Sunday, June 26, 2011

Speaking up to bad public behavior

We've all witnessed bad behavior in public.

Dave H., a reader from Sacramento, Calif., is perplexed about an appropriate response to the many such incidents of "boorish behavior" in public he has witnessed.

A few weeks ago, just before he pulled up to a stoplight at an intersection, the passenger-side door of a car in the lane next to him opened up. The woman inside the car reached out and emptied a bag full of garbage onto the street -- fast-food wrappers, banana peels, tissues, and "who knows what else," he recalls.

"I gave her my best look of stern disapproval," Dave H., writes. "But as we sat there waiting for the light to change, I wanted to do something else, perhaps a short teachable moment lecture, but I could think of nothing."

Dave has had similar feelings in the past when witnessing other bad public behavior such as people talking in a movie theater or people sneaking unpaid samples of fruit or nuts at the market.

"When one observes these types of behaviors," Dave asks, "is it ethical to allow such incidents to go by without comment?"

My neighbor, Ray, wouldn't likely think so.

Last summer, when we were at the movies, a distracting glow emanated from several seats in front of us. It took a while to become clear that the glow was the light coming from a young man's cellphone on which he was texting.

Many moviegoers noticed, but it was Ray who got up, tapped the fellow on the shoulder, and asked if he could take his phone outside the theater if he needed to use it so the rest of the audience wouldn't be disturbed. The young man slunk down in his seat and turned off his phone for the rest of the movie.

Ray wasn't aggressive in approaching the texter. But he refused to allow one person to disrupt the rest of the audience without saying something to the disrupter.

Ethics is "how we behave when we decide we belong together," write Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers in their book, A Simpler Way (Berrett-Koehler, 1996). Dumping trash onto public streets and texting in the movie theater are not widely accepted ways of "belonging together." Each incident reflects unethical behavior.

In addressing the texter in the movie theater, Ray acted ethically to address the wrong-headed behavior. But those who didn't speak up were not wrong, just as Dave H. was not wrong in not giving his litterer a "teachable moment."

When faced with many possible right choices, the challenging part of doing ethics comes in figuring out what is the best right thing to do. Giving a stern look at the litterer may have been the best right choice Dave H. could muster at the time. Given a few minutes to reflect -- as Ray had time to do after witnessing the texter's glow -- Dave might have come up with an even stronger right response.

He did the right thing though by signaling his disapproval to the litterer. Sure, the litter remained on the road and the likelihood that the culprit will strike again is strong, but as long as there are people who are willing to address inappropriate behavior as it occurs, there's hope that the majority of us will continue to refrain from boorish behavior . . . and recognize it when we see it.

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

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

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be defaulters

His intentions were good. About seven years ago, a father, then 60, wanted to help his son, then in his late 30s, finance the small business he had started. Against his wife's advice, the father took out a home equity loan and borrowed just over $330,000 in his and his wife's name to loan their son.

During this time, the mother says, their son used the money to maintain "a very lavish lifestyle."

Initially, the son made a few payments on the borrowed money, but then he stopped. Soon, however, the son stopped making monthly payments on the debt. The bank sold off the debt to a collection firm.

The father and mother were on the hook for the money, since it had been borrowed against the value of their home.

The couple paid a lawyer roughly $2,500 to negotiate with the collection firm, which agreed to settle the $330,000-plus debt for $100,000. The couple paid off the $100,000 this past spring.

The son has tried, unsuccessfully so far, to get a loan under his own name, so he can pay back $100,000 to his parents.

The father, now in his late 60s, and the mother, now in her early 60s, are still working, but find themselves with a depleted nest egg and a tarnished credit rating because of their son's failure to honor his commitment to them to pay back the home equity loan.

The mother asks if their son owes them the $330,000 originally borrowed, or the $100,000 that the couple negotiated as a settlement.

Her husband keeps telling her that his accountant tells him that legally the son only owes them the $100,000. But she disagrees and wants to adjust his inheritance by the $330,000, "which would mean he would get very little."

"What is the fair and right thing to do?" the mother asks.

It's clear the mother is very upset with her son's behavior. But since she and her husband will only be out of pocket the $100,000 plus the $2,500 in legal fees, the right thing is for their son to repay them those amounts.

Granted, by defaulting on the loan payments, their son wrecked his parents' credit rating. But sadly, that's a risk they took by agreeing to put their house on the line for a loan they gave him on his fledging business.

His mother is upset that her son used the $330,000 in part to sustain his lavish lifestyle. But since she and her husband are only liable for $100,000 of that debt, that plus the legal fees are what they're owed.

If the parents want to adjust their son's inheritance, they can do that. They have the right to do whatever they want with their money.

But when they entered into the agreement with their son to borrow against the equity in their house to help him financially, they knew the risks they were taking when they did that. No adjustment to an inheritance will get their credit rating back or change how their son behaved once they loaned him the money.

Thankfully, the mother has gotten her husband to agree not to loan their son any more money to help him with his business.

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, June 12, 2011

Prospective employers should break their silence

As newly graduated college students hit the job market, they'll find themselves eager to get their foot in the door to secure interviews for prospective jobs. They've been counseled by their college career offices and former professors to get themselves in front of as many prospective employers as possible since you never know what might result from a positive interview experience.

At the same time, recently laid off workers are vying for new jobs that they'll only be able to find by first finding someone willing to interview them for a possible position.

And with mandatory retirement ages disappearing in Canada and full-retirement calculations for Social Security in the United States being raised to 67 by 2027, more and more older workers are likely to be keeping old or vying for new jobs, as well.

There's a lot of interviewing for new employment that going on and it's unlikely that the volume of activity is going to stop anytime soon -- even if the interviews don't always lead to a job.

Too often, I've noted in the past, prospective employees are left in the dark after an interview without ever getting a letter or a call to let them know they haven't been chosen for a position. Even when they're given a standard, "We'll be in touch," too often no word follows.

PJB, a reader in Southern California, took me to task awhile back for arguing strenuously that employers owe it to prospective employees to let them know if they don't get job for which they have been invited in for an interview.

"It's always better to say nothing than to say something that might cause a problem for the company," writes PJB. "Never send a job rejection in writing which contains a rationale for the decision. Several of my HR and recruiter friends have told me this is the case."

While it might be helpful for a prospective employee to know where he or she fell short of the mark, I have no illusions that most companies will take the time to give a rationale for why they didn't make a hire. But companies should take the time to tell people they brought in for an interview whether or not they got the job.

Not doing so as a precaution against potential liability seems to fall in the category of human resource departments and their attorneys spending too much time looking at whether a behavior is legal vs. whether it is right.

If every business relationship is based on any fear of potential liability that every labor lawyer or human resources director ever had, it's hard to believe anything would ever get accomplished in business. It certainly wouldn't reflect a workplace conducive to productivity.

If they're going to take the time to call someone in for a job interview, then prospective employers should make it their business to notify all interviewees who didn't get the job. Silence accomplishes little but to initially get a prospect's hopes up and then to breed ill will when no word ever comes.

Notifying prospective employees who came in for an interview is both the right thing and the civil thing for any prospective employer to do.

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, June 05, 2011

Appreciating those who make ends meet

It took two weeks for a nurse who recently lost her job to find a new position. Complicating matters was that in addition to the two weeks she was without a paying job, she had to wait until the end of her first month on the new job to receive her first paycheck from her new employer.
With no savings to speak of, the former nurse needed some short-term cash to make ends meet.

"I personally had to make some money and did not know what to do," she writes.

Desperate for cash, and unable to think of other options, she decided to go through her neighborhood and collect refundable cans from her neighbors' recycling bins.

"I collected six garbage bags full of crushed cans that brought $17.50 at the local recycling center," she writes. "This was enough money to make sure I could eat for a week."

She is quick to point out that she is neither homeless nor someone trying to steal identifying information from others' trash. But she reports that the dirty looks she got from several people was enough to take any amount of pride she had left, "which, given that I was going through others' garbage, wasn't much."

"There are times in life when you just have to do what you have to do," she writes.

The experience has made her reflective. "It's sad that big companies make all the money and get rich off these discarded products, but a person who walks the neighborhood collecting cans, crushes them, and drives them to the recycling center trying to eat for a week gets ridiculed."

In the past, I've written about people who comb neighborhood recycling bins for returnable cans and bottles. Some readers have wondered whether it's wrong to do so. My take has been that as long as the property owners don't object, the recyclables are fair game.

On occasion, when I notice the gentleman who makes the weekly rounds of recycling bins in my neighborhood, I bring him a bag of cans and bottles to add to his collection.

Readers have pointed out that some municipalities count on the money from recycled cans and bottles to offset the cost of municipal recycling programs. That's true, but I still believe strongly that the right thing is for the property owners to do whatever they want with their recyclables, whether it's to recycle them themselves, leave them for pickup by the town, or encourage neighbors scavenging for cans to take them.

"Just try not to judge," the former nurse writes. "You never know when it could be you trying to make the few extra dollars just to survive."

My reader is right. Judging people who are trying to make ends meet for whatever reason they may have found themselves having to do so accomplishes nothing but to make them feel worse about what might already be a miserable situation. It's better to simply decide whether or no you want to help without passing judgment.

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.

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