Sunday, December 27, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: THE INSIDE WORD GETS OUT

A reader in New York recently began working for a major media company. Like most big companies, he reports, his company is "filled with political intrigue and behind-the-scenes maneuvering."

My reader recently discovered a Web site that appears to be operated by current or former employees of his company. It explores the workings of his company in great detail and, while almost all of the posters to the site do so anonymously, "they clearly know the people and issues they're writing about firsthand."

In some cases, my reader believes, the information on the Web site might be useful to him in his career with the company. In all cases, however, he finds the Web site fascinating.

"It gives you the story behind decisions that sometimes seem unexplainable," he says, "and a much better idea of what's going to happen in the future than the official releases by the company."

The Web site can be viewed by the general public, including the company's competitors. It's filled with accounts of confidential meetings and personal criticism of "people who can't answer back."

"While most of the stuff I saw there I knew to be true from my own experience," my reader writes, "there's really no way to be sure if a given bit of information is legit."

Still, my reader has been advised by colleagues that almost everybody in the company visits the Web site regularly and that senior management is well aware of it and takes advantage of its information.

"To not read it is to handcuff yourself within the company," one of my reader's colleagues told him.

While intrigued, however, my reader is not sure about the ethics of the situation.

On the one hand, he recognizes that the Web site is akin to water-cooler talk at work.

"This is stuff that employees used to say to each other at a bar after work," he writes. "The only thing that's new is the wide scope of it, via the Internet. But that feels like a big difference to me."

His company's thorough ethics guidelines don't address the situation at all, so he's torn.

"Is it ethical to even read the postings on the site?" he asks. "Is it ethical to let them influence the way I go about my job? Is it unethical for people to post there and, if so, does that make reading it unethical?"

Having examined the Web site myself, I think there's nothing wrong with my reader reading the material there and using it for whatever purposes he may find helpful.

If the site's posters were stealing proprietary information - internal financials, human-resources documents and so on - then they would have crossed an ethical line, not to mention a legal one. But if their postings are based on their own experiences, as my inspection of the site suggests, it seems fair play for them to raise these issues on the site. One man's food for thought may be another man's gossip, but there's nothing fundamentally wrong with mentioning it over the water cooler ... or over the Internet.

If it's ethically acceptable for them to make the postings, there is nothing unethical about my reader reading them, so long as he does so on his own time and weighs each one with a healthy dose of skepticism. If tempted to do some posting himself, he should bend over backward to make sure that nothing he posts could be construed as proprietary.

Whether he should let the site's postings influence the way he does his job is a question less of ethics than of common sense. As he points out, there is no way to be sure how much of the information is legitimate. I'd advise him to confirm anything he finds there with more reliable sources before he hangs his career on it.

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

SOUND OFF: OPRAH'S KAROAKE MOMENT

Of the readers who responded to an unscientific poll on my column's blog, 52 percent believed that Oprah Winfrey was wrong to remove singer BeBe Winans from her talk show after several viewers complained about his appearing when domestic-violence charges brought against him by his ex-wife are still pending.

Winfrey had banned singer Chris Brown from her show after he battered the singer Rihanna, his girlfriend at the time, so the viewer complaints led to Winans being removed from the show. Several promotions showing Winans, as well as one of the taped shows, had already aired.

"Sounds like Oprah Winfrey used situational ethics," one reader writes. "She was willing to have Winans on the show until viewers protested."

"There was definitive and very public proof of what happened with Chris Brown," another reader writes. "She shouldn't have put him on until the case was heard and charges dismissed."

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 (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of http://www.jeffreyseglin.com, 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," New York Times Syndicate, 630 Eighth Ave., 5th floor, New York, N.Y. 10018.

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

Sunday, December 20, 2009

SOUND OFF: MUTUAL INTERESTS

Last January the Securities and Exchange Commission enabled mutual-fund companies to begin sending a summary prospectus to their investors, rather than the full-blown prospectuses that they had previously received. As anyone who has invested in mutual funds knows, these prospectuses regularly arrive in the mail. And, as the vast majority of investors also know, the prospectuses almost invariably remain unread, resulting in reams of paper and postage wasted on a service that isn't used.

Given some high-profile investment meltdowns and scams during the past couple of years, investors should expect to receive and should be expected to pay attention to comprehensible information about the stuff in which they're investing. Most don't, though. Is it right for the SEC to continue to require these companies to regularly send these paper documents? Or is it wrong to require mutual-fund companies to send the prospectuses if few recipients read them?

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," New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th floor, New York, N.Y. 10018.

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

THE RIGHT THING: WHEN TO FOLD 'EM

One of my readers has been playing in the same weekly poker game for more than 10 years - "same guys, same place, same middling stakes," he writes - but these days it isn't the same. One of his poker buddies is showing signs of mental confusion, and his game has deteriorated.

"It was never good," my reader writes, asking that his name not be used to protect "the sanctity of the table." "Now it's worse."

The other player is losing money every week, a couple of hundred dollars each time.

"When I suggested to the guy who runs the game, an old friend of his, that perhaps we shouldn't be playing with him," my reader reports, "I was told that he enjoyed the game and who was I, or anyone, to deprive him of that?"

The whole thing makes my reader queasy, but he doesn't want to give up the game, which he also enjoys.

"So what's the ethical thing to do?," he asks.

It can be harrowing, of course, to watch a friend's mental health deteriorate. My reader's plight is compounded by the fact that he may be taking advantage of his friend's diminished faculties at the poker table. It's one thing to realize that a friend can't think as sharply as before, quite another to be pocketing a few bucks as a result.

Given the hand he's been dealt, my reader did the right thing by expressing his concerns to the game organizer, especially since he's an old friend of the player in question. When faced with a tough ethical choice, it's usually a good idea to consult with others who might be closer to the situation or who might be able to suggest alternative ways to respond.

But now that the organizer has made clear that he has no plans to cut off his weakened friend, my reader has a new choice to make. Should he continue on in the game, knowing that he might win a hand or two at the expense of a guy who's no longer at his best, or should he walk away?

So long as the aging player is aware enough of his surroundings to understand that he's losing consistently, there's no obligation for my reader to protect him. If he chooses to continue to play in a game in which he's no longer able to compete, that's his decision.

Therefore, at the moment, the question is simply one of my reader's feelings: Does the joy he gets from playing with his longtime poker buddies outweigh the uneasiness he feels about one player's situation? If the answer is yes, he should continue to play with a clear conscience. If the answer is no, he should withdraw from the game, also with a clear conscience.

Even if he continues in the game, however, this isn't a one-time decision. If the other player's capabilities continue to deteriorate, at some point my reader may want to reopen the issue with the game's host or to talk to some of the other players to get their sense of whether it's time to cut the fellow off.

For now, my reader reports, he has decided that, having spoken his piece, he will continue playing because the game brings joy to him and apparently also to his struggling friend.

In fact, shortly after our initial e-mail exchange, I heard from my reader again.

"Last night," he wrote, "my `diminished' player went on an insane rush - full houses, flushes, trips and quads falling into his fist with astounding regularity - and he won a couple of hundred bucks. Sure, he called his full houses `straights' and he gibbered, but he still won."

As it turns out, a good chunk of his winnings came from my friend's pocket.

"Sharp old me managed to lose about $160," he writes. "But that's poker."

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

Sunday, December 13, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: WHEN A PARENT NEEDS HELP, BUT DOESN'T WANT IT

A reader writes that her mother is 77 years old, her father 85. Both suffer from dementia.

Her mother has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. She shuffles when she walks and has forgotten how to crawl, which makes it difficult for her to get onto her knees in order to stand up after she has fallen to the ground.

"Her falls are soft lands so far," my reader writes, "but it is only a matter of time before she breaks a hip."

She is not a neat eater, but my reader is simply glad that her mother is eating at all.

Currently my reader's father retains responsibility for his wife's care, because he won't accept help from the caretakers his daughter has hired to help him.

Her father has always been "very judgmental" of other people and their appearance, and often quite vocal about it.

"I usually tell him that it is not a crime to be fat or disheveled or any nationality other than Caucasian," my reader writes.

Lately my reader's father has become verbally abusive toward his wife. As time progresses and her condition worsens, he grows more frustrated with the situation. In his wife's presence he expresses his frustration to his daughter about her mother's limitations and peculiarities _ how she wets the furniture or spills her drinks, can't walk right or is always packing to go somewhere when there is nowhere to go.

"He rolls his eyes and acts superior to her," my reader writes. "He is quite demeaning to her."

She interrupts her father during his outbursts and tells him that he is being rude to her mother, but within minutes he forgets and resumes his diatribe.

"I would like to shock him by being very rude to him," she writes, "but he would forget in minutes and start again. Perhaps, if I do it often enough, he might eventually get the point."

My reader feels a responsibility to respect her parents, and wonders when her effort to protect one of her parents from the other becomes a moral responsibility.

I don't know that being rude to her father in the hope of teaching him a lesson is a sound solution. As she says, her father may not remember the earlier episodes, let alone register the message that she is trying to send indirectly. There's also the risk that my reader's rudeness might become a vehicle for her own frustrations, rather than a means to an end.

The end of life brings with it many indignities and awkwardnesses, and with them come new ethical obligations and new perspectives on older ones. The obligation to respect one's parents is still there, but it takes new forms when a parent is struggling with dementia or extreme physical problems. If respecting one's parents conflicts with doing what is best for them, obviously their best interests must take priority.

In this case, if my reader believes her mother to be in danger, whether through abuse or through neglect, she is ethically obliged to protect her. Her obligation to respect her father does not extend to allowing him to bully her mother, especially when his doing so is clearly as much a symptom of his own disease as of his personality.

Her desire to respect her father's wishes and his role as her mother's husband is honorable, but it is incumbent on the daughter to do what is best for both parents, even if that means contradicting them or going against their own preferences.

If it becomes clear that his own medical issues make it impossible for her father to protect and care for his wife, my reader has a responsibility to shoulder that burden and ensure that every precaution is taken to protect her mother. If that means separating them or compelling her father to accept outside help, that is tragic but still the right thing to do.

We all have a moral responsibility not to stand by and do nothing if we see someone in danger and can do anything to help. That's all the more true - if also all the more complicated - if the person in question is a parent.

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

SOUND OFF: DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DID

Of those readers responding to an unscientific poll on my column's blog, only 38 percent believed that it was right for Washington and Lee University to invite Jayson Blair to speak at its Journalism Ethics Institute. Blair, a former New York Times reporter, has tried to shift careers to become a "life coach" since his fabrications and plagiarism wreaked havoc on his readers, his colleagues and the newspaper itself.

The majority of readers - 69 percent - considered the invitation to be ill placed.

"The major issue is that he was proven to be a liar and a con artist, which naturally provides grounds for wondering whether any advice he might offer now would be trustworthy," writes Shmuel Ross of Brooklyn, N.Y. "While my instinct is to pick up a pitchfork and torch and join the mob calling for the plagiarist to be burned, I'm not really in any position to make that call. I don't envy those who are."

Cynthia Dodd of West Haven, Conn., backs the university.

"His honest look into his own struggle can help people realize that any person, brilliant or not, white or black, rich or poor, can be sidelined because of a mental illness and, until a person comes to terms with the disease, they are often unaware that they are even sick," she writes. "I am very proud to think that a university would allow this lecture to go on."

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 (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of http://www.jeffreyseglin.com, 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," New York Times Syndicate, 630 Eighth Ave., 5th floor, New York, N.Y. 10018.

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

Sunday, December 06, 2009

SOUND OFF: TAKE A BOW

When he visited Emperor Akihito of Japan in November, President Barack Obama bowed as he shook the emperor's hand. The State Department said that diplomatic protocol mandated the bow, which is a traditional Japanese courtesy, but some in the United States protested that an American president should never bow to any foreign leader. Republican Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas and presidential candidate, labeled the bow "offensive."

Assuming that the gesture was in fact dictated by protocol, was it nonetheless wrong for Obama to bow to Akihito? Or was he right to honor Japanese tradition by bowing?

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," New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th floor, New York, N.Y. 10018.

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

THE RIGHT THING: WE WISH NEARLY ALL OF YOU A MERRY CHRISTMAS

"Holidays can be so good, and yet so bad!," writes a reader from southern California. "If families get along, great, it's all wonderful. But what about if they don't?"

Some members of my reader's family have asked that she not invite a particular other family member to holiday gatherings because, well, they can't stand that person.

"They hate this person so much," she writes, "that they want to X them out of holiday gatherings in my home."

My reader is torn about how to respond. She still has treasured memories of good times spent with this family member in the past, and says that it "tears my soul" to think about excluding this person. Nonetheless she's convinced that it would likely be better to do so, because her life with the rest of her family - including those who live under the same roof - means more to her than anything.

"I should mention," she continues, "that this person is not perfect. They like attention and speak louder than they should. They like to have people listen to them. They talk too loud during movies at the theater and embarrass me. They don't take no for an answer. And, above all, they come back and talk to you when you have asked them to leave."

She refers to the family member as "them," rather than as "he" or "she," because she doesn't want to write anything that might help acquaintances identify the person if they should happen to see this column.

"Is it ethical for people to ask to eliminate a family member from gatherings," she asks, "just because everyone doesn't get along with them?"

My reader's question is easily answered. It's far more difficult, however, to provide a solution to her problem.

There is nothing unethical about her family members asking her not to invite a particular other member of the family. It may be rude or ungenerous, but it's not unethical. They have every right to ask, the same way they have the right to ask my reader to invite an extra guest. And my reader has the same right to honor their request or to turn them down. It's her house and her party, so she gets to call the dance.

So, should she invite the objectionable relative? That's not so easily answered.

Certainly most of us have, through the years, known someone whose behavior and manners make us prefer not to have to deal with them unless we absolutely have to. If that person is a relative, well, it's even more unpleasant, because there are certain to be some family occasions at which his/her presence is unavoidable.

When we can't escape spending time with that person, most of us find a way to be gracious, regardless of our discomfort, and save our spleen to be vented after we're safely back home from the party. It would be wrong for us to allow our discomfort with that one person to turn us into someone who is equally obnoxious - or, worse yet, even more obnoxious - by deliberately being rude or hurtful. It's fine to ask someone not to do something that makes you uncomfortable, but to respond by trying to make them equally uncomfortable is to become the same type of person we loathe being around.

I can't answer my reader's question because it isn't an ethical question - she won't be ethically wrong whether she does or doesn't invite the problem relative. It's a question of her feelings. There is no perfect solution here. She's going to have regrets either way, and only she can decide which way will leave her feeling better about the situation.

The right thing for my reader to do is to make the decision with which she feels most comfortable. If her fond memories and her loyalty to her problem relative are so strong that she wants him/her at the party and is willing to put up with his/her dislikable qualities, then an invitation is in order. If those feelings are outweighed by her concern for the comfort of the rest of her family, she should let the problem relative find somewhere else to celebrate the holidays.

Whatever she decides, she should tell her family members and close the subject, rather than inviting further discussion. She's the hostess, so it's her call.

Hopefully they will do the right thing and honor her decision, even if it means having to be on their best behavior with a family member who they simply wish would go away.

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