Sunday, February 05, 2012

You don't need to buy me a beer to answer your questions

A typewritten letter from a reader arrived through the mail. I receive far more correspondence via email than I do through the post office, but I do try to respond to readers regardless of how they contact me. When a reader takes the time to type a letter, the least I could do is offer a response.

But this letter is special. The writer opens with some gracious notes about the column, followed by: "I ask that you write about the two questions I enclose even if you have to do so on separate occasions."

The first question is whether it is OK for someone who has the monetary means to deliberately try to annoy a neighbor by parking a car near his home that has a beeper timed to go off every six seconds. The second questions the ethics of advice columnists who advise spouses to "apply for a divorce at once" after discovering their partner has done something egregious. "What about the rest of us?" my letter writer asks. He wonders what happens after the miscreant ex-spouse is set free. Who will protect the rest of us, he asks. "How, and who, should put the bell on the cat?" If the advice guru advises cutting the spouse loose, he wonders, isn't it the guru's responsibility to supply the bell?

Somewhat quirky, but not totally outlandish questions. What follows though is more of a challenge.

"I enclose a check in the amount of $10 as a motivator (some beer money?)." He also encloses two self-addressed, stamped envelopes so I can send him a clipping of the articles in which I respond to his questions.

Granted, 10 bucks would give me enough for three Narragansett beers and cover the tax and tip as well at my neighborhood bar andgrill. But by enclosing the check with his two questions, the letter writer presents me with a bigger question: Should I base the topics I respond to in the column on how much readers are willing to pay me to choose their questions?

There's clearly nothing wrong with paying for advice. Doctors, therapists, lawyers and any number of other professionals are regularly paid for their advice. Why not shoot a reader's issues to the front of the queue if he's willing to pony up 10 or a thousand bucks (just to quibble over price) as a little incentive?

It's not accepting money for advice that would be wrong. It's the lack of transparency.

If other readers are under the assumption that any questions I use in the column are chosen based on merit (albeit my subjective sense of what would make for an interesting column) and not on any compensation aside from what I earn from the publications that carry the column, then it is wrong to take money from readers if I don't disclose that, as we used to say in Boonton, N.J., where I grew up, "Money talks, nobody walks."

The right thing is not to cash the letter writer's check. And so, it's been returned to him in the mail. As for his questions, I may answer them down the road on their own merits. In the meantime, I'll pay for my own beer.

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

(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

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