Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Send me your questions and stories for The Right Thing column

For the weekly newspaper ethics column I write for the Tribune Media Services Syndicate called "The Right Thing," I am always looking for stories of ethical challenges, dilemmas, and perplexing situations. If you have such a story or question based on an incident and would like it to be considered for the column, please email it to me at 

Please make sure to include enough details about the story, the issue that you're wrestling with, and your name and the city and state or province where you are located. Include a way for me to contact you. 

If you know of others who might have interesting stories, please forward this on to them by clicking on the envelope below. 

Thanks in advance for your stories.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Cake incident leaves bad taste

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a representative from a small PC repair business who assisted me when I called frantically looking for help in getting my seemingly dead laptop working. The fellow walked me through a few procedures on the phone, helped me get things up and going, and refused to take any payment for his phone advice.

Many readers took me to task for not mentioning the PC business by name.

"I applaud you for even mentioning the customer service things that we small businesses do to keep customers loyal," writes Ken Elie, president of Outdoor Pro Shop Inc., in Cotati, Calif. "You would have been my hero if you had mentioned the man and his business."

Jim Armstrong of Potter Valley, Calif., notes that while the PC repair guy might revel in his newfound business relationship, "I'll betcha he would rather you had made finding him possible for others in your situation."

And Paul Klonsky of Rohnert Park, Calif., writes that the way he rewards a company "that acts ethically like they did with your situation," is to write a review of it using social media, whether it's a tweet, a post on Facebook, or a review on Yelp or Google Places. "More and more, I check these social media sites to verify if a business is worth its salt," he writes. "Yours certainly was!"

They make excellent points. The right thing would have been to mention Cape Coastal Computers of Falmouth, Mass., by name when I wrote about them. Good works deserve notice.

More often than not, however, customers don't take the time to report good news online. When something bad happens, that's a whole other story.

After a recent incident with a bakery just outside of Minneapolis, a customer took to the Web with a vengeance. She detailed how she had ordered a $300 cake for her daughter's wedding. Initially, she was told there would be a $20 delivery fee. But when she went to the bakery to make the final payment, she was informed that all deliveries cost $40.

The customer insisted she had been promised the lower rate and wanted it honored. The clerk insisted policy was policy. The customer was told she could pick up the cake for free or pay the extra $20. Those were the only options, she was told. Ultimately, the owner of the bakery apologized that whoever quoted them the $20 fee was incorrect. The discussion continued and grew increasingly heated. Ultimately, the customer canceled her cake order.

"She lost a $300 sale over $20," the customer says, "and lost a lot of potential great referrals."

The right thing would have been for the bakery to honor the original delivery price. A commitment is a commitment. Honoring the price would have indicated that the bakery stood by its word and it would have built good faith.

So will I name the bakery? No. Good deeds deserve a good mention, as my readers have wisely pointed out. No good deeds were engaged in by the bakery in this particular case which may or may not be an aberration. Be advised, however, to check your local online review sites if you are in the market for a wedding cake.

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

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

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

When customer service goes bad

Customer service, when done well, can create loyal customers. Done poorly, it can wreak havoc on a business' reputation that goes far beyond the initial bad encounter.

Given the vast abundance of websites that allow customers to review their consumer experiences, good word can spread quickly about employees who go beyond expectations to help customers.

But bad word can spread even more rapidly. A musician whose guitar is damaged on a flight might, for example, take to YouTube with an original song detailing his instrument's travails and find more than 10 million people viewing his melodic complaint.

Good news travels. Bad news explodes.

Many spurned customers take some solace in going as far as they can to share their shopping pain. But some customers just want to know how far they should go in trying to set things straight. Is it enough to correct a bad transaction? Or should extra steps be taken to make sure the poor customer service provider is held accountable?

P.B., a reader from Charlotte, N.C., recently made a purchase using one of his credit cards. He approached a sales associate to make the payment.

"The associate wasn't eager to help," writes P.B., "rendering no greeting, exhibiting no eye contact, and taking the card rather flippantly."

On the associate's first attempt to swipe P.B.'s card, the associate told him that the transaction failed.

P.B. asks if there is a problem. Silence from the associate.

A second swipe of the card also fails. Now, P.B. is growing concerned, particularly because a third swipe of his card follows. Finally, the associate indicates that transaction was successful and he returns P.B.'s credit card. P.B. leaves frustrated by the experience, but figures at least his objective of paying for his goods has been reached.

A few weeks later, P.B. receives his credit card statement. Apparently, all three of his credit card swipes went through and he is being charged three times for the single transaction.

He calls his credit card company, which corrects the error without any fuss.

Now that he's done that, P.B. wants to know if he should notify the company directly about the errors and its associate's indifference. "Or should I take no action, chalking it up to poor customer service and apathy?"

Anyone who has worked in retail knows how challenging working with belligerent customers can be. But providing good customer service for routine transactions should always be the norm.

Had P.B.'s situation just involved a rude associate, he might chalk it up to bad experience and take his business elsewhere. But given that his encounter resulted in incorrect charges made to his credit card, the right thing is to notify the business. It not only puts the company on notice that one of its employees is risking its reputation, but also lets it know that the same associate may be exposing the business to financial problems down the road if his inability to process credit card payments continues.

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

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

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Appreciating the gift of arts

A reader in Boston says he is "troubled" by a question regarding art and the public interest. "On the face of it," he writes, "the answer is simple, though I disagree with it completely."

Two museums that he regularly visits are made up of art from a single collector: The Barnes Museum in Philadelphia, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

"They share hallmarks lauded by many," he writes, "which I find repugnant. In each museum, the works have been arranged on the walls according to the whims of the collector and the wills of each collector stipulate that the works must be kept so in perpetuity."

He points out that the works in each museum represent tremendous milestones in art history, but that they are displayed in rooms that are "often dim, and at angles or heights which prevent adequate viewing, much less careful study."

What's more, the paintings and sculpture in each museum, he reports, lack titles or any text that might indicate their context or place within artistic timelines. "Furthermore, the works are forbidden to travel at all, thus robbing many large exhibitions of works which establish the full range and development of the artists on which they focus."

Based on all of these facts, he wonders if there is "any point in time at which the wills of the original collectors should, in furtherance of the education of artists and students and the enrichment of the public, be broken." To put it another way, he writes: "Could there be an ethical justification for artistic eminent domain?"

When art collectors donate paintings, sculpture or other pieces of art to museums, the museum staff likely has more control over how art is exhibited on the museum walls. When the museum itself is owned by the collector, the stipulation of how he or she wanted the art to be exhibited on the walls of their former homes is likely not as flexible.

Granted, there are bound to be as many art aficionados who love the quirk of museums like the Gardner and the Barnes precisely because of the unusual stipulations placed upon their holdings. (The Frick Collection in Manhattan is another such jewel that's among my personal favorites.)

There may come a time, as the reader notes, when there is mounting pressure to alter the stipulations of the wills of those whose collections are on display at a particular locale. It is possible that a good team of lawyers might be able to attack the original provisions of these wills.

But it might be good to remember when bemoaning the organizational choices of these benefactors, that they each also had the choice of willing the art to other private collectors upon their death. They also could have decided to break up their collections before their deaths selling off the individual pieces to other collectors. That they chose instead to leave their collections to be open for public viewing shouldn't be lost in determining what the most appropriate venue for viewing should be.

The right thing, I believe, is to honor the wishes of collectors who leave their homes and collections for public viewing without allowing others to take ownership because they "know better" how the art should be used. Like most gifts, of course, we can choose to take them or leave them.

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

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

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Fixing a PC without a charge and building loyalty

The main computer I use for writing and other projects is a laptop. It often travels with me when I am on the road. It's a sturdy model, four years old with plenty of memory. It's one I'm likely to replace with a similar model when this one passes its useful lifespan.

Rarely has the laptop given me trouble. If I'm traveling, when I get to my new location, I boot the computer up, find the wireless signal, and get to work.

All went well until a few Fridays ago, when I arrived at my destination, opened up the laptop, tried to boot it up, and . . . nothing. None of the lights indicating it's getting power of any sort came on. Thinking I might have drained my battery without knowing it, I got the power cord and plugged that in. Nothing.

Deadlines loomed. Needed files sat locked on the laptop.

I tried taking the battery out and putting it back in. Still nothing.

Without Internet access to go online to seek assistance, I found the local area's Yellow Pages located in a drawer. Under "computers," I found an advertisement for a nearby PC service business. I called the number, found out they were open until 5 (giving me an hour until closing) and then open from 9 to 2 on Sunday.

But then the fellow on the phone asked me what was wrong.

"Have you tried taking the battery out?" he asked. I told him that and proceeded to answer similarly to other questions he posed.

"Could the computer be kaput?" I asked him.

"Not likely, but it's possible."

He told me I could bring it in for a diagnostic and that they'd get it back to me the following morning. "But before you do that," he said. "Try something for me." He then proceeded to give me instructions that involved removing all power from the machine and trying to turn it on.

I was dubious. How could doing anything when no power was going to the computer fix anything, I wondered.

But failing other options, I did as he instructed. Unplug, remove battery, press power-on, reinstall battery, plug in . . . and then, within seconds, the power lights came on. And upon pressing the power-on button, the computer booted up.

The fellow at the computer store reassured me that my computer would be back to working normally now. He attempted to explain why the computer had appeared dead and how the steps he gave me restored it.

I gushed thanks and asked him if I owed him anything for his advice.

"No," he said. "I'm just glad we got it working."

Some marketers might believe that the right thing would have been for him to tell me to come into his store and then charge me to do what he had just instructed me to do for free over the phone. Some owners might scold employees who fail to capture income over such transactions.

But in terms of showing compassion for a clearly distraught caller, even though he might not have made any money on this particular transaction, he built a business relationship that is not likely to be forgotten soon.

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

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

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Websites that have links should disclose them

It's tough for all but those with the largest audiences to make any significant money from their blogs. Add-on ad pages that pay based on click-throughs or orders don't generally generate enough to replace a salary you'd get at a more traditional job.

Increasingly, there are efforts to help bloggers tap whatever income they can from outfits that seek to capitalize on that tapping as well.

Affiliate marketing has been around for a quite awhile. It enables website owners to make money if viewers buy products through links on the site. To really make these affiliate-marketing relationships work financially as requires a website owner to sign up with a plethora of individual affiliate programs.

A reader writes that she used to work for a website that built itself on an affiliate model. But it concerned her that her website never disclosed that it was earning a commission on things you bought through links on the website that the website just happened to write about.

"I find this pretty sketchy," she writes, "and it's one of the reasons I stopped working for the company . . . particularly because part of my job was to write the most glowing reviews for the companies that were paying us the best commissions. Ugh!"

Now, she notes, there are companies that enable you to automatically create affiliate links without having to sign up for each account individually. Instead, you sign up with these companies and if you write about how great a company is, a link in your post is automatically created to direct readers to the site you wrote about. If someone buys something from that site after going there through your link, even if the purchase happens much later, the sending website owner makes money -- thanks to "cookies" that continue to track users for days after their initial visit. The buyer would not likely know that the referring site was making money from the company where they made their purchase, unless they were seasoned enough to recognize what an affiliate link looks like.

"So what's the ethical verdict on affiliates and sites like this that allow you to sign on with multiple affiliates as one time?" my reader asks. "Do sites need to disclose if they're making money off of visitor clicks? Or, if visitors would be willing to buy a product anyway, is it A-OK for referring sites to benefit financially without them knowing?"

My take is simple. The right thing is that if a website or blog could receive money based on what it writes about, this should be disclosed to visitors. An exception might be products produced by the website owners themselves, since it should be obvious that people generally make money off the things they make and sell. But if links are embedded in website write-ups that drive a reader to a site to buy something and the linker can make money off the purchasers, such relationships should be clearly disclosed to a reader.

Full disclosure of such relationships is the honest approach. It also helps readers know if there are potential biases in any reviews on the site. If they know that someone might make money from the things he reviews, it's up to the reader to decide how trustworthy such a review is.

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

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