Sunday, August 26, 2012

Ridding the yard of nasty varmints


A post on the North Carolina Cooperative Extension website ends with a note of hope from the retired extension agent who wrote it: "Moles can be frustrating, but with patience and persistence the damage can be minimized."

That observation provides little comfort to a reader in North Carolina who writes to tell me he has "a problem with moles" in his lawn.

They have been doing a lot more tunneling in the last couple of years," he writes. "I almost fell when mowing last week on account of a soft area where moles created a hole I couldn't see."

The reader says he has shelled out for "pricey" lawn treatments, but he believes these just motivate the moles to make more tunnels to get away.

"It's only a temporary fix, anyway, like a month or so, before they come back, and one's next-door neighbors have to treat their lawns, too."

North Carolina bans the use of poisons to kills moles. ("There are no chemicals that legally can be used to kill moles in North Carolina," the Cooperative Extension site tells us. "It is even illegal to mail such materials into the state.") But, my reader writes, neighboring South Carolina has no such laws, "so anybody could go there and buy the poison."

He imagines that he could drive the 50 or so miles to meet a friend in South Carolina for lunch one day and then pick up the poison there to apply to his yard.

"On the other hand," he notes, "I am a law-abiding citizen who thinks that people shouldn't flaunt laws they don't like when they inconvenience them. So, legally, I should either do nothing, risking bodily injury to myself and visiting grandchildren running around the yard (not to mention having an uglier lawn that costs me $1,200 a year for assorted applications to make it look good), or spend hundreds of dollars every year for short-term fixes, still risking bodily injury as I grow older and am more susceptible to falls."

He supposes the greater question is: "Is it ever ethical to break the law?" and suspects the answer is probably, "It depends."

In the case of the moles, it would be hard to imagine a case where it would be ethical to break the law and poison the moles. Even in the highly unlikely circumstance that my reader might find himself under direct physical attack by a mole, it's much more likely he would want to use a method of defense that works far more quickly than poison. (Directly confronting a mole is not recommended, since they can carry rabies.)

My reader should continue to follow the law and refrain from using poison to kill the moles. He could try to convince his neighbors to treat their lawns to help the effort, but he can't force them to care as much about the issue as he does.

As frustrating as it might be to control the varmints, my reader is doing the right thing by exploring all the options available to him to rid himself of the pests. Even the retired extension agent suggests that "minimizing" the problem is the best that can be hoped for. With that in mind, he can make the drive to South Carolina to have a pleasant lunch with his friend with no poison having to change hands.

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, August 19, 2012

I'll gladly repay you Tuesday...


The good news is that noncommercial bankruptcy filings in the U.S. were down by 13 percent in the first six months of 2012 compared to the same time period last year. The bad news is that 601,184 noncommercial bankruptcies remains a bundle.

Still, Samuel Gerdano, the executive director of the American Bankruptcy Institute, the outfit that tracked U.S. bankruptcy data provided by Epiq Systems, issued a statement that we're "on pace for perhaps the lowest total new bankruptcies since before the financial crisis in 2008."

A reader from New York recognizes that during the harsh economic conditions of the past few years, many people have resorted to bankruptcy. "It's hard for a former bankrupt to get credit, but it does get them out from under potentially crippling financial liabilities," he writes.

But, he asks, what of the creditors? They typically receive pennies on the dollar.

Granted, "this is a long-established custom and entirely legal, but it is basically a way of avoiding repaying debts that you've legitimately incurred."

He wants to know whether  it is ethical not to pay back such debts.

Several years ago -- about a decade before the current economic downturn began -- I looked at a similar question for an article I wrote for a business publication. When a business goes belly up, are the company owners responsible to go beyond what the law requires in paying back vendors and others money owed for providing goods and services?

Some of the business owners I interviewed believed that meeting the requirements of the law was what was required so they met that obligation.

They did the right thing by doing so. And the same would hold true now for anyone unable to pay his or her debts who decides to file for bankruptcy protection. As long as they are honest in their financial reporting and meet the requirements that the bankruptcy courts set for them, these folks have behaved in a way that their communities have agreed is acceptable behavior.

But meeting the minimum requirement isn't enough for some. One businessman I spoke with for that article had failed at a furniture-making company he had started. After his company was liquidated in 1989, he said others were about $10,000 short of what they would have been paid if the company hadn't gone under. Legally, he was free to walk away. But over the next four months, he slowly paid everyone back.

"I guess it's just a moral or ethical issue for me," he told me at the time. "When we make a decision to do something, we should be able to explain that decision in the same way to anybody who asks, be it our spouse, our business partner, an employee, a creditor, or a customer. I have to sleep at night."

Sometimes, it might be impossible for debtors to make good on their entire debt as this fellow did. But when the opportunity arose to do what he believed to be the right thing to do, he did it. Doing so allowed him to sleep at night and undoubtedly built some good will that served him well as he later went on to build a successful manufacturing company in Indiana.

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, August 12, 2012

Two weeks' notice


A property manager for a homeowners association in Southern California had been looking for a job for a year.

"I wanted to find something less aggravating and with less overtime required," she writes.

Luckily, she found a possible job as a commercial property manager. While the new employer was doing its due diligence on her, and before she had given notice to her current employer, she found out that she had to have abdominal surgery that would place her out of work for four weeks.

"Yikes," she writes. "I didn't expect that."

She had a total of 22 comp and vacation days coming to her from her current employer, just about the time she would need to recover from surgery. Two weeks before her surgery was scheduled, she told her current employer she would be off for 22 days.

The next day, the new employer offered her the property manager position, which she accepted. She explained that she wouldn't be able to start until after her surgery. The new employer was fine with her start date.

Two weeks before her recovery period was over, she still hadn't told her current employer that she was not coming back.

"I feel that I owe them two weeks' notice," she writes, "but I am afraid they will somehow decide not to pay me for my remaining comp days and shortchange me one paycheck. I can't afford that."

But she also doesn't want to "burn any bridges" because she says she did a good job for them. "I don't want to just not come back and not tell them."

"Do I owe them the two weeks' notice?" she asks. "I want to do the right thing."

I'm not an employment lawyer -- or any kind of lawyer, for that matter -- but whether or not the reader from Southern California gives notice, if her employer had committed to paying for unused comp time and vacation days upon an employee's departure, that commitment should be honored.

Of course, when she goes to tell her supervisor that she plans to leave in two weeks, there's no guarantee that he or she won't respond by suggesting that she clean out her desk and leave right away. It's not always a guarantee that when an employee tries to do the right thing by giving an employer notice that an employer will respond in an equally fair way.

Since those two weeks were days that she planned to be out using the unused comp and vacation time her current employer owed her, the right thing would be for the company to honor its commitment and pay for those days she had earned before she leaves for her new job.

Just as she doesn't want to burn any bridges in how she handles her departure, her current employer would be wise to behave in a way that sends a message to remaining employees that they will be treated fairly if they do a good job for the company.

There's no guarantee that such fair treatment will ensue -- in a bad or good economy -- but it's hopeful that managers and employers recognize that the effects of their behavior towards departing employees goes far beyond those departing and can send a message of whether theirs is the type of company for which others would want to work. 

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, August 05, 2012

If something taxes your conscience, confront it


It's funny sometimes who considers us their friend.

A reader in the Midwest writes to tell me that one of her neighbors who considers my reader a friend runs a service business out of her home but has not reported any income for tax purposes for at least the past five years.

"We live in a good school district and I struggle to pay federal, state, city, and school district taxes," writes my reader who is a single parent. "It seems unfair that she would not have to pay her fair share."

But the reader observes that there seems to be some "unwritten code" that keeps telling her she should mind her own business and not turn her into the tax authorities -- especially since the neighbor considers her to be a friend.

The possible tax laxness is not the friend's only behavior that eats at my reader. She also doesn't care for some other choices she has made, like opting for cosmetic surgery while "telling everyone she cannot afford speech therapy for her son."

Not paying taxes is just "icing on the cake" when it comes to bad behavior, the reader writes, but it's something she perceives she can do something about.

She wants to know if turning her neighbor into the tax authorities is "the right and patriotic thing to do, or is it in some way wrong in this case?"

It's not wrong to alert authorities if you believe someone is violating the law. But the question for my reader has to be whether she's willing to alert the authorities without any proof other than the braggadocio of her neighbor.

Choosing cosmetic surgery over the needs of a child may call her neighbor's parenting skills into serious question. But unlike the results of the cosmetic surgery that my reader believes she can plainly see, without documentation or evidence of wrongdoing, if she notifies tax authorities she might be drawing attention to a neighbor who is guilty of nothing more than bragging about getting away with something.

If the neighbor seemed remorseful about having neglected to pay past taxes, my reader could advise her to consult a tax professional who specializes in helping to rectify such circumstances. Coming clean and looking for a way to make restitution seems a more favorable route than waiting for the tax authorities to catch her unlawful actions.

If the neighbor's actions truly disturb my reader, the right thing for her to do is to let her neighbor know that she finds her behavior objectionable. The reader can comment as much as she wants about the fairness of the situation and how if she has to pay taxes so should her neighbor. But ultimately, it should be the legal and civic responsibility that draws her to pay what she owes.

Then, the reader can offer to help the neighbor find a professional who will help her to set things straight. That's a first, reasonable response to the neighbor's alleged actions. Perhaps the neighbor will come clean about whether her claims are truthful. Perhaps she won't. But the reader will let her know in no uncertain terms that she finds her claims of being a tax scofflaw to be objectionable. 

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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