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.

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