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Sunday, June 24, 2012

I can see clearly now


Chris, a reader from Columbus, Ohio, knows a good deal when he finds one. The challenge is that he needs his reading glasses to be able to spot a good deal close up when shopping.

That's no problem, since he's managed to find a great deal on reading glasses at the dollar discount store he frequents. There, he regularly purchases a pair when he needs one. They generally range in price from $4 to $6.

"I keep the package and receipt in case I need to return them," writes Chris. "Sometimes the pin will fall out. Sometimes the lens will fall out or the lens will get scratched."

He maintains he is not a "skinflint" nor does he want to make waves, but he has regularly returned a pair of glasses for an exchange if something goes wrong with them.

Over the past several months, Chris says he returned about six pairs with no problem in making the exchange.

A few weeks ago, however, the dollar store manager told him enough was enough. The returns are entered onto the cash register, so after his sixth return, the manager decided to step in and put a stop to it.

Chris explained to the manager that it said right on the package that the reading glasses are good for one year. Given the inexpensive nature of the product, Chris wonders whether he was in the wrong for trying to return glasses for a new pair when something went wrong with them.

Granted, the dollar store may be banking on the fact that by charging such a low price for its reading glasses that readers will be more likely to purchase a new pair if something goes wrong than to ask the store to make good on its returns policy. (I suspect that I'm not alone in purchasing several pairs at my local discount store so that at any given time I have a half dozen or so lying around in case one is lost or broken.)

But as long as whatever goes wrong with his reading glasses is based on regular wear and tear, Chris is doing nothing wrong by seeking a replacement. If there are no stipulations on the package about how often the reading glasses can be returned, or anything about the returns being based on a store manager's discretion, then the right thing is for the store to honor its return policy and give Chris a replacement without moaning about how often he has made such a return in the past.

The challenge for the consumer when purchasing such low-cost glasses is that the quality is likely not to be great and regular breakage may not be all that uncommon. It can be a hassle and a waste of resources to continue to have to replace the reading glasses. The challenge for the store is that if it is going to sell things that are cheaply made and offer a money-back guarantee on those products, then the store's management needs to honor that commitment regardless of how few customers take advantage of it.

It takes a shortsighted manager to try to make a customer feel guilty for taking advantage of the store's own policy.

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, June 17, 2012

No thanks for money finder


Who doesn't like to feel appreciated for doing something good? Particularly when an act requires a little bit of extra effort, it seems natural to want to feel some gratitude.

As a reader from Southern California was walking to her car in a bank's parking lot near where its ATM was located, she found $200 scattered about.

"I am unemployed and $196 overdrawn in my checking account," she writes. Nevertheless, the next day she went to the bank and asked the manager if someone had reported the money missing. Luckily, the manager told her, they had indeed received a call from a customer who had lost her money in the bank's parking lot.

The manager asked her to leave her name and number with him. He told her that he would forward the information to the woman who had reported losing the money. The plan was for the manager to return the money if the woman could identify how much and where she lost it. He would also pass along the name of the person who had found and returned the lost cash.

Indeed, when the woman was called she identified the amount she had lost and where she had lost it. She retrieved her lost funds from the bank's manager who told her the name of the woman who had found her money.

"The woman never even called to say thank you," my reader says. "I didn't return the money expecting anything, but a thank you would have been nice."

She's angry that the woman did not call to thank her and she is "seriously regretting" her decision to give the money back, especial with her "financial dire straits."

"I am hopeful that there truly is karma, and that I made the right decision," she says.

In The Call of Stories: Teaching and the MoralImagination (Houghton Mifflin, 1990), Robert Coles writes that character "is how you behave when no one is looking."

My reader was certain no one was looking when she found the cash in the bank's parking lot. It would have been easy for her to simply scoop up the cash strewn about the parking lot and use it for her personal expenses. Clearly, she was in need of the funds. But she believed that the right thing to do was to make an effort to see if anyone had lost the cash. She showed great character.

Did she do the right thing? Yes, she did.

It also would have been the right thing for the person who lost the money to acknowledge the person who found it and returned it.

That she didn't may say something about her character, but it shouldn't change the reader's understanding that she acted with great character when she tried to get the cash to its rightful owner. After all, she didn't try to return it because she wanted a thank you, but because she believed it to be the responsible thing to do.

She can certainly regret that the money's owner didn't acknowledge her. But she can only control how she behaves, not how others do...even though the money loser might take a lesson in civil behavior from my reader.

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, June 10, 2012

It would be so nice if you weren't here


As the summer bears down on us, the anticipation of holidays and family gatherings is not far behind. A reader from Southern California observes that while she looks forward to the joy a family holiday can bring, she also approaches each with some trepidation. "If families get along great, it's all wonderful," she writes.

But, she asks, what if the family doesn't all get along? "What if a Hatfield-McCoy type feud lingers on?"

Even worse, she writes, is when everyone in her household hates one family member so much they want to cut him out of any holiday gatherings in her home.

"How do you really get rid of that person when you grew up with him and you still have deep memories of the good times in the past and the current situation breaks you up inside?" she asks. "It tears your soul and you know that taking that person out of your life holds consequences. Then again, you also know that it will be better to exclude him because life with your current family means more to you than anything."

She aaks: "What do you do in that situation? Someone out there must be going through a similar situation and feeling the same thing."

The reader recognizes that this relative is not perfect. He likes attention and speaks louder than he should. He doesn't take no for an answer. "Above all else, he's confronted me whenever I have asked him to leave."

In the past, the reader has tried before to eliminate the relative from events and, she writes, it made her "a different person inside."

"Is it ethical for people to ask to eliminate a family member from gatherings just because everyone doesn't get along with him?"

There is nothing unethical about my reader's family members asking that someone not be invited to gatherings because of his past behavior. But if my reader is the person who takes responsibility for organizing and planning family events, there is nothing unethical about her deciding to invite the fellow anyway.

Her challenge is to figure out how to weigh the desires of her immediate family to avoid having contact with someone they deem unpleasant against her own desire to be as inclusive as she can when it comes to family gatherings.

She may decide it sets an uncomfortable precedent to single out family members for exclusion. Or she may be concerned that it sends a message of intolerance she doesn't want to convey. If these are true, then she's likely to want to keep inviting him, making it clear why to those requesting his absence.

But if she decides that he is simply so disruptive and uncontrollable at events that any hope of a joyful event is lost, then she's not obligated to invite him.

Ultimately, the choice is hers. Given that excluding him in the past has torn her up inside, it would seem the best right thing is to continue to invite him but to be clear with her family members why. They, in turn, should respect her decision.

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.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The right thing stories

I am always looking for stories of ethical challenges, dilemmas, and perplexing situations. If you have such a story or question based on an incident and would like it to be considered for the column, please email it to me at  rightthing@comcast.net.


Please make sure to include enough details about the story, the issue that you're wrestling with, and your name and the city and state or province where you are located. Also include a way for me to contact you.

If you know of others who might have interesting stories, please forward this email on to them.
You can check out recent The Right Thing columns along with reader comments on the blog at  http://www.jeffreyseglin.com or at http://www.tmsfeatures.com/columns/advice/the-right-thing/

For information about carrying The Right Thing in your print or online publication, contact information is available at http://www.tmsfeatures.com/contact/ or e-mail a Tribune Media sales representative at  jscameron@tribune.com.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Just because it's legal, is it ethical?


Early each morning during the school year, a big yellow school bus tries to maneuver the tight corner in front of my house. On-street parking is legal on both sides of the street, so there are times when it's particularly difficult for a big yellow school bus to maneuver its way around parked cars to make its way around the corner.

We can tell when it's a particularly challenging morning because we begin to hear the back-up beeps that large vehicles like big yellow school buses make when they attempt to back up, and the bus driver beeps his horn signaling that he's stuck.

While most neighbors know not to park their cars on both sides of this corner so large vehicles (fire trucks also have a way of getting stuck), parking remains legal on both sides of the street.

Recently, the owner of a 1990s blue sedan has decided to park regularly in the spot that is the direct culprit for making corner maneuvers tough. For several mornings, the driver of the big yellow school bus tried to navigate his way through the narrow corner passageway. Traffic piled up behind the bus streaming down a one-way side street, but on most of these days the bus made it through.

That success came to an end last week. The passageway was simply too narrow and the bus driver ultimately hooked onto the front side fender of the car. Traffic piled up. Neighbors emerged from their homes. The bus driver got off the bus to see if he could figure out who owned the blue sedan. (None of the neighbors knew at that point.)

Finally, the owner of the blue sedan came out from his house, asking neighbors if they knew what was going on.

"Someone's parked their car and blocked the school bus," came the answer.

The fellow looked toward the bus. "That's my car," he responded.

Meanwhile, as the bus driver approached the car owner, a neighbor was talking to the kids on the stuck bus to keep them calm. (For the record, they were not only calm, but were enjoying the drama.)

"The city should add a sign that says it's not legal to park there so the bus can make it through," the car owner said to the neighbor as she left the kids.

She told him that it would be a lot easier for large vehicles to make the turn around the corner if he didn't park his car where he had been parking it.

"But it's a legal spot," he responded, adding, "I'm a lawyer, so I know it's legal."

The car owner knows that it's difficult for large vehicles to make the turn around the bend when he parks his car where it does. But since it's not illegal to park there, he sees no wrong in doing so even knowing the resulting traffic tie up he often causes.

"The city should do something about this!" he argues.

The right thing, regardless of whether it's legal, is for him to do something about it and not park his car where he knows it's a problem. Other neighbors already know this is the right thing to do - even if it's not illegal to do otherwise. If ethics is how we decide to behave when we belong together, we shouldn't always need a no-parking sign to tell us how to act. 

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.