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.

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