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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Whom do I go to for advice? And whom don't I?


I'm not the only person who writes a regular column on ethical issues.

But awhile back, I pointed out that when facing my own ethical issues, I had no one to write to for ethical guidance. "It would be a conflict of interest to write to a competing columnist," I said.

A reader in Columbus, Ohio, took issue. Frankly, he didn't understand my point about not being able to write to a competing columnist.

"Why wouldn't you use another columnist and his or her expertise to answer an ethical question (whether it was about you or from a reader)? It seems to me that the service you provide should give the questioner the best possible solution with an adequate explanation of how you got to such a recommendation. If the goal is to 'do the right thing,' why not use all the resources you might have?"

He explained that as a doctor, he regularly referred patients to other internists when he felt he wasn't solving their medical issues. 'The goal is to get at what will work best for the patient."

Likewise, he asks, isn't it the ethical thing for a columnist to ask an expert, even if that expert is a competitor?

The doctor is right that outside experts are critical to anyone who dispenses advice. Several years ago, Amy Dickinson, who writes the"Ask Amy" column, called to ask my advice about an employee who wrote that she worked at a company whose owners "sanctioned" managers expensing thousands of dollars of trips to "gentleman's clubs." (Both Dickinson's column and mine are syndicated by Tribune Media Services, but when she called, I worked for a competing syndicate.) Dickinson contacted me because I've written and taught about business ethics. (She and I agreed the office manager should find a new place to work.)

But Dickinson didn't call me to do her job for her. She presumably called because she wanted to talk it over with someone who wrotemore frequently about workplace ethics.

I make similar calls regularly to folks who are experts in a field beyond my expertise - whether it's local administrators who know the regulations on who owns fruit on a tree that sits in a person's yard but overhangs a public walkway, or whether alcohol in baked goods actually burns off or remains in the cake or myriad issues in between.

I also talk regularly to a wide variety of people who work in ethics to get input on the type of responses I make to reader questions.

What I don't believe is right, however, is to avail myself of the opinion of other columnists who cover the same turf as I do and then use their wisdom to come up with my own solutions to various issues posed. It feels too much like trying to impress dinner guests by ordering takeout from a fine dining establishment and then foisting the food off on them as my own creation.

The reader from Columbus is absolutely correct that the right thing is for me to avail myself of the resources I need to provide readers with the best information possible in the column. But the right thing for me is to draw the line in getting those who compete with me to do my work for me. Readers go to their columns for their insights, and to mine for mine.

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 rightthing@comcast.net.

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

Sunday, January 22, 2012

I'm not going to take it anymore


Several months ago, I wrote about an editor who had been told by his boss that the services of one of the freelancers with whom he had had a long and positive relationship was going to be terminated sometime over the next couple of months.

It was understood that he should not let the freelancer know about his pending demise before his boss decided it was time to tell him. The editor decided to wait.

Once the news was delivered to the freelancer, the editor did recommend names of other potential outlets for his work, one of which did pick up the writer's work. Technically, the editor did nothing wrong. Still, he wondered if he should have let the freelancer know as soon as he learned the freelancer's days were numbered.

I believed the editor displayed professional courtesy and kindness by staying true to the company and by subsequently offering assistance to the freelancer. Any other action by the editor would have meant violating a trust with his boss.

But a reader found my advice to be questionable.

"Usually I agree with the advice you give," he writes, "but I don't think it fits today's reality. Companies aren't loyal to us anymore. In terms of disposability, 'human capital' ranks right up there with toilet paper.

"It is incredible how difficult it has become to find and retain any kind of employment," he continues, observing that it can take months to find even a part-time minimum-wage job.

"If I found out a close colleague had months of lead time on me losing my job and said nothing, my reaction would range somewhere between never speaking to that person again and outright physical assault," he says. "If I were the one with the knowledge, I wouldn't be able to sleep or eat until I had warned the person.

"To heck with the companies - we need to start looking out for each other."

My reader is correct about how hard it is for many people to find work today. The search can be harrowing and wreak havoc on an individual's and a family's ability to make ends meet.

But by helping the freelancer writer make contact with other potential employers, the editor did believe he was doing what he could to look out for the freelancer. Others might have decided to go against their boss's wishes and risked their own jobs to let the freelancer know as early as possible. In either case, it wasn't as if the editor treated the freelancer without compassion.

Granted, you can't eat compassion. And the freelancer could have benefited from those couple of extra months to find a new home for his work. But rather than resort to physical attacks or the silent treatment, he chose to take the editor up on his offer to help him find work elsewhere.

I still believe both the editor and the freelancer did the right thing. Regardless of how warranted it might seem, anger can blind us from responding in a way that allows us to move forward positively. It's our responses in such challenging situations that help us determine if we're capable of being the type of person we always believed we wanted to be.

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 rightthing@comcast.net.

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

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Readers share stories of sharing


A few weeks ago, I wrote about people who were trying to give back or show care for others. Whether it was paying off a stranger's layaway bill at a department store or donating through a micro-lending website to nascent entrepreneurs far afield, I noted how people found ways to give back even in small ways. And I asked readers to send me their own stories.

As soon as that column ran, those stories started arriving in my inbox.

A reader from California writes that in addition to her regular contributions to charitable organizations, she takes a small amount of money every month and spends it at a local store where she typically doesn't shop. She buys inexpensive items from these shops - a bookstore, a tea shop, a music store, an art gallery - to give as gifts or to contribute to charity. "I get to know the storekeepers and contribute to their livelihood," she writes. 

Fifteen years ago, a family in Ohio decided it was "silly" for the adults in the family to exchange gifts at Christmas any longer. So they pooled the "adult gift dollars" and each year take turns choosing a worthy recipient. Some years the money has gone to a charitable organization. Of late, it has occasionally gone to a neighbor family where a parent has lost a job. Some of the recipients have contributed to the family fund to be donated to someone else the following year.

Another group of 15 "average middle-class Midwestern empty-nesters" decided to pool their resources to provide clean sources of water to people in developing countries. To date, they have contributed more than $30,000. Three of the group plan to travel to Sierra Leone later this year for the dedication of the six wells they helped fund as part of their efforts.

A business owner in northern California contacted a local military coordinator to find out how to buy Christmas presents for the children of local active duty families with a parent deployed overseas. He received the wish lists of eight children from five families, all of which employees at his company filled.

Another man in the Midwest discovered Kiva.org (a micro-lending website I mentioned in the earlier column) just over three years ago. He started out with $300 seed money, doling it out in $25 increments over several months to various small business efforts. He fully expected that some of these loans would never be returned. "I haven't lost a single penny from any recipient defaulting," he writes. He reinvests the money as it gets repaid. He made his 74th loan last week.

Finally, a reader from California worries that such stories reflect a "tokenism." "To 'do the right thing' means caring for your neighbor and demonstrating basic respect without placing a priority on selfish hidden agendas," she writes. "When people do the right thing as part of their daily lives, then they have shown they care."

She's right. The majority of the readers who wrote me their stories asked to remain anonymous. Their giving appears to reflect ongoing and thoughtful efforts to give back or show care, regardless of the nature or size of their contributions. Their stories are strong reminders that there are many people who strive to do the right thing every day with no hidden agenda.

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 rightthing@comcast.net.

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

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Smart application of comparison shopping


About 30 years ago, I decided to buy myself a new electric typewriter. I slogged through the snow onto the subway and traveled to an independent retailer that was running a good sale. I chose the box from a stack on the floor, paid the cashier, and headed home. When I unpacked the box, I was surprised that tucked inside was an old manual typewriter that a customer had presumably returned for a refund after buying the newer electric version.

I returned to the store and, without many questions, the customer service department took back the machine and gave me a new one in its place. (This time, they checked out the contents while I was standing there.) A hassle, but a crisis averted by a responsive customer service team.

Large signs over the customer service desk promised customers a 10 percent additional discount if they could find the same item they purchased at a lower price within 10 days of their purchase. Since the store prided itself on its low prices, it was rare to see customers taking advantage of this challenge. But when they did, it was honored.

Those were pre-smartphone days. Today, it would have been simple to scan any item's barcode in the store with any number of price comparison apps to see if the price was better elsewhere. 

This past holiday shopping season, the question arose of whether it's fair for customers to use such price-comparison apps at their local retailers. Is it wrong to use a local retailer as a way to sample products you might want to buy, but then buy your product elsewhere, including online, if you can beat the price? Is it wrong, for example, to go to the local bookseller and peruse a book at your leisure and then scan the bar code on the book to see if it can be purchased less expensively from an online bookseller?

There's nothing wrong with shopping around for the best price on a product, even if your comparison shopping is enhanced by the latest technology. Retailers may bemoan customers scanning items, but that's just smart shopping. The challenge is for retailers to remind customers the value they bring to a purchase that online retailers may not - such as not having to wait to receive their product or better customer service.

Online retailers can be just as vulnerable to the peruse-here-buy-elsewhere phenomenon. Just as a customer might buy online after examining a product in a store if the online price is better, customers could decide to download an electronic book for free from their local libraries after perusing its pages on an online booksellers' site.

The right thing is for retailers to do the best they can in providing value and service to their customers and for customers to make the smartest purchasing decisions they can. I'm not sure that personal technology would have made it easier for me to detect the wrong product was in that typewriter box 30 years ago, but it could have helped reassure me that my trek across down to get the best price was well worth the trip.

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 rightthing@comcast.net.

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