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Sunday, September 27, 2009

SOUND OFF: SHOUTING `LIAR' IN A CROWDED CONGRESS

When President Barack Obama recently addressed the Congress on health care, Rep. Joe Wilson (R.-S.Car.) thought the president was being untruthful about whether or not his plan would extend health coverage to illegal immigrants. He interrupted the speech, shouting "You lie!"

The etiquette of the situation is clear: Wilson's outcry was a breach of Congressional protocol, and he later apologized to Obama. Voting largely along party lines, the House of Representatives passed a resolution disapproving of Wilson's comment.

What about the ethics, though? Assuming that Wilson truly believed Obama to be lying, was he wrong to call the president on it? Or did he have an obligation to contradict him immediately, given that no subsequent correction would reach so wide an audience?

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 DISAPPEARING REBATE

A couple of Christmases ago, the husband of a reader from Ontario bought her a Blackberry telephone as a gift. Because her husband wanted to make sure that my reader got the telephone she wanted, she came along when he made the purchase at the store.

"As part of the price, we were told, we were entitled to a $250 rebate," she writes.

When they got home, however, my reader looked through the packaging for a mail-in rebate card and couldn't find one.

She returned to the store to ask about the rebate card, but this time she spoke to the store's owner rather than to the sales clerk with whom she and her husband had originally dealt.

The owner proceeded to tell her that the clerk had "messed up" the original transaction. The rebate wasn't really a rebate, he said, but instead a $250 credit toward monthly bill payments, something my reader and her husband had never been told. And here's the kicker: The owner insisted that the sales clerk had taken an extra $250 off the Blackberry's price when they purchased it.

"Essentially he said that we owed him $250," my reader writes.

The owner told her that he would make sure that the credit toward monthly charges would be applied, and my reader left the store. She did end up receiving the $250 credit to her bills, and eventually forgot about the owner having said that they owed him an additional $250.

Several months later the husband returned to the store to buy something else. He was confronted by the store's owner, who told him that they still owed him $250.

"We are of the feeling that we paid for what we were expecting to get," my reader writes, "and it is not our fault that the clerk messed up. Is the owner right that we owe him money, or should he just bite the bullet?"

My reader works in retail herself, so she has seen this sort of scenario from both sides.

"If I make a mistake in a transaction, even if it means I lose money, I stand by it," she writes. "That said, I also refund money if the mistake goes the other way."

As regular readers know, I believe that it is ethically wrong to take advantage of a mistake by a shopkeeper or clerk. If you are given too much change, or if a clerk rings up your $500 purchase as $50, you are ethically obligated to point out the error and not to capitalize on it for your own advantage.

That would be the case here, if the higher price had been agreed upon between the sales clerk and my reader's husband and the clerk had then mistakenly entered the lower price at his register. In that case, error or no error, the right thing would be for my reader's husband to pay what he had agreed to pay.

That isn't the case here, though. As a representative of the store, the clerk quoted a price to his customer. The customer agreed to the price and payment was made. There was no deception on the part of my reader's husband, nor any error on the part of the clerk. He charged them exactly what he intended to charge them and they paid that amount, so the right thing for the store owner to do is to honor that sale.

If the store owner has an issue with anyone, it should be with his clerk. If indeed the clerk sold the Blackberry at a price lower than he was supposed to, the owner is fully entitled to be angry with him and even to fire him, if he considers the breach serious enough.

It's wrong for him to go after the customer, though. My reader and her husband did nothing wrong, and are in no way to blame for the store's internal problems with this transaction.

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

Sunday, September 20, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: TO WARN A THIEF

The start of a new school year always seems to raise some ethical issues for teachers, myself included.

One such teacher is a reader of mine from Pittsburgh, who is starting a new teaching job at a college. Like most colleges, his takes a strong stance against plagiarism. Its written policy makes clear, among other things, that stealing words from the Internet will not be tolerated.

That policy is one which my reader has no problem supporting, but he's troubled by some advice he's been receiving from colleagues.

"I have been encouraged not to tell my students that I'll be checking their written work through an online program that detects plagiarism," he writes.

These programs highlight portions of a student's writing and automatically search published databases to see if the student has "borrowed" too aggressively and without attribution from another source. My reader has little problem with the use of such programs, but feels that many of his colleagues seem "too excited" about the prospect of catching unsuspecting plagiarists.

He wonders if "we should be out to `catch' people in such instances where, instead, we might be able to pre-empt their poor choices by more clearly showing them that they're unlikely to get away with it."

In other words, why not tell your students ahead of time that you will be using the anti-plagiarism software, giving them a disincentive to cheat?

Ultimately, my reader writes, it's up to him whether or not to disclose the truth. But he wonders if it's inappropriate to be more interested in catching someone doing something wrong than in guiding them to do what's right.

Are my reader's colleagues wrong not to disclose to their students that they will be using plagiarism-detection software? No.

The existence of a written policy against plagiarism implies enforcement of that policy, so students should expect their professors to use any reasonable means at their disposal to detect violations. The use of anti-plagiarism software in no way violates students' privacy or other rights, so it's a perfectly legitimate tool for the college to use to ensure the authenticity of its students' work.

All the same, that it isn't wrong doesn't make it the right choice. I believe my reader's concerns are legitimate, not because using undisclosed software is unethical but because it's not the best way for the college to educate its students and promote their welfare.

The college's primary interest is not in collecting the "scalps" of plagiarists, but in preventing plagiarism. It also presumably aims to help students learn to make critical decisions for themselves, and both interests are better served by advance disclosure of the use of the anti-plagiarism software.

With the consequences of getting caught made clear to them, students have everything they need to make a choice about plagiarism. Hopefully most of them will make the right choice and the anti-plagiarism software will work well ... and bag few plagiarists.

A recurring theme in my column, through the years, has been that it isn't the stark right-and-wrong ethical choices that are difficult to make. Not everything that passes the "ethical or unethical" test is equally desirable, however, and the real challenge comes when we face a situation that presents us with a number of right choices.

Our goal should be not simply to avoid the wrong choices, but to choose the best of the right choices. The way to that choice involves weighing the potential consequences of our actions.

In this case, the right thing for my colleague to do is to focus on teaching his students the reasons not to plagiarize, rather than to work to catch them in the act. He's right in thinking that the goal is to teach a lesson through teaching, rather than through punishing.

If his colleagues are on the ball, they'll follow his example.

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

SOUND OFF: SECONDHAND INSPIRATION

Of the readers who responded to an unscientific survey on my column's blog, 61 percent believed that it was OK for ministers to use previously written sermons downloaded from online sources only if they acknowledge to their flocks that the sermons are partially or entirely someone else's work. Only 23 percent believed that it is OK to deliver the sermons as their own, assuming that the original writers have given permission for their work to be used in this way, while 15 percent said that it is never OK to deliver someone else's sermon as your own, with or without credit.

Kristie Rutzel, director of marketing for sermonsearch.com, one of the sites that provides sermons, writes that the goal of her company is to "provide inspiration" for pastors, not to rip anyone off. Most of my respondents agreed with her perspective.

"Congregations do not expect original thought as much as truth - the same truth that was taught 50, 100, 1,000 years ago," writes William Jacobson of Cypress, Calif. "So why shouldn't the pastor `stand on the shoulders of giants' in constructing his sermons?"

"It is definitely OK to surf for inspiration," Sean Chang writes, "and I believe that God can speak to us through many channels, including the materials provided online."

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, September 13, 2009

SOUND OFF: BUTTERING UP THE BOSS

The current movie Julie and Julia recounts the true story of Julie Powell, a blogger who decided to spend a year cooking every recipe in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Well into her effort Powell (Amy Adams) runs into a problem: The night before a dinner with an important editor, she sleeps through the timer and her main dish is ruined. The following day she calls in sick to work, in order to remake the meal. At her husband's suggestion, she writes in her blog that she has been laid low by a cold, so as to avoid having her bosses find out the truth from her blog.

Independent of the ethics of calling in sick when you're not sick, which have been thoroughly explored in this column, is it wrong to lie about this sort of thing in a personal blog? Or, because the blog is the writer's personal expression and is read only by those who choose to, can the blogger make up anything he or she likes?

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: COLLECTION IN THE CLASSROOM

Several years ago, after retiring from a long career as a human-resources professional, a reader from New York accepted a position teaching graduate-level human-resources courses as an adjunct professor at a nearby college.

Adjunct professors are traditionally hired on a course-by-course basis by colleges or universities that need to find instructors to teach courses that their full-time faculty cannot cover. As such, adjuncts often serve on a temporary basis and may find themselves without a teaching assignment if their services aren't needed in a particular semester.

In the past few years my reader has taught roughly 35 courses in labor relations, staffing and recruiting, employee benefits and other human-resources-related courses. Generally he has been pleased with his work, and the college has been pleased with him.

All that changed, however, when he received an e-mail from the college administration saying that some students in his class were behind in tuition payments. Representatives from the purser's office might come to his classroom, the e-mail added, to deliver letters to any students who owed money.

My reader objected to this, and sent back an e-mail saying so. It could prove embarrassing to any students who were singled out, he argued, and it was not directly related to the instruction taking place in his classroom.

He also gave his students a heads-up, reading them the e-mail from the college and letting them know that, if anyone came into their classroom to deliver such letters, he would excuse all his students from the class. He also let a representative from the purser's office know of his plan.

The provost of the college, who serves as its chief academic official, interceded at this point, calling my reader to discuss the matter. He said that visits to the classroom were the best way the administration had to collect past-due tuition payments.

"I voiced my objections to the method chosen," my reader writes.

My reader believes that the college would be better advised to send letters or e-mails to students in arrears, informing them that they could no longer attend classes until their tuition was paid.

"If they had chosen this option, and advised me," he writes, "I could have discreetly taken any students aside privately and suggested that they contact the purser's office, without embarrassing the student. Instead they proposed sending `bill collectors' into classrooms to present `collection letters.'"

Since my reader took his stand, no purser's representatives have shown up at his classroom door. However, he has not been invited back to teach any future course or courses. No reason was given, and of course the college is not obligated to give one, regardless of his successful service as an adjunct professor.

It's hard to see how singling out students in front of their classmates would solve the issue facing the college. Clearly there was no expectation that the students would get out their checkbooks and pay up on the spot. If hand-delivering the letters to students during class was an attempt to shame them in front of their peers and pressure them into paying up, it was the wrong thing to do.

Obviously the students are responsible for paying what they owe, and the college is entitled to seek payment. The right thing for the college to do, however, was exactly what my reader suggests: Let the students know directly, outside the classroom, that they would not be able to attend classes or receive grades until their tuition was up to date. It would also be entirely appropriate for the college to require faculty members, including my reader, to cooperate with this effort.

My reader was correct to disagree with the collection ploy, and to tell the college that he would not cooperate with it. However, I think he was wrong to convey his feelings to the students before he had discussed it with the provost.

A teacher is a representative of the college, and it's legitimate for the college to feel that its representatives should keep disagreements in house for as long as possible, rather than immediately broadcast them to the students and, by extension, to the general public.

Both sides in this dispute have done the wrong thing, and both need to make amends.

Most colleges and universities make it a point of pride to support their instructors, even when they question the status quo. It's more awkward when it's the status quo at the college itself that is being challenged, but the principle should be the same. Whether or not it is required by policy, the college owes my reader an explanation for his suddenly being frozen out.

If, as seems likely, it's because of this disagreement, the college should make a good-faith attempt to find common ground for the future and, if that can be done, should invite this teacher back into the classroom.

My reader should admit that, while his opinion of the college's collection policies has not changed, he was wrong to go public with his objections without a more substantial attempt to settle things with the college behind closed doors.

It would be no compromise of his principles to agree to discuss any future issues of this nature with the administration before airing them to his students.

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

Sunday, September 06, 2009

SOUND OFF: WHERE'D YOU GET THAT MONEY?

Financier Bernard Madoff has been sentenced to 150 years in prison for swindling billions from investors, millions of which he gave to various charities. Of readers responding to an unscientific poll on my column's blog, 52 percent believed that unsuspecting charities that benefited from Madoff's crimes but had no knowledge of his misdeeds should keep every cent they received. It was one of my most closely divided surveys, however, with 47 percent feeling that the charities have a moral obligation to give back the money.

"Unless the charities had reason to suspect that the money was tainted," writes Phil Clutts of Harrisburg, N.C., "they don't `owe' it to the deceived Madoff investors, many if not most of whom, after all, were seeking almost unconscionable profits."

"The charities had no way of knowing the circumstances of how the funds were earned," agrees Charlie Seng of Lancaster, S.C., "so the charities don't owe the Madoff investors anything. We seem to have, as a society, reached the point where anyone who has ever suffered a reversal in fortunes, for whatever reason, feels that they must be made whole."

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)

THE RIGHT THING: SHOWERS LIKELY

Twice this year an Ohio reader's company has decided to throw a wedding or baby shower in the middle of a business meeting at the company's main office. My reader works remotely for this small company, but was required to attend these meetings.

"Quite a few of us were vocal about not wanting to participate in the showers," she writes, "mostly because we don't even know these people, except for seeing them at an annual meeting."

The company's manager told them that they didn't have to participate, and gave them permission to leave during the showers and return when the fun was over and work resumed.

"Of course," she adds, "we were told that we were still expected to contribute to the shower gifts."

My reader and some of her colleagues believe that, if others want to host a shower for a colleague, it should not be on company time and attendance should not be mandatory. She worries that, as more young women become engaged or pregnant, more and more showers will be planned for company time.

"We are told we are not `team players' when we don't want to participate," she writes, adding that, if she takes a strong stance on the matter, her image as a team player stands to get even worse.

"What is the right thing to do when my company arranges wedding and baby showers in the middle of a business meeting?" she asks. "Are we wrong in not wanting to be a part of this?"

To answer the second question first, there's no right or wrong about wanting to be part of such celebrations. We feel the way we feel. Ethics doesn't tell us how to feel, only what to do about those feelings.

Going back to the first question, there's nothing wrong with having a wedding or baby shower on company time. Obviously the company feels that, in the interest of employee morale, this is a worthwhile use of the company's time. If management is happy with the practice, as apparently it is, it's fine.

The sticking point, obviously, is the idea of mandatory participation, particularly when there's a cost involved. An employee celebration of a private milestone isn't the same as an organized work session, and for those who don't feel comfortable participating _ because, as in my reader's case, they don't know the honoree or for any other reason _ discreetly opting out should be an option.

Whatever benefits the showers may have for employee morale are at least partially offset if some of those present resent being there and/or feel that they've been forced to contribute to a gift they wouldn't otherwise support.

To require any employee to donate to a group gift is plain wrong. If the company believes that it's good for morale or otherwise important for a shower recipient to get a gift on such an occasion, let the company pay for it.

And the company should consider scheduling these showers as voluntary events, scheduled after work or at least outside of official meetings. Not as many people may attend, but the honoree won't miss a few strangers - and, after all, what does it say about you anyway if people have to be forced to attend your party?

Unfortunately it wasn't company management that wrote to me for advice. My reader isn't in a position to personally change the policy, so her situation is different.

She and like-minded employees should sit down with the appropriate manager, explain the issues I've outlined above and request that the company change its employee-party policy to be more friendly to all the employees, especially those who aren't usually in the office and don't know most of the other employees.

This may inspire a change, or it may not. If it doesn't, my reader has every right to politely decline to contribute to a gift - "I'm sorry, but I don't really know her" - and then to step out of the room as the celebration begins, as her manager suggests. It would be wrong to refuse to ante up and then stay for the festivities.

If this won't fly with management, she'll have to literally grin and bear it, making the best of a party she'd rather not be at and writing off an occasional shower-gift contribution as part of the cost of doing business with this company.

I hope it won't come to that, though. "Mandatory gift" and "compulsory celebration" are both contradictions in terms, and a smart manager wouldn't mind letting her sit out the party on her own terms.¶

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