I figured that it would be legitimate for me to make vacation and other plans after the end date of the contract, since the company had no legal obligations to me. What sort of ethical obligations do I have to stay here and re-sign the contract and make my plans around this job?

"And what does this sort of behavior say about my boss's ethics?"

To answer the second question first, this boss is apparently someone who asks her employees, even her part-timers, to alter their plans to meet the needs of the company. There's nothing wrong with that. The boss's job is to see that the company's needs are met and if, as in this case, the employee agrees to adjust her plans, it's reasonable for the boss to assume that the adjustments are OK with her.

Nothing that my reader tells me suggests anything unethical about her boss's behavior. She may be demanding, self-interested and lacking in empathy for the personal needs of her employees, but that doesn't make her unethical.

Moving on to the first question, my reader has absolutely no obligation, ethical or otherwise, to continue with the company after her contract is up, let alone to rearrange her life plans accordingly. The whole point of a short-term contract is that neither party is bound beyond the short term.

That she even raises the question suggests that my reader's real problem is that she has trouble saying no to her boss. If it's the boss's job to see to the company's needs, it's the employee's job to see to her own needs.

Particularly in this case, when my reader had told her boss about her honeymoon plans even before signing the initial contract, there is no ethical constraint to prevent her from declining to make adjustments to her plans that go beyond the agreed-upon terms of her contract. When the boss asked if she could reschedule the first time, she should have said no.

Granted, some employees have a hard time viewing their boss's requests as mere requests. The power differential creates an intimidation factor, even if the boss has no intention of coming across that way.

Nonetheless, an employee shouldn't expect his or her boss to be a mind-reader or an advocate for employee rights. A request is a request and, particularly when the parameters of the relationship are laid out contractually, there's nothing wrong with respectfully declining requests that don't fit within an employee's outside plans.

The right thing for my reader to do is to be honest with her boss. She should call her attention to the fact that their contract is about the expire, and that her future employment there is not a given. If, as it seems, her boss still wants her services and if she still wants to work there, they should negotiate a new contract.

At that time she should make clear that she intends to take her twice-readjusted honeymoon as currently scheduled. And when the seemingly inevitable request for a postponement is made, she should respectfully decline to reschedule.

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

SOUND OFF: DRINK UP ... TO A POINT

In an informal poll on my column's blog, 70 percent of participating readers believed that, when a restaurant offers free refills on drinks, a one-drink-per-person rule is implied, making it wrong to share a drink with someone else and then collect a free refill.

William Jacobson of Cypress, Calif., shares the majority view, which runs counter to the verdict previously expressed in my column.

"When you purchase a free-refills drink," Jacobson writes, "what you actually purchase is a cup and a license (privilege) from the restaurant to fill your cup with their drink. This privilege can be revoked for abuse. Sharing your drink with someone else abuses the common understanding of your agreement, so the restaurant is within its rights to stop you from further refills."

Louise Macaulay of Yorba Linda, Calif., disagrees. She has "never seen a Soda Nazi stationed by the beverage dispenser," she writes, so her guess is that management doesn't have a problem with sharing refills.

"Go ahead and have one free refill," advises Maggie Lawrence of Culpepper, Va. "Just don't be a pig."

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, June 21, 2009

SOUND OFF: CLOSING A CLINIC

After Dr. George Tiller, a Kansas physician who operated an abortion clinic, was murdered by an anti-abortion zealot, his family decided to close the clinic. Some opponents of abortion were bothered by the decision, Stephanie Simon reports in The Wall Street Journal, because they feared that "extremists might conclude that violence gets results where legal protests don't."

What do you think? Does the family have an ethical obligation to find a way to keep the clinic open, to avoid having the murderer get what he wanted? Or is the doctor's family free to act as they see fit, regardless of the circumstances?

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: DOING GOOD BADLY

When a child is stricken with a disease, it can be harrowing for all concerned. When that disease is rare, one with little ongoing funding for research, it can be even more devastating.

One of the partners in a firm where one of my readers works is facing such circumstances. To counteract the lack of funding, he has established his own foundation to fund research into this disease.
"All very laudable and understandable," my reader writes.

While the partner tries to keep his foundation work separate from his work for the firm, she adds, "there is some inevitable bleed-over, especially since the foundation's staff work in his firm's offices."

Even more bleed-over occurs when the foundation hosts its annual fund-raising dinner to raise money for its research fund. The firm's executives are invited to attend this black-tie event, but the rank-and-file employees are not given the same opportunity.

My reader understands that the partner cannot ethically extend an invitation to the fund-raiser to every employee. Doing so might make some employees feel that they were being coerced to give to this cause, even if they could not afford to do so. They might fear that, if they didn't give, their standing at the firm would be jeopardized.

Nevertheless, she says, by inviting only the executives, the partner breeds resentment among the uninvited, lower-tier employees, who already feel that the firm's management style is very "ivory tower, us-and-them."

"The perceived snub of this annual exclusion is like rubbing salt in a wound for some employees," my reader writes. "There is a great deal of quiet grumbling in the lunch room around the time of the event."

Is the partner handling this in an ethical manner?

There's nothing unethical in raising money to try to find a cure for a rare disease. My reader is right in finding the partner's desire to do so laudable.

The partner is also right in choosing not to put the rank-and-file employees in a position in which they might feel pressured to contribute to his foundation. In such a situation, whether they contributed or whether they didn't, hard feelings wood be inevitable.

By not keeping his foundation work entirely out of his workplace, however, he has created an impression that somehow the non-executive employees are less significant than his executive colleagues. He may intend only to spare the feelings of those who cannot afford his foundation's fund-raiser, but in reality he probably has no idea of who can afford what. In making this decision for them, he's making unfair assumptions about them.

So, if he's wrong to invite them and wrong not to invite them, what's the answer? Obviously he shouldn't put himself into this position in the first place.

In other words, his mistake lies in not keeping his work and his cause separate and clearly defined. If the foundation were a not-for-profit offshoot of the firm, it might be reasonable for its staff to share offices with the firm. If the other executives sat on the board of the foundation, it would make sense for them to get the pricey invites not sent to others at the firm.

Neither is the case, however, so the right thing for the partner to do is to draw a clear line between his work for the firm and his work for the foundation, starting by finding new office space for the foundation. That way, if others at the firm choose to contribute to the foundation or to participate in its annual events _ regardless of their rank in the firm's hierarchy _ they can do so on their own time and without any sense that their professional interests may somehow be involved.

The partner has done nothing wrong, in short, but he's done the right thing in the wrong way. It's time to straighten things out.¶

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

Monday, June 15, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: THROW THE BOOK AT HER?

Take a quick glance at the Web site of the American Library Association, and you'll get a sense of how very dire the state of funding for public libraries has become. Across the country budget shortfalls are threatening the ability of public libraries to keep their doors open. The overall funding picture is grim.

Yet these shortfalls come at a time when public libraries are experiencing record usage. According to the ALA's 2009 State of America's Libraries Report, nearly 1.4 billion visitors checked out more than 2 billion items in 2008. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has reported a substantial increase in usage in Canada. At a time when economic pressures make buying a book, upgrading a computer or even picking up a daily newspaper a meaningful expenditure, many people are rediscovering the rich resources of their public libraries.

Because of limited funds, however, it falls upon library managers to be more rigorous than ever about how they spend their money. Public libraries are, after all, taxpayer-supported institutions, and there are plenty of people keeping an eye open for any inappropriate use of funds.

A reader in New England has such a concern, even though she herself is a librarian. She's concerned that the longtime director of her city's public library may be using library funds inappropriately.

The director relies on public transportation to get to and from work. When the weather is particularly rough, however, she calls the library's custodian _ who is, of course, a city employee _ and has him drive the library van to pick her up and bring her to work. It's about a 10-mile round trip.

In the past the library trustees have offered to use library trust funds to pay for the director's transportation in inclement weather, but she has declined.

"The city probably doesn't know what the director is doing," my reader writes. "Most of the library staff are aware of this arrangement and disapprove, but feel powerless to do anything."

She wants to know if the director is behaving ethically and, if not, what can be done.

If the director had accepted the trustees' offer to pay for her transportation during inclement weather, there would be no ethical issue here. Taxpayers might groan about footing the bill, but the director would be in the clear as long as the arrangement was out in the open and accounted for.

But by turning down the offer and then making use of a library vehicle, and thereby incurring city expense, she is putting public services to private use without the consent of the library's trustees. And, yes, that's unethical.

The right thing for the director to do would be to inform the trustees that she is finding it difficult to get to work on some bad-weather days, and that she would like to reconsider their offer of a transportation allowance as part of her compensation.

Chances are that they would agree. Perhaps they'd even want to continue the current arrangement, which would make it perfectly acceptable. The key is not how she gets to work, but that any expenditure of public funds be aired and approved in advance.

If nobody on her staff can convince her to do this, or feels comfortable in making the attempt, then my reader _ ideally with a group of fellow employees _ should do the right thing and inform the board of the situation. It is the responsibility of the trustees to make sure that taxpayers' funds are being used appropriately and are being accounted for properly.

And, of course, the library staffers are also taxpayers and shouldn't be afraid to look out for their own interest.

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

SOUND OFF: IN A DISASTER THERE ARE MANY NEEDS

In an unscientific poll on my column's blog, 69 percent of the readers who responded said that, if a natural disaster hit their town, they would turn down relief if they were not as hard hit as others in the region. But my readers didn't find a simple answer to the question.

"Of course a person is not entitled to relief from a disaster that spared him/her _ at least not in terms of food, blankets and other physical materials," writes Phil Clutts of Harrisburg, N.C. "However, assuming that person experienced the same dread as everyone else, empathized with his or her fellow citizens' pain and losses, and/or experienced a degree of inconvenience because of closed roads or businesses, say, I wouldn't fault him or her for accepting free tickets to events."

Cynthia Dodd of West Haven, Conn., agrees that "just being in a disaster area is traumatizing." She doesn't believe that "red tape" should be allowed to stop "the non-needy" from getting assistance if they deem it necessary.

"All in the town must experience mental stress as a consequence of the disaster," writes Paul Peacock of New York, "and clearly events to relieve that stress would be welcome."

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, June 07, 2009

SOUND OFF: VINO VERITAS?

In his blog, "Dr. Vino," Tyler Colman recently revealed that writers for a well-known wine-industry newsletter, The Wine Advocate, had accepted paid trips to cover the industry. The newsletter's founder, Robert M. Parker Jr., has maintained the importance of paying his own way on such trips, The Wall Street Journal subsequently reported, but one of the writers racked up a $25,000 tab for travel, hotel and meals that was paid by Wine Australia.

Do such payments call into question a reporter's credibility, or do you think that an honest reporter can maintain his or her objectivity under such circumstances? Does it make a difference that Parker previously had stressed the importance of paying his own way to cover the industry?

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: DRAWING A LINE IN THE WATER

A reader in North Carolina is trying to sort out the difference between "the sensible thing" and "the right thing" after hearing the story of a couple of newlyweds who are friends of his daughter.

One weekend the newlywed wife was alone on the couple's boat, moored at a pier, when she was approached by a much smaller boat with two people aboard. One of them, a woman, asked if she could use the bathroom on the larger boat. The newlywed said that it would be OK.

Once on board, however, the young woman said that she needed her boyfriend to come aboard as well, to bring her some personal necessities.

Again the newlywed wife agreed, and the boyfriend boarded. The newlywed wife felt, however, that the two were spending an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom.

At this point the newlywed husband arrived on the scene, and his wife explained the situation. He decided to investigate, and found that the guests were consuming drugs.

"Get off of my boat," he told them.

The visiting couple got belligerent and a fight ensued. The interlopers finally left, but the newlyweds weren't speaking because the husband was mad at his wife for letting them onto the boat in the first place.

My reader believes, however, that the husband is out of line, since his new wife's "kindly nature (is) part of what made her lovable to him in the first place."

There are two issues here, but only one of them has an ethical component.

Whether or not the newlywed wife should have let the strangers onto the boat isn't an ethical question. Courtesy is a matter of etiquette, and as such can and should be balanced with other considerations such as legal liability and personal safety. How one strikes this balance varies from person to person, and clearly the newlywed husband and wife set the boundaries somewhat differently.

There is no moral imperative here, though, so the question is not whether the husband or the wife has the right answer. His answer is probably more sensible, but that doesn't necessarily make it right.

The other question, the one my reader specifically asked, is whether the husband is justified in being angry at his wife. He would have acted differently than she did, but does that justify his losing his temper with her?

I'm pretty sure that, if I came aboard my boat and found a young couple doing drugs in the bathroom, I'd be angry. Fortunately, I don't own a boat.

My reader has a valid point here, however. While the young husband has every right to be angry, his anger seems misdirected: He should be upset with the couple who took advantage of his wife's hospitality, not at his wife herself. He did the right thing in kicking the drug abusers off his boat, of course, but his anger should have ended there.

Marriage imposes a complex series of ethical obligations, and one of them is that a family's basic policies must be arrived at through discussion, agreement and, when necessary, compromise. Neither party can assume that his or her view automatically prevails unless it's previously been discussed and agreed upon.

I'm guessing that the husband's anger derived in large part from adrenalin left over from the confrontation and from retrospective dismay at the possible harm to which his wife had been exposed. He doesn't want to see her hurt, and feels that she heedlessly put herself in jeopardy.

That's a reasonable point of view, but it's not the only one.

The right thing for him to do is to get past the initial confrontation, calm down and then discuss the matter with his wife. If she agrees that a policy of not allowing any strangers on the boat is a good idea, then that can be their policy. If she feels that hospitality is too important to her to be discarded simply because two individuals took advantage of it, and merely hopes to be more judicious in deciding who is and isn't allowed aboard in the future, that's also a reasonable point of view.

The important thing is that the policy be mutually agreed upon. Until it has been, the husband should try to avoid getting angry at his wife for being the kind of person he fell in love with in the first place.

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

Talking Politics Over Turkey

For those wrestling with how to have a civil discussion over a holiday meal, a discussion with HKS PolicyCast