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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Money for nothing

A couple of months ago, the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement (BBM) called J.P., a reader from London, Ontario, and asked if he would participate in a survey that involved completing a radio listening diary for a week. The BBM is an audience measurement company for Canadian radio and television broadcasters. (It's comparable to Nielsen Media Research or Arbitron in the United States.)

J.P. reports that he "willingly complied" with the request, believing that "my input might have some, however minor, influence on what was broadcast." To encourage J.P.'s cooperation, BBM included a toonie (a $2 coin) with the survey.

J.P. dutifully filled out the survey and sent it back to BBM. He would have completed and returned it regardless of whether any money had been included in his survey package. After all, he had agreed over the phone to participate.

In mid-December, J.P. received another package from BBM, this one unsolicited. He hadn't been called ahead this time to assess his willingness to receive the package that contained a 70-page consumer product survey. But accompanying the new lengthier survey was a crisp $5 bill.

"I have no intention of completing this survey," writes J.P.

His first inclination was to place the unanswered survey and the $5 bill in the postage-paid envelope and send it back to BBM. But, he observes, that this might cost BBM more in postage than the $5 they sent him. He wonders if he should just pocket the $5 and drop the survey in the recycling bin. A third option J.P. doesn't raise, of course, is to put the $5 bill in the postage-paid envelope and just return it to BBM.

J.P. is wrestling with what the right response should be.

"No one called to ask my permission," he writes. "Am I under any obligation to respond in any way?"

In the past, I've written about not-for-profit businesses that send potential donors personalized mailing address labels as an inducement to contribute to some cause. More than a few readers wonder if it's ethical to use such labels if you don't donate to the cause. My take has always been that it's perfectly fine to do so since you didn't request the labels and were offered them as a gift just to consider giving.

When cash is involved, it might somehow feel different to a reader. But if, as J.P. reported, the $5 was given to encourage him to fill out the survey and not as an agreed-upon payment for doing so, he has no ethical obligation to return it. Presumably, his lack of responsiveness will signal the end of BBM's efforts to entice him to fill out future surveys by using such nominal cash incentives.

Once J.P. decides for certain that he has no intention of filling out the survey, the right thing is for him to do as he pleases with the $5 bill. It was meant to entice him, not to obligate him to fill out an unsolicited survey. He's under no obligation to do anything but consider the request, which he appears to have done.

Given that it's the holiday season, J.P. may decide to donate his newfound $5 riches to a worthy charity. But that, too, is his decision to make.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

c) 2010 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

My subway stop

Last week, I had to leave work early.

Since it was late afternoon, the subway car was filled with students who had just gotten out of school. Shortly before we arrived at my stop, I heard a commotion breaking out on the other end of the car. One of the adult passengers standing near me kept repeating, “Go to the other end of the car and pull the alarm.” I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about.

Still, I started walking toward the other end of the car — nearer to where the commotion seemed to originate. It was then I saw a teenage girl pummeling a smaller teenage boy who was sitting in one of the passenger seats. As she was finishing, a teenage boy took his turn pummeling the seated victim. Other kids were hovering around as were adults who had done nothing to try to break up the beating.

A momentary panic hit me. I’m not a small guy, but with graying beard, book in hand, backpack on my shoulder, and glasses perched on my forehead, I’m hardly menacing. Do I step in and risk a gang of teenagers descending on me? Do I walk to the other end of the car and “pull the alarm,” now that that fellow’s instructions had become clear? Or do I do as everyone else seems to have done and mind my own business?

I regularly dole out advice to readers who find themselves in such situations, but what’s the right thing for me to do here?

I would never advise readers to put themselves in harm’s way in such a situation. Jumping in and starting to wrestle with the kids who are pummeling the seated teenager seems fraught with peril. But standing by while this kid is getting hurt just isn’t right.

Half expecting — or at least hoping — that other adults will help out if I insinuate myself into the situation, I continue walking toward the entangled teenagers and shout, “Cut it out!”

Remarkably, the pummelers retreat. The victim gets up and moves to the other side of the train as quickly as he can. He’s pulled his hood up over his head and is slumping against the door, but he appears to be a safe distance from his attackers.

When the doors open to my stop, he also gets off the car. I walk him up the stairs to the station attendant, tell her that the kids who accosted him are on the last car of the train, and I sit with him. It’s only then that I notice that his nose his bleeding and a black eye is beginning to welt up. The attendant radios for medical help and also says she will call ahead to alert authorities that the accosters are still on the train — along with witnesses to the incident.

The victim’s cousin gets off the next train and comes to sit with him. I give the station attendant my card and tell her to call if they need to know what I saw.

I don’t know what caused the fight. I don’t know who the others involved were. But I do know that in such situations the right thing to do is something, anything . . . even if it’s something as simple as yelling out, “Stop it! Stop it now!”

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

© 2010 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

I am not a clinical psychologist

I am not a clinical psychologist.

My opening declaration might seem a bit of non sequitur for those readers who never entertained the notion that I might be a clinical psychologist. But there’s a reason for my opening salvo.

Last week, I appeared on a local morning news program to discuss a piece I had contributed to an article in Whole Living magazine on the ethics of forgiveness. I’ve appeared on the news show before and, as has been the case previously, the producers and hosts were very well prepared, asked terrific questions and treated me graciously throughout my visit. The television segment aired live, but I knew I would be able to see it later on the show’s website.

I left the television studio to retrieve my car from its lot. As I was preparing to start the car, my cell phone rang. It was my wife.

“The segment went great,” she said, commenting upon how easily the host engaged me in conversation on the topic. She paused. “But they misidentified you.” I had thought that maybe the station had misspelled my name or the name of the college where I teach. “No,” she said. “They identified you as a ‘clinical psychologist.’”

Uh-oh. Like I wrote at the top, I’m not a clinical psychologist.

But the honest mistake (another contributor to the Whole Living article is indeed a clinical psychologist) led me to the question: How much of an obligation do I have to set people straight when I’m identified as something I’m not?

On a smaller scale, such misidentifications have happened before. Students or others who e-mail me for the first time occasionally address me as “Dr. Seglin,” assuming that because I’m a college professor, I have a doctorate. I don’t, so I try to correct them at the end of my e-mail response without making them feel foolish for making such an assumption.

But the clinical psychologist label was broadcast on television, so I had no idea how many people saw the label or how to reach all of them. Nowhere on the station’s online description to the clip was the reference made and the anchor who interviewed me identified me correctly throughout our discussion.

I also recalled the episode of the BBC comedy “As Time Goes By” when the Judi Dench character introduces her boyfriend as a psychiatrist (which he wasn’t) in an effort to change topics with her deceased husband’s sister. When the sister-in-law’s husband seeks out the non-psychiatrist’s services, he responds, “I am not a psychiatrist.” The fake patient believes this is a therapeutic tool to entice him to figure out his own problems and no matter the protests continues to believe the non-psychiatrist is in fact a psychiatrist.

When I write, “I am not a clinical psychologist,” I mean it. I’m not.

The right thing for me to do is to make this point clear to viewers of the clip. So when I posted it on my column’s blog, I introduced it by pointing out the error. When I sent it to my college’s public affairs office, I did the same. When friends, students or colleagues view the segment and tell me they didn’t know I was a clinical psychologist, I assure them I am not.

When we receive credit for degrees we haven’t earned, even if it’s in passing, the right thing is to correct the mistake. It’s not only the right thing to do, but also prevents such errors from taking on a life of their own.

As someone who is married to a therapist and sees the kind of hard work she does every day, I can assure you I am not a clinical psychologist.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.


© 2010 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Every choice you make defines you

The choices we make define us. Ideally, we're proud of these choices, recognizing that when faced with a challenging situation, we opted to do what we knew was right regardless of any fears about possible consequences.

But often, we find ourselves making choices that in retrospect we knew were wrong at the time. The effect of such decisions can linger long past the event. These choices define us, too.

Many years ago, when a reader from Wisconsin was the director of a not-for-profit organization, he found himself facing such a choice. His not-for-profit generated money by reselling used goods that were donated to his organization's resale store. My reader managed 50 employees and reported to a board of trustees consisting of a dozen people.

My reader recalls that the president of the board was "mean-spirited behind closed doors." Both the president and his girlfriend liked to be "stroked and flattered" and exhibited signs of "self-importance."

One day when the president and his girlfriend were visiting one of the not-for-profit's workshops, she noticed that her former brother-in-law was working there.

"She immediately grew hostile," my reader writes, "and told her boyfriend, the president, that she wanted him fired."

Several minutes later, the president told my reader that he had to fire the former brother-in-law. "There was no cause other than his girlfriend was demanding it. He told me I had to get rid of him by the end of the day."

If he didn't appease his boss, my reader was convinced he would become the target of the girlfriend's wrath. Fearing retaliation, my reader gave in and fired the former brother-in-law at the end of the day.

"I still carry the shame and self-disappointment that I allowed myself to be 'bullied' into doing this," my reader writes.

My reader knows he could have stood up to his boss and refused to fire the former brother-in-law. He feared, however, that the consequences of not doing so might have been worse for him. Even if he stood his ground, the president might still have had the brother-in-law fired by someone else. He could have stood up to his boss only to find both the former brother-in-law's and his own job in peril.

Years later, however, he finds himself haunted by his decision. He had a chance to choose what he believed was right, but when push came to shove, he caved and accommodated a boss he knew to be vindictive.

Granted, in an environment where jobs are scarce, the courage to stand up for an injustice brought to bear on someone else grows incredibly difficult when your own job may be on the line. We'd all like to think we'd have the conviction to do what we have no doubt to be right when faced with such a choice.

That one choice made years ago, in part, defines who my reader is today. "On that day, I lacked the courage to do the right thing," my reader writes. But the lingering effects of that one choice have bolstered his courage to choose to do the right thing even when he knows there might be risks. That one choice may partly define him, but it doesn't limit him from being able to recognize that he never wants to allow himself to be bullied into again making a choice he doesn't believe is the right thing to do.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

(c) 2010 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Letting go: Ethicist on forgiveness (Fox 25 Morning News)



Here's a clip from an interview with Emerson College alum Gene Lavanchy on Fox 25 Morning News show this morning. The topic was the ethics of forgiveness. It was based on a piece on the topic that appears in the December issue of Martha Stewart's Whole Living magazine.

At one point in the interviewed I'm incorrectly labeled as a "clinical psyschologist." I'm not a clinical psychologist, but another contributor to the Whole Living piece, Janis Abrahms Spring, is.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Severing professional ties with kindness

How much loyalty do we owe the people with whom we work? That's at the heart of a question posed to me by a reader, an editor at a publication that uses a number of freelance writers.

His job is to edit many of these freelancers. "While technically they are nothing more than vendors," he writes, "I have always seen my role as not only to represent the company to them, but also to represent them to the company -- sending information, problems and solutions in both directions on an ongoing basis."

My reader has worked with many of his freelancers for a decade or more. Although in most cases, he hasn't met them face-to-face, he has come to regard some more as friends and co-workers than as vendors.

"Earlier this year my boss told me that she would be terminating the services of one of these freelancers," he writes, "one with whom I have a warm relationship." He was not specifically told not to tell the freelancer what was going on, but it was clearly understood that he shouldn't. "So, I didn't."

A couple of awkward months followed as my reader continued to work with this freelancer while knowing they wouldn't be working together for much longer.

"I felt guilty for not telling him about the situation," he writes, "and was very pleased when the termination date was finally set and my boss notified the freelancer. It was good to have the facts on the table, though his feelings were clearly bruised."

Subsequently, in the freelancer's final days working for my reader's company, my reader advised him about placing his services elsewhere, which he soon did . . . with a major competitor.

My reader is quick to point out that there was nothing illegal about the advice he gave. He had clearly advocated on behalf of his freelancer to his boss to give him more ownership of his work than his contract originally gave him. Still, his boss was unaware that he had coached the freelancer and he was happy to keep it that way.

Now, he is left wondering if he did the right thing. "Should I have dropped a hint to the freelancer earlier, which would have made it easier for him to find work elsewhere?" he asks. "Should I have avoided any discussion of his future prospects outside of our company? Or was the way it worked out a sufficiently ethical way to square this particular circle?"

Deciding whether you owe more loyalty to your employer than to the folks with whom you do business is always a challenge. Sure, the freelancer would have benefitted from an earlier heads up that his services would be terminated. But to do so would have meant violating a trust with a boss that news of the decision would be kept in-house until she decided to make the call. A lot could have happened between the initial decision and that call. The boss could, for example, have decided not to sever ties. If that had been the case and the editor had already spilled the news, it would have made it awkward for all parties.

The editor did the right thing by staying true to his company and also by offering assistance to the freelancer. If he had recommended the competitor before the decision was made to sever ties that would have been wrong. But doing it after the fact displayed both professional courtesy and kindness. Finding a way to show kindness in a difficult situation speaks volumes about my reader.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

(c) 2010 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Does spilling the beans put reader in the soup?

A building management firm orders lunch for tenant companies’ employees. Although the companies pay for the food, building management does the ordering. Once the food arrives, it’s put out as a buffet.

A couple of months ago, a reader took over the job of being the guy who orders food for all of the companies on a particular floor.

My reader and others in his position on different floors are allowed to eat from the buffet. Many also were ordering extra items for themselves. “I guessed this was allowed,” my reader writes, “and I did the same.” He points out no item ordered was expensive. More specifically, he would add on containers of soup that he would eat for lunch.

“I was talking about some soup I was eating, which I had ordered, and a higher-up asked me where I got it,” my reader reports. He told her that he had ordered it for himself and she responded, “Oh.”

Apparently, none of the higher-ups knew that the food orderers had been ordering small items for themselves until my reader spilled the beans.

“I got busted,” he writes, “and was told the others would be informed as well that this practice would not be allowed.”

Now, he feels bad, “like I’ve ruined it for the others.”

He disagrees with the policy, “but I would have followed it without ratting anyone out had I known.”

“Is there anything to feel bad about or is my guilt unnecessary?” he asks.

My reader acknowledges that he feels bad partly because he wants to be accepted and liked by the others who fill his role on other floors of the building. They’re all roughly his age and chummy with one another.

But my reader should have no guilt. He engaged in what he thought was accepted, common practice. That he was open about it with his higher-up suggests he wasn’t trying to hide anything.

The right thing would have been for the higher-ups to be clear on the unacceptability of the practice to those doing the ordering. And if the folks on other floors knew that what they were doing was not condoned, they weren’t being particularly chummy with their new colleague by not filling him in. If they knew this practice was against the rules, they should not have engaged in it.

My reader has it right. He might not have agreed with the policy, but he and others should follow it. It’s generous enough that they’re permitted to eat some of the food the companies order without having to pay for it. If they were pushing the limits by tacking on their own personal orders when they knew they weren’t supposed to, they were just being gluttons for punishment.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

© 2010 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.









Sunday, November 14, 2010

You read it, you buy it

Every morning, a woman who lives in a wealthy suburb outside a major city in the Northeast region of the United States, moseys into her local Starbucks coffee shop.

The well-coifed patron is well off financially. She and her surgeon husband own three homes, travel extensively and have put each of their children through exclusive private boarding schools and Ivy League universities.

She always orders a grande latte extra hot, plunking down three-plus dollars for her drink of choice.

On her way to a table, as has been her practice for years, the well-coifed patron picks up a copy of The New York Times from the sales rack. She proceeds to sit down, spreads the newspaper on the table, and reads every section, taking care not to rumple the pages of the daily paper. She then folds the paper back up, making sure that it looks almost unread.

A reader who happens to frequent the same Starbucks every morning questions the wealthy patron’s behavior.

“If she were indigent, I’d offer to buy her the newspaper,” my reader writes. “But she’s not even close. Perhaps this is how the rich get richer by saving a dollar here and there.”

My readers asks: “Is she stealing?”

Good question.

There’s a coffee shop in a bookstore near where I live that has a well-stocked magazine section. The owners of the bookstore make it clear that it is OK with management to peruse the magazines while drinking a cup of coffee, as long as the magazines are returned in pristine condition to the rack. It doesn’t, however, have the same policy for the newspapers it sells. You read those, you buy them is the policy on newspapers. The policy is made clear to all patrons.

My reader’s local Starbucks has no read-and-return to the sales rack policy. The assumption is that you are to buy the newspaper before poring over it, whether in the shop or at home.

By returning the read and refolded newspaper, the wealthy patron might assume she shouldn’t have to pay for the paper, but she’s wrong. She’s read the newspaper through and through and should pay for the product she used. Just as most people know it’s wrong to take an extra paper from a newspaper box when they’ve paid for just one, the wealthy patron should know better than to think it’s OK to read from cover to cover a newspaper she’s expected to pay for but hasn’t.

Granted, I may appear to have a bias here since my compensation for this column is directly tied to the newspapers that carry it making money. But my response would be the same for any item for which a customer was expected to pay if she took it and consumed it and then put it back on the rack or shelf without paying.

The Starbucks baristas may not want to make a scene because they don’t want to anger a regular customer and because they’re likely busy brewing and selling coffee.

But the right thing is for the wealthy patron to pay for what she uses. And the right thing for the local Starbucks is to make it even clearer to patrons that they are expected to pay for newspapers they take and read.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

© 2010 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Send me your questions and stories for The Right Thing column

For the weekly newspaper ethics column I write for the Tribune Media Services Syndicate called "The Right Thing," I am always looking for stories of ethical challenges, dilemmas, and perplexing situations. If you have such a story or question based on an incident and would like it to be considered for the column, please email it to me at rightthing@comcast.net. 

Please make sure to include enough details about the story, the issue that you're wrestling with, and your name and the city and state or province where you are located. Include a way for me to contact you. 

If you know of others who might have interesting stories, please forward this on to them by clicking on the envelope below. 

Thanks in advance for your stories.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Is free Xbox game a fable?

For two hours on a Friday in mid-October, alert fans of the Xbox game Fable II were treated to a surprise. On Microsoft’s Xbox Live website, the complete game that is supposed to cost $19.99 to download was offered for “free” on the site.

Word got out and was tweeted with abandon to fans — but within two hours, Microsoft issued a statement that it had heard reports of the freeness of Fable II, but that the correct price was $19.99, and the Xbox Live website was corrected.

K.G., a reader from Worcester, Mass., who is a console game aficionado, wondered about the ethics of taking advantage of what appeared to have been a pricing error.

He informs me that he didn’t buy the game at any price, “free or otherwise.” But had he known about the error in time he says he “certainly would have downloaded it for free — and part of me feels guilty for that!”

“If I were shopping in a retail store and the clerk forgot to charge me for an item, I would bring it to his attention and expect to be fairly charged for it,” K.G. writes. “When it comes to a digital product instead of a physical one, the situation somehow seems different. Is taking advantage of an online store’s mistake akin to theft? Do I have a responsibility to not partake of such an error?”

The parallel between a retail clerk forgetting to charge for an item and a software company posting an errant price for a product doesn’t hold up. In the retail setting, you’re likely to see all of the physical products as well as the prices being keyed into the register. You also receive a printed receipt itemizing the goods you bought and what you paid for each of them. But in the online situation, there was no way for anyone to know that the Xbox game should have been priced differently. It wasn’t like a vending machine that dispenses soft drinks for half the posted price. In other words, there was no way for the lucky few who found the free Fable II offering to know it was a mistake.

“Yes,’ K.G., responds, “but now that they know, do they have a responsibility to do something about it?”

K.G. raises an interesting point: If we find out after the fact that we were the beneficiaries of something that turned out to be the result of someone else’s error, are we obligated to somehow make things right for the person or company that made the error?

In cases where it’s clear that a mistake has been made — a bank inadvertently registers a deposit greater than the amount you gave it, a clerk puts an item or two in your bag without ringing it up — the right thing is for the buyer to bring attention to the mistake and make things correct.

But in cases where there is no way to know that a mistake has been made — as was the case with the mispriced Xbox game — the lucky customers have no obligation to make up for the seller’s apparent mistake.

As it turns out, the error ended up creating great buzz for the Fable II game, which, interestingly enough, coincided with the release of its follow-up, Fable III. Sometimes it’s difficult to know if an apparent mistake is just a deliberate marketing maneuver in disguise.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

© 2010 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

How binding is a deathbed promise?

Several years ago, the head of a large not-for-profit organization told me that when his mother was dying, she asked him and his brother to agree not to have a wake for her, but instead to honor her wishes to be cremated. He agreed, but after she died, several other relatives made it clear it would be unacceptable if she were cremated and there were no wake.

I fully expected he would tell me how painful it was to honor his mother's wishes knowing he would face the wrath of his relatives. Instead, he told me he and his brother followed the wishes of the relatives who wanted his mother to be waked, thus breaking their promise to their dying mother.

I was reminded of his story when I received an e-mail from a reader, asking: "What's your ethical take on deathbed promises - promises made to someone who is dying - once the person has died?"

Before his father died two years ago, my reader and his siblings made promises about the care of their disabled mother who suffers from Alzheimer's disease. "We have kept those promises as best we could for as long as we could," my reader writes, "but a day is coming when we will no longer be able to do so.

"On the one hand," he continues, "a deathbed promise seems like the most binding promise that someone can make to someone at an extreme moment when they are absolutely dependent on those around them. On the other hand, a deathwatch is not the ideal time to rationally consider commitments before making them, and sometimes people promise things that, under different circumstances, they would never undertake. The dead never know (setting aside theological speculation) whether or not the promise was kept."

My reader wants to know if a promise to someone who will not be around to see it kept "is more binding than one to someone who will be, less binding, or pretty much the same?"

A promise is a promise.

If you make one, the right thing is to make every effort to honor it, whether the person is on a deathbed or still living. There are, however, times when circumstances prevent you from honoring a deathbed promise as you wish you could or, obviously, discussing the issue with the deceased.

In the case of the head of the not-for-profit, he could have honored his promise to his dying mother if he had been willing to take criticism from his living relatives. If he knew he couldn't, he would have been wise to reconsider the promise he made.

In the case of my reader, if he promised his father that he and his siblings would care for their mother in her own home and not place her in a residence with round-the-clock medical care, the challenge of that promise is greater. In honoring the letter of the promise, does my reader at some point risk causing greater harm to his mother, something that clearly goes against the spirit of his promise to his father? Or is there a better way to honor the spirit of that promise?

We should keep our promises to those living or dead. But when the health and life of someone who is at the center of that promise is at stake, the right thing is to do whatever is within your power to care for that someone. In my reader's case, that could be the best possible way to honor the spirit of his father's request.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

(c) 2010 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Company Actions Shouldn't Breed Bad Expense Reports

Company expense reports can be the downfall of a good employee. But just because keeping track of receipts and filing reports on time can be cumbersome doesn't excuse cheating the truth.

A reader from Mexico e-mailed to let me know he travels quite a bit for his job, which requires him to work on different projects in various industries in different cities.

"I generate a lot of travel expenses," he writes. He wonders, however, if he is handling his travel expenses "in an ethical way."

He observes that while his employer has a policy about travel expenses, it seems more concerned about the company than it does about the employees.

In his case, the company tells him that he will be reimbursed $8 for every meal and $50 for every hotel room. "But what happens if the cost of a hotel is greater than $50 and the meal doesn't cost $8?" he asks.

That's a great question, given that both of those figures fall well below even the lowest per diem rates published by the U.S. Department of State in various Mexican cities (Colima has the lowest published per diem rate at a combined $115), and certainly below the per diem rates for food and lodging in major cities in the United States and Canada.

"If I pay more than $8 for food and more than $50 for a hotel, my company will not refund the difference," he writes. What's more, even after he files his expense report, the company takes three to four months to reimburse employees for expenses. The company will not reimburse employees, however, unless they get in their receipts and expense reports filed with the company within 15 days of when they finished traveling.

"Workers are creating fake reports and receipts because they want the company to pay what it costs in real situations," my reader writes.

"What's the right thing to do?"

It's wrong for my reader or his co-workers to falsify information on their expense reports. While it's a longstanding joke among many employees that writing expense reports is an exercise in creativity, lying is not the appropriate response. If failing to recognize the drawbacks of lying doesn't do the trick, then the prospect of getting caught fabricating by the company and possibly being dismissed as a result might be a stronger deterrent.

My reader should try to stay within the budget allotted and file an accurate report.

But it's wrong for the company to have such unrealistic expectations about its employees' expenses on the road. And it's even worse that while it expects timely reports to be filed, the company drags its heels when reimbursing employees for money spent doing the company's bidding.

The right thing is for my reader's company to set a more realistic reimbursement figure for its employees' expenses -- and to pay them the money they're due as soon as possible.

Failing to do these things could result in some workers believing that lying is their only option to get what's rightfully theirs. Such behavior is wrong, but the company should do what it can to breed honesty among its workers.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

(c) 2010 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Should Taking Hotel Toiletries Work You Into a Lather?

Several years ago, an editor of a daily newspaper and I were talking about the types of everyday ethical questions with which people might be wrestling. At the top of his list? Whether it's OK for guests to take toiletries supplied by hotels.

It's a question that's come up regularly over the years, but one that I haven't tackled in the column since there seemed to be bigger fish to fry. Yet it's precisely these everyday types of questions that cause readers to second-guess their actions, even if on a seemingly small scale.

A reader from Columbus was the most recent person posing the toiletry question to me.

"I travel a lot for my company," she wrote. "I have often seen the suggestion that one take the little shampoo bottles and soaps from the hotel room to donate to a homeless shelter."

But my reader points out that she always travels with her own shampoo because she's "picky about shampoo." It seems to her, she wrote, that it was "inappropriate" to take the unused toiletries from her hotel if she didn't use them as intended.

"If the hotel would use them for the next guest in the room, then liberating them for the homeless seems something akin to stealing."

So, she asked, which action is more ethical: leaving them in the room for the next guest or taking them home to give to those in need?

I've heard of similar appeals from charitable organizations that encourage travelers to gather up hotel toiletries and donate them to worthy causes.

Toiletries fall into a different category than the bathrobes, linens and other items that are clearly intended for guest use while on hotel property and not for transport home.

Since the toiletries are placed in the room for guests, I do not see any issue with taking whatever's left over home. But those trying to heed the call of charities by grabbing a few extra bottles of shampoo or bars of soap from the supply carts that often crowd hotel corridors in the morning cross the line. The right thing is to take home what was intended for your consumption, but to refrain from raiding someone else's coffers to support your cause.

Partly used shampoo bottles or soap bars may represent a lost opportunity if they are left behind and disposed by hotels.

Recognizing the need for disinfectants in developing nations, a handful of not-for-profit groups such as Clean the World (http://www.cleantheworld.org/) and the Global Soap Project (http://www.globalsoap.org/) have established relationships with hotels to donate and recycle shampoos and soaps. The groups have also set up ways for travelers to donate their unused toiletries.

If travelers know that the hotel they're staying in has such a relationship with one of these organizations, it gives them an option to donate goods that might otherwise go unused. If not, and they want to bring home whatever was intended for their personal consumption so they can donate to whatever cause they choose, they should do so with a clean conscience.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.
 
 
(c) 2010 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

An Oily Change-Up Reeks of Bad Business

Knowing that his wife’s car was due for an oil change, a reader just outside Boston saw that the local oil-change franchise near them offered oil changes for around 20 bucks.

A no-brainer, he figured. So, my reader tells me, his wife drove to the center for the service. But when presented with the bill, she saw the total charges came to $37.17, well above the $20 the oil change supposedly cost.

She inquired about the excess charges and was told that her “cabin air filter” had to be replaced. Not having a clue what a cabin air filter was, she paid the bill and returned home.

Her husband was equally baffled about what a cabin air filter was, but what bothered him more was that the oil change franchise had decided to replace the part without consulting with his wife first.

“We came in for one thing and they charged us for more than we wanted,” he told me.

Nonplussed, my reader decided to e-mail the oil-change center’s manager to explain the situation and ask for a refund.

“The issue that was encountered in your vehicle is a common one,” the manager e-mailed back. “If you do not want this service to be done, we ask you to please let us know ahead of time.” For their inconvenience, the manager wrote, he would be willing to give the husband and wife $10 off on their next service at the center.

“Your answer is unacceptable,” my reader e-mailed back. “You say that if I don’t want this service to be done, to please let you know ahead of time. I have to ask: If I did not know it was to be performed (as you did the service without my permission) how could I have asked you not to do it?” Again, he asked for a refund for the service he did not request.

Neither the manager nor my reader would budge. My reader ultimately asked that the entire $37.17 he spent be refunded to his credit card.

Was it enough that the manager offered my reader $10 off of his next visit? By trying to even things out financially on a next appointment, did that signal that the manager was trying to make things right?

Not a chance.

The right thing would have been for the service center to check with my reader’s wife before performing additional maintenance on her car. Adding additional services and costs to the bill without the customer’s permission suggests a bait-and-switch to get customers to spend more than they intend. It’s dishonest and, in the long run, bad customer service. Because they did the additional work without approval, my reader has every reason to expect that the extra amount spent will be credited to him. He should, however, expect to pay for the $20 oil change he requested.

Offering the $10 off on the next appointment forces my reader to spend more money to get back the money that he’s rightfully due. The right thing for the oil service center to do is refund the extra charge and refrain from trying to sell customers more than they ask for.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

© 2010 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

"The Right Thing" now syndicated by Tribune Media Services

As of September 1, 2010, “The Right Thing” column has a new syndication partner.
The weekly column is now distributed to newspapers and other online and print publications by Tribune Media Services.
A home page for the column along with column samples and information on how publications can purchase the weekly column to run in their respective outlets can be found here.

Is Acting Your Way Onto Base Off-Base?

Last August, my wife and I took our two grandsons, Evan and Lucas, to Fenway Park to watch the Red Sox play the Yankees. Evan, then 10, was already a die-hard Red Sox fan. Lucas, then 8, was not as sure of his allegiances.

On the first pitch of the night to leadoff Yankees batter Derek Jeter, Jeter smashed a home run to right center field off Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett. Lucas immediately turned to the three of us and announced: “I think I’m a Yankees fan.” He has been one ever since.

That Derek Jeter was the impetus for Lucas’ newfound allegiance is no surprise. For years, Jeter has been viewed as an antidote to the number of stories of professional baseball players who took shortcuts to performance by taking steroids. He’s widely viewed as a leader respected by his teammates, competitors and fans.

A little more than a year after Lucas’conversion, I started receiving e-mails in my inbox from friends and readers of my column with variations in the subject line of “Jeter’s a Cheater.” All were asking whether I believed Jeter had crossed the line on that Wednesday night in mid-September when he acted as if a pitch by Tampa Bay Rays’ Chad Qualls had hit his arm. The umpire ruled that the ball did indeed hit Jeter and awarded him first base. The Rays manager argued the call with the umpire and was ejected from the game.

The Rays went on to win the game 4-3, but Jeter’s seventh-inning performance had the sports blogs buzzing. Jeter later admitted that he knew the ball had hit his bat and not him, telling reporters “He told me to go to first base. I’m not going to tell him I’m not going to first, you know.”

My readers wanted to know whether I believed Jeter did the right thing by acting his way onto base.

A bevy of sports analysts weighed in to say that what Jeter did was simply part of the game. “Gamesmanship,” sportscaster Bob Costas called it, arguing to The New York Times that it was of an entirely different ilk than taking steroids or “stealing signs with a pair of binoculars.” Feigning getting hit was, most analysts argued, a long-accepted part of the game.

If ethics is “how we behave when we decide we belong together,” as Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner Rogers argue in their book, A Simpler Way, then Jeter’s actions don’t appear to cross the ethical line in baseball. Cheating outside the park may not be acceptable, but by the norms of the game inside the park, what Jeter did could be seen as both acceptable and emblematic of his tenacious desire to win.

But Jeter had the opportunity to do more in this situation. Just because fudging or feigning is accepted as part of the game, he’s a strong enough player that he shouldn’t need to act his way onto first base by forcing a bad call by an umpire. It’s the rare coach or player who will point out a bad call if it goes against their team’s favor.

The right thing in such incidents as Jeter’s is for a player or coach to decide if they want to win on the merits of their play rather than their ability to cheat the truth. Deciding to win on the merits is a decision that I hope Lucas, who remains a Jeter fan, will make as he advances in his own athletic career.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing(at)comcast.net.

© 2010 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

PUMP IT RIGHT

When I was about 12 years old, my mother used to do her grocery shopping at a supermarket next to a discount department store in Parsippany, N.J. The department store had an area with pinball machines. While my mother shopped, I’d use the nickels I saved to play as much pinball as I could.

On one occasion, I noticed that one of the pinball machines had free games indicated on its screen. I walked over to play the games and more and more free games registered, even though I hadn’t deposited any money and, near as I could tell, hadn’t scored high enough to win any free games. After about 20 minutes of playing, the guy who took care of the machines came over and told me that the pinball machine was out of order and he needed to service it.

“Did you put any money in that machine?” he asked.

Flustered — and 12 years old — I responded, “Yes.”

I followed his eyes as he looked at the coin slots. All of them were taped over with black electrical tape to keep people from depositing money. I was caught in a lie. I left, partly embarrassed and partly convinced he would ask me to pay for all of the free games I’d played.

The lesson that’s stuck with me since that day is that lying about the small stuff is wrong. If it’s not enough to know that it’s wrong to deceive someone, then rest assured that you never know when a little bit of electrical tape will trip you up.

On the Friday before Labor Day, at just about 6 in the morning, Bryan Drost, a reader who lives near Cleveland, found himself in a situation where he, too, was receiving something for less than he should have paid.

He had stopped at the gas station he frequently visits to fill up. The electronic sign in front of the station indicated that gas was $2.79 a gallon. While he was about to press the fuel-choice button, he noticed that the price at the pump was set to $2.57, the price from the day before.

“Was I obligated to let the management know that the prices were different?” Drost asks. “Would it have made any difference if there was a long line inside and I was late for work?”

The pricing mistake was the service station’s fault, so Drost could have left without saying a word. Proclaiming ignorance would have been a viable response had someone confronted him. (No electrical tape was marring his ability to pay for the gas he pumped.)

But the right thing to do was to let someone know that there was a mistake. If the service station attendant on duty was smart, he’d have thanked Drost but let him pay the lower price. Making the effort is the right thing to do, regardless of whether there’s a line.

And indeed Drost did venture into the small convenience store at the gas station to try to alert management to the price differential, but he couldn’t find anyone.

“It was pretty early in the morning,” he says, “and I’m guessing they only had one person who was working on something else.”

Though unsuccessful, Drost did the right thing by making a concerted effort to set the station right.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

© 2010 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

GIVING ACCESS TO THE WRONG SIGNAL

Shortly after we made an offer to buy a house a few years ago, my wife and I were driving through the small village where the property was located. It was lunchtime and, given that we had already bombarded our Realtor with questions in person, we felt it was best to pose our remaining questions by e-mail.

I had my laptop with me and had read somewhere that the village had set up wireless hotspots throughout town for resident access. Unfortunately, I couldn't detect any of these spots with my laptop. But after we parked in the lot of a sandwich place for lunch, I did notice that there was an unsecured Wi-Fi connection available, presumably from a nearby business.

I connected successfully and sent off the e-mail to our Realtor before we headed in to grab a sandwich.

A recent e-mail from E.W., a reader from Ohio, reminded me of my parking lot Wi-Fi adventures.

E.W. recently bought a Wi-Fi capable laptop computer. "Right out of the box," he writes, "I realized that my apartment complex was a hot spot with three or four Wi-Fi connections to access around the complex. This got me thinking: Why pay for my own Internet service when I can sponge off of these folks?"

When E.W. surveyed his friends about tapping into the available Wi-Fi spots, the reaction was decidedly mixed. Some thought it was OK, while others told him it would be dishonest.

Ultimately, E.W. says he "minimally" borrowed his neighbors' Wi-Fi access for the week it took to get his own wireless service installed.

Still, he wants to know if it was wrong to tap into other's unsecured Wi-Fi signals.

I wrote about the Wi-Fi issue several years ago and still maintain that it was perfectly fine to tap into an unsecured Wi-Fi signal. Planning to do so for the long term may be impractical since you never know when neighbors may decide to make their signal secure and leave you without a connection. But my take -- much to the chagrin of many readers -- remains that the right thing for Wi-Fi users to do if they don't want others using their signals is to take the simple steps necessary to make it password protected. It's never OK to try to gain access to a signal that is clearly identified as secured.

Of course, some municipalities may have regulations forbidding users to access any signal that is not their own and users should abide by these laws. But absent these, I believe it is the Wi-Fi signal owner's responsibility to shut the door on others using his signal if he doesn't want them to.

One thing has changed since the last time I responded to a reader's question about using someone else's signal. At the time, I hadn't set up my own Wi-Fi signal as password protected. Now I do . . . because I'd rather not have visitor traffic slowing down my access. If you don't want others accessing your Wi-Fi signal, it's your responsibility not to invite them in by having an unsecured signal.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

(c) 2010 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

WHY CAN'T I PAY FOR THIS DIAMOND?

Forty years ago, J.B., a reader from Columbus, Ohio, was a newlywed happily beginning married life. One day, J.B. received a distraught call from his wife. As she was sweeping some flower trimmings into the garbage disposal, she inadvertently swept her engagement ring into it, as well.

J.B. told his wife not to run anything else through the disposal — including water — until he could get home to take a look at it. “When I pulled the debris out of the disposal,” he writes, “the mangled mounting was recovered, but the one-carat flawless center stone was missing.”

J.B. completely disassembled the disposal, but could not find the missing diamond. Fortunately, the ring was insured and he notified the insurance company, which paid them to have the ring replaced.

Two years later, as his wife opened a seldom-used kitchen window to wipe out the sill, she found the lost diamond stuck between the window and the sill. Apparently, it had been expelled from the disposal in the process of being ripped from its mounting. “It was a little worse for the wear as it had a small chip in the girdle,” writes J.B. Since their homeowners policy was with the same insurance agency, he immediately called his agent to report the finding.

Because it had sentimental value, J.B. and his wife wanted to keep the diamond. But they asked that it be reappraised with the chip in it and they would agree to pay the insurance company based on its value. The insurance agent was taken aback and said he had never handled anything like this before, but that he would get back to J.B. Weeks passed, and after making several more calls without response, J.B. mailed his agent a registered letter requesting resolution of the matter. Still no response.

J.B. then called the insurance company directly and explained the situation to the head of the claims department. He, too, said they’d never had someone notify them of a recovery after a claim was paid, but that he would look into how to resolve it. More weeks passed and no response. J.B. sent the company a registered letter, as well.

As the years passed and no response seemed forthcoming, J.B.’s wife had the stone remounted. J.B. realizes that the stone belongs to the insurance company, but it also has great sentimental value to his wife.

J.B. believes he went beyond making a good-faith effort to resolve the issue. “To this day,” he writes, “part of me feels I should have sent the stone to them, but I am equally positive we would never have seen it again.”

"Your thoughts?” he asks.

Except for dropping the diamond ring into the disposal, J.B. and his wife did the right thing by persistently contacting their insurance company. They went out of their way to try to compensate their insurer for finding the lost ring and the company dropped the ball. They should feel absolutely no guilt.

As testament to his honorable intentions, J.B. writes: “My offer stands should the insurance company choose to contact me today.”

After 40 years, if that isn’t honorable, what is?

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.


© 2010 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.





Monday, September 06, 2010

THE RIGHT THING: MONEY FOR NOTHING

At the beginning of July, a reader quit the company where she’d been working for several years. A couple of weeks after she received her final paycheck as a direct deposit into her bank account, she noticed that another paycheck had been deposited. Then two weeks later, still another paycheck deposit had been made to her account.

While she’s only received two “extra” paychecks so far, she writes, “I haven’t really spent them,” although she immediately admits, “OK, just a little bit, but it’s recoverable.”

Now, she says, she finds herself in an ethical quandary.

“I know, one should always be ethical,” she writes. “But when you're faced with debt and suddenly there's free money, it's a threat to one's morals sometimes. I'm a very ethical person 99.5 percent of the time. But when it comes to money, the temptation can be a very tricky thing to deal with.”

My reader writes that part of her wants to call up her former employer and tell them about the mistake. “But then I’d lose that money” she writes, acknowledging that she knows the money is not really hers. “Another part of me says, ‘Wait and see. Let them figure it out and stop it eventually.’”

Some friends have advised her to hold onto the money and do nothing. Others have encouraged her to call the company and return the money as soon as possible.

“I just can’t quite decide,” she writes. “Even if I return the money, what about the taxes being withheld from the checks? I don’t have that money. The government does. How would the company recoup that?”

As tempting as it might be for her to do otherwise, the right thing for my reader to do is to notify her former employer and return the money. Legal issues aside, she acknowledges the money is not hers and that the deposits being made into her account are a mistake.

That she spent any of the money, however small, while knowing it wasn’t really hers was wrong.

Her concern about “losing the money” if she notified her former bosses is misplaced. She can’t lose what isn’t really hers, no matter how tempting the sudden arrival of “free” money might be.

Worrying about how the taxes withheld from her erroneous paychecks is a distraction that doesn’t excuse her from setting the record straight. She certainly can’t be expected to repay the company money it withheld for taxes…but she shouldn’t use that issue as an excuse to delay putting the money back in its right hands.

Whether or not she’s facing debt and regardless of her fondness for someone placing extra cash into her account, no good can come from keeping what she knows doesn’t belong to her. If the ethics of such a decision don’t cause her to do the right thing, then perhaps the concern about how she is going to come up with the money to repay her former company after it discovers its mistake should.

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 www.jeffreyseglin.com, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

c.2010 Jeffrey L. Seglin

Monday, August 30, 2010

SOUND OFF: WHEN BAD PEOPLE HAPPEN TO GOOD EMPLOYEES

A supervisor with whom you've worked is up for a promotion. As part of the routine of the promotion process, his superiors send an e-mail to all company employees asking for any feedback on the fellow's performance and his suitability for the job.

You happen to know that the guy has been less than a stellar supervisor, failing to show up for appointments, bullying employees, playing fast and loose with his expense reports and hiring family members for positions once held by more competent employees. Based on past history at the company, however, you also know that, once things get to this stage of the promotion cycle, they are pretty much a done deal. Anything you raise as an issue is likely to fall on deaf ears.

Should you respond honestly and fully to the e-mail, including all the supervisor's blemishes that you can document? Or, figuring that this is a battle not worth waging, should you make no response?

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@comcast.net.

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, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.


c.2010 Jeffrey L. Seglin

THE RIGHT THING: THE WHOLE TRUTH

There's an all-volunteer newspaper located in a town about 25 miles southeast of Los Angeles. The newspaper has been around for 30 years, established as a not-for-profit enterprise designed to inform and "empower" local residents to become engaged in their community. Every week about 10,000 copies are distributed to area residents.

One of the newspaper's volunteer reporters e-mailed me about a predicament in which she has found herself.

My reader has some journalistic training in her distant past, but the editor/publisher of the paper, who inherited the job from her father, has no such training. Recently they found themselves at odds over a question of journalistic ethics.

My reader was assigned to cover a meeting at which a city agency invited "stakeholders" to discuss housing issues. At the meeting one man introduced himself as representing a local volunteer agency.

"He said some ugly things," my reader reports, "like objecting to being told by the state that our affluent city should provide housing for the poor."

He also referred to certain areas of the city as "dumps."

When my reader filed her report on the meeting, the editor/publisher cut from her story the man's affiliation with the local agency.

"They do good work," she said, "and shouldn't be dragged through the mud for one person's opinion."

"This does not feel good to me," my reader writes. "We criticize a lot of what the city and some businesspeople do. Shouldn't the do-gooders be equally accountable?"

Since this man's organization was invited to the meeting and he was sent to represent it, she believes that both his comments and his affiliation are fair game.

"Is the editor's action unacceptable?" she asks. "Are there limits I should set for my work?"

My reader's editor has every right to be concerned about fairness. If the speaker at the meeting was identified as the spokesperson for the group in question, however, that affiliation should be mentioned. Were his comments strictly "one person's opinion," he wouldn't have been invited to the meeting. Whether or not his remarks accurately reflect the organization's positions, he was there as its representative.

The editor's action is unacceptable, because she responded to a reasonable concern but didn't address that concern. If she was truly concerned about how this representative's comments might reflect on his organization, the right thing to do would have been to instruct my reader to do some follow-up reporting. She ought to have called the organization to see if it wanted to respond to his comments or to clarify the organization's position.

The fault is not entirely the editor's, however. If my reader wasn't asked to do this extra research, she should have suggested it. In fact, she should have made that effort in her initial reporting. The apparent conflict between the organization's ideals and the attitudes of its representative cried out for further exploration.

Simply printing the gentleman's comments without reporting his affiliation was poor reporting, since it didn't accurately reflect what happened at the meeting. Everyone there knew that he was indeed speaking on behalf of this particular organization, and the newspaper ought to have conveyed this relevant information to its readers.

As far as my reader setting limitations on her work, any writer working for a publication - whether volunteer or paid, whether covering politics or, say, writing an ethics column - is at the behest of the editor to whom he or she reports. Good editors will push their writers to do their best and most accurate work.

Unfortunately, not all writers are as thorough as their editors would like them to be, nor are they all blessed with good editors. The whole point of having two people in the process is to see that the best of each is reflected in the final product - which doesn't seem to have happened in this case.

c.2010 Jeffrey L. Seglin

Sunday, August 22, 2010

THE RIGHT THING: WATERED-DOWN ETHICS

In the town where I live, residents are asked to follow voluntary water restrictions. To conserve water we are asked, among other things, not to water down our sidewalks or patios and to limit the watering of lawns to every other day - depending on our house numbers - between 7 at night and 7 in the morning.

The notice of these restrictions on the town's Web site makes clear that they are not mandatory, but that "water conservation is always a good plan."

Generally speaking, my family and I have chosen to adhere to the voluntary restrictions. We notice a few area residents who do water their lawns during the daytime, but that's a choice they make. Because the restrictions are voluntary, it's none of our business.

A reader in New York writes that years ago, when his area was suffering a drought, the local government banned lawn watering altogether and also issued a list of recommended water-saving measures, which included not letting the water run while brushing your teeth.

"A friend of mine insisted that he would continue to let the water run, because he was paying for the water and this was the way he was used to brushing his teeth," my reader writes. "He didn't like being told what to do in so personal a matter, regardless of the circumstances."

My reader tells me that he has occasionally thought about his friend's response in later years, "as environmental concerns have escalated and various methods of reducing one's environmental impact have proliferated."

He observes that a number of religions, in one way or another, impose an ethical obligation to consider the environment, which can be done by various means, from shunning high-pollution cars to installing insulation that will reduce energy use.

"Would you say, however, that in the world of today there is a general ethical obligation to consider one's environmental impact and reduce it when possible?," he asks. "Or is this still a matter of personal choice?"

By virtue of the fact that any of us can choose to act any way in any given situation, regardless of the ethics of our behavior or the potential consequences, most choices boil down to personal ones. That has been and still is the case with environmental issues. Outside of legal requirements, there is no general ethical obligation in this area and we cannot demand that others comply with our own personal ethics.

If ethics is, as the authors Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner Rogers write in A Simpler Way (Berrett-Koehler, 1999), "how we behave when we decide we belong together," however, then my reader's friend fell short of the mark by not considering the impact of his choices on his community at large. So far as we know, he did seem to follow the mandatory restrictions, so he didn't challenge the ethics of the mandate by adhering to his personal lawn-watering choice.

After considering how his actions might affect others, the water-running, tooth-brushing friend might still decide to adhere to his customary practice. Without thinking through how his behavior might impede others, however, he wasn't doing the right thing.

When there's a clear recognition that a particular action has a deleterious impact on others in our community, it falls on each of us at least to consider that we may have an ethical obligation to avoid that action. To act without thinking, through sheer force of habit, runs counter to the whole idea of ethics.