Sunday, September 30, 2012

Making sure the owners get paid

In the course of writing an ethics column over the past 14 years, some questions seem to arise from readers more than others. Although the occasional truly complex, gut-wrenching conundrum does come my way, the most frequently common questions have to do with everyday issues such as whether it's OK for someone to take recyclable bottles from someone else'strash.

One question that arrives more frequently than others is whether it's acceptable to go to a bookshop that sells coffee, buy a cup of coffee, choose a publication to read while you drink your coffee, and then place the publication back on the shelf without paying for it.

Several months ago, in a response to reader whose friend told her she was a thief for her "borrowing" of magazines while she drank coffee at a local bookshop, I wrote that since the shop did not prohibit the casual reading of magazines that she was in the clear.

Soon after, I received an email from a reader taking me task. "Wrong," writes L.K. from Ohio. "Double wrong."

Surely, I knew that even if the bookshop didn't care about the reader reading the magazine and placing it back on the shelf, the magazine's publisher certainly would if the bookshop eventually returned the manhandled copy to the publisher for credit.

My critic used the analogy of a clothing consignment shop to make his point. He envisions a high-end women's clothing consignment shop that also has a wine bar. The wine bar contributes significantly to the shop's profits.

On one occasion, a customer asks the shop's owner if she can "borrow" an evening gown. He concedes, not wanting to upset a good wine customer. She returns the gown to the store the next day. Over time, her friends do the same.

"No one was harmed, so what's the big deal," my critic asks. "Those dresses didn't belong to the store!" he responds. "In time, the store may mark down the dresses because they didn't initially sell. They may even tell the owner who consigned the clothing that she can have her clothing back."

But he points out that the dresses were never the consignment shop's owners to use as a promotion for another sales line.

Aside from giving me an idea for a unique consignment store startup that sells wine and loans gowns, L.K. makes a very good point. Of course, in his fantasy consignment shop if a dress is not in the store and a potential customer happens to walk in, the sale is lost. At the bookstore, there are typically multiple copies of magazine for sale.

Nevertheless, if a bookshop wants to signal to customers that it has no problem with them reading magazines while they drink their coffee, the right thing is for the bookshop management to make sure those magazines are purchased by the store for such use. That way the publisher gets paid, the customers get a good read over a cup of coffee and the bookshop retains loyal customers.

I still believe the onus is on the store to make clear to customers what the rules are about reading unpaid merchandise while sipping their coffee, but I agree with L.K. that attention must be paid to the rightful owners of the goods. 

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, September 23, 2012

Our bodies, our cars

If you're reading this column over breakfast or are inclined to a queasy disposition when faced with a story that involves medical procedures gone awry and hospital bills piling up for these procedures, be forewarned. A reader from California's question to me may give you pause. Or it may remind you of just how frustrating lingering medical conditions can be when a remedy proves hard to find.

Several years ago, the reader had surgery for prostate cancer. Because the surgery left him with mild incontinence, he has had many tests and undergone multiple procedures from several urologists. His problem has not been fixed.

He's found himself in the emergency room on three different occasions as a result of his condition. "I've just received the billing statements from the latest unpleasant attempt at getting dry," he writes.

For the most recent office procedure (collagen injections), he writes that he was charged $1,500, the same as he was charged for the prior two office visits. He says that this most recent round resulted in great pain and a lot of bleeding.

"Coupled with what may have been an allergic reaction to the drugs given, another office visit was required -- at an additional $100 charge -- on the following morning I was told to go to the emergency room at the local hospital," he writes.

His total bill for the emergency room visit totaled $5,000, plus another $400 charge for the emergency-room physician.

"The previous two abortive occasions resulted in similar billing amounts from the office procedures and the resulting emergency room follow-ups to put me back together," he writes.

"It seems to me that if a doctor attempts a procedure which does not fix a condition, but instead results in a significant cost to counteract its outcome, it's unethical to bill the victim for his failure," he writes. "Shouldn't I expect the same billing consideration from my doctor as I do from my auto mechanic?"

My reader raises a good point. When we go to an auto mechanic and he works on the car to fix, say, the brakes, if we find that two weeks later the brakes don't work, we expect the auto mechanic to make good on his work without an extra charge for that same work that should have fixed the problem in the first place. If it turns out that the brakes are fine, but something else goes wrong within a couple of weeks, we might not like that the auto mechanic didn't catch the problem, but we wouldn't expect him to eat the cost of fixing the new problem.

In the reader's case, the same problem seems to be recurring and the doctors haven't been able to fix it, but it's hard to make an argument that the human body is exactly like a car. I'm not a doctor, but it seems like a reasonable expectation that while more often than not our doctors help heal us, there are times when finding a solution proves challenging -- even if it means trying a similar procedure more than once.

Given the frequency with which he's had the same experience with this doctor, were it me, I might seek out a second opinion. But the right thing for the reader is for him (or his insurance company) to pay the bill for the procedures done and to continue doing whatever he can to work with doctors to find a solution to his problems. Whether the cost of medical care is woefully out of whack is a whole other question. 

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, September 16, 2012

Love the glove you're with

Back in the winter, a reader in New York spotted a glove on the ground while on a walk with his elderly mother. "It looked expensive," he writes, "and was distinctive because it was a convertible glove." It had an attached cover that, when zipped into place, converted the glove into a mitten.

My reader thought nothing of his find. "People lose a lot of gloves in the wintertime," he figured. But a bit further along, he came upon what was obviously the companion glove.

He presumed that the second glove had either been dropped by a child who had also dropped the first, or perhaps thrown away in irritation by an adult who noticed the absence of its mate. On their walk home, the reader and his mother retraced the route they had taken earlier and picked up both gloves. "Having no use for them myself, I donated them to a thrift shop," he writes.

Since then, he's been bothered by the thought that he should have paired the gloves and left them somewhere along the way so the original owner might have seen and retrieved them. But his thinking at the time was that they were nice gloves and would probably be picked up by some third party instead. He also figured that since they were walking in an affluent area, "the owner could probably afford a replacement, whereas someone buying them at a thrift shop would probably need them more."

He writes that he'd have had no problem keeping the gloves for himself. It was only when he decided not to keep them, but took it upon himself to make judgments about who should or shouldn't have them, that things got a little murky for him. "Perhaps I ought to have left them there, if I wasn't going to use them."

He explains his question isn't about right. "Clearly, having found them, the gloves were mine to do with as I saw fit." But he struggles with what the proper thing was for him to do with them.

He thinks he knows the answer to the question, that "basically it's finders keepers." But for whatever reason it feels more complicated to him, even months after the fact.

I don't believe it makes a difference whether he kept the gloves for himself or decided to give them away. One is no better and no worse a decision to have made.

While the fact that his decision involved gloves may make his struggle seem a bit trivial in comparison to other more life-altering decisions he might have to make, his quandary points to a central challenge when it comes to making good ethical decisions. More often than not, the work of making an ethical decision isn't a choice between right and wrong, but rather a choice among many right options with the goal being to make the best right choice possible.

Given his concern that the gloves had no identification on them and he determined they were unlikely to find their way to their rightful owner, my reader did the right thing by assessing the situation and deciding that the most useful thing to do with the gloves was to donate them to a charity that might get them onto the hands of someone who needed them. It wasn't the only choice he could have made, but it was a good one. 

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, September 09, 2012

If you say it, they will come

Typically, I don't write about politics. There's no doubt that questions of right and wrong behavior abound when it comes to the behavior of some elected officials. One reason for my hesitation is that the minute a question is raised about the behavior of a member of a particular party, the vitriol that secretes from members of the other party arrives in abundance. The blinders go up and it's difficult for many to admit shortcomings among their own.

It's a challenge to write about ethical behavior among politicians without being accused of being partial to one party over the other. Thankfully, two high-profile examples of curious ethical behavior come from each major political party, and they closely mirror one another.

The first is the seemingly continuous loop that Democrats seem to play of Republican candidate Mitt Romney saying, "I like being able to fire people." He said the words, of course, but only after a lead up that made it clear that he was talking about insurance companies that might not do a good job. That he said he likes to fire service providers who don't provide good service is a sentiment that many of us can embrace. The full context of his comments, however, was conveniently lost so his opponents could make him appear to be a villainous ogre who took joy in the pain of de-jobbing hard-working citizens.

The second resulted in the "We Built It" theme night on the first night of the Republican National Convention. It alluded to the snippet of a comment Barack Obama was making about how people who built businesses didn't succeed entirely on their own but instead relied on infrastructure provided by other taxpayers. Just as "I like being able to fire people" came at the end of a longer comment, Obama's "You didn't build that" came at the end of his talk about the support businesses might get along the way toward success.

Each party was shocked, simply shocked, that the other had taken its candidate's words out of context and used them to make him appear to be saying something he wasn't. Given the equanimity of the infractions, the claims of shocked-ness seem disingenuous at best.

The right thing is not to deliberately mislead people to get them to behave in a way you want them to behave. But anyone who has purchased something based on the skills of a slick salesperson knows it's naive to believe such behavior is not commonplace. We may like to believe that the people we choose to govern us would rise to a higher level of behavior. But we don't always get what we want. It turns out that politics really ain't beanbag.

If ethics truly is "how we behave when we decide we belong together" as Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner Rogers wrote in A Simpler Way (Berrett-Koehler, 1999), perhaps politicians have agreed that deliberate misleading is how they've decided to behave with one another.

But for those not in politics who haven't agreed on such behavior, the right thing is not to take any political ad at face value. Candidates post policy papers online on most every issue you can imagine. And each party posts its platform online for all to read. The responsible thing is to dig deeply enough to determine which candidate best meets what you want of a leader. 

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, September 02, 2012

Does sleeping well reflect good behavior?

Mark Twain is widely credited as originating the comment: "I did not have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead." While the observation may not have been original to Twain (the philosopher Blaise Pascal appears to have written something very similar almost 200 years earlier, albeit in French), the sentiment holds a lot of merit.

Writing short can be a challenge. And there are times when things simply get lost that should have been said but weren't.

Recently, I included in my column the example of a businessman who, in a prior business, had gone bust. After liquidating his assets, he worked out a deal to pay his creditors pennies on the dollar. Even though he wasn't legally obligated to pay back the full debt, he said he did so because "it's just a moral or ethics issue." He told me: "I have to sleep at night."

Several people who read the column observed that I appeared to be a fan of the "sleep test," a simple ethics test that basically holds that you can gauge if you've made an ethical choice by whether or not you can sleep at night.

As one colleague reminded me, Harry Truman is quoted as saying he never lost any sleep over his decision to use the atomic bombs during World War II. "That's not to say he made the wrong decision," my colleague wrote, "only that it was sufficiently complex that his sleep should have been disturbed."

In his book, Defining Moments: When Managers MustChoose Between Right and Right (Harvard Business School Press, 1997), Joseph L. Badaracco Jr. points out that "people sometimes lie awake at night precisely because they have done the right thing. They understand their decisions have consequences, that success is not guaranteed, and that they will be held accountable for their decisions. . . . In short, if people like Hitler sometimes sleep well and people like Mother Teresa sometimes sleep badly, we can place little faith in simple sleep-test ethics."

My readers, colleagues and Badaracco are correct. Being able to sleep soundly is no more a guarantee that an action you've taken is ethical than is the ability to read about yourself on the front page of your local newspaper without blanching at the report of your actions. Many people would find it abhorrent to have their exploits made public. Some, however, might not care one whit.

Making a true ethical decision takes more than just the ability to sleep well at night. It involves a thorough examination of the consequences of your possible actions. Sometimes we are presented with clear choices of right and wrong, but most often the challenges we face involve choosing the best right answer possible among many possible choices.

For the businessman who paid back his debtors, even when he didn't have to, his decision-making process involved far more than just determining whether he'd be able to sleep well. It was not the only right choice he could have made, but after doing the work of thinking through his various options, he decided it was indeed the best right thing to do.

Knowing that whether or not someone can sleep at night is not a clear indication of having behaved ethically is important enough that it warrants writing a bit longer.  

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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