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Sunday, December 25, 2011

People can and do show they care

Several days ago, stories started appearing about anonymous benefactors who were paying off the balances on layaway purchases that customers had made at Kmart.

An Associated Press article written by Margery Beck suggested that these payoffs took various forms. Some benefactors sought to pay off items that were about to be returned to the shelf because the purchaser had missed several payments. Others wanted only to pay off layaway purchases that consisted chiefly of children's items. Still others decided to pay off most of the layaway, but left a few dollars balance on the account so customers would be surprised when they went to settle up their bills.

No questions asked about whether particular items are appropriate for the children. No judging about whether it's right to have $200 worth of toys and clothes on layaway when they might not be able to pay for more essential items at home. No desire to stick around or be identified as the person paying off the bill. No need for a charitable tax break or the thanks of an adoring recipient.

Just one giant Secret Santa effort seems to have blossomed for whatever motivation the benefactors might have had.

Helping others in need gives people the opportunity to show they care. Every year, a number of prominent newspaper columnists devote a holiday column to listing charities seeking donations. And the Web takes such efforts a step beyond the local Kmart and allows benefactors a much longer reach.

Right around Thanksgiving, for example, my son and daughter-in-lawd gave their nephew (my eldest grandson) a gift certificate to Kiva.org, a microlending organization that allows users to loan money to entrepreneurial projects in impoverished areas of the world. He chose to help fund Luciana, a food vendor in Paraguay, and Caroline, a cereals seller in Kenya.

Opportunities exist throughout the year to do some good act to express care or concern. Such acts might not involve cash, but instead involve assisting a neighbor or giving time to a local school or not-for-profit.

If ethics is how we behave when we decide we belong together, then it seems appropriate to reflect on whether or not that coexistence should involve some effort to help others who might be working hard but finding themselves falling a bit short.

Aside from those who believe tithing is an obligation, there's no set prescription on how or how much to give or when. The right thing is to give thought to whether it's important for you to do so and then find a way, even a small way, to express such care for others in the community, whether neighbors shopping at the local strip mall or those further afield connected through the web.

Tell me your stories of how you've decided to give back or to show care for others in your community. What motivated you? And how did you decide it was the right thing to do?

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal
Responsibility in Today's Business
and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A blue uniform is a blue uniform

The nursing students in a licensed practical nurse program in the Northeast are required to wear a specific color uniform to their classes - a basic royal blue set of medical scrubs consisting of a top and bottoms.

An owner of one of the area stores selling scrubs has discovered that one of the program instructors is telling students to purchase a brand of scrubs only sold at a particular store. The store to which the students are being directed is not the one owned by the reader who found out about the instructor's directions.

"The color is what is important," the reader writes, not the brand. "Our store carries the required color, but we are losing business to the other store as she (the instructor) is partial to that business." Other shops in the area that sell scrubs may also be losing out on sales to these students.

The LPN program takes place as a public school.

"It does not seem ethical that a public employee should be able to influence where a student purchases a uniform," the reader writes. "The scrub shop getting the business has not bid on supplying the uniforms to the school."

The reader believes that students have no idea that other vendors in the area offer medical scrubs and uniforms.

"I have spoken with the head of the nursing program about my concern that, as business owners, we only wanted to be treated fairly," the reader writes. "She did not seem to think there was anything wrong with the instructor being partial to only one local business.

"I have no way of knowing if perhaps this instructor has some sort of vested interest in the store she is recommending. Maybe she does. Maybe she does not. Regardless, we are losing a lot of business because of her, not to mention future sales."

The reader would like to know my thoughts.

If the instructor does have some vested interest, she is clearly out of line and likely breaking some law. But, as my reader points out, there is no evidence that this is the case.

If it truly makes no difference what brand of scrubs the nursing students wear, then the right thing is for the instructor and others in the program to let students know they are free to buy their scrubs wherever they like as long as they are the required style and color. If the instructor truly believes that the quality of a particular brand of scrubs is better, she has the right to let students know this, but it's wrong for her to suggest that there's only one place to buy them if that's not the case.

The right thing for the reader and other vendors in the area is to market their scrubs to the students as aggressively as they desire to let students know that they have a choice in where they make their purchases.

But a recommendation is not a requirement and if the instructor is simply recommending a particular store because she likes the quality of the goods and the service of the sellers, that's her prerogative. It's up to the other owners to convince their prospective customers that their store is a better selection than the instructor's merchant of choice.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal
Responsibility in Today's Business
and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The work you submit should be your own

I've been a writer for many years, a writing teacher for several, and an editor for longer than many of my students have been around. Occasionally, particularly at this time of year, current or former students, former colleagues seeking to advance their education, or children of friends applying to college, contact me to see if I can give them feedback on admissions essays they write to academic programs they'd like to attend.

The question invariably arises of just how much advice I should give to anyone writing an application essay. These are, after all, used not just to get a sense of how the applicant answers the questions posed by the academic institution, but also to give the admissions committee a sense of how well the applicant can write.

Granted, there are untold stories of students who use outside services to "assist" them with their college applications. But how far is too far for such assistance to go?

Increasingly, academic institutions are aware of the challenge of making sure that the work someone submits on their application is their own work. Some students might be reluctant to ask for feedback after reading instructions that include a dictum like this: "Your essays may not be written, edited or translated by anyone but yourself."

How much advice is appropriate and still makes sure the work students submit reflects their own writing ability?

In my work as an editor, I don't hesitate to edit someone else's writing for publication so that the final article is as strong a piece of writing as possible. In such cases, it's a collaborative process to achieve the best outcome.

But the case of aspiring applicants is different. The work must represent their best writing efforts - and not been heavily edited by professionals to make it more than the writers would have been capable of producing on their own.

So what's the right thing to do when asked for help on admissions essays?

Advising prospective applicants on where they might trim or where they might address some issues of clarity in their essays is fair game, as long as revisions made are made by the applicants themselves. The right thing is to ensure that the work they submit must be their own. To go any further is both a disservice to the institution to which they're applying, and to applicants who might find it more difficult to succeed academically if admitted on the assumption they're capable of the type of writing reflected in their applications.

Parents who seek out assistance for their children to help them complete their college applications would do well to make sure that "consultation" doesn't give way to ghostwriting. Parents and others providing feedback to prospective applicants would send a clear message about integrity and honesty by reinforcing the notion that whatever is submitted should be reflective of the applicant's own ability.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal
Responsibility in Today's Business
and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

When good products get bad marketing

Sometimes the companies whose products we love make it difficult for us to love the things they do to sell us those products.

Several months ago, a reader received an unsolicited DVD from a hobby magazine to which he subscribes. It's not a bad DVD. In fact, it seems like one that might have interested him. It's a full-length documentary, apparently the first in a series that the magazine hopes subscribers will purchase.

"The way the magazine is marketing the DVD really angers me, though," my reader writes.

A form letter accompanying the DVD explains that the DVD was sent in hopes that the subscriber will not only send the company $9.95 for it, but will also consent to receive other DVDs in the future for which he will also be charged $9.95 plus postage and handling.

"If I don't want the DVD," he writes, "I'm requested to - get this - remove it from its case and return only the disc in a prepaid mailer." The magazine doesn't want the case back and the subscriber is encouraged to reuse or recycle it. "My guess is that they just don't want to pay the extra postage."

But buried deep in the form letter is a brief acknowledgment that even if he doesn't want to pay for it, the subscriber could opt to keep the DVD and not pay anything for it since the magazine sent it to him unsolicited.

"What really irks me is that a great many recipients -- many of whom are older people who could be confused and think they actually ordered the DVD -- are going to figure what the hey and pay the $9.95 anyway," my reader writes. "I suspect that the magazine's marketing people knew this in advance and are counting on it."

"This tactic is worse than anything a book or record club ever pulled," he writes, referring to clubs that used to rely on people forgetting to decline the selection of the month and end up owing money for items they never really wanted.

So, what's the right thing for my reader to do?

If he returns the disc as requested, he's being dutiful. He's also driving up costs for the magazine since it will be paying the return postage, a cost that is eventually likely to be passed on to him and other subscribers.

But he has absolutely no obligation to return the disc. He never requested it and the magazine should not be deceiving him or others into believing that they owe money for something they never purchased.

After stewing over the matter for a spell, my reader came to several conclusions.

"I'm going to keep the DVD," he writes. "I'm not going to pay $9.95 for it." He is also strongly considering canceling his subscription.

I've written about Stephen Carter's book Integrity (Basic Books, 1996). In it, Carter talks about three steps that are essential to integrity: The first is discernment, the second is to act on what you discern, and the third is to state openly what you have done and why you have done it.

"I am going to write a letter to the publisher and explain why I'm canceling my subscription," my reader writes. By acting with integrity, my reader is doing the right thing.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal
Responsibility in Today's Business
and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Gift-giving grandmother gets no graciousness

Every year, as the holiday gift-giving approaches, I begin to receive questions from readers struggling with the season.

This year, a reader from Southern California writes to report on her six grandchildren, "all very bright and excellent students." Her grandchildren range in age from 12 to 19 - three girls in one family and two boys and one girl in another family.

"We all get along," she writes. "No problems there!"

The children in the family with two boys and one girl "appreciate everything I do for them," grandma writes. "Even the 12-year-old sends me beautiful thank-you notes in his own words and handwriting." From these grandkids, she never fails to get a thank you note as well as a verbal thank you for checks, gifts, and "everything" she does for them.

The problem, however, lies in the family of two girls. Well, not in the family, but in the girls themselves.

"I have to ask the girls in the other family if they received their birthday check or gift," their grandmother writes. When the girls respond to her, "it's sort of a ho-hum, 'Yes.'" The ho-hum affirmation is immediately followed with: "I know you want a thank-you note, Grandma." So, after her call, she reports that she gets a two-sentence note, "not even signed with the word 'love' in it."

Over the years, the grandmother has done the same for all of her grandchildren when it comes to gift giving. But her inclination this year, she writes, is to be more generous with the grandkids who actually show appreciation.

"With Christmas approaching," she writes, "I would like to know what you think is the right thing to do."

Whenever I've received questions like this from readers, I've been very clear that a parent or a grandparent has no obligation to treat every child exactly the same when it comes to giving gifts, leaving an inheritance, or anything else that involves deciding how to dole out assets. Most parents and grandparents, however, do try to be as fair as they can be and treat each of their children and grandchildren as equally as possible. Perhaps partly this is to send a message of how none of the children is loved any more than another. It might also be a way to keep from creating a rift among the children brought on by jealousy.

There is no ethical rule, however, that the grandmother from Southern California must give grandchild A the same amount that she gives grandchild B or grandchild C.

But since the grandmother suggests she loves all of her grandchildren equally and maintains good relationships with all, the right thing to do is for her to ask herself if being less generous with one set of grandkids will really accomplish what she hopes to achieve. If the less-grateful grandkids don't know they're getting less, will it really matter all that much to them? If being less generous is designed to make the grandmother feel better, the right thing would be for her to ask herself if she'd really feel better by being less generous.

The appropriate response should be driven by what the grandmother really wants to accomplish. And it wouldn't kill the less-gracious grandkids' parents to remind them that it's a good and appropriate thing to thank people when they do something nice.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal
Responsibility in Today's Business
 and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apartis a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.


(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Your parents or your spouse

A reader from New York City writes that he believes most of the questions I try to tackle in the column each week are "relatively small scale." He, however, believes he has "a biggie."

"From an ethical point of view," he writes, "whose interests is a married person obliged to place foremost, if they come into conflict: His or her parents? Or his or her spouse?"

My first inclination upon reading his question is to assess who reads my column the most, my father or my spouse. But while such checking might prepare me for reactions from my father and spouse to my response, it doesn't change how I'd answer the question.

"The obligations to one's parents are obviously more comprehensive and of much longer standing," the reader goes on. "On the other hand, one swears a personal vow of loyalty to one's spouse, but not normally to one's parents. The obligations of a son or daughter are more or less imposed on you without consent, consultation or specific articulation. ('Because I'm your mother, that's why!')"

While it's obviously best to honor obligations to both parents and spouse or, if you can't, to find a compromise, the reader recognizes that in some cases the obligations are specific and mutually exclusive.

"What then?" he asks.

I'm not so sure my reader has as much of "a biggie" as he thinks.

Sure, anytime you try to drive a wedge between a spouse and a parent or a spouse and a spouse by introducing a divisive issue, there might be fireworks. In such cases, my own spouse reminds me, it's good to remember that you live with the spouse with whom you are building your own lives together.But my reader seems to forget that missing in his premise is that there's a third player in the equation, presumably with a mind of his own. Not only might a spouse disagree with his parents. He might disagree with both of them.

My own spouse believes that this fellow may just be "looking for trouble," trying to engage a columnist in settling a score between his spouse and his parent, so he doesn't have to take a stand.

But I'm not so sure that's the case.

Instead, like many of us, my reader seems to be looking for a set of rules that apply to any situation all the time. The trouble is that situations differ and so do our responses to them. There is no one set of rules that defines whose side you should take in a disagreement, beyond the rule that you should side with the person you believe is right. If you believe neither side is right, then express that.

The right thing to do when parents and spouse collide is not to arbitrarily side with either, but instead to have a mind of your own that presumably can produce an opinion of your own. But given that you have a committed relationship with your spouse and plan to spend the rest of your life with him or her, it's also the right thing to give a heads up to your spouse beforehand if your view differs rather than launch it by surprise in front of your parents. Such an approach honors loyalty and increases the likelihood that your spouse won't feel betrayed by your contrary views.

Jeffrey L. Seglin is the author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal
Responsibility in Today's Business
. Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.


(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Don't send money to far-away princes

My cellphone rang as I was getting off the train to head to my office.

"Did you get Klara's email?" the caller asked.

I had. In it, my relative Klara (whose name I've changed) - or someone purporting to be Klara - said she had been mugged while vacationing in London and needed money wired to pay her hotel bill. Word for word, it was exactly the same email I had received from a business associate months earlier. Neither had been in London. The emails were scams.

My caller asked if he should be concerned. I told him not to be since my wife had already been in touch with Klara and she was fine.

Earlier, I received emails from readers telling me about emails they'd received from people who were trying to get riches out of a particular country, but that they needed money wired to them to help them do so.

"My husband thinks these are from the same people who did the famous Nigerian scams," one reader writes, referring to variations of emails that made the rounds promising to transfer substantial sums of cash to your bank account that would be shared with you. All you needed to do was to share banking information.

Another variation involves a Craigslist poster purportedly in search of a nanny. The poster sends a fake check to nanny prospects and then proceeds to get the victim to send cash or goods to an address. Only later do the victims find out that the check was fake and end up on the hook for the money they spent.

Clearly, the scam artists are behaving unethically. There's no ethical upside to committing fraud and sucking unsuspecting victims into parting with their cash - even if the victim is drawn in by the promises of riches or a job.

But a reader wanted to know if she behaved unethically by initially falling for one of the scams. She just barely fell, mind you, having responded to the ad for nannies, but smartened up before actually sending any cash.

Being gullible is not the same as being unethical. Falling victim to a scam artist might be embarrassing, but it does not reflect a moral failure. Even if the victim's motivation is untold riches (one of the Nigerian email scams promises 20 percent of $23 million for allowing a short-term transfer to the victim's bank account), the victim is only guilty of being a bit too starry eyed at an offer that appears too good to be true.

"Is there somewhere you can go to check out the latest scams and maybe add new ones?" asks a reader from Wisconsin.

There is no central source that gathers all scam efforts. But websites such as snopes.com (http://www.snopes.com) are a great place to check on the veracity of such emails making the rounds. These scams tend to be cyclical and ones that were prominent in the past have a
tendency to pop up unexpectedly years later.

Whenever an email that appears to be a scam alleges to come from a particular organization or mentions an organization in the text of he email, the right thing is to report that email to that organization. Scams will never go away entirely, but if prospective victims are vigilant about reporting them when they do arise, the chances are greater that people will not all victim to the scams in the future.

Jeffrey L. Seglin is the author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal
Responsibility in Today's Business
. Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The things we carry: A POW bracelet, a Medal of Honor recipient, and how the two came together

 In 1998, I started writing a monthly business ethics column for the Sunday New York Times, called “The Right Thing.” In what became a bit of a ritual…well, more of a panic, really…I spent part of each month scouring for ideas for the column. I talked to regular sources, kept an eye out and an ear open for egregious examples of corporate malfeasance, and pored through a collection of newspaper and magazine clips I’d collected in a big pile in my office that might yield some good premise for a column.

In late 2003, I was reading through an article I’d saved from The New York Times about some of the cases that the Supreme Court had declined to hear. One of them struck my eye in particular. It was a case brought on behalf of veterans of World War II and the Korean War who had been promised lifetime medical benefits for themselves and their families by overzealous recruiters in an effort to get them to serve in the military for at least 20 years. The United States Court of Appeals had ruled that these claims were invalid since the recruiters didn’t have the authority to offer them.

It struck me as a bum deal that these veterans were being cheated out of medical benefits because they had been misled and that the government had decided not to step up to the plate and honor the promises made by these recruiters… Great fodder for a column, I thought, looking at how our ethical obligations often go beyond what the letter of the law requires us to do.

But what really caught my eye was the name of the guy who was leading the case – a veteran from Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, named George E. Day. … God, that name – George E. Day – sounds familiar, I thought. … No, actually, it LOOKED familiar, as if I’d read it or seen it before.

So I started doing some digging online and found that George Day was at the time a lawyer in his seventies based in Florida who also was a heavily decorated war veteran who had served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. He had received the Congressional Medal of Honor, was one of the most highly decorated soldiers in United States military history…and, starting at the age of 42, he had been held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for 67 months, where for a period of time his roommate had been John McCain.

And then it hit me. I looked up from the newspaper clipping over at the basket on my desk in which I keep pens and pencils…and there, hanging on the side of the basket was the nickel-plated POW bracelet I had worn 30 years ago when I was in high school. And there on the bracelet was the name: “Col. George Day” and the date on which he had been taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese – August 26, 1967.

All these years I’d assumed that Col. Day had never made it back since I never saw news of him during any of the prisoner releases that happened during the 1970s. But it turns out that not only did he make it back, he was a bonafide war hero who’d won the Medal of Honor.

For 30 years, I’ve been carrying around Col. Day’s bracelet with me, never knowing what happened to him. I had purchased the bracelet for $2.50 when I was a high school student in Boonton, New Jersey, in 1971. Thousands of people wore the bracelets during the waning days of the Vietnam War as a testament – regardless of their views of the War – that POWs should not be forgotten. As a high school student, I had been against the war, and I wore my bracelet through my freshman year in college and then kept it with me as I’ve moved over the years.

I’d been carrying Colonel Day’s bracelet around for 30 years and, now that I knew he was alive, I felt an obligation to go to Ft Walton Beach, FL and give it to him.

When I meet Col. Day for the first time, he was much smaller than I had imagined. This should have come as no surprise. I’d read his autobiography, called Return with Honor, where he’d written that he was only 5 feet 9. But he’d also written about one of the most harrowing imprisonment experiences I’d ever read – full of torture, defiance, resilience – that in my mind he’d taken on a larger than life stature.

During the 14 days that Col. Day had escaped his initial captors and was trying to find his way to South Vietnam, he was hallucinating, living off a couple of frogs and berries, bleeding from his nose, vomiting blood, nursing a broken right arm, and ultimately only giving in to being recaptured after he was shot in the arm and leg. … And, all of this while he was 42 years old.

When I set up the meeting, I hadn’t told the Colonel why I wanted to meet with him.

During the Vietnam War, I was a high school student who protested the war. I registered for the draft and got a lottery number in 1974, but, lucky for me, that was the year the draft was suspended. I ended up writing my phone number on my draft card to give to a girl I’d met at a college mixer.

While he was in the POW camp, Col. Day’s North Vietnamese captors would play speeches from anti-war protestors in the United States or from those – like actress Jane Fonda – who had visited Hanoi. In his book, he writes that this broadcasted propaganda “diluted the reasoning power of the public, confused the issue of how bad the Communists were, and supported the claims of the peaceniks and pro-Commie anti-war groups. During rational times in other wars,” Col. Day wrote, “such people would have been hanging from telephone poles. A pity these were irrational times.”

Knowing that I was in his office to give Col. Day the POW bracelet that I’d worn as a sign of protest against the war, I was a bit nervous that his hatred of the anti-war protestors will extend to me and that perhaps he thinks that I too, along with my high school buddies who wore similar bracelets with other names on them, should have been strung up as well.

When I finally mustered the courage to tell the Colonel why I’m really there, I reached into my left pants pocket, pulled out the bracelet, fumbled with it a bit, and then handed it to him.

It turns out that Colonel Day has received so many of these bracelets with his name on them that he’s donated the bulk of them to two different art projects, where they were fashioned into POW/MIA statues.

He still received several bracelets every month, but said that most of the bracelets he’s received over the past 30 years have obviously never been worn – they’re almost fresh out of the package, if not still in the original packaging. But not mine.

I didn’t know how the Colonel would respond when I gave him the bracelet. That he responded so warmly was partly due to the fact that he says he never knew that the bracelets were worn by anti-war protestors as a signal to end the war and bring home the POWs.

When Day returned to the States, he was told the bracelets were manufactured and sold by a Los Angeles radio host named Bob Dornan, who would later go on to become a Republican Congressman. And while Dornan did support and promote the wearing of the bracelets on his radio show, the nickel-plated POW bracelets were actually manufactured and sold by a group called VIVA, Voices in Vital America, a student-run organization out of Los Angeles that began selling them on November 11, 1970. The requests for the bracelets quickly reached 12,000 a day. Before it disbanded in 1976, VIVA had distributed nearly 5 million bracelets.

It’s somewhat uncomfortable to be the first person to explain to Col Day that these bracelets were the work of the VIVA students and that, regardless of their original intent, quickly the bracelets became another visceral symbol worn by those opposed to the war.

Col. Day is the most decorated soldier in the Air Force and is one of the country’s most highly decorated war heroes. He holds nearly 70 military decorations and awards. In addition to the Medal of Honor, he holds the Air Force Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart.

He’s been honored at dozens of fighter pilot ceremonies, and was the first president of the NAM-POW association. The airport named in his honor in Sioux City, Iowa, features a 9-foot tall bronze statue of him wearing his fighter pilot’s uniform and his Medal of Honor around his neck.

After returning from Vietnam in 1973, the Colonel stayed in the military until 1977, when it became clear to him that he was not going to be offered the type of top military leadership position he felt he deserved. He’d been a lawyer since 1949, and was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1977, where he established a law practice in Ft. Walton Beach. He also became heavily involved in Republican politics.

Then came the lawsuit that made its way to the Supreme Court. For years, stories of overzealous military recruiters promising lifetime medical benefits to veterans with 20 years of service and their dependents had been circulating. Col. Day was outraged that World War II and Korean War veterans had not received these benefits and in 1996 sued the government for reimbursement of medical costs on behalf of two veterans. The government refused to take responsibility for these overzealous recruiters.

Colonel Day was a huge supporter of John McCain when he ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 and, if you watched closely, you could see him on the stump for McCain when he ran again in 2008. McCain had made the restoration of medical benefits a major campaign promise in 2000. When McCain lost the nomination, Colonel Day dutifully shifted his allegiance to George Bush, who Day says had picked up McCain’s promise of restoring veteran’s benefits. He goes so far as to claim that he and his friends working the campaign personally delivered the election to Bush by giving him the narrow margin he needed with the absentee ballots of overseas servicemen based out of North Florida.

Soon after the election in 2000, Col. Day met President Bush at a gathering for Medal of Honor winners. He cornered the President directly about his promise of medical benefits for World War II and Korean War veterans. It was a disappointing meeting for the Colonel.

What’s been remarkable to me in this whole story is that here was this guy who has spent his life defining himself by his service to military and government – here was this guy who vociferously condemned acts of protest during wartime – and here he was suing his government.

The suit seeking reimbursement of medical expenses was brought on behalf of two veterans. The original suit was rejected in one court, then overturned on appeal, then rejected again on another appeal, before the Supreme Court refused to hear the case in June 2003.

Toward the end of our conversation, the Colonel tells me that the reason he thinks he was spared during three wars and 67 months of grueling captivity in North Vietnam was that God had a higher mission for him … and that that mission was to deliver North Florida to the Republicans and enable him to do the work he’s doing now to get veterans what’s due them.

I’m taken aback anytime someone declares they’re on a mission from God. But there’s something strikingly refreshing and ennobling about Col. Day’s declaration. For himself, he knows why he’s here. He has a clear sense of what his obligations are.

In a small and much less clearer sense, I’ve come to realize that I held on to Col Day’s bracelet all these years not for any profound reason other than the fact that I felt an obligation to carry it with me until I found out what happened to him.

Now that that obligation is fulfilled and I’ve given him the bracelet, I suppose I could have either felt a great burden lifted or a sense of emptiness at no longer carrying it with me. But the truth is, I felt neither. Years have gone by when I gave the bracelet or the man’s name on it little if any thought. If not for the serendipitous encounter with his name in a newspaper article, I never would likely have exerted the effort to find the Colonel.

But I do know that on seeing the Colonel wear the bracelet I’d given him on the final day we spoke and on hearing him ask me if it was okay with me if he and his wife, Doris, hung the bracelet on his Christmas tree, I felt a sense of joy and connection to this man I’d never known.

[This essay originally appeared on True/Slant on May 23, 2009.]
[Original research funded by This American Life.]

[Colonel Bud Day died on Saturday, July 27, 2013. He was 88 years old. His obituary in The New York Times appears here.

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Freeloader or working stiff?

Several weeks ago, I tried to tackle the question a reader posed about whether those who lack the resources to pay for medical services or who haven't taken the time to donate blood or fill out organ-donor cards should be denied services.

I responded, "No, they should not be turned away."

My reasoning was, I believed, straightforward.

If we've determined, as a society, that it's inappropriate to turn away people who need medical or emergency services that could save their lives, even if they can't afford such services, we should not withhold such services. Such a position reflects an ethical choice we've made about how we're going to live together.

The goal might be for everyone to take responsibility for his or her own heath and to contribute toward paying for such care. But the goal doesn't remove our responsibility of caring for those who might not have been as capable of making the same decisions.

After reading the column, a reader writes to tell me that it really got under her skin.

"What about all of those people who choose to work part time?" she asks. "Those who barely get by, live hand to mouth, and expect the rest of us to pick up the pieces when they get injured or sick?"

The reader reports that she works four jobs to pay her bills, but that "the lazy freeloaders get taken care of with the same care."

What's more, she writes, "we all know people on disability who work under the table and collect money that should be going to people really injured."

"Where," she asks, "is the incentive to turn these frauds in?"

Where to begin.

First, my reader has no idea what the plight might be of the part-time workers who work just enough to qualify for benefits. Although she might be working four jobs, they might have all they can do to work part time and meet their other obligations. Labeling others as "lazy" or "freeloaders" because they don't happen to clock as many hours as we do is to presume we know their entire life story or how hard they work to put food on their table. Often as not, we don't.

My reader's assumption that we all know people who fraudulently take money when they're on disability is false. I don't know anyone who is doing this. Aside from occasional stories you read about such misdeeds, how many do you know?

But if my reader's main question is about reporting fraudulent workers compensation cases, the right thing is for her to report them. Such fraud is not only illegal, it can drive up the costs for the rest of us. So, if she knows "these frauds" and can prove her claims, she should turn them in. If the illegality of the action or the potential expense or her general outrage are not enough incentive for her to turn them in, then she should do it because it's the right thing to do.

But before she does, she should make sure that her assessment is accurate. One person's "lazy freeloader" may be another's hard-working stiff simply trying to get by.

Jeffrey L. Seglin is the author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Whose past is it, anyway?

How much should our pasts haunt us?

Not long ago, a publication hired the college classmate of a reader to author a regular column on a range of topics.

When the reader saw the announcement about the column, he was "bowled over." Could this be the same person, he wondered, who had been accused of plagiarism back at school and whose friends rallied to his defense until it became clear he was most likely guilty? The same person who admitted to filling out surveys himself to avoid going door-to-door to get answers from the respondents he was supposed to be interviewing for his summer job? The same guy my reader bailed out of jail one summer after he had been arrested for shoplifting?

My reader acknowledges that because these incidents happened decades ago, his memory could be inexact.

He also acknowledges that people's pasts should not haunt them forever. "Youthful indiscretions and even crimes and misdemeanors for the most part should not be held against someone," he says. "On the other hand, does not the type of behavior I've described disqualify him from being a columnist?"

He wants to know if the public deserves to know the past of such an adviser. "Does the publication deserve to have the opportunity to at least review these recollections? Or, since I cannot prove the details, and I fully recognize the faultiness of memory, should I let them all rest?"

In cases like this, it was the responsibility of the prospective columnist to inform his editors about anything - past or present - that could affect the work he is to do for the publication. If the columnist classmate of my reader didn't do this, he should have.

The public does haves a right to know about anything that might create the impression of a bias or conflict in a writer's work. From what my reader has revealed, it's hard to know whether the classmate has such a bias. But I would think that disclosing to his readers the type of experiences my reader relates would make for rich material. If he tackles it honestly, he may very well build trust with his audience.

If the publication doesn't know about its columnist's past, I believe it has the right to know about anything that might affect the credibility of his work.

The right thing? The publication should have adequately done its due diligence and the columnist should have disclosed any information in his past that could call his work into question.

If my reader is truly flummoxed over how such a person landed this job and can't rest without learning the details, the right thing would be for him to call his classmate and ask.

Jeffrey L. Seglin is the author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

What's not mine is not mine

Several years ago, my best friend went furniture shopping for his tiny studio apartment in Manhattan. He was in the market for a small chest of drawers - well, large enough to store most of the clothes he couldn't fit in the less-than-ample closet, but small enough that he could lug it home five or six blocks from the department store to his walkup.

Having selected the most inexpensive, yet presentable dresser he could find, he picked it out fully assembled, carried it to the checkout stand, and then proceeded to pay. As he reached the exit, the drawers began to open a bit. One of the drawers was loaded with a menagerie of stuffed toy animals.

He'd already paid for the dresser and figured he could high tail it out of the store with no one the wiser. But the temptation was momentary. He returned to the register and informed the clerk. The stuffed animals were removed and my best friend went on his cumbersome way, dresser in tow.

I was reminded of his find after listening to a recent episode of "This American Life," a weekly radio show produced by Chicago Public Media. The story was about a fellow who, after police returned his stolen car (after a surreal ordeal), found the trunk contained a chest full of expensive tools, a big ring of master keys that could open many cars, and other assorted goods the car thieves left behind. It was never reported whether the fellow returned the goods that clearly weren't his and that clearly had been used for illicit purposes.

"Shouldn't he have returned that stuff?" my wife, who was listening to the show with me, asked.

The fellow had already been through quite a bit, having at one point spotted his stolen car being driven by the thieves and tailing them while talking to a 911 operator until the crafty thieves eluded him. (Police caught them later that night.) Surely, he had been through enough and couldn't he construe that the unexpected deposit in his car's trunk made up a bit for his troubles?

Who would be the wiser if he just kept the stuff?

The legality of possessing sets of master keys to other people's cars aside, there's no ethical justification for the victim keeping the goods. Regardless of the fact that the police didn't discover the stolen objects in the car, the right thing would be for the fellow to contact the police and return anything in his car not owned by him.

If character is how we behave when no one is looking, then the "no one would be the wiser" justification holds no weight.

The car owner should return the tools, the keys, and the other contraband and be grateful that unlike some car theft victim,s his vehicle was returned at all - and intact, to boot.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing:Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business," is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Thankless returns

Occasionally, I run across someone's lost wallet.

My response has always been to do what I could to find out the name of the wallet's owner and then return it. The response from the rightful owner has ranged from appearing chagrined to have to meet me at a nearby subway station (where I'd found the wallet) to recoup her rightful belongings, to a gentleman who sent my family a gift certificate to a buffet at a Chinese restaurant after he received his wallet in the mail.

Does how people respond dictate whether we should do the right thing? Should it?

Things had not been going particularly well for a reader from Southern California. She had been unemployed for quite a while. Finances were tight and she'd overdrawn her checking account by $196.

As she pulled her car into the bank's parking lot, she found a space that was directly adjacent to the ATM. There, scattered in the space right next to her car were 10 $20 bills. The $200 could not have come at a better time, she figured, so she tucked them in her pocketbook and drove home.

The next day, however, she grew concerned for the person who might have lost the money. She went to the bank and asked its manager if someone had reported any money missing.

"Luckily," she writes, "they had gotten a call." The customer had described exactly how much and where the money had been lost.

At the manager's request, my reader left her name and number with the bank. With her permission, the manager was going to forward the money to the customer along with a note containing the name and number of the woman who had found it and returned it to the bank.

"I didn't return the money expecting anything," my reader writes. "But a thank you would have been nice. The woman never even called to say 'thank you.'"

My reader grew angry over the lack of an acknowledgment for her good deed.

"Especially given my own financial dire straits," she writes, "I was seriously regretting my decision to give the money back."

Returning found cash can be trickier than returning a lost wallet, since cash rarely has any identifying characteristics on it. Still, my reader went out of her way to see if she could get it to its right owner.

Sure, she could have used the cash herself and no one would have been the wiser. But she knew that the money's owner might be agonizing over the loss. Clearly, the owner was concerned and notified the bank.

My reader did the right thing by trying to find the rightful owner of the money. The owner was wrong not to express her thanks.

A small courtesy to acknowledge an act of kindness would have gone a long way toward reaffirming my reader's faith in people's goodness. She can rest easy knowing that her own act is a reflection of the quality of her character.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing:Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business," is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Does society have a responsibility to care?



A reader was taken aback while watching the Republican presidential debate in Tampa, Fla., recently. During the debate among contenders for the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidency that was sponsored by CNN, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul made clear he didn't believe it was right to let sick people die, but he argued that those who are sick should take responsibility for themselves.

As the exchange between Paul and moderator Wolf Blitzer continued, Paul was asked if a young man who might fall into a coma should be left to die. A handful of audience members at the debate shouted "Yeah."

My reader was motivated to write because of "the disgraceful cheering that took place" at that debate. Still, the reader believes the question was a fair one: "Does society have the obligation to care for someone who shows up at a hospital room without medical insurance? Does society have an obligation to care for him?"

But my reader would like to reframe the question a bit. "If a person possibly expects society to give him medical care sometime in the future, is he obligated to prepay in some way?"

He explains that one way this might manifest itself is whether someone is obligated to donate blood if he expects society to be able to provide it for him at some point in the future. He argues that since the current system of voluntary blood donation seems to supply enough blood, a person who doesn't donate could say he shouldn't have to because there is no shortage.

"But," my reader continues, "that's not the situation with organ donation." He notes that there is a shortage of organs available for transplantation and people die waiting for them. "Therefore," he asks, "shouldn't a person who expects or hopes that society will find an organ suitable for him if he needs it sometime in the future be obligated to be an organ donor if he should die suddenly?"

Absent the vitriol, my reader circles back to the question similar to the one raised at the Republican debate: "Is a person who expects society to give him medical treatment obligated to make arrangements to pay for it?"

Yes, of course, we'd like to think that people would be able to take responsibility for their health care and pay for the services they use. We'd also like to think that those who might draw on particular services in the future choose to give back if the opportunity arises so that others can draw on similar services.

But if the underlying question my reader poses is whether those who don't have the resources to pay or those who haven't taken the time to donate blood or fill out organ-donor cards should be denied services, the answer is no.

We've decided that, as a society, it's inappropriate to turn away those who are in need of medical or emergency services that could save their lives, even if they can't afford such services. That decision reflects an ethical choice we've made about how we're going to live together. Those who shouted "Yeah!" to a suggestion that we let folks die rather than provide health care fall distinctly outside of the agreed-upon norms.

A goal of having everyone take responsibility for their health and contribute to those efforts of which they might afford themselves in the future is a good one. But having such a goal doesn't remove the responsibility of caring for those who might not have been as prescient, responsible, or capable to make the same decisions before they find themselves in need.


Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing:Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business," is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Many happy returns (Y2K edition)

Eleven years ago, the world was in a bit of a tizzy over the prospects of the calendar turning from 1999 to 2000. Predictions littered the landscape of a major technology meltdown that resulted from chips in computers somehow finding themselves baffled as the old century gave way to the new.

Business folk loaded up on stuff that enabled them to back-up their data. Consumers, worried the year switch might result in the meltdown of the municipal power grids, stocked up on flashlights, foodstuffs, and portable electric generators.

Doing my own part, I decided to prepare for the Y2K meltdown by avoiding my laptop for the month and instead pecking out my writing on a 1916 portable Corona typewriter. My findings? Slower writing, but fewer interruptions . . . essentially a wash.

But questions linger for many about how some people prepped in the wake of the hype and fear and dire predictions about the collapse of industries and services.

A reader in Ohio is still wondering about the actions a family member took to gird his loins against the ravages of Y2K. "Fear led my brother-in-law to take actions I considered unethical," he writes. "He disagrees."

A few weeks before 2000 hit, the brother-in-law bought a portable generator from a local merchant. He made the purchase knowing that the merchant had a 30-day return, full-refund policy. His plan was to keep the generator in its box unopened and then return it for a full refund if he hadn't needed to use it.

A week after 1999 gave way to 2000 without incident, the brother-in-law returned the generator and received a full refund.

"I told him his actions were unethical because he bought the generator in bad faith," my reader writes. "Moreover, he denied the merchant the opportunity to sell the generator to a legitimate customer."

My reader asks: "Was his behavior ethical? I say not."

If the merchant offered a 30-day return, full-refund policy, the brother-in-law did not do anything wrong. Just like his customers, the merchant knew that Y2K was upon him and that there might be some folks who would load up on stuff only to return it after the year turned, they didn't need the stuff, and they were still within the 30-day period. If the merchant didn't want to risk such returns, he could have changed his policy.

The brother-in-law's actions are decidedly different from the practice of purchasing, say, an expensive item of clothing, wearing it once, but leaving the label on so the item can be returned the next day. In such a case, the item is used and the customer is trying to disguise this fact to get a full refund. The brother-in-law, however, never opened the item and therefore could return it under the agreed-upon policy with absolutely no guilt.

My reader questions whether his brother-in-law's intent changes the situation. No more than the intent of the merchant in not changing his return policy during the 30 days leading up to Y2K. Perhaps the merchant thought the risk of getting returns was worth it since some of his customers might decide to hold onto their purchases even when Y2K-ageddon never struck.

It doesn't matter. What matters is that the customer and the merchant each honored his side of the deal and could enter the new century with a clear conscience.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing:Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business," is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

When bad driving happens to good customers

Stacks of bagged mulch, stone and gravel sit in the parking lots of a regional chain of small hardware stores. It's common for customers to park close to these heaps to make it easier to load the goods into their trunks.

"It's just a neighborly gesture the hardware store makes by accommodating this parking," writes a reader. "Or so I thought."

After two clerks from the hardware store loaded his car's trunk with the bags of mulch he had purchased, he began to drive away. When he heard an awful scraping noise that is all too familiar to those who have been in fender benders, my reader realized that his car had grazed a pallet of bricks that were sticking out near where he had parked.

"The manager did nothing but shrug and say I was not supposed to park next to the bags of mulch," writes my reader. "I asked him where the signs were telling people this. Where were the ropes and pylons and other things directing us where to park? Why didn't the employees who loaded up my car say anything?"

Ultimately, my reader had to ask the manager to get a forklift to remove the bricks so he could get his car out of the parking lot.

"I contacted a police officer, who followed me back to the hardware store," he writes. "As the officer was writing up the accident and my car was again in the 'mulch' lane, another worker came up and asked which bags we wanted loaded into my car!"

My reader's car repair cost him about $400. He figures that equals about two years' worth of products from the hardware store that in the past he might have purchased. "Perhaps I will visit the store again in two years," he writes.

Has the business since changed the signage? "When my temper settles, I may drive by to look."

Was the hardware store in the wrong here? He wants to know.

Sure, the hardware store should have posted signs in the parking lot near the mulch if it didn't want customers to park there. And if they didn't want customers parking there, they certainly shouldn't have instructed workers to encourage them to park there when they needed bags of mulch loaded.

But my reader isn't entirely off the hook. The pallet of bricks was in the parking lot when he arrived. He was responsible for being aware of his surroundings as he left the parking space, whether that meant avoiding the piles of mulch and gravel, the other parked cars, or pallets of goods parked there.

The right thing would have been for the manager to offer whatever assistance he could after the accident, but not to lay blame upon the customer for doing something that was customary and encouraged by the store's employees. And the right thing for the customer was to acknowledge that he made a mistake in banging up his car, and to take responsibility for his own fender bender.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing:Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business,"  is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.