Sunday, May 27, 2012

Teacher tricks can send wrong message if dishonest


When do teaching techniques lapse into questionable behavior?

A reader laid off from her newspaper job applied for a license as a substitute teacher. In her state, she says, new substitute teachers are highly encouraged, and in some districts required, to take a one-day training class. The class is conducted by an educational organization located in her state.

Most of the attendees in the class the reader took had education degrees. Some were new graduates and others former teachers.

During the class, the trainer revealed that she had a highly effective classroom management technique she wanted to share. When she is in the classroom, she writes the numbers 1 through 60 across the top of the blackboard or whiteboard. She tells her students that if they cooperate and get through everything in that day's lesson plan quickly, she'll let them have a few minutes at the end of the class to talk together. The plan is that she will mark off a number as they make their way through the lessons. As soon as they get to 55, she tells her students, they can have their free time.

The secret, she tells her trainees, is to mark off the numbers quickly at first so you get the kids engaged in the scheme. Then you stop marking off the numbers until they remind you.

"You'll never hit 55," she tells her trainees. When the bell rings for the end of the period, she instructs them to tell their class, "Sorry, we'll try this again tomorrow."

Several educators in the room were thrilled with this new technique, says my reader - who was appalled. Then others shared additional methods of lying to students and tricking them into staying engaged. "It seems this is something they are taught as educators," my reader said.

The reader was so upset by this class, she says, that she considered dropping out of the substitute teacher program because, "I can't do what everyone else seems to think is the smart thing to do."

Anyone who has ever stood in front of a classroom full of pre-adolescent or adolescent children knows that a technique to engage the students in the course of study that works is gold. If the trainer had used the 1 to 60 technique honestly and was genuine in her offer to give her students a break if they finished a day's assignment in a timely fashion, she might have had something worth emulating.

But since she went into the exercise with the intent of never letting the students reach the magic 55, it's a dishonest gesture. The students might work to keep up their end of the bargain, but the deal is fixed. Sure, they get a full lesson plan and might be paying more attention than they otherwise might have. But why lie? Why not engage the children and honor the commitment you seem to be making? Why not let them hit 55 and get a break if they worked hard to get there?

Lying to or misleading kids to get them to do what you want them to do hardly passes ethical muster. The right thing is to find techniques that work to keep students engaged, but to never lose sight of the lesson you send about honesty and honoring commitments.

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. Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net. 

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

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Taking responsibility for our credentials


Scott Thompson, the CEO of Yahoo, earned an accounting degree from Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. His degree was not also in computer science, a program that didn't begin at Stonehill until after Thompson graduated. Yet, in Yahoo's filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Thompson was identified as having earned the degree in both majors.

Filing false information with the SEC about the CEO's background is not a particularly wise choice given that it violates the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and, as such, runs afoul of federal law.

But in spite of the fact that the erroneous academic credential has been featured as part of Thompson's public biography for years, the Yahoo CEO has said that he did not know about the error until it was pointed out by a Yahoo investor who wanted Thompson removed from his position.

Before Yahoo announced on Sunday, May 13, that Thompson was leaving the company, there was already fallout from the incident. One of the firm's directors, Patti Hart, who chaired the search committee that ultimately pinged Thompson to become CEO, stepped shortly after the resume embellishment hit the press.

If Thompson knew of the embellishment and did nothing to correct it, then he, like many executives before him who have been caught with a resume that didn't reflect reality, should be held accountable for not correcting the error. Ten years ago, I wrote about the president of the U.S. Olympic Committee stepping down after it was discovered that she did not hold the Ph.D. she claimed to have earned. In that case, the fake credential had nothing to do with the skills the person needed to perform her functions, nor did they run afoul of any federal laws.

If others posted the information about Thompson and knew that he did not hold the credential, then they, too, should be held accountable.

But what if it becomes clear that it's impossible to know who knew what when? What then? Should anyone be held accountable?

Yes, they should. And in this case, the ultimate responsibility lies with the boss. If Thompson truly didn't know what was in the SEC documents regarding information about the degree he earned, he should have. Granted, being a CEO of a large, public company is a consuming job and it may be impossible to keep track of every aspect of every detail that's involved in running the company.

But when it comes to personal information that is being presented, the CEO should be held accountable for knowing that it's out there on company documents and that it's accurate.

Would the search committee have offered Thompson the job if it turned out that he had a degree solely in accounting rather than a dual degree in accounting and computer science? Perhaps. Based on his extensive experience and documented accomplishments, what he majored in in college more than 30 years ago seems hardly likely to have mattered.

It's often the small stuff that does a fellow in. Making sure that how you're represented is accurate, particularly when it's your company doing the representing, is essential. Not just to avoid getting caught in a misstatement, but mostly because it's 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. Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net. 

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

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Giving hope to hopeless employees


"Some people are hopeless cases."

That's what a reader wrote me after recounting his efforts to provide assistance to a young employee.

The reader was the boss of a "rather brash" young employee who fancied himself a good writer. Part of the young man's job was to write quite a few memos for my reader. But each time he wrote one, his boss found himself having to do a rewrite.

After months of the young man not showing any improvement, his boss spent a good deal of his personal time wrestling with how he might help him improve.

"Without making any specific edits, I wrote down general suggestions about a memo he wrote," my reader says. "I gave him a list of things to consider - his tone, the position of the intended recipient, the need to avoid repetition of superfluous information and run-on sentences, and so on." It was, the reader recalls, a pretty long list.

The morning after giving him the list, the reader called the young man into his office. He asked him to take another look at the memo he had written in light of the list his boss had given him.

"He was back in my office in maybe two minutes, handed me the memo back, looked me in the eye, and said, 'I wouldn't change a word of it.'"

At this point, my reader arrived at his conclusion that "some people are hopeless cases."

One question raised by the incident is whether it's OK to make such broad assumptions and give up on someone as being untrainable. But a larger question is if it is fair to expect that the young man should have understood his boss's intentions if the boss didn't take the time to be more specific about his concerns.

The boss did go out of his way to try to guide his employee, but assuming that the young man could deduce from the extrapolated list what he should do with his own writing may not have been a particularly effective method. It assumes that the young man will be able to see that what the boss outlines on his list reflects problems with his own writing. The hope is that the young man would have caught on and transformed his writing.

But hope is not a particularly reliable teaching or training method. Different approaches work for different people.

Perhaps if the boss had been more direct with the employee and gone over the specifics of what was not working on the memos he wrote, the message would have sunken in more clearly. Perhaps it was those "specific edits" that my reader decided not to include that would have been precisely the technique that worked. After all, the young man was writing memos for his boss, so it was more than reasonable that the boss should have those memos reflect a style he preferred.

The right thing then is not to immediately cast off as hopeless that which doesn't change instantly based on our instruction. Instead, explore different methods to see which one works the best. If, after several attempts, the performance fails to improve then it's reasonable to decide that the employee is not the right fit for the job and to perhaps do a more thorough job screening for his replacement.
 
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. Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net. 

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

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Is the juice worth the squeeze?


On April 26, Joel Ward scored the winning goal for his Washington Capitals in a National Hockey League playoff game against the Boston Bruins. It was the seventh game of a tied playoff series, so fan passion was at a high. Ward is one of the few black hockey players in the NHL.

Almost immediately, dejected Bruins fans (or those appearing to be) began tweeting racist comments about Ward. The comments were ugly and the response from the teams and the league swiftly condemned the epithets.

In one case, reporter Bob Hohler wrote in The Boston Globe that a young man had directed a particularly offensive comment at Anson Carter, a black man who had played for the Bruins in the late 1990s. Carter tracked down the tweeter, who turned out to be a college student, and reported him to his school. Carter received an apology from the tweeter, to which Hohler reports that Carter responded, "Don't think you can hide behind your computer and say that to someone."

In a perfect world, the young man might learn that words have consequences. They have sting - and they can stick with you far longer than you might expect.

There's no question that writers - whether they be columnists or tweeters - should think about what they write and the impact their words might have both to the subject about whom they're writing and on themselves.

While racists may rarely stop to think about the effect their words might have, many reasonable, intelligent people do. Through blogs, tweets, and assorted other venues, it's far easier than ever before to find a platform from which to espouse a viewpoint. But a question that often looms large, particularly among those at the beginnings of their careers, is: Will something I write come back to haunt me in the future?

It's a fair concern. Published words do stick around a lot longer than they used to and have the capacity to gather a larger audience than ever. (Students still regularly enjoy reminding me about a column I wrote for an online magazine more than a decade ago about the ethics of faking an orgasm. Others like to point to an ethics column in which I copped to lifting butter knives from a fancy restaurant or two in my youth.)

Racist statements are never OK. But what about viewpoints on an issue about which you feel strongly that you fear might paint you in a less attractive light to future potential employers? What's the right thing to do when trying to weigh if such a risk is worth taking a public stand on something you believe is important? The old saw of trying to calculate if the juice is worth the squeeze is apt.

The right thing is to determine how important it is to you to get your message out into the world. Not everything any of us believes rises to the level of needing to have a larger audience simply because in a digital age anyone can publish or post with ease. Common sense should prevail. If you believe you'd be embarrassed by what you write, reconsider. Also, keep in mind that those things you fear will come back to haunt are often not the ones that 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. Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net. 

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

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