Sunday, March 28, 2010

SOUND OFF: THE PROM IS A BOMB

Constance McMillen, an 18-year-old senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Miss., sued her school district after it canceled her senior prom. McMillen, who has come out as a lesbian, wanted to take her girlfriend to the prom. That's apparently against school policy, as is her desire to wear a tuxedo to the dance. The school board decided to cancel the prom "due to the distractions to the educational process caused by recent events," and the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi brought the lawsuit on McMillen's behalf. Others have offered to fund alternate proms for McMillen and her class.

Should a school board be permitted to establish guidelines as to appropriate dates and dress for a school-sanctioned event? Or should the question of whom to bring to the prom and what to wear be left entirely to students?

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.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

THE RIGHT THING: A JOB APPLICATION WITH A KICKER

Recently a reader in Georgia used an Internet list service to post a job opening at his company. He posted the job anonymously, listing only the job opening and the county in which he was located. That would be enough to keep his identity secret, he figured, since there are more than 125,000 people in the county.

In spite of his efforts, however, one applicant figured out who he was. She asked her boyfriend to read the job post, and he deduced who had placed the listing - based, my reader assumes, on the type of job and the county indicated in the advertisement.

This applicant sent her cover letter and resume to a blind e-mail address, as instructed. So did 173 other applicants in less than 48 hours. Only her cover letter was different.

"I know who you are," she wrote, "because my boyfriend said that he loaned you $20 one evening at a quick-food stop after you left your wallet at home. He said you then thanked him publicly by writing `Thank You' to him on your display board outside your office."

Her deduction was correct. My reader confirms that he did indeed post his public thank-you to the boyfriend who had loaned him money in his time of need. So my reader was sitting with the application from the girlfriend of this fellow who had helped him out, which ordinarily might have raised her name to the top of the heap of incoming applications.

There is, however, a problem.

Knowing the boyfriend, who works as a lay minister to a crowd that frequents a local coffee shop, my reader also knows that he is a married man and that he and his wife recently had a child.

"Do I confront the boyfriend at the local coffee shop, which I also frequent?," my reader asks. "My first thought was to go to him and say, `You know, you talk about how God works in mysterious ways. Well, I have a message from God: Stop messing around on your wife and child,' then hand him a copy of his girlfriend's e-mail and walk away."

This is a tricky question, because the obvious ethical infringement here is by the lay minister, but it wasn't he who wrote for my advice - which, if he had asked, would be roughly the same as my reader's. It is my reader who is asking for advice, and the ethics of his situation are less straightforward.

On the one hand, no one appreciates a hypocrite, certainly not one who touts certain values publicly while flouting those same values privately. My reader's urge to set him straight is understandable.

On the other hand, this really isn't any of his business. It's only by coincidence that he happens to be aware of the lay minister's hypocrisy, and, if he were to intervene, the lay minister might reasonably feel that he was intruding.

On top of this are the ethics of the hiring process: Does the boyfriend's favor oblige him to hire the girlfriend? Or does his disapproval of their relationship mean that he shouldn't hire her under any circumstances?

Taking them in reverse order, my reader has no ethical obligation either to hire the girlfriend or not to hire her. The right thing for him to do is to hire the best person from the pool of 174 applications he received. If that's the girlfriend, then he shouldn't hold her relationship against her. If it's not the girlfriend, then he shouldn't feel that the boyfriend's favor left him with any obligation to favor the girlfriend.

As to the boyfriend, my reader has no obligation to confront him about his infidelity, and I advise him not to. He isn't aware of the details of the relationship between the lay minister and his girlfriend or between him and his wife. It's quite possible that a confrontation, especially if carried out publicly, would do more harm than good.

My reader might feel righteous in setting the lay minister straight, but he doesn't really know any of these people and would be doing the right thing in leaving well enough alone. Not being a Western Union representative, it's not his responsibility to deliver messages, from God or otherwise.

He isn't God, a marriage counselor or a disapproving uncle. He's a man trying to fill a job, and his only real obligation is to fill that job fairly.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

THE RIGHT THING: `I'LL BE THERE ... IF I FEEL LIKE IT'

A reader has been bothered by an issue at work for some time, but he doesn't know what to do about it.

"I don't know if it falls under the category of ethics," he writes, "but I will ask it anyway."

My reader's question does indeed raise ethical issues of people's responsibility to one another in the workplace.

He works for a land-surveying company. Every morning the workers meet at their office to establish who is going to work with whom, and then they get their jobs for the day. The process takes 15 to 30 minutes, after which they head out to their respective job sites.

There are a handful of guys, my reader writes, who "pretty much show up whenever they want." They are habitually late, which wreaks havoc on the morning routine. Since they don't know whether or not these laggards will be coming in, the rest of the workers have to wait to set up crews for the day.

All of the fellows who are regularly late have worked at the company for some time, between 5 and 10 years.

"It's a problem," my reader writes, "because nothing is being done to them as far as a punishment. They will call in for days off with what I consider to be pretty bad excuses. There are even times when they just don't show up, without a phone call or anything."

My reader and the rest of his co-workers, who do make it a point to show up every day and on time, are irked.

"I know my boss gets angry about this," my reader writes, "because he will express it to me. But there is no action being taken.

"Do I have a right to approach my boss with my discontent about the situation?" he asks. "And, if so, what do I say and how do I go about it?"

Yes, you have a right to approach your boss about the situation. You have to ask yourself, however, if you truly are prepared to do this and if it makes sense to approach him alone.

In Leading Quietly: An Unorthodox Guide to Doing the Right Thing (Harvard Business Press, 2002), Joseph Badaracco suggests treading carefully when confronting some challenging issues in the workplace. Not everything rises to enough of a crisis level to be worthy of complaint. My reader's issue, however, seems to have crossed into complaint-worthy territory.

Badaracco also suggests that there is strength in numbers. If others feel the same way my reader does, as he says they do, then perhaps a few of them should jointly approach the boss about the situation.

The right thing would be to focus on the facts of the problem, rather than to stray into the unknown - say, by speculating about the validity of the other workers' excuses for absence. The fact of the matter is that the entire group's effectiveness is being undermined by the behavior of a handful of workers, and only the boss can address the situation, if he chooses to do so.

The boss is, as my reader notes, aware of the situation. It is possible that an approach by a group of workers will spur him to take action, but it is also possible that, for whatever reason, he will continue to let the matter slide.

In either case, however, the boss will know that his workers want to do a good job well, and that they need his help to do so.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: DRIVING A WEDGE

Based on an unscientific poll on my column's blog, 35 percent of readers believe that it is wrong for golfers - in this case, superstar Phil Mickelson - to use pre-1990 golf clubs, which may not be available to other golfers, to take advantage of a loophole in the new rules banning certain clubs which may give players an edge over those not using the clubs. However, 65 percent believe that all is fair so long as the letter of the rule isn't violated.

"I see both sides of the argument," writes Thomas Ward of Green Bay, Wisc., "but side with the golfers that knew the rules and gave themselves the greatest advantage possible ... To vilify players taking advantage of pre-1990 clubs, which is completely within the rules, you have to be full of your own virtue."

"With all the brouhaha over the antics of Tiger Woods," observes Charlie Seng of Lancaster, S.C., "I am surprised that this much brouhaha is being made over a golf club."

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.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

SOUND OFF: ON-CAMPUS BOOKIES

It's a common practice on many college campuses for professors to receive review copies of textbooks from publishers who want them to consider using the books in a class they teach. Sometimes they are marked "for examination and not for resale," sometimes not. Such copies pile up quickly. There are also armies of used-book buyers who regularly approach professors in person about buying any surplus textbooks they might have.

If a textbook came unsolicited from the publisher, is it OK for a professor to make some pocket change by selling the review copy? Or should he or she discard it or keep it for personal use, but not resell it? Does it make a difference if the book is stamped with a no-resale message?

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.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

THE RIGHT THING: WHAT'S IN A (RENTED) NAME?

Making donations to charitable organizations continues to be a terrific way to support efforts that you applaud and groups whose values you share.

It's never been easier to do so safely, thanks to such Web sites as www.charitynavigator.org and www.guidestar.org, the latter of which provides free access to a not-for-profit's 990 form. These sites enable the public to make informed decisions about which organizations to support based on how they use their money.

But how far should a charity be able to go in using your name, once you've donated to them?

That's what is bothering one of my readers in Columbus, Ohio.

Because people have made a contribution, he writes, "is the charity right in `renting' or selling their donor list to all comers?"

It's a common practice in direct-mail marketing for organizations to rent the names of customers - or, in the case of not-for-profits, supporters - as an additional revenue source.

My reader reports that a close personal friend of his, a person "of modest means," made a small contribution to a well-respected charity. Several months later solicitations from numerous other charities began to pour in, many enclosing address labels, cards or notepads as incentives to get his friend to donate to them as well.

"Some even had nickels and dimes attached," my reader writes. "All of them wanted donations."

Some days multiple solicitations arrived in his friend's mailbox.

My reader himself has faced similar circumstances, he reports. After making an annual contribution to his local PBS television station for many years, he began receiving solicitations for an affinity credit card. He figured out that these offers originated from his donor record for the PBS affiliate.

How did he do that? It's often possible to tell who is renting your name by checking exactly how your name and address appear on the label sent by the new charity. An inconsistency or quirk, such as a middle initial that you rarely use but did give to one charity, is a good tip-off: If it appears on both labels, chances are that one was the source of the other. Some people use slightly different forms of their names with each donation specifically to be able to tell if their names are being rented.

My reader wrote to his station to register his displeasure and to tell the management that no more contributions would be forthcoming. Since then, whenever he makes a contribution to a charity, he includes a request that his name not be rented to other charities. If the charity doesn't comply, he warns, no further contributions will be made.

"I don't contribute just for the tax benefit," my reader writes. "I try to find a need that will make a difference in a person's struggle to overcome an adversity beyond their control, fund groups sending supplies to our overseas soldiers and support charities without high-paid staff and fancy facilities."

He believes that a charity which rents its donor list is abusing its benefactors to generate additional revenue.

I applaud my reader on being clear, whenever he makes a donation, that he does not want his name rented out. Once he makes this request in writing, his wishes should be honored by any charity willing to take his money.

Absent such a request, however, I don't agree that it's unethical for a charity to rent out its contributors' names as an additional source of revenue. Working for a good cause, it seems a sign of good management to tap any source of additional revenue that may help the cause. After all, while solicitations can be a nuisance, they do no real harm to the recipient, while the money gained by renting the names can be turned to good ends.

If charities intend to rent out donor names, however, the right thing for them to do is to let potential donors know about it and give them the chance to opt out when they are making their contribution.

As for those receiving unwanted solicitations, remember that asking for money is not the same as getting it. No matter how worthy the cause may be, there is no ethical obligation for someone receiving a solicitation to respond with a check. If the recipient doesn't have the funds, values other causes more highly or simply doesn't feel like donating, he or she can toss the solicitation without reservation.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Send Me Your Stories and Questions for The Right Thing

For the weekly newspaper ethics column I write for the New York Times 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@nytimes.com. (Or you can post it here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below.)

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.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Kalon Address at Bethany College (March 6, 2010)

Author and Ethicist Jeffrey Seglin '78 delivers Kalon Address at Bethany College from BethCom TV on Vimeo.



Each year Bethany College invites a graduate back to campus to address prospective students who are competing for a Kalon leadership scholarship. Last year, Bob Orr (class of 1975), a CBS News correspondent delivered the Kalon Lecture. This year, I delivered the lecture, which you can watch by clicking on the video above.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

THE RIGHT THING: WHERE THERE'S A WILL, MUST THERE BE A WAY?

While he and I have e-mailed back and forth quite a bit, it will soon become obvious why the reader who posed this week's question doesn't want to be identified, even by the city or state in which he lives.

He also hasn't answered one of the basic questions I normally ask readers who write for advice: Because of the potential legal implications, he declines to tell me what he actually did or would have done in the situation he describes, which took place some time ago.

Nor is he even asking for guidance in addressing the question. He merely wants to get my take on an ethical dilemma that seems to place in opposition two basic precepts: to obey the law and to honor one's father. Even so, I found his question too thought-provoking to be ignored.

Here's the story, as he told it to me.

A dying man has a wife afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. For that reason he decides to redo his will - partly because nobody can locate his prior will, written decades earlier, but primarily because that will left his entire estate to his wife, which he no longer wishes to do.

The man spends the morning preparing his new will, making detailed provisions for his wife's care but leaving her no money at all. Instead his money is to go to his children in a trust, to be used for his wife's care.

The completed will is brought back in the afternoon. In the presence of the legally required witnesses he begins to sign it ... only to have his fountain pen run dry. A creature of habit, he has signed every important document in his life with a fountain pen for almost 70 years, and refuses to change his ways now. A search for another fountain pen ensues _ but, before one can be found, the man dies, leaving his new will unsigned.

Though the old will clearly no longer reflects the dead man's intentions, which are clearly defined in the new will, legally that unsigned will is meaningless. If it were ever found, the old will would be legally binding, and the entire estate would go to the man's widow.

The old will cannot be found, however, so legally the man is assumed to have died intestate. Under the rules prevailing in his state, my reader writes, this means that half of his estate will go to his widow, with the other half divided among his children.

Independent of the legal requirements, however, my reader wonders about the ethical situation if the earlier will should be found: "Would it be ethically imperative, acceptable but not imperative or unquestionably verboten for the finder to destroy that earlier will?"

He goes on to ask if it would make any difference whether or not the finder was one of the man's children, who stand to benefit financially from the will not being found.

I am not a lawyer, so I cannot say whether a copy of the earlier will might have been filed with some authority that could easily resolve the matter. Nor can I advise my reader what the penalty might be for suppressing or destroying a valid will.

That wasn't his question, however. It's safe to assume that anyone destroying a will would understand that it was against the law to do so. My reader wonders whether, even so, it would be ethical to destroy the will under these unusual circumstances.

I am always hesitant to give advice that condones breaking the law, but there are cases in which what's legally required is not necessarily the right thing to do. It is almost always the ethical choice to obey the law, but not always, and "It's the law" is rarely if ever in itself a satisfactory answer to a question of ethics.

This case is complicated by the fact that it isn't a clear-cut choice between honoring the dying man's wishes or obeying the letter of the law. His actual wishes, involving the disinheritance of his wife and the establishment of a trust fund, cannot be realized at this stage. His wife will receive at least half of his estate, regardless of whether or not the old will is found. The choice is between no will and an old will, with the former coming closer to what the dying man wanted to accomplish than does the latter.

That being the case, I believe that for someone finding the old will - regardless of whether or not it was a child of the man - the right thing to do would be to consider whether he or she is willing to break the law in order to more closely honor the dying man's wishes and to pursue what she sees as a greater good.

If he or she is willing to live with the potential consequences of that decision, I believe that destroying the old will could be an ethical choice not ethically imperative, but ethically acceptable.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: WHEN IS A LOOTER NOT A LOOTER?

Of the readers who responded to an unscientific poll on my column's blog, 47 percent believe that it is wrong to refer to those who took food from collapsed grocery stores in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake as "looters," while 53 percent believe that the word "looter" accurately describes the action, regardless of the circumstances.

Several readers believed that, in the words of one anonymous poster, "the ethical thing would be for the people who used the food to return later and pay for the food and/or help the owner rebuild the store."

"It is not looting if you are in a survival mode, competing with others in a desperate situation, and take food to feed yourself and your family and maybe even share with someone even more desperate than you are," writes Phil Clutts of Harrisburg, N.C. "On the other hand, if you take food primarily for the purpose of selling it to others, it is looting."

"People under the kind of stress and need as those in Haiti - a situation not experienced by those of us in 99 percent of America - are in a unique `survival' situation," writes Jan Bohren of Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. "So I say, `Cut 'em some slack,' change your perspective and use your energy to write a check to your favorite charity that is supporting Haiti relief programs."

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.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Is employer responsible for expense if I might leave?

Every couple of years, Lil (not her real name, but let's call her "Lil") has to renew her professional license with her s...