Sunday, October 25, 2009

SOUND OFF: SHOULD `ZERO' MEAN ZERO?

After initially suspending a Delaware first grader and requiring him to spend 45 days at an alternative school, for having brought a camping knife to school in order to eat his lunch with the knife's fork and spoon, the school has re-evaluated its position. Now he will be suspended for three to five days and undergo counseling.

The original punishment reflected the school's zero-tolerance policy for students who come to school with weapons of any kind. The revised policy came about after widespread media attention prompted the school to decide that a child's "cognitive level" should be considered in determining punishment in such cases.

Given the student's age and innocent intent, was the school right to alter its stance? Or is the zero-tolerance policy best, given that the camping knife could still have caused serious harm?

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: NOT RECOMMENDED

The honor code for the United States Military Academy is a model of clarity.

"A Cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do," it says.

When the lines are clearly drawn and it's simple to recognize lying, cheating or stealing, a West Point cadet should know what to do. But what about when the act in question falls into a decidedly gray area? How does a cadet make the call? And to what extent should a prospective cadet hold herself to the same standards?

One of my readers is the parent of a young woman in exactly that situation. My reader's daughter is a high-school senior applying for admission to four U.S. military service academies, for which purpose she has solicited letters of recommendation from a number of teachers she has had - necessary because each academy requires letters from both English and math teachers.
The daughter's junior-year math teacher recently retired, and the new math teacher deferred to her predecessor, rather than write a recommendation for a student whom she really hasn't had in class yet. That was fine ... at first.

The retired teacher wrote one hard-copy letter. The other institutions require electronic recommendations, however, so he is on the list to recommend her to the other three academies.

"Today she received an e-mail requesting a $20 check from this teacher who is not `agile' on the keyboard," my reader writes. "He asked that the check be made out to his daughter for formatting and writing the letter."

My reader feels that there is something amiss with his request, but she's wondering how to handle the situation ethically and, ideally, to make it a bona-fide "teachable moment" for her daughter.

Adding to the problem is that she has little time to ponder the issue: The deadline for recommendations is Nov. 1.

If he finds the technology too baffling, the former math teacher would be well within his rights to decline the request to write an online recommendation. No teacher is obligated to write a recommendation for a student. In fact, if a prospective recommender did not think highly of a student's academic work, she might be doing him a favor by declining - though that's not the case here.

Regardless of his intent, however, it is inappropriate for him to request any compensation for writing a recommendation for a former student. If my reader's daughter forks over the $20, whether to the former teacher or to his daughter, a reasonable observer might conclude that she was buying a recommendation, rather than receiving it on the merits of her work. My reader is right to be uncomfortable with the situation, and right to worry that it might not pass muster with any military academy's honor code if it were to come out.

The right thing for my reader and her daughter to do is to explain these concerns to the teacher and ask him to forgo the $20. If, out of concern for his daughter or for any other reason, he doesn't see it this way, they should thank him and find another teacher to write her math recommendation. Perhaps, under the circumstances, the new teacher would be willing to talk with her predecessor and write a recommendation combining both viewpoints.

It may be hard to find a new recommender on such short notice, but it's a worthwhile effort. It's not too soon for her daughter to be living up to the standards of the academies she seeks to join, and this experience should be helpful to her in considering future gray-area situations that may arise.

The retired teacher didn't ask me for advice. If he had, though, I'd have told him that, if he's having trouble with the online technology but wants to write the letter, the right thing for him to do would be to seek assistance from the school. Quite likely, someone in the guidance office would be willing to help him input his recommendation and/or give him a tutorial for future reference.

As for the school, the guidance office should make clear to all teachers that asking for compensation for recommendations, regardless of the rationale for the request, is unacceptable. A teacher asked for a recommendation can fairly say "Yes" or "No," but not "If ... "

Incidentally, speaking as one who has written his share of recommendations, it's perfectly all right for a student to pay for postage for a hard-copy recommendation, ideally by providing a stamped, addressed envelope for that purpose. Postage is steeper than it used to be, and some teachers end up writing dozens of recommendations. The commitment of time and attention is enough - no recommender should have to foot the bill to send a letter, although many of us end up doing so.

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

Sunday, October 18, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: THE RIGHT CANDIDATE WITH THE WRONG IDEAS

How many of you, I wonder, deplore the state of education in your country ... but adore the teachers who work with your kids at your local school?

How about politicians? As a group they rank low in positive ratings, but as individuals they keep getting re-elected. Do you hate politicians ... but love your local representative?

Years ago, when I was dissecting the results of a poll about workers' attitudes toward work, the findings suggested a similar disconnect: Workers thought that workers' situations were miserable ... but the majority of them were satisfied with their own jobs.

Benjamin R. Barber, a political scientist whom I interviewed at the time, referred to this phenomena as a "halo effect."

"You know," he said, "people hate Congress except for their own congressperson."

Barber's observation came to mind when I received an e-mail from a reader asking me a question about a friend whom he described as "very conservative" in his politics.

"My friend can't stand the politics of his liberal U.S. senator," my reader writes, nothing that he's particularly unsympathetic to the senator's stance on gay rights.

Years ago, however, when the friend faced a lawsuit that threatened to make him responsible for a deceased family member's debts, he turned to his senator for help after exhausting all other resources. The Senator quickly intervened, and the suit was settled in the friend's favor - "for which," my reader writes, "he is very grateful."

As a result the friend continues to vote for this senator every time she's on the ballot, even though he dislikes everything she stands for.

My reader understands that his friend might see voting against this particular senator as "biting the hand that feeds you," he writes. "But who's to say that another senator might not have been able to accomplish the same thing?"

Wouldn't it have been better, he wonders, for his friend simply to tell others about how his senator had helped him out and write her a sincere note of thanks - but nevertheless to vote in accordance with his conscience?

My reader suggests his friend should write something along these lines: "I appreciate that you, like all good members of Congress, serve your constituents regardless of their political positions, but since I am diametrically opposed to virtually everything you stand for, I'm sorry that I cannot in good conscience vote for you in the next election."

"Where should the line be drawn between standing by values central to your very being and ignoring them in gratitude for a moneysaving favor provided by a big shot that you otherwise regard with contempt?" he asks. "What's the right thing to do?"

My reader makes a good point. If you believe that an elected official in no way reflects your personal values, you shouldn't vote for him or her.

That's not really the case with his friend, though. Political beliefs reflect values, but they aren't the only values out there. Americans have a long history of voting for candidates whom they admire as people, even if they are unaware of the candidates' positions on particular issues or are opposed to those positions. Sometimes one set of values trumps another.

Clearly his friend places a higher priority than does my reader on the values reflected in his senator's effort to help him. Gratitude and loyalty weigh more heavily for him, and political compatibility less heavily, than they do for my reader.

Our values are shaped early in life. While the priorities we place on our values may change, depending on where we are in our lives, the values themselves hold pretty steady throughout. My reader's friend hasn't changed his principles as a result of the favor his senator did for him _ he's simply revealed them.

My reader's friend didn't ask me how to vote, and if he did I would never try to tell him. If he's decided that the help he got from his senator makes her worthy of his vote, then voting for her is the right thing for him to do.

As to my reader, I'd advise him to lighten up on this. We all cast our votes for a variety of reasons, and those reasons are our own. The important thing is to vote, not to vote for any particular candidate or for any particular reason.

My reader's friend is meeting his societal obligation, and my reader should leave it there.

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

SOUND OFF: LYING ON BLOGS

Of those readers responding to an unscientific poll on my column's blog, 36 percent believed that was OK for Julie Powell, the based-on-fact character in the movie Julie and Julia, to make up anything she wants on her blog. It is her personal expression, they said, and is read only by those who choose to read it.

Most of the respondents - 63 percent, to be exact - disagreed.

"I don't know which is sillier, the premise for the movie or the attempt to cover up the recipe failure and the machinations with the spouse and her boss using the supposed personal nature of a personal blog," writes Charlie Seng of Lancaster, S.C.

Dagmar Roman of New Windsor, N.Y., agrees.

"A lie is a lie is a lie," Roman writes. "No matter if it's to your boss or in a blog. Once I find that someone has lied, for whatever reason, I can never entirely trust them again."

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, October 11, 2009

SOUND OFF: THE LONG MEMORY OF THE LAW

On Sept. 26 Swiss authorities arrested Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski, a French citizen who was wanted in the United States for having sex with a 13-year-old girl. In 1978 Polanski pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful sex with a minor in California, but fled the country before being sentenced. Given that the victim of his crime has publicly forgiven Polanski, is it wrong for American prosecutors to continue to pursue his extradition? Or does the nature of his crime require that he pay the penalty, even 32 years after the fact?

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: LABELED A TARGET

Several years ago, when I was an editor for a magazine, a photographer who worked there gave me an old-fashioned, oversized mailbox that he had spray-painted gray for a photo shoot that had accompanied a column I wrote. It's the type of mailbox you attach to a stake in the ground, and it came complete with a red flag for the mail carrier to raise when making a delivery.

I thought it would be nice to attach the mailbox to my house, even though that wasn't its intended purpose, so I drilled a few holes in its side and screwed the box into the shingles to the left of the top step of my front stoop.

The problem is that, when a great deal of mail is stuffed into the box, the screws sometime pull away from the house and the box falls onto the concrete step below.

This is particularly annoying to me when unsolicited mail is the culprit, so I have no fondness for all of those tokens sent by charities in an effort to entice you to contribute, including greeting cards and personalized mailing labels.

A reader from Calgary, Alberta, probably has a different kind of mailbox, but has the same kind of question: If an unsolicited charity sends you "a nice packet" of personalized address labels to convince you to donate, but you don't donate, is it legitimate to keep and use the labels? Or, he asks, "Do you have to throw them in the trash?"

Given their tendency to overtax my mailbox, I wouldn't use the word "nice" to describe any of these unsolicited items. Clearly, however, my reader has no such aversion and would like to use the labels, if he can do so without stepping over the ethical line.

"Part of me says that, whether or not I donate, the company would figure this into their marketing strategy," he writes. "The other part of me says, `Donate or deep-six it.'"

The charitable organization sending those lovely labels obviously would appreciate his donating if he's going to use them, but he's under no obligation to do so. Obligations are assumed through mutual consent, not imposed, and there's no such agreement here. The labels came unsolicited and without any way to return them if he chooses not to donate. Moreover, the charity that sent the labels, like most such charities, in no way suggests that a donation is essential to keep the labels. They are a gift _ a gift made in the hope of prompting a gift in return, but nonetheless a gift.

Some such labels bear an inscription implying that the sender has given to the charity, which would send an insincere message if used by a non-donor. That's not the case here, however. The labels simply feature his name and address.

When I told my reader that it is perfectly OK for him to use the labels, whether or not he donates, he added an extra question: "What do you do, if I might ask?"

Sorry, I have no Solomonic solution to offer.

"I can't stand those labels and never use them," I told him, "so I throw them out whether I donate to the charity or not."

The right thing for him to do is to use the labels if he wants to and to donate to whatever charities he finds worthy. The two have nothing to do with each other, whether or not the charity in question wants him to think so.

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

Sunday, October 04, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: ONE PRICE FOR ALL...EXCEPT SOMETIMES

"I'm hoping you can resolve a dispute my boss and I are having," a reader from southern California writes.

Some background: Customer A contacted my reader's company months ago. He ordered, purchased and installed equipment, spending a considerable amount of money in the process.

"He has been a loyal customer for many years," my reader writes, "and spends a great deal of money with our company."

Customer B, on the other hand, is relatively new and has purchased very little from the company. Recently Customer B wanted to buy equipment similar to that which Customer A had purchased. He asked for and received an estimate from my reader's company, but found it a bit high for his taste. He asked my reader to consider giving him a better price on the equipment he wanted to purchase.

My reader and her boss agreed that Customer B should not get a better price than Customer A. After this initial agreement, however, they found themselves at loggerheads.

"My boss believes that both customers should receive the same price," my reader writes. "I believe that Customer A has been loyal to us, has money and time invested with us, came to us first and should get a better price."

Now she wants to know, from an ethical point of view, whether she or her boss is off base.

I contacted my reader for further information, and learned that the company has no policy, formal or informal, suggesting that regular customers should get a break on prices. Nor does it tell customers that, if they spend a cumulative dollar amount, the company's appreciation will be reflected in better pricing.

There would be nothing wrong in having such policies, assuming that the company wasn't violating any pricing regulations, but there's no ethical problem with not having such policies. Obviously there's no ethical issue in not honoring a policy that doesn't exist.

If the boss decides that all current and prospective customers will be treated the same when it comes to pricing, there's no ethical flaw in that approach. It doesn't reward loyalty, as my reader thinks the company should, but it does ensure consistent treatment of all customers, which is not a bad thing. There's something to be said for either approach, from an ethical point of view, and neither one is in any sense wrong.

The right thing for the boss and his managers to do is to decide what the company's policy will be in this area, then to make sure that all current and future customers know the policy. If it's even-steven across the board, fine. If it rewards longer-standing customers, that's fine too - so long as the rationale is made clear, so that my reader and her colleagues don't end up trying to placate angry customers who think that they're being discriminated against.

"I guess the boss wins this battle," my reader told me when we discussed the issue.

That's as it should be, because within certain limits a company is free to determine its own prices and pricing policies. She and her boss did agree, however, that it would help avoid future questions of this nature if the company established a written policy.

On that they both agreed, and so do I.

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

SOUND OFF: A DOG IN THE FIGHT

Quarterback Michael Vick, formerly of the Atlanta Falcons, now plays for the Philadelphia Eagles. As any sports fan knows, Vick was released by the Falcons after being convicted of involvement in illegal dogfighting. He served a 23-month prison sentence, and will remain on probation for three years.

In an informal poll on my column's blog, 46 percent of respondents argued that Vick's crime was heinous enough that he should not be allowed to play professional football again. Another 53 percent felt that, since he's done his time for the crime, there's nothing wrong with him signing with any team that will have him.

"Since Vick's release and the NFL commissioner's approval of his transition to active NFL status," writes Charlie Seng of Lancaster, S.C., "the criers and haters who constantly bombard Vick with unforgiving taunts should be ignored and Vick should be left in peace."

James Z. of Connecticut disagrees.

"It's unfortunate that those with the resources and the money get second chances like the one Michael Vick is getting with the Eagles," he writes. "A job applicant with a history as a convicted felon rarely, if at all, gets a job ... Celebrities that get in trouble with the law should struggle the same way as people who don't have the money. If that were the case, Vick would be lucky to be working at the local dump. Really, that's where he belongs."

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)

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