Sunday, July 26, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: YOUR CHEATING HERD

Last month Centerburg High School, located in central Ohio, canceled its graduation ceremonies. The reason: Administrators had discovered that a large percentage of the graduating class had been cheating on exams throughout their final semester.

The plot was masterminded by a student who had hacked onto the school's computer system, accessed teachers' files, downloaded upcoming exams and distributed copies to classmates. It came to light when a video referring to the cheating as "the biggest prank ever" was found on a school computer.

The cheating apparently was widespread, with most of the graduating class either participating in the cheating or at least being aware of it and remaining silent.

Unable to identify everyone who was involved in the caper, Superintendent Dorothy Holden decided to cancel graduation ceremonies and instead mail diplomas to students. Her intention, she said, was to send a message that cheating will not be tolerated and that it is not OK to turn a blind eye to such misconduct.

William Jacobson, a reader in Cypress, Calif., alerted me to the incident. He believes that, by choosing the path she did, Holden has sent a message precisely opposite the one she intended.

"Far from letting students know that cheating cannot be tolerated," he writes, "she still graduated these students who had cheated all semester. She is making no (distinction between) those who cheated, those who only knew about the cheating (and) those who were innocent bystanders."

Jacobson has three questions: Is it ethical for the school to punish the noncheating students as well as the cheaters? Is it ethical to punish students for knowing about the cheating and not reporting it? Is it ethical for the school to graduate those who cheated along with those who didn't?

Rarely can incidents like this be resolved with one clear-cut response. It would be good to believe that students who were aware of the cheating would alert school administrators. Unless students are instructed how to do such reporting, however, and unless it is made clear to them why to do so is important to their own integrity and the integrity of their school, the hazards of speaking up against their own classmates may be overwhelming.

Those who are truly innocent bystanders should not be punished, of course. But in this situation, as is often the case, it's difficult to discern the truly innocent from those who simply kept quiet about something they knew or even those who actively participated but did not get caught.

To answer Jacobson's first question, if the cheating was as widespread as seems to be the case -and if there's no way to definitively determine who did and who didn't cheat - I believe a punishment for the class as a whole, one that deprives them of a social occasion but does no long-term damage to any student's educational prospects, is acceptable. Not ideal, but acceptable.

Should students be punished for knowing about the cheating, not participating in it but failing to report it? If the school has a clear honor code that lays out students' responsibility not only to behave honestly but also to report any infractions that they may witness, then obviously it is fair to hold them accountable for not reporting this widespread cheating.

If there is no honor code, the situation is not as clear-cut. I still believe, however, that the scope of the problem justifies punishment. This is not a case of one student failing to report an individual cheater, but rather of a systemic breach of conduct which threatens the integrity of the educational process as a whole.

As to Jacobson's third question, I agree that it sends a counterproductive message to allow known cheaters to pass the courses in which they cheated and to receive their diplomas, by mail or otherwise. All students whose active participation in the scheme can be confirmed should receive a substantial punishment that is clearly more severe than those only suspected, those who looked the other way or, obviously, those who were not involved.

Looking ahead, the right thing for the high-school administrators to do is to establish a clear set of guidelines covering students' responsibilities in the case of cheating by other students. Then they should work hard to get their students to embrace those guidelines and follow them, recognizing that, if they don't, it will be the whole school that loses.¶

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

SOUND OFF: DID THE KILLER WIN?

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

Seventy-seven percent of the readers who responded to an informal poll on my column's blog said that the doctor's survivors are free to act as they see fit, regardless of the circumstances.

"This family has suffered a tragic loss," writes Dagmar Roman of New Windsor, N.Y. "No matter which side of the abortion issue you're on, the decision to close the clinic is theirs and theirs alone. It's no one else's concern how they choose to handle their grief."

"The family ... has every right to decide what to do with the clinic," agrees Bert Hoogendam of Sarnia, Ontario. "The family has decided to close the facility, so let it be!"

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, July 19, 2009

SOUND OFF: WHO PAYS FOR THE MEMORIES?

Estimates of the cost to the City of Los Angeles for security and other services associated with the Michael Jackson memorial tribute at the Staples Center hovered around $4 million. City and state budgets are feeling the economic pinch these days, and Los Angeles is no exception. That's why Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had asked Jackson's fans to help cover those costs through donations to the city.

Should the city be expected to pick up the tab for the costs associated with the memorial? Should fans have footed the bill by paying for tickets, rather than getting them for free by lottery? Should wealthy friends of Jackson have ponied up the cash? Or should the cost be covered by the Jackson estate?¶

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: YOU WON'T BELIEVE WHAT I JUST HEARD ...

As has been the case for a number of years, a reader's annual performance review struck her as a thrown-together affair. The morning of the scheduled review, her supervisor told her that she would need to reschedule their meeting since she had not had a chance to write the review. But at noon the supervisor told her that she'd be able to do it as scheduled after all.

It wasn't, overall, a stellar review. Some items struck my reader, a child-care worker, as contradictory: She was chastised for not working as well as she could with outside vendors in one portion of the review, for example, but in another was told that her job required her not to deal with anyone outside the office.

My reader has never actually been given a written job description for the position she has held for more than five years. As a result she couldn't help seeing the expectations upon which she was being measured for her annual review as a moving target.

But where my reader wonders if her boss has crossed an ethical line is in the source of some of the comments her supervisor made during their meeting: conversation overheard in the lunch room.

The supervisor told my reader that she had overheard other workers in the lunchroom talking about some problems they had in working with my reader, such as her occasional lateness to work and her not responding to telephone and e-mail messages.

Is it right, my reader wants to know, for a supervisor to base an official performance review on overheard conversation?

No, it isn't.

Because the supervisor was not part of this conversation, she has no context for the discussion, no way of knowing how serious the other employees' concerns are or how justified they may be. Eavesdropping on employee-lunchroom chatter is hardly a virtue, but it's also not a useful means of gathering credible information.

It's entirely legitimate for her supervisor to use the annual review to discuss any issues of unresponsiveness or tardiness that my reader may have, though it would be better to raise them before the annual review, so that the employee would have a chance to correct the problems before her review comes around. Any manager is within his or her rights to call out an employee on substantiated inappropriate behavior or poor performance.

The right thing for the supervisor to have done, however, was to base her review of my reader's performance on information which she herself had witnessed or which she had gathered directly from other employees with their knowledge. Checking her employee's attendance record is fair game. So is speaking to my reader's colleagues, to see what they think of her performance on the job, or talking with clients of the company to get their feedback.

In other words, the overheard conversation is merely an indication of a possible problem _ in itself it is nothing. To base a performance review on that conversation, without substantiating its content in any way, is unfair not only to the employee on the receiving end of the review but also to the employees who didn't know that they were being listened to by management. Besides which, it's plain old lazy.

My reader's boss should step up her own performance a bit and be more responsible in the way she collects and uses information about her employees for their reviews. While she's at it, she should get around to making sure that her employees have written job descriptions or, at the very least, that they are clearly told what is expected of them on the job.

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

Sunday, July 12, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: HOW FREE ARE FREEBIES?

Whenever I stay at a particular hotel in downtown Madison, Wisc., I know that I don't have to worry about remembering to pack shaving cream, toothpaste or other basic toiletries to use on the road. The desk clerk routinely offers me such sundries upon check-in.

So I understood the basic context of an e-mail from a reader in North Carolina who has an ethical quandary involving this sort of freebie.

A former colleague of my reader's is a volunteer for an organization that provides food and shelter to homeless people during the winter. The colleague sent my reader and others an appeal for donations of small, sample-size containers of goods such as soap, shampoo, toothpaste, razors and shaving cream.

"While his appeal noted that such items can be purchased inexpensively," my reader writes, "it also pointed out that, since they are available at hotels and motels, we should bring them back when traveling or on vacation."

My reader normally leaves any unused "freebies" at the place he's staying. He reflects that, while hotels may consider the disappearance of these goods to be "part of the cost of doing business," perhaps "other travelers would rather have lower room rates than, in effect, contribute to a cause they don't care about."

His question: "Is it ethical to collect these items for the purpose of donating them to this worthwhile cause?"

Many hotels, in an effort to be perceived as more environment-friendly, have taken to asking guests whether they want their towels laundered daily. So far, though, they've yet to give guests the option of choosing a lower room rate if they don't use the free shampoo and soap, although it's a novel cost-saving idea.

Unlike the linen, towels or alarm clocks placed in hotel rooms for a guest's use during their stay _ and only during their stay _ bars of soap and bottles of shampoo are consumable. If there are two bars of soap in the bathroom, one on the sink and another in the shower, and a guest decides to unwrap only one and save the other for later use, given that the hike from the sink to the shower is not exactly arduous, he is not using more than the hotel has given him for personal consumption. If, like many travelers, he returns home with an occasional bar of unused hotel soap packed among his belongings, it seems like a worthy endeavor to donate such goods to a not-for-profit that can put them to good use.

My reader's ex-colleague goes too far, however, when he suggests that travelers set out to collect more than was intended for use during their individual hotel stay. Saving a bar of soap intended for personal use is one thing, but grabbing a handful from a maid's cart is quite another.

As I have often said in this column, if you've obtained something wrongly, it doesn't matter what you do with it, it's still wrong. Robbing from the rich is still robbing, whether you give it to the poor or blow it in Las Vegas. That applies to money, valuables and even, yes, little bars of soap.

The right thing for the shelter to do is to request that individuals donate toiletries that they either have purchased on their own or have been given for their own use. It should not encourage the wrongful acquisition of such items, regardless of how noble its intentions.

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

SOUND OFF: CASH FOR CRITICS?

While 72 percent of readers responding to an informal poll on my column's blog questioned the credibility of reporters who accept free travel to cover their industries, many who wrote in agreed with the 20 percent of readers who believed that an honest reporter can nevertheless maintain his or her objectivity under such circumstances. Granted, some respondents had a vested interest in the issue.

"If you don't want the writers to get handouts from the industry they are reviewing," writes Penney A. of Columbus, Ohio, "then you need to find another way to pay their way. If not, then you will be left with `free' reviews from online people who may really have an agenda to promote their company!"

As a travel writer, Rob R. of California struggles with this question a great deal.

"I certainly make an effort to pay my expenses whenever possible," he writes. "There is simply no way I would be able to do my job without accepting free travel or accommodation from some of the places I am writing about ... The alternative would allow only independently wealthy people ... to become travel writers."

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, July 05, 2009

SOUND OFF: A FRENCH COVER-UP

Recently President Nicolas Sarkozy of France told his country's parliament, "The burqa is not welcome on French territory." He referred to that garment, worn by some Muslim women to cover their entire bodies, as "a sign of enslavement and debasement."

According to The Wall Street Journal, some Muslim groups objected, saying that such a stance could be taken as anti-Islamic. Sarkozy replied that he does not view the burqa as a religious symbol.

Was Sarkozy out of line to express his disapproval of a garment whose use is largely limited to female members of a particular religious group? Or was he correct in calling attention to the larger issue he identified?

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: SHOULD SHE LET THE CAT OUT OF THE BAG?

A board member at a cat-rescue shelter confided in one of my readers that, during the past six months, six cats had been allowed to starve to death at this "non-kill," not-for-profit shelter.

"The cats wouldn't eat," my reader reports, "and the employees and management made no effort to locate foster homes which might have mitigated the problem. These poor cats, once people's pets, died painful, lonely deaths in their cages, basically not attended to properly, if at all."

My reader, who has volunteered at the shelter for the past year, feels compelled to blow the whistle to her local media about the starved cats who suffered such painful and inexcusable deaths. Her goal, she writes, would be to shed light on how poorly the shelter is run. She fears, however, that such publicity would cause donations to the center to dry up.

She has a bigger worry, though: The shelter's board members have signed a "loyalty oath" promising not to disclose any information about shelter operations to anyone not a member of the board, on penalty of dismissal. If she contacts the media, she fears, it will be clear who told her the facts and her informant will be removed from the board.

This board member, who is facing personal financial troubles, occasionally receives free care for the nearly dozen cats she looks after. Losing her seat on the board, and the free or at-cost medical care from the shelter, would be a hardship.

"Do I just go to the media," my reader asks, "and let the chips fall where they may?"

If her informant is then dismissed from the board, my reader wants to know if she is ethically obliged to assume her vet bills.

"Deep inside I know I am, aren't I?" she asks.

My reader clearly has competing issues here. The biggest question is whether her concern for the shelter cats' well-being should outweigh her concern about her informant's possibly getting in trouble _ and losing medical care for her own cats _ as a consequence of revealing the conditions at the shelter. And, of course, she's worried that speaking up on the cats' behalf might hurt the shelter's donations ... which would be bad for the cats.

If my reader's concerns are justified and her information is correct, both of which seem to be the case, she has an obligation to act. Her informant _ both as a board member and as a personal protector of cats _ the rest of the board and my reader herself, as a shelter volunteer, are united in their desire to help cats. Letting this situation continue would be unjustifiable for all concerned, which is probably why her informant mentioned the matter in the first place.

My reader should confront the board, but not until she has enlisted the assistance of those in the community who would help her to do so. If this means going to the local media with the story, she should not hesitate to share her evidence of wrongdoing.

Her informant may be exposed, but she's already been compromised: As a board member, she should have used her position to call attention to the deplorable conditions. The welfare of the shelter's cats must be a higher priority at this stage.

And my reader has absolutely no obligation to assume her informant's vet bills. Doing the right thing does not imply personal responsibility for anyone who may suffer as a result. If she feels sorry for the cats and wants to help out, she obviously can do so, but it's a matter of choice, not obligation.

Will airing of the shelter's problems hurt donations? Probably, but hopefully the shelter's board, whether the same board or a new one, will make every effort to demonstrate that these problems are in the past. In any event, to allow donors to unknowingly contribute to a poorly run shelter that negligently kills cats would be unconscionable.

Everyone involved with the shelter has a responsibility to hew to the mission of the organization, which is to protect the welfare of the cats under the shelter's care. The right thing for my reader, her informant and the rest of the board to do is to make sure that cats are not starved or mistreated while in their care. Any other political, financial or personal issues must be secondary.

If they cannot do this, then they have no business running an organization of this nature.

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

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