Sunday, July 25, 2010

THE RIGHT THING: COME AND GET IT ... WHENEVER

A few weeks ago, a reader in Columbus, Ohio, writes, he was passing through the parking lot of a city park and found an envelope containing a few hundred dollars.


"There were names on the envelope," he writes, "and it wasn't hard to trace it to a couple who got married that weekend in the park."

My reader left his contact information with the park office, but didn't turn in the cash. He figured that it would be too easy for some third party to tell him that they had found the owner and returned the money ... even if they hadn't and didn't.

Ten days passed, which didn't surprise my reader, since he figured the people who had lost the money were now on their honeymoon. When the owner finally called, however, it was when my reader was on vacation. He returned the call when he got back to Columbus, five days later. By now 15 days had passed since he found the envelope.

He got a recorded answer when he called, so he left a message. He expected a quick return call, but got nothing.

"I left another message on Day 18," he writes, "and called again on Day 19, and we finally spoke."

The owner of the money said that she would call my reader that Sunday - Day 21 - to arrange a time to come to his house to pick up the envelope.

"That was yesterday," my reader writes, "and I didn't get a call."

He is "ethically comfortable" not calling the rightful owner again, he adds.

"I think three unrequited calls is enough," he explains, "and she knows how to reach me."

His question, however, looks forward rather than backward: "How long is long enough before I decide the cash is mine? If I wait another month - to Day 60 - and spend it, what do I say if she calls me on Day 61 to arrange pickup?"

He's a regular reader of my column each week, he writes, but can't remember my ever covering a situation like his.

"My wife and I have actually used the phrase, `Well, the ethics guy from the paper would say ... ' when we've talked about this."

While I have written about the importance of returning found items to their rightful owners, my reader is correct that I've never addressed how to calculate the appropriate length of time to wait before giving up on a rightful owner collecting his or her belongings.

The answer, I'm afraid, is that there is no appropriate period. What's hers is hers, and will stay hers unless she herself tells him to keep the money.

My reader did the right thing by notifying the park office about his find. If no owner had come forward after several months, he might make a good case for considering the money rightfully his to keep.

Because he has identified the owner and made initial contact with her, however, the right thing for him to do is to set aside the money until she finally makes her way to his house to pick it up. It was rude of her not to call on the appointed day, but her rudeness does not make her money any less hers.

It's obviously a nuisance to have to wait her out, but my reader already realizes that it's the right thing to do: That's why he would be at a loss to explain himself if he spent the money on Day 60 and she showed up the next day to reclaim her cash.

He's doing good by trying to get the money to its rightful owner, and he shouldn't let her lackadaisical response keep him from staying the course.


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

SOUND OFF: FACING OFF ON FACEBOOK

The Charlotte Observer recently featured an article about a waitress who had lost her job for having used Facebook to post disparaging comments about a customer who left her a lousy tip. Of the readers who responded to an unscientific poll on my column's blog, 67 percent believe it fair for a company to fire an employee for online comments that might reflect ill on the company, while 32 percent believe that, because it's a personal page, it's none of the company's business.

"Although I am not an employment-law specialist, I would point out that there are some state laws that restrict the right of the employer to discharge an employee for comments made outside the employment setting," writes Bob Coffield, a health-care lawyer in West Virginia. "Social media has further blurred the work/personal lives of persons, and we will continue to see the development of requirements/laws that try to define the boundaries of proper behavior."

"Let this be a wake-up lesson," writes Bill Jacobson of Cypress, Calif. "You are employed at-will ... As soon as you start working against the company's interests, then you tip the balance toward them being better off without you."

"I agree that what she did was ill advised," another reader writes. "But, if she was a good employee who used bad judgment one time, the appropriate response by a wise employer would be to have her post an appropriate apology."

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.

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, July 18, 2010

SOUND OFF: WE'RE ALL ABOVE AVERAGE NOW

In June, in a front-page story in The New York Times, Catherine Rampell reported that in the past two years at least 10 American law schools have changed their grading policies in their students' favor. Loyola Law School Los Angeles has decided to retroactively raise each of its graduates' grade-point average by .333, she wrote, "to make its students look more attractive in a competitive job market."

Assuming that lawyers from other schools were indeed graded less rigorously than Loyola's graduates, is it OK to raise the GPAs retroactively? Or should the original GPAs stand, regardless of what other law schools did?

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 (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, 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: SHOULD YOU LOOK A BANK ERROR IN THE MOUTH?

When his most recent bank statement arrived from J.P. Morgan Chase, T.M., a reader in Ohio, was surprised to find that it did not include a charge of $64.04 for a debit-card purchase he had made, about six weeks earlier, from a large sporting-goods store in the area.

T.M. doesn't recall anything unusual about the transaction, and he had previously used his debit card at the store without having a problem. Years ago, however, he had a similar thing happen to him at a restaurant in the same shopping area as the sporting-goods store.

"It was a large, locally based Italian restaurant with several locations in the Midwest," he writes. "We used to eat there a lot. I don't recall following up with that merchant, but I also don't recall paying for the lunch."

Regardless of his past experience, T.M. wonders what the right thing to do is, given his current situation with the sporting-goods store.

It occurs to T.M. that the absence of the charge might be due to some sort of debit-card promotion - "Use your debit card and your bill is on us!" He acknowledges, however, that Chase would probably have told him if that were the case.

"Other than waiting to see if the charge goes through at some point in the future," T.M. writes, "I'm wondering what I should do - anything?"

While it's always a good feeling to draw a "Bank Error in Your Favor" card, T.M.'s small windfall should not make him feel tingly with delight. The mistake that resulted in the debit-card transaction not registering may well have been the sporting-goods store's, but T.M. knows he made the purchase. He still has whatever it was he bought there and, as of right now, he hasn't paid for it. No matter how you slice it, that's not a situation likely to pass ethical muster.

Some stores have posted policies about mistakes in transactions resulting in favorable outcomes for the customer - for instance, a purchase being free at some restaurants if a cashier doesn't provide you with a receipt, or a supermarket offering customers free items if the scanner rings up the wrong price.

Even so, unless T.M.'s sporting-goods store has a posted policy that it won't charge customers if the debit doesn't show up on their bill within a certain period of time, the right thing is for T.M. to meet his ethical obligation to pay what he knows he owes.

In buying the goods, he undertook to give the store the agreed-upon price. It's good that he attempted to do so, and he can't be faulted for the fact that the electronic transfer somehow went awry, but the end result is that he has not lived up to his agreement. He needs to do so.

If the sporting-goods store had erroneously charged T.M. twice for his purchase, you can bet that he wouldn't hesitate to call the store and/or Chase to see that the mistake was rectified.

T.M. should exercise the same diligence to set things right, even when he does not stand to benefit financially from doing so, and regardless of whether the store will reward him for his honesty.

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

Sunday, July 11, 2010

THE RIGHT THING: WHO NEEDS A (CHEAP) TICKET?

Months before her planned visit to Manhattan to see her son, Eric, a reader from Ohio named Patricia had purchased tickets for them to see August Wilson's play, "Fences," and the musical "La Cage aux Folles."

The play was a limited run starring Oscar winner Denzel Washington, making it a hot ticket, and the tickets became even hotter after Washington won a Tony Award for his performance. Patricia never saw either show, however, because an emergency occurred shortly before her scheduled departure and she was forced to cancel the trip.

The tickets did not go to waste, though, because her son was able to resell them on the Internet ... and therein rests a tale.

Patricia writes that, because her ticket for "Fences" was hot, it was worth far more than its face value on the open market. Believing it ethically wrong to ask for more than his mother had paid for it, however, her son sold it for only the face value.

His mother disagrees with his take on the situation.

"If a property becomes worth more than what the owner paid for it," she asks, "is it ethically wrong to sell that property for the new market value?"

Anti-scalping laws exist for a variety of reasons, whether to protect the public from unscrupulous resellers or to help avoid the sale of fraudulent tickets to performances or sporting events. The laws regarding resale of such tickets vary from state to state. Some prohibit it, some require resellers to be licensed. Some put limits on how much of a markup, if any, is permissible. Auction Web sites, such as eBay, often post state regulations on such matters, and they can be dauntingly complex.

The law is not the issue here, however. It would be "obviously wrong" to ask her son to do anything illegal, Patricia writes, but she believes that it would not be illegal to mark up the price of her "Fences" ticket, noting that her ticket for "La Cage aux Folles" sold for much less than face value.

"Assuming that selling the ticket for the greater value was legal," she writes, "isn't it just good business sense to do so? I don't see this as an ethics question, but obviously my son does."

I appreciate Eric's urge to be ethical, but - so far as no laws are being violated - I don't believe there would have been anything wrong in his letting the market dictate the price of his mother's tickets. As she says, the value of items can change, and the price a seller paid for an item seldom has anything to do with how much a buyer pays for it. If my grandson bought a packet of Yugioh cards, came across a valuable one and decided to sell it for more than the cost of the whole packet, there would be nothing wrong with that, if he could find another collector who wanted the card and was willing to pay for it.

That said, the fact that Eric considers it unethical isn't irrelevant. Ethics vary from person to person, and what's fine for one person may be wrong for another.

If this comes up again in the future, the right thing for my reader and her son to do will be to determine the applicable laws and then come to some agreement about how to price her tickets. If Eric isn't comfortable selling them for more than face value, he shouldn't have to, and my reader shouldn't force the issue. She should sell the tickets herself or find someone else to help her, someone who is not uncomfortable with her pricing requirements.

There's nothing wrong with letting the market dictate the price of the tickets, but it's not mandatory, and Eric has every right to say no if he doesn't want to get involved.

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

SOUND OFF: BREAD LINES

Of the readers who responded to an unscientific poll on my column's blog, 46 percent said that they would pay the full-menu price for items offered at the St. Louis Bread Co. in Clayton, Mo., which allows customers to donate whatever they can and believe is appropriate for the food they purchase. Another 46 percent said that they would pay more than the menu price to support the nonprofit foundation that runs the store. Only 2 percent said that they would pay as little as possible in an effort to get a good deal.

"There doesn't seem to be an option for `I'd pay what I thought the product was worth, which might be more or less than the menu price, depending on how good the bread is and how reasonable the menu prices are,'" writes Shmuel Ross of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Another reader seems to concur: "I'd pay what I felt the item was worth, but no more than the menu price."

Finally, a reader sees the whole experiment as doomed.

"This is why the communist states failed," that reader writes. "Having this method of payment makes one reluctant to pay at all. The true believers felt that they were getting the short end of the stick by paying for those who didn't pay."

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.

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, July 04, 2010

SOUND OFF: DUMBING DOWN THE RESUME

As many public figures have learned in recent years, there is no ethical justification for embellishing your resume to claim degrees or experience you don't have. In a tight job market, however, what do you think about leaving out experience or degrees you may have in an attempt not to scare off potential employers who might find you overqualified? In a recent article in The Boston Globe, reporter Katie Johnston Chase looked at the trend of jobseekers omitting such experience from their resumes in an effort to "dumb down" their credentials and get a foot in the door.

Is it OK to omit relevant experience from your resume if you believe that the omission might help you secure a job? Or is it wrong to leave off advanced degrees and jobs that you actually have?

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: UP IN THE AIR

A shared trip can cement a friendship ... or ruin it forever. Sometimes you don't even have to go.

A reader was planning a trip with a friend, and had already made the hotel reservations. The problem was airfare: Since the trip was for a holiday weekend, my reader was having trouble finding reasonably priced tickets.

"I asked my friend to see if she could find a better deal," my reader writes.

That proved to be a good idea: Her friend soon called to say that she had been able to find tickets at a price that, while still high, was better than either of them had found previously.

"I told her that, although the price is high, to go ahead," my reader recalls.

A few days later, however, the two happened to meet, and my reader's friend asked if she had bought her airline ticket yet. Apparently she had misunderstood the situation and bought only her own ticket.

"I was amazed and upset," my reader writes, "knowing that, as time goes by, the price only goes up. Indeed, when I did get online and bought the ticket, the difference was about $180 more than what she had quoted me."

Sensing how upset my reader was, her friend has offered to pay the difference in the airfares. My reader feels awkward about the whole thing, however, especially in light of the fact that she is in a better financial position than her friend. What's more, she is not only a friend to this woman, but also her mentor.

"What do you think is the ethical course here?," she asks.

Clearly there was a miscommunication between my reader and her friend. The mistake was an honest one and, while it is gracious of her friend to offer to pay the difference in the ticket prices, she has no obligation to do so. Likewise, though she has chosen to do so, my reader has no obligation to accept the offer.

In short, the question here is not so much "What is the right thing to do?," but rather "What is the best thing to do?"

Frankly, there's likely to be awkwardness no matter which way my reader chooses to resolve the issue. Does she really want to risk an unpleasant trip if she lets her friend pay part of her fare? But, if my reader pays the full cost, is she going to be able to keep that from coloring her feelings toward her friend on the trip?

On balance I think it would be best for my reader to foot the full cost. From an ethical perspective, it's significant that she is in a better position to pay for the more expensive ticket than is her friend. In a situation involving an honest mistake, the resolution that does the least overall damage is usually the ethical choice. And it is, after all, my reader's ticket, so she bears at least some of the fault for not having made sure that her friend understood that she was expected to book both tickets.

Given that my reader is not adamant that her friend pay the difference between the tickets, the right thing for her to do is to chalk up the whole incident to a miscommunication and take responsibility for her own ticket. A good lesson for future excursions is to be explicit anytime she wants someone else to book tickets or attend to other essential business - or, of course, to do it herself rather than leave it to others.

Before she decides to foot the bill for the additional charges, however, my reader should make sure that she is capable of not holding a grudge against her friend. As her friend's mentor, she can use the whole experience as a lesson in the importance of clear communications.

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

Can reader turn lost vacation into charitable deduction?

The reports of the effects of Hurricane Maria hitting Puerto Rico were devastating. Electricity lost. Homes destroyed and streets flo...