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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Setting things right when things go your way

It doesn't take much to figure out that when a business overcharges you or doesn't get you the right products you ordered that the right thing is to make the business set things straight. But what about when a company errs in your favor?

Let me tell you about D.G., a reader from Connecticut. Some time ago, D.G. wrote me to let me know how important it was not only to correct businesses when they overcharge a customer, but also to let those companies know when they have mistakenly given you "something extra or not deserved."

In such instances, D.G. writes: "You have an obligation and duty to try to make things right."

D.G. isn't just talking a good game.

While he says that he writes "many letters complaining about poor service," he is also quick to write a letter when he has received something by mistake or that he does not deserve.

He leaves it up to the recipients of his letters to decide what to do once he has sent off his correction.

After D.G. had rented a car in Colorado for three days, for example, he received a bill that only charged him for two days. A letter went off to the rental car company informing it of the mistake. He has not heard back from the company.

When he used accumulated frequent flier miles to take a free trip, D.G. received mileage credit for that free trip he shouldn't have. "I wrote and pointed this out, but it was never corrected," he writes. In the same letter, D.G. had thanked the airline for getting him to his destination during a major snowstorm. He wonders if the airline receives so few letters of thanks that it just let him keep the miles.

Several years ago, when D.G. was in Japan, he ran up a hotel bill of roughly $2,000. Because the bill was delayed for more than three months, the total shot up to $2,300 because of currency rate changes. He refused to pay the extra $300 and disputed the bill for almost nine months, arguing that had the hotel processed his bill in a more timely fashion he would not have been assessed the extra charge. Eventually, the hotel sent him a letter telling him it planned to write off the entire $2,300 as a loss.

"I wrote back and sent a check for the $2,000 I felt I owed," writes D.G. "It would have been completely unethical to do otherwise."

D.G. wasn't trying to get out of paying his bill. He merely wanted to be charged fairly. When the hotel caved on its demands, D.G. wanted no part of it. He owed what he owed, he figured, and he was obligated to pay up.

"To be truly ethical," writes D.G., "I believe people have an obligation to correct mistakes that fall to their favor or against them."

D.G. is right. In each instance, he did the right thing by alerting companies when they made a mistake in his favor. How those companies choose to respond is up to them, but it would be good practice to let customers like D.G. know how much they appreciate their honesty.

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, July 24, 2011

Friendship can help erode barriers

A reader in Ohio has muscular dystrophy.

There are more than 30 diseases that fall under the categorization of muscular dystrophy, but roughly 50 percent of all cases of childhood muscular dystrophy are reported to be Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Currently, there is no cure and a person's muscular dystrophy grows worse as his muscles weaken. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 400 to 600 boys born in the United States each year are born with Duchenne and Becker (which typically occurs later than Duchenne) forms of muscular dystrophy.

For years, my reader writes that he was able to get around without the aid of a wheelchair. But over time, his muscles have deteriorated to the point where he is beginning to need his wheelchair full time to get around.

"My friends and family mean everything to me and I depend on them a great deal," my reader writes. "My friends and family are doing whatever they can to make their homes accessible for me so I am not left out of activities."

But my reader knows that his wheelchair can be unforgiving when he tries to navigate around doorways or across hardwood floors. He knows that rubber tires might sometimes leave marks on rugs or carpeting. Inevitably, he says that he knows that he will damage something in someone's home.

"I will feel terrible about any damage I cause," he writes.

He wants to know what he should do when he damages something. Complicating matters is that many times, he will have no idea that he's damaged something unless someone points it out to him.

"I want to be invited, and I also want to be a good guest," he writes. "But I can't fix every scratch I may make or clean every tire track I leave on the rug."

He wonders what he should do.

The right thing for my reader to do is to enjoy the company of his friends and family as much as he possibly can.

Like anyone else, he should take care not to mindlessly damage or dirty wherever he happens to be visiting. But it's clear that he already is considerate and knowledgeable about the havoc a wheelchair might cause in an area not built to accommodate wheelchairs.

Because he has a good relationship with his friends and family, when he is invited to their homes, he should let them know -- if they don't already -- that his wheelchair may leave a scuff mark or two and that it's challenging for him to navigate through narrow doorways or tight turns. Any accommodations they can make without going to great expense would reflect their desire to continue to have him be part of their gatherings.

If he does notice that any damage has been caused, then, like any gracious guest, the right thing is to apologize for any inconvenience caused.

As his disease progresses, he will likely have many challenges facing him. With the support of his family and friends, worrying about whether or not he can be at ease in their homes should not be one of those challenges.

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 Media Services, Inc.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Driving high and paying the consequences

A reader in Ohio is at a loss about what to do.

A friend of a friend of hers, writes my reader, drives while "being impaired by marijuana." She's worried that the driver, who lives in her neighborhood is endangering the life of her friend, who sometimes rides with her, and her family, who share the same roads.

Apparently, the fellow has already caused an accident that injured another driver, but, "clearly that wasn't a wake-up enough call to stop."

My reader says she has considered speaking with the impaired driver's wife to share her story about one of her relatives who is serving jail time for a fatal drunk-driving accident and the impact it has had on her family. She'd emphasize the possible consequences for the wife: "death (since impaired drivers tend to kill people riding in their cars), injury, possible lawsuits and loss of a breadwinner." The driver and his wife have three children.

Since the wife does not seem to object to her husband's behavior, my reader considers the odds of this approach being successful to be very low.

She also has considered calling in and reporting his behavior to the authorities, which, she reasons, "could result in additional legal action that could also cost the family its breadwinner."

But calling in to report the driver worries my reader, since it might lose her the friend who sometimes rides with the dope smoking driver if the friend finds out she reported the driver.

"Are there other options I have available to me?" she asks. "Ethically, I feel I need to do something."

My reader's concern about her friend's safety should trump her worry that she will somehow annoy her by calling attention to the impaired driver's actions. The safety of her friend, her own family, her neighbors and anyone else who comes across this fellow's driving path trumps other concerns she's raised.

While the reader doesn't believe the driver's wife will act on her concerns, my reader should exercise whatever routes she can reasonably and legally undertake to try to get this fellow off the road when he is under the influence. She should also stress to her friend that she risks her own life every time she rides as a passenger with this fellow when he is high.

Of course, she has no way of knowing for certain when the driver is operating under the influence. Calling the authorities to register a complaint that she suspects a neighbor of hers sometimes operates under the influence of marijuana is not likely the most effective approach to solve this neighborhood problem. But if she sees him driving erratically in her neighborhood, the right thing is to call the authorities and register her concern. Again, safety trumps concerns about hurt feelings.

But concern about safety sometimes also trumps fearing that you will come off as preachy or judgmental for trying to right some wrong. The consequences of doing nothing in this situation far outweigh the alternatives.

"I don't want to do nothing and later wish I had after someone is harmed," writes my reader.

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 Media Services, Inc.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Flying high with integrity and honor

I'm not the most confident airline passenger. Regardless of how many times Bernoulli's principle is explained to me, I'm still a nervous flier.

So I'm not one to complain about long security lines. I figure anything that results in delaying my having to set foot on an aircraft is not a bad thing. Besides, I'm all for the Transportation Safety Administration folks doing whatever they can to make my flights safe.

I was a bit surprised, but not displeased, to learn awhile back that as part of its "competency development activities" in the area of integrity and honesty, the TSA recommends two of my books, one a collection of early "The Right Thing" columns.


The TSA defines integrity and honesty reflected in someone who "behaves in an honest, fair and ethical manner," someone who "shows consistency in words and actions" and someone who "models high standards of ethics."

Does knowing that the TSA uses my books as part of its training diminish my fear of flight? Not really. I've yet to see a TSA operative on break thumbing through the pages of one of my works, and even if I had, I'm not certain the most ethical TSA agent in the country has anything to do with ensuring the mechanical workings of the planes I'm about to board.

But its use of the books reminded me that some time ago, I learned that Microsoft also lists "The Right Thing" book as a recommended title on its education site in the integrity and trust competency area.

When I first learned this some years ago, I found it curious since one of the columns in the book calls into question Microsoft CEO's admonition to his employees to act with consistent values. In a message to the company's employees, the CEO wrote values "must shine through all our interactions -- in our work groups, across teams, with partners, within our industry, and, most of all, with customers." At the time I wrote the column, Microsoft was embroiled in antitrust issues that called into question its own consistency with what it claimed to value.

Do I have a responsibility to check with Microsoft to see if it knew it was recommending a book that questioned the company on the very issue for which it was recommending my book? Perhaps I'd be surprised that this was precisely why the company chose the title. Then again, it's the last chapter in the book, so whoever chose the title might not have gotten that far.

It's a question that's gnawed at me for some time. The right thing, I figured, was to let the folks who read the book decide for themselves if it was useful in spite of or because of that Microsoft chapter.

If the contents of the book provide TSA workers or Microsoft employees with any insight into behaving with ethics and honesty, that would be a good thing. It might not comfort me about the reliability of my computer software or the safety of being 35,000 in the air, but it might reassure me about the character of the people building the software and working the front lines of safety.

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 Media Services, Inc.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

It's not the gift, it's the equity that counts

"I need your advice," a reader from Southern California, writes.

Since my reader raised her two stepchildren from the time they were 7 and 5 years old, she considers them her kids. "So I am grandmother to seven and great-grandma to five."

One of her granddaughters has three children and, after the first of the year, is planning to marry a man with three children of his own. For the past five years, while her granddaughter has been going to school, my reader has been helping to support her and her children.

"I have been Santa to them also," she writes. She gives her granddaughter's three teenage children $200 and a gift at Christmas.

Her granddaughter's fiance's three children are about the same age, but she has only seen them four times since they live about 100 miles away from her.

"My question is: Should I give them the same $200?"

If not, she wants to know if she should give it to them after her granddaughter's marriage early next year.

"I have tried to keep things even with my grandchildren and great grandchildren unless there is a special need," she writes. She always asks the parents of the kids if it is OK for her to give a gift of any sort.

Clearly, my reader is quite generous to her granddaughter and her granddaughter's children. What's also clear is that, from early on, she hasn't made a distinction between children and stepchildren. So it would be in keeping with the way she's led her parental life to treat her granddaughter's stepchildren just as she does her granddaughter's children.

For my reader to start drawing a distinction now between stepchildren and biological children when it comes to gift giving would seem to fly in the face of how hard she seems to have tried to avoid such distinctions in the past.

There is no reason that she must start giving the same types of gifts to her granddaughter's fiance's children until after the wedding. Of course, children talk, so it would be understandable if my reader wanted to avoid any awkwardness around gift-giving time. While it's her call, if she does decide to give such sizeable gifts to her granddaughter's fiance's children, my reader might want to clear it with their father, just as she clears such things with the parents of her own grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Even after the marriage, while she may be committed to treating all the children equally, there is no reason that she must continue to give each of the kids $200. How much she decides to give, or whether she decides to gives gifts instead of cash, is totally up to her.

In the past, I've made clear that I believe there is nothing inherently unethical about a parent doing more for one child than for another if the parent believes it appropriate to do so. Such decisions are totally at the discretion of the parent.

But to my reader, "keeping things even" is an expressed goal. The right thing is for my reader to be true to her convictions and not draw any distinction among her great grandchildren.

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 Media Services, Inc.