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Sunday, April 24, 2011

When it comes to recommendations, write on

A reader poses what he identifies as a real "ethics puzzler." His former partner's son -- his self-identified "de factor former stepson" -- is finishing up his undergraduate degree and is now applying to graduate school.

In the past, even after the relationship with his mother had ended, the former stepson had occasionally asked his former stepfather to write reference letters for him for various academic or service programs. "He got into all of them," his stepfather writes. The stepson would always ask him to write the letters not from the perspective of a parent but as "someone who had assisted in homes schooling him and had been a family friend nearly all his life."

Because his stepfather is a college professor, his stepson figured his academic credentials would lend credibility to the letters he wrote.

"But I always told him that I would preface any letter with a full transparency statement indicating that I had been in effect his stepfather for a period of time."

The relationship with his former stepson's mother is now almost 15 years behind him. Still, he and his former stepson "speak pretty regularly, rendezvous when convenient, and in a pinch, with good news or bad, still connect as family."

Now that the former stepson is applying to graduate school, he still wants to help, but he wonders if at this higher level of education his relationship with him might be "too close."

"On the other hand," he writes, "I know him better than almost anybody, and I think I actually can evaluate his potential quite clearly.

"What do you think?" he asks.

It is unusual for a parent to write a recommendation letter for his child. Even when they do, they might not be considered as strongly as those that come from teachers or others outside of family. Clearly, a family member has an inherent bias and is unlikely to write anything but a letter teetering on being a panegyric for the candidate.

But there's nothing unethical about a parent writing a letter if he chooses to do so, as long as he does precisely as my reader has done in the past, and identifies his relationship to the candidate clearly from the outset of the letter.

Does it make any difference now that the former stepson is applying to graduate school? No. If his former stepfather feels that he can shed light on his academic abilities as well as his character in a way that no one else can and that he feels is important for the prospective graduate school to know, the right thing is for him to write that letter with as much transparency and conviction as he has done in the past.

From a practical standpoint, many graduate schools are likely to place more weight on recommendations that come from those who are not family members or former family members. But that doesn't mean they won't look at all of the candidate's submitted material as part of what paints an overall picture of the candidate's character and potential.

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 rightthing@comcast.net.

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

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Making bad calls

Is allowing employees to be treated badly unethical?

A reader's mother has worked for a large Midwestern retailer for many years. The mother spends her days on the phone handling a variety of tasks: enrolling customers in bridal and baby registries, signing up customers for store credit cards, processing returns, issuing gift cards, and, when business is slow, managing the switchboard.

"People are just plain rude," her daughter reports. "They swear at her and call her names and she has no recourse." In fact, her company monitors the calls and if she is anything but polite, she gets into trouble.

The mother also fields calls from employees working in the retail stores. "On one occasion recently," her daughter writes, "an employee called with a question but dialed the number for my mother's group rather than a different number she really should have called." When her mother explained to the employee that she should have called a different number, the employee was rude and ended up filing a complaint.

As a result, the mother was placed on probation. She was not asked to explain the situation or allowed to discuss the matter any further. "If she gets another complaint in the next three months," her daughter writes, "she will be fired and there's nothing she can do."

"It seems wrong, but is it unethical?" she asks, adding: "I wish my mom would get a new job."

It's unfortunate that there are some jobs that regularly place employees on the receiving end of upset customers. Anyone who works in an IT department knows that it's rare to get a call thanking you for keeping a computer system running smoothly or commenting on how well the email functions since a recent upgrade. But if there's a glitch with the company's technology, the outpouring of venom upon the IT folks can be swift.The same often holds true for those who work in various telephone customer service functions. Helping users or customers address and solve problems can be trying to even the most patient of souls.

A company's management is wise to try to make sure that its representatives treat callers with respect, regardless of how upset a caller might get.

But no employee should be expected to withstand an onslaught of abuse. It's one thing to try to calm an upset caller, quite another to expect that she should listen as vulgarities and personal insults are strewn her way.

The right thing for the mother's manager to have done was to give her the opportunity to respond to the complaint that the errant caller from one of the company's stores made to her. Even if it still resulted in a reprimand, there's no fairness is assuming the worst without trying to understand the facts of the situation.

It's one thing to expect an employee to show patience when angry customers (within or outside of the company) call with problems. It's quite another to expect that the employee should receive similar treatment from her managers.

There's no ethical justification for assuming the worst of employees. The value from a management standpoint is questionable as well. If the business environment becomes so toxic that few good employees wish to remain, the company and ultimately the customers suffer.

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 rightthing@comcast.net.

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

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Breaking the rules and winning a fan


Is it ever OK to break the rules? 

Late in March, my two grandsons lost their other grandfather, who died suddenly and unexpectedly. The death was a blow to the family and the loss of a lovely man.

Before my son-in-law told his two sons about his father's death, he called to ask if I would attend an autograph signing not far from my home in Boston that my oldest grandson was to attend the night of the wake in Chicago. My son-in-law wanted to be able to tell Evan that I would go to the event for which he had saved his money for months.

The rules of the autograph event were that you had to pay a separate fee for every item you wanted autographed. Evan had purchased an official NHL puck so he could have it signed by Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron.

I, of course, agreed to go, as did my wife.

The morning of the event, Evan called from Chicago. He asked me if he thought it would be OK to call me on my cellphone from the funeral home when I was scheduled to get the autograph. 

"Maybe Patrice Bergeron will say hello to me," Evan said.

I reminded Evan that 500 tickets had been sold for the two-hour event, so we were likely to be rushed through. But I told him that I would try.

Being no hockey fan, I had no idea who Bergeron was. After Evan's call, I figured I should find out. In addition to playing for the Bruins, he had won a gold medal on the Canadian Olympic team. And buried in a sports reporter's blog was a reference to the fact that he had missed a game early in March because of his grandmother's death.

I called my son-in-law to tell him of the coincidence in Bergeron and Evan each losing a grandparent recently.

Figuring the phone call between Evan and Bergeron wouldn't happen, I printed up a sign that said, "Hello, Evan" as well as Bergeron's name and jersey number. (It's 37. I looked it up.) I figured my wife might hold the sign next to Bergeron when he was signing Evan's puck and we could snap a photo.

I also wrote to the owner of the shop where Bergeron was appearing explaining my grandson's loss and seeing if there was any possibility Bergeron would get on the phone with Evan. Terry Fox, co-owner of P&T Sports Cards, called me back, told me how moved she was, but that it was unlikely there would be time for a call. Still, she said she'd print out the email and give it to Bergeron's agent.

As expected, the event was packed. When we were third in line to get the autograph, Evan called. Someone grabbed the puck, ushered us up the line and, as Bergeron was signing it, I started to ask if he might talk to Evan. Without hesitation, he asked for the phone. He had seen the printout of the email and knew the story.

"I'm sorry for your loss," Bergeron said. "Hang in there." My wife's eyes welled up. And then Bergeron's eyes welled up too as he continued to talk. His agent put the sign I had made in front of Bergeron and asked him to "sign it for the kid." He did that too, breaking the rule about having to pay separately for each item signed.

Evan called later to thank me. 

"What did you say when he told you he was sorry for your loss?" I asked. 

"I told him I was sorry for his loss, too," Evan said. 

Did Bergeron do the right thing by breaking the rules to sign an extra autograph? I'm biased, of course, but I like to think he did. I also know that he has new fans for life. 

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 rightthing@comcast.net.

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

Sunday, April 03, 2011

An employee with a flight of hand

An upper-level employee travels regularly for his company for his job in sales. His company's policy is to let employees book and pay for their own fights and then fill out an expense report to get reimbursed.

The company tries to reimburse its employees in a timely manner, usually within a week of when they submit their expense report.

The employee has regularly been submitting forms from an online travel website that he's printed out, presumably reflecting the cost of the flights he's been taking. These forms have the actual flight information including date, time, and airfare on them.

He's been operating in such a manner without incident and getting repaid for these tickets for months.

The trouble is that what he says he's been paying for tickets is not what he's actually been paying for tickets. 

A reader who helps process the expense reports for employees writes that the employee has, in fact, been flying at "buddy rates" which are much lower. (Apparently, he has a family member who works for one of the airlines.) So, for example, instead of it costing $400 for a round-trip ticket to Las Vegas, he pays $50 at the buddy rate, and submits a printout from the website that suggests the flight cost the full $400.

"The only reason we caught this is sloppy paperwork," my reader writes. The accounting department found a standby buddy ticket rules sheet inadvertently attached to his expense reports. Upon further investigation, they found other documentation to suggest what the employee had been doing.

"I need help in explaining this to this upper level employee," my reader writes. "He is a long-term employee who does a very good job. I think he feels entitled . . . but I also believe it is dishonest and it is stealing from our company."

There should be no doubt in my reader's mind that what his employee is doing is wrong. He may feel entitled, but for him to overcharge his employer for a service he doesn't pay for is indeed dishonest and fraudulent. If the employee felt entitled to be reimbursed the full fare rather than his discounted fare, the right thing would have been for him to talk to his employer about this rather than make that decision for himself.

The employer can't require the employee to use the buddy rate he gets, but it can and should insist that he not fabricate expenses on his report.

The right thing is for my reader to be direct with this employee and tell him to stop misreporting his expenses and to reimburse the company for any amounts he's been overpaid. It doesn't appear that the company wants to fire this employee for his actions, but any employer would be within its rights to do so.

The company would be wise to start insisting that actual receipts (either printed out from an airport kiosk or submitted from a credit card bill) be submitted with expense reports rather than printouts from a travel website.

But that's a management decision. The ethical choice here is clear: Insist that your employees not falsify the reimbursable expenses. 

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 rightthing@comcast.net. 

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