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.

SOUND OFF: GRADING UP

Of the readers who responded to an unscientific poll on my column's blog, 61 percent believe that it was wrong for Loyola Law School to raise its recent graduates' grades retroactively, even if other law schools grade less rigorously, while 39 percent consider it OK to raise the grades.

"Law firms would be aware that a school was more rigorous in its grading policies, and would be able to weigh candidates with that criteria in mind," writes Madilyn Bruening of Salt Lake City, Utah. "Isn't that the reason some schools are more prestigious than others, because they have a more difficult curriculum?"

William Jacobson of Cypress, Calif., considers such post-grade inflation to be an act of fraud.

"The retroactive raising of GPAs by the law school, with the sole purpose of making their students `look more attractive' to outside employers, would appear to be ... a false misrepresentation of fact done specifically to deceive said employers into considering students who otherwise might not be considered ... Despite the popular misconception, lawyers are held to high ethical standards ... so should the law schools be."

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@comcast.net.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

SOUND OFF: LOOSE LIPS

While sitting on the lawn at a recent Cape Cod Baseball League game, I overheard a woman behind me talking to another fan about her job as a fund raiser at a private high school in Boston. Asked whether she knew a particular local business owner, she replied, "Oh, I know him. He's good for a $10,000 donation every year."

Lists of donors to many not-for-profit organizations are regularly published, and there's no reason to assume that the donor in question wanted to remain anonymous. Even so, was my fellow fan in fair territory when discussing donors by name - and amounts - in a public setting? Or was she wrong to be so free with the information? Or is the real culprit here the fellow fan - me - for inadvertently listening in on what was presumably meant to be a private conversation, regardless of where it took place?


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

THE RIGHT THING: BARKING MAD

About two months ago a woman moved to Miami to take a new job. A month later her brother came to visit from another city, bringing with him his small dog, which his sister had agreed to take in for him temporarily. He travels a great deal for work and couldn't handle having a pet at the moment.

The sister didn't want a dog and wouldn't describe herself as a "pet person," but she wanted to help out her sibling, so she agreed to take the dog.

They did not, however, discuss when her brother might retrieve his dog. The unspoken agreement was that the dog would be returned to him at some point, although that could be months or years away. He left some food for the dog, but it soon became his sister's responsibility to care for the dog.

The sister soon realized that caring for a pet is "a pain" and not something she wants to do. The dog barks a great deal, she reports, and moreover she has a housemate who has her own dog. The two-pet household "can be a handful at times."

About a week ago the situation got even more complicated: Her housemate called her, out of the blue, to tell her that a mutual friend would be happy to take the brother's dog. The sister was taken by surprise, since she had no idea that her housemate was making any effort to have the dog taken off their hands.

It bothers the sister that her roommate brought up the issue with an outside party before discussing it with her, but the idea appeals to her because it would enable her to give up responsibility for the dog while still having access to it and knowing that it was being taken care of by their mutual friend, who loves pets.

While a big part of her wants to get rid of the dog, however, she doesn't know how or if to tell her brother the news, or even if she has the right to give away his dog, even though she is the one who is now spending her time and money to care for it.

She senses that, if she keeps the dog, her brother won't want it back for quite some time. She also assumes that, if he ever did want it back, the mutual friend would "probably" give the dog back to her brother. And then another part of her wants to keep the dog herself, simply to get even with her roommate for going behind her back to get rid of the animal.

What's the right course in this complicated situation?

The sister is asking the wrong questions in trying to figure out how to respond to the mutual friend's offer. Clearly she still thinks of the dog as belonging to her brother, so before doing anything else she needs to check with him to see what his wishes are.

Simply giving away the dog without letting him know should not be an option. It was placed in her care, but not given to her as a gift ... or as a curse. The brother is still the rightful owner, so it's up to him whether the mutual friend - who might well provide the dog a better home - should get that opportunity.

If he OKs the arrangement with the mutual friend, the sister should make sure that the friend understands the situation and realizes that the dog still belongs to her brother, who may well want it back someday.

As for keeping the dog to "get even" with her roommate, given that she doesn't really like caring for the dog herself, that resolution would be in nobody's - and no dog's - best interest.

The overarching lesson here is that it's important to be clear on the specifics when you agree to do a favor for a loved one, especially when another living being is involved. Having not done that initially, the sister needs to do so now.

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

Sunday, August 08, 2010

THE RIGHT THING: BUGS IN THE SYSTEM

Having to replace a company you hate doing business with can be a real pain, but the contract-renewal process should be fairly simple. After all, if you're happy with them and they're happy with you, where's the problem?

Nonetheless Peter, a reader from Manila in the Philippines, has managed to find a catch.

Peter likes the service his company receives from the termite-control company it has retained to ensure that its premises are free of pesky pests. The annual contract calls for the exterminators to check out Peter's facility every month, even if no pests have been spotted in the interim, to make sure that the premises are free and clear. If termites are detected, the pest-control company eradicates them. Like clockwork, the exterminators show up to do their job.

Their home office is not so efficient, however, about getting a new contract to Peter's company for renewal each year.

"Every year we have to remind them two or three times to send a contract," Peter writes.

Though a new contract has not been signed, however, and technically there is no agreement between the companies, the work still carries on.

"Their field personnel continue to go to our place," Peter says. "Obviously it is the administrative personnel who is not preparing the paperwork."

The same thing happened this year, but with a significant difference: Once again the contract has lapsed, but this time Peter and his colleagues have not reminded the termite company about the renewal - meaning that, for the past couple of months, they haven't been billed for the services they're receiving.

"We have always been honest in the past," Peter writes, "but feel that, if they don't bear the consequences of their negligence, they will never shape up. Are we justified not to remind them anymore and enjoy the free service until they find out?"

Having to remind a vendor to bill you can indeed be a nuisance. There's simply something wrong about having to chase people to give them money. It's their job to bill you in a timely manner and, when it comes time for contract renewal, it's their job to see that it gets done.

There's obviously some satisfaction to be gained by withholding payment from the termite-control company until such time, if ever, that its administrators realize that they've been working for free. I'm not convinced, however, that it would actually get them to change their poor management of existing contracts. Presumably their ineptitude has cost them in the past, but not enough to get them to shape up.

More broadly, it is wrong to take advantage of their inefficiency to get free service. However vexing their inability to follow through may be, it's no excuse for Peter and his company to get service that they're not paying for and, therefore, not entitled to. Getting something for nothing is only occasionally the ethical route, and this isn't one of those times.

If Peter's colleagues are sufficiently vexed by the exterminators' habitual laxness with contracts, they have every right to not re-up and instead find another company that's more to their liking. If the current company asks why they're making a change, they should answer truthfully.

If they're overall satisfied with the services being provided, however, they should simply accept that a once-a-year headache is part of the cost of doing business with this company. They can and should strongly voice their dissatisfaction at having to remind the company every year when the contract comes due, but not paying for what they're getting isn't a fair way to express their annoyance.

Personally, I'd bite the bullet and carry on as in past years. Nagging the exterminators to send you a contract once a year is surely aggravating, but I imagine it pales in comparison to the problems of dealing with a company that sends its contracts promptly but does a lousy job on the actual termite control.

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

SOUND OFF: HOW DUMB IS YOUR RESUME?

Of the readers who responded to an unscientific poll on my column's blog, 56 percent believe that it's OK to omit relevant experience from your resume if you believe that the omission might help you secure a job, while 44 percent consider it wrong to leave off advanced degrees or job experience for tactical reasons.

"As long as the information that is presented is accurate and the information that is left off wouldn't be damning - say a criminal record, for instance - yes, it is completely ethical to leave off information so as to better position your chances of landing the job," writes Bill Jacobson of Cypress, Calif.

"I don't see any ethical reason to include every piece of information on a resume," agrees Michael Buller of Boston, "as long as the omission doesn't create a false picture."

Charlie Seng, of Lancaster, S.C., disagrees.

"It's always best to be completely forthcoming in a job application," Seng writes. "Leaving out what you consider `enough' to get your foot in the door may later be treated by your boss as your having been dishonest to get the job."

"Being seriously overqualified for a job should not be a deterrent to applying for what's available," Patricia Selk writes. "If an employer already has another candidate in mind, or if there's an `I'm better than you' attitude that goes along with your degree(s), it won't matter what is or isn't on your resume."

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, August 01, 2010

SOUND OFF: DOES OUR BAGGAGE WEIGH US DOWN?

In a recent entry on his ethics blog, Emmanuel Tchividjian, the ethics officer of Ruder Finn, a New York-based public-relations firm, writes that Piers Morgan, a British editor and public figure, is being considered as a replacement for CNN's Larry King, who soon will leave the cable channel. Tchividjian asks if Morgan should be forgiven for the "baggage" he carries: Among other transgressions, Morgan was fired as editor of The Daily Mirror after he allowed the publication of doctored photos of troops allegedly abusing prisoners in Iraq.

But, Tchividjian asks, "Don't we all carry some baggage?" As long as we are honest, show remorse and offer an apology, Tchividjian suggests, Morgan - and the rest of us - can hope for forgiveness for the baggage we carry, though we can't demand it.

Assuming that Morgan has owned up to his errors, showed his remorse and offered a sincere apology, should he be forgiven for the baggage he carries? Or is a wrong a wrong, regardless of how the wrongdoer subsequently feels about it?

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.

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

THE RIGHT THING: A BURNING QUESTION

During the past couple of years, a reader from New York has found himself drawn to classic country music, artists from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.

"Much of their work isn't available on CD," he writes, "so I've been buying from various people who sell used vinyl records by the artists I'm interested in."

One of these sellers - the one my reader finds the most helpful, in fact - offers either to sell his customers a record or to burn them a copy of it on CD, "presumably keeping the record for future use," my reader surmises.

"I know that this is illegal, and unethical as well," he continues, "and I have made clear to him that I disapprove and would never take advantage of this option."


My reader imagines, however, that there are other people who do take him up on this offer, which is part of his standard order response. He is wondering if it is ethical to buy legal products from someone who is also engaged in selling illegal products.

"I am not personally trading in illegal goods," he writes, "but presumably the profit he makes from the records he sells to me help keep him in business ... making illegal copies. On the other hand, every record I buy is one less for him to illegally copy.


"Is it enough to limit myself to legal recordings?," he asks. "Or does his illegal activity taint even his legal activities?"

The question is an interesting one, because it pivots not on what the record-seller is doing but on what the customer knows about it and what he thinks of the practice.

If a customer knew nothing of the illegal practice, he would buy the legitimate recordings with a clear conscience. He does know, however, which complicates the situation.

It would be only a minor problem if he knew about the practice but saw nothing wrong with it. Under those circumstances, he could continue to buy the legitimate recordings without thinking twice. As for the CD copying, while it might be illegal, his own moral compass would see no problem with it and, of course, the primary legal risk would be faced by the seller. Buying legal products from a seller of illegal products is rarely if ever illegal.

Given, however, that my reader is aware of the illegal copying and considers it not only illegal but also wrong, he should ask himself if he really wants to continue to support the overall business practices of someone who engages in acts he doesn't condone.

If his convictions are as strong as he suggests, I don't believe he should. Would he, by extension, want to do business with a used-car salesperson who sold both legitimate used cars and others that had been stolen? Most customers would sensibly walk away from such a dealership, however appealing its legitimate vehicles might be, and this situation is different only in degree.

Burning copies of vinyl records to CD may feel like small potatoes, but wrong is wrong - and my reader has established that he considers some of his seller's business practices to be wrong. He must decide if he is willing to turn a blind eye solely because the seller also happens to deliver a legitimate product that is hard to find elsewhere.

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...