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Sunday, February 28, 2010

SOUND OFF: SMOKE GOT IN HER EYES

A jury in Boston found that a real-estate broker had not misled a woman who had not been informed, prior to moving into a condominium, that a neighbor smoked. The woman had argued that the smoke seeped into her apartment and aggravated her asthma.

While she lost the case, Jonathan Saltzman reports in The Boston Globe, she is "proud to have drawn attention to the hazards of secondhand smoke." She stated that, if her case makes brokers "more careful about how they view secondhand-smoke issues and keeps them honest," then her efforts will not have been in vain.

Regardless of the verdict, are real-estate brokers obligated to address any issue of secondhand smoke when they show a property? Or is it up to potential buyers to keep an eye - or a nose - out for such problems while inspecting the property?

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: SINS OF THE FATHER

A reader from Hawaii has, along with her brother, decided to put up for auction several valuable items that were left them by their father upon his death. Neither my reader nor her brother knew about many of these items that their father had in his possession before he died.

The father's sister, my reader's aunt, is now claiming that some of the items should have been hers, since her brother refused to cooperate in settling their parents' estate.

Their parents had not divided up their belongings in their wills, it seems, and left no indication as to what should be left to which child. Instead my reader's father and aunt had to go through the many items and try to divide them equitably.

"A number of things were divided between them," my reader writes. "But my father had easier access to the property, so he cleaned out the house. He then refused to meet with his sister and go through those items, which turned out to be the most valuable."

The sister consulted a lawyer at the time, but never pursued the issue. She has no intention of instituting legal action against my reader and her brother, but feels that they have a moral obligation to set matters right.

"All of this has been corroborated," my reader writes. "Learning of my father's deceitfulness has been awful news for my brother and me."

While she "feels" for her aunt and for her daughter, my reader's cousin, she also believes that the issue should have been settled by the previous generation, not by hers. She has considered giving her aunt a few valuable items, but wonders if that would open up a Pandora's box in terms of what her aunt believes she is entitled to.

"Am I morally obligated," she asks, "to share the auction proceeds with my aunt?"

My reader's predicament should serve as a lesson to any parents of multiple children: A carefully detailed will is essential. If no indication is made about how their assets should be divided upon their death, it can result in a rift among surviving children that stretches into subsequent generations.

In other words, my reader is wrong in thinking that her father's generation should have settled this issue. It was her grandparents who should have made clear how they meant their possessions to be allotted.

As to my reader's situation, her father has left two legacies to her and to her brother: the assets which they are now preparing to auction and the ethical obligation to set matters right with their aunt. In accepting the one legacy, they are ethically bound to accept the other.

That their aunt has no intention of pursuing whatever legal rights she may have is irrelevant. If my reader and her brother simply auctioned off the goods, divided the proceeds and moved on, they would be wealthier - but they would also be perpetuating the injustice wrought by their father, and presumably would further strain their relationship with their aunt and cousin.

My reader says that she is convinced that her father was in the wrong, that he unfairly took the most valuable goods after her grandparents' deaths and deprived her aunt of her fair share of the estate. Taking her at her word, I believe that she has not only an ethical obligation but also a wonderful opportunity to set things straight and to heal the rift between the two sides of the family.

The right thing for her to do is to discuss the issue with her brother and, if they agree that their father's actions were wrong, to try to find a way to make things right. She is wise to worry about a possible Pandora's box of new disputes, so it might be wise for them to consult a mediator and/or an attorney to help them come to an agreement with their aunt as to a fair recompense.

My reader and her brother are in the driver's seat here, and it is up to them to correct the sins of their father. How far they want to go remains to be determined, but my reader seems to be on the right road, ethically speaking.

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

Sunday, February 21, 2010

THE RIGHT THING: LIVING AS AN OPEN BOOK

A reader from Utah remembers a column I wrote, awhile back, about whether it ever is appropriate for a parent to read a child's e-mail.

My take on that issue was that a child's safety always trumps his or her privacy, meaning that it is indeed permissible on some occasions for parents to check their children's e-mail. I added, however, that a parent wanting to maintain trust with his or her children should make it clear ahead of time that their e-mail might be checked now and then.

Granted, such a warning might inspire a child to come up with alternative e-mail accounts, deceptive threads and other tactics to throw off a parent. Once violated, however, a bond of trust with a child is difficult to restore, so I think that laying out the ground rules ahead of time - regardless of whether the child likes those rules - is a good way to go.

My reader wants to know if I feel the same way about a romantic relationship between adults. He is in his early 60s, his girlfriend in her early 50s. He has never been married before, she's been married twice. Last summer the two bought a house together, and they are "talking marriage."

His girlfriend believes that everything in their relationship should be transparent, he writes - "an open book." He believes that there should be limits.

"Does a spouse or a significant other have the right to pore over a partner's e-mail?" he asks. "Is there privacy within a relationship?"

The two cases are not comparable. Most obviously, the difference between the relationship between a parent and a child and the relationship between two adults is that the former relationship is fundamentally unequal and, at least on the part of the child, involuntary. Because virtually all the power rests on one side of the equation, it's important that the rights of the other individual - the child - be spelled out and respected by both parties and, of course, by the law.

In the case of adults in a mutual relationship, the relationship is between equals and is entirely voluntary, and only one fundamental right applies: Whatever limits exist in a relationship must be agreed to by both parties. Neither partner has a "right" to rummage through the other's e-mail, nor a "right" not to have his/her e-mail rummaged through. The rules of their particular relationship must be mutually determined by the two of them.

In the case of my reader, the issue is not really privacy but the fact that he is uncomfortable with his partner's expectations where privacy is concerned. She places their relationship above either partner's right to privacy, he doesn't.

In the immediate matter at hand, in short, my reader is right: As long as he has not agreed to make his life "an open book," his partner isn't entitled to expect it to be so.

Since he and his partner are "talking marriage," however, he should be prepared to be honest with his partner and explain why this issue is so important to him - which, of course, means that he has to figure this out for himself. Does he want to keep secrets from his partner? Is he uncomfortable with the degree of closeness that she expects in a relationship? Is his own commitment to the relationship fundamentally different from hers?

They have bigger issues to work out, in short, than whether or not she checks his e-mail. If they can sort through them, I'd bet that he'll end up being OK with her seeing his e-mail and she'll be OK with not seeing it.

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

SOUND OFF: THOU SHALL NOT STEAL

Of those readers who responded to an unscientific poll on my column's blog, 66 percent believe that it is simply wrong to shoplift, regardless of the circumstances, while 34 percent agreed with Rev. Tim Jones, an Anglican priest in York, England, who told his parishioners that it is sometimes OK for people in extreme situations to shoplift.

"The moral imperative for us ... in making such judgments is to recognize that, in addition to taking an item, we are also taking someone else's autonomy," writes Sean O'Leary of West Virginia. "That is usually the significantly larger `taking.' Therefore the offsetting benefit must be immense indeed."

Susan Hammond of Mission Viejo, Calif., agrees.

"As a leader in a Christian church," she writes, "Jones should have appealed first to well-supplied members of his own congregation to help meet the needs of their fellow congregants. If they are all in need, then Jones should appeal to the wider Church for help."

Maggie Lawrence of Culpepper, Va., takes a firmer line.

"Oh, baloney!," writes Lawrence, who accuses this "so-called religious leader" of having forgotten that the commandment doesn't read: "Thou shalt not steal - unless, of course, you're, like, really desperate and you only steal from big corporations."

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)

Friday, February 19, 2010

Business Ethics Stories on Video



For a project on which I served as content advisor, here are some short video clips containing various stories related to ethical decision-making in business. You can also view these by clicking on the image above.

You can find more information on the Harvard Management Mentor project from Harvard Business School publishing by clicking here. The business ethics module of this project contains extensive text and interactive tools to use in training managers.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

SOUND OFF: TEED OFF

A brouhaha is brewing among professional golfers.

Joining the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, which coordinates golf rules outside of North America, the United States Golf Association has ruled that using Ping Eye 2 wedges, clubs with specially cut grooves that improve golfers' play - don't ask me how, I'm no golfer - would no longer be permitted on the PGA Tour starting this year.

All well and good. Equipment specifications are a routine part of golf's rules. Because of a preexisting lawsuit, however, wedges made before 1990 were exempted from the new rule. Golfer Phil Mickelson, among others, has used a pre-1990 club for years, and initially planned to continue to do so, since it remained legal. After an outcry from other players, however, he decided not to use it until the rules are standardized, one way or the other.

Joe Read, a reader in Anaheim, Calif., wonders if the spirit of the regulation is as important as the letter of the law: Is it wrong for golfers to use pre-1990 clubs that may not be available to other golfers? Or is all fair as long as the rules are not violated?

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: TRADING TIME FOR GIFTS

A reader from Westerville, Ohio, writes that he and his wife are planning a vacation at a resort in the southern United States. He has made their reservations with a national hotel chain that also happens to sell time shares.

After booking their room, he received a letter from the hotel inviting him and his wife to tour the property and listen to a three-hour sales pitch for the time-share properties. In exchange for their time, they would be compensated with their choice of gifts ranging from a certificate for a free dinner to tickets for a nearby amusement park.

The offer is not an uncommon one. Time-share owners often solicit vacationers with offers of a gift to sit through a sales spiel. Having been on the receiving end of such offers myself, and having accepted a few, I know that some salespeople put on more of a hard sell than others, hoping to convince prospects that they're being given an opportunity that they're not likely to come across again. Judging from how many offers are made, such urgency is unlikely, but it's the job of the salesperson to entice.

Only once did a salesperson give me his pitch and then try to weasel out of actually giving me the promised gift. I refused to leave without it and, perhaps weighing the possibility of being stuck with me in his office for the indefinite future, eventually he gave in.

My reader suggested to his wife that they attend the presentation, because he wanted one of the free gifts being offered. They can't afford to purchase and have no interest in owning a time share, however, so his wife thinks that it would be unethical to take the salesperson's time - and the gift - under false pretenses.

"My position is that we are being compensated for our time, nothing else," he writes. "Is it unethical to attend the presentation and accept the compensation when we have no intention of purchasing a time share? We've decide to abide by your decision."

Taking sides in an ethical dispute between husband and wife is not something I relish, but the question falls squarely within the turf of this column.

I'm with the husband on this one. The sellers made it clear that the gift was being offered in exchange for the couple's time, with no other strings attached. He and his wife are under no obligation to disclose that they have no intention of buying a time share before accepting the offer - and it might not make a difference if they did. A confident saleswoman may feel that, given the opportunity to make her pitch to a captive audience, she could convince even the most doubtful consumer to consider a purchase.

She might even be right: For a long time my plumber was dead set against time shares, but he went to many such sales presentations to get the free gifts and now owns two time shares. And is quite happy with them, he tells me.

The right thing for my reader and his wife to do is to weigh whether the gift is worth giving up three hours of their vacation to get it. If so, they can go ahead and do so with absolutely no guilt.

For my part, after sitting through a number of such presentations through the years, I still do not own a time share. I have, however, had several good meals paid for by people selling them.

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

Sunday, February 07, 2010

THE RIGHT THING: AN INDIAN-HEAD PENNY FOR YOUR THOUGHTS

On his way home from work after a long day, a reader in New York stopped in a Subway sandwich shop in Penn Station to buy dinner. It was about 1 a.m.

While waiting for his order, my reader noticed that the shop had a "take a penny, leave a penny" container on its counter. Among the handful of Lincoln cents in the container, he saw an older Indian-head penny, "clearly worth much more than one cent."

On closer inspection he found it to be "fairly worn," with a mint date of either 1893 or 1898. Though in good condition for a coin that had been around for more than a century, it was clearly not a misplaced item from someone's collection.

He took it and replaced it with the three pennies he had received as change when buying his sandwich.

"Was it legitimate to take the penny, which the signs tell you to do, even though the implied purpose is limited to giving it to the cashier?," he asks. "Does it matter if that penny is worth 6 cents or $600?"

He writes that he has no idea of its value, given that he is not a coin collector. For the record, it was closer to 6 cents: As I started writing this column, two well-worn Indian-head pennies - which happened to be dated 1893 and 1898 - were up for sale on eBay at a starting price of 99 cents, with a couple of hours left to go on the auction.

My reader is not sure if he left the three pennies out of a sense of fairness, out of a sense of embarrassment at been seen taking something out of the container and walking off with it or out of some combination of the two.

Regardless of their age and the willingness of collectors to pay more than one cent for them, Indian-head pennies remain legal tender in the United States, with a value of one cent. If my reader had received the coin as part of his change, therefore, he could rightfully have pocketed it without concern. If the shop had accidentally given him a quarter instead of a nickel, though, it would clearly be the shop's - even if it were a century-old quarter now worth $100.

The penny container is a middle ground, however. It is provided as a courtesy to customers, but presumably it's stocked both by customers and by the shop. The penny in question might well have been dropped into the bin by someone who had received it in change and was therefore its rightful owner.

My reader adds that a contributing factor to his not telling the cashier about the coin was his assumption that, if he did, the cashier - who had no possible claim on it - would simply pocket the coin for himself. There was little likelihood that it would find its way back to Subway, even if the corporation were the rightful owner.

"If it's going to go to someone who doesn't own it," my reader figures, "it might as well be me."

If the shop been a family-owned business with the owner on the premises, he says, he would have considered drawing the owner's attention to the Indian-head cent.

The actual question, though, is whether my reader was right to keep the coin. The answer, yes or no, doesn't depend on who owns the store or whether the owner is on hand.

My answer: yes. There was nothing illegitimate about my reader's actions. The penny bin is not the store's property, per se, and customers are specifically invited to help themselves to a penny if they see fit. What they do with it may be assumed, but it is not specifically limited in any way.

The right thing for him to do was to leave at least one penny in place of the one he was taking, so that he did not diminish the container's usefulness to other customers. Since he actually left two extra pennies, he's in the clear.

While it might have been a nice gesture to report the discovery to the owner, if it was a family business or otherwise, my reader was under no obligation to do so. Kindness is an estimable value, but so is fairness - and fairness says that the penny was his, to keep or give away as he saw fit.

So he can enjoy his find with a clear conscience, knowing that, while I was writing this column, two coins similar to the one he found sold on eBay for $4.44.

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

SOUND OFF: SAMPLE WITH ABANDON

Of the readers who responded to an unscientific poll on my column's blog, 65 percent believed that it is OK to take a sample of a food product, even if you have no intention of ever buying the product being sampled, while 35 percent believed that such an action is wrong.

Bill Jacobson, of Cypress, Calif., sees nothing wrong with sampling with no intention of buying, arguing that the sampling process offers the store a raft of benefits.

"If retailers were to limit samples only to those who were intending to buy the sampled product coming in," he says, "they might as well forgo the samples altogether."

Eric McNulty of Brookline, Mass., also sees nothing wrong with sampling with no intention to buy, pointing out that such offers carry no implicit agreement to purchase anything.

Perhaps, he writes, the question should be "whether it is ethical to go to a store specifically to take advantage of the food samples without an intention to purchase. Some of those big-box stores offer considerable opportunities for grazing."

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)

Monday, February 01, 2010

Ethical Dilemmas on Fox 25

Discussion with Gene Lavanchy this morning about everyday ethical dilemmas on "The Morning Show" on Fox 25, Boston's Fox affiliate. Also mention of Real Simple magazine's ethics quiz.