Sunday, July 29, 2012

Do heirs have the right to dictate which mementos you sell?


Last year, when gold prices reached an all-time high, a number of people scrambled through old jewelry boxes to see if they had any underused gold lying around that they could sell. At more than $1,800 an ounce, even those who weren't strapped for cash recognized a unique opportunity to do some profitable house cleaning.

A reader from North Carolina seized the moment. He hadn't worn his college ring in decades, so he decided to take it to his local jeweler to see how much it might fetch.

He was surprised to be offered $479, so he accepted a check on the spot. His wife mentioned his good fortune to their adult daughter who lives a few hours away.

"She was quite upset, tracked down the jeweler on the phone, and managed to 'save' it," my reader reports. He picked his ring up the next day, returned the check, and gave his daughter the ring the next time he saw her.

"Our daughter is just more sentimental than I am and wanted to have it to remember me by," he says. "She loves me."

A similar situation arose recently after he decided to sell a couple of handwritten letters that had been addressed to him by a well-known author to thank him for some information. Believing his letters might get lost or damaged and would not be of interest to anyone down the line, he ended up selling them to a dealer for $100.

He received "a lot of flak" from a relative who told him he should have saved the letters for his grandchildren. "He reasoned that they could be worth much more years from now and said that it was 'unimaginative' . . . and, in effect, selfish of me to sell the letters now, especially since I don't need the money."

My reader says he has acquired a lot of things over the years and doesn't want to be second-guessed on what he chooses to dispose of before his next "and probably final" move. His children and grandchildren will, he says, be rewarded with money and things of sentimental value after his death.

As he gets older, however, he wants to get rid of some things that mean little to him. He also hopes to spare his children any conflict over who gets what when the time comes.

"Should I have to consult with the parents of our grandchildren on everything?" he asks. "Is it ethical to dispose of your once-prized possessions when they might have real or sentimental value to your heirs?"

It's my reader's stuff and the right thing is for him to keep whatever he wants and dispose of whatever he doesn't. He has no ethical obligation to seek the permission of his kids, grandkids, or other relatives about what he does with his stuff.

Knowing, however, that his daughter might be sentimentally attached to some of his belongings, it would be thoughtful for him to let her and his other children know when he's getting rid of something. But such notification could be more of a courtesy than a negotiation.

Some family members may take issue with how he decides to lighten his load. They're free to express their opinion. But ultimately, as long as he is prepared to withstand some possible criticism, the decision about what to keep and what to lose is his to make.

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, July 22, 2012

A good deed deserves good customer service


What would you do? It's a common question used to follow any number of theoretical circumstances in which you might find yourself.

If you knew an employee you manage was going to be laid off in a couple of weeks and she came to you asking for advice on putting a down payment on a house, would you tell her that job was soon to be gone even though the company asked you not to disclose the information? If an ATM spit out twice the money you asked for and there's no record of that excess, would you return the money?

For a reader in the Ohio, the errant ATM disbursement is no theoretical exercise. A few years ago, at an ATM near his office, he made a deposit and requested $20 cash back. To his surprise, two 20-dollar bills came out along with a printed receipt that showed the correct deposit but a cash withdrawal of only $20.

He quickly called the branch of the bank (a large national bank) nearest to his office and asked to speak with a service representative. "When I explained what happened and tried to report the cash overpayment, their reply was simply astonishing."

The service rep told him that the branch he called had nothing to do with the ATM from which he withdrew his cash. He told him he should call another branch in Chicago. The service rep refused to call on my reader's behalf.

Of course, when he called Chicago, the service rep there told him to call his local branch. Explaining that he had tried this, the service rep in Chicago promised to correct his account.

In retrospect, he believes he let his bank, with which he has had an account for more than 30 years, off too easy.

When bank customers make mistakes, he reasons, say, overdrawing their accounts by as little as one dollar, his bank (and others) charges a substantial overdraft fee. If banks charge outrageous error fees, he believes it's only fair that when banks make a mistake, they should also be responsible for compensating those customers.

"More than 20 minutes of my life was wasted, undivided attention spent on the phone, begging (the bank) employees to correct the exasperating ATM mistake," he writes.

He doesn't seriously expect banks to ever compensate their inconvenienced customers, but, he asks "would it be unethical for suffering customers to ask bungling banks for similar idiot charges?"

There would be nothing ethically wrong with asking the bank to compensate him for his time straightening out an error it made and seemed reluctant to try to correct when a longstanding customer tried to make things right. But then, the bank has no ethical obligation to honor such a request.

But the bank is obligated to treat its customers with respect and to honor its stated commitment to customer service. Passing off a customer who wants to set accounts right reflects poorly on the bank and its practices. My reader did the right thing by trying to return the cash he knew was not his. The bank should have done the right thing by empowering its representatives to be responsive to its customer rather than sending him on a wild chase to figure out how to return the cash. 

And it wouldn't have killed the bank to thank my reader for his honesty, something it never bothered 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, July 15, 2012

Slow down, you're moving too fast


A reader frequently visits a friend who lives in a neighborhood that has many children playing in the area, although the friend has no children herself.

The reader has grown concerned about the number of young children, most looking to be 4-8 years old, wandering around the neighborhood "completely unsupervised."

"They dart out into the street," my reader reports, "ride their bikes in the street unsupervised, and play right at the end of their driveways where it would be very easy for them to get injured."

Complicating matters are the adults who walk their children and dogs in the street. "There are perfectly good sidewalks on both sides of the streets throughout the entire neighborhood, and yet they just don't use them."

"How can you expect a small child to understand the dangers of playing in the street when their parents make no effort to teach them?" my reader asks.

All of this came to a head a few weeks ago, when my reader reports she was driving to see her friend and was going four to five miles under the posted speed limit. A group of parents who were gathered with many small children in a neighbor's yard shouted, "Slow down!"

"The comment made me so angry I pulled over," she writes. She told them that it's inappropriate to shout things at cars, especially since she was going slower than the speed limit.

Several adults leaned into the window and told her they would call the police on her for driving so fast when there were so many children present.

The reader told them she didn't want to argue with them in front of their children. "Yeah, but you would be just fine hitting one of them with your car," a neighbor suggested.

"I'd like to just let it go, but they aren't going to," she says. "They have already purchased those yellow 'Slow: Kids at play' men and they place them in the street."

She says she is now afraid that they will retaliate when they see either her or her car. "I don't know what to do."

Parents certainly have a responsibility to supervise their children to keep them out of harm's way. If children are truly in peril because of negligent parents, then the parents should be held accountable.

It's not clear that that's the case here. Buying and placing signs to urge cars to slow down suggest that the parents care about their children's safety and want to send signals to drivers to take care. That they walk in the streets with their children might not be optimal, but still, they are accompanying their kids.

The fear of retaliation may be real, but the evidence suggests the neighbors only approached the reader's car after she stopped to confront them about shouting "Slow Down." It's not clear that shouting this was all that threatening. Positioning plastic yellow men hardly seems retaliatory.

The right thing is certainly for the parents to monitor their kids, but it's also right for my reader and others driving through any neighborhoods with a heavy population of children to drive with caution regardless of the posted speed limit. If someone shouts "Slow down," it might be good to consider it a sign of concern rather than a threat.

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, July 08, 2012

Correcting a shelving error


A couple of weeks ago, a reader from northern New Jersey ordered a large bookcase from a major discount retailer. "I still love my books and have not given in to a Kindle or Nook!" she writes. The bookcase was on sale for "an excellent price" and the reader also received a discount by using her store credit card for the purchase.

A couple of days after she placed her order, a huge, heavy box arrived on her doorstep. "I was delighted to begin filling up the bookcase," she writes.

Then, two days later, another huge, heavy box arrived. She and her son dragged the box inside.

"It was another bookcase!" she writes. "I immediately checked my account online to see if I had been charged twice, but a charge for only one bookcase appeared."

Her dilemma, my reader figures, is: "Do I keep the extra bookcase without reporting the store's error or should I return it?"

The reasons for not keeping it without reporting the store's error include not feeling guilty every time she looks at the bookcase. On the other hand, she feels this bookcase is a "drop in the bucket" for a store as large as the one from which she purchased it. What's more, she would need help to return it since it is so heavy. Even if the store offered to pick it up, "that would require the inconvenience of someone being here for the pickup."

"As you can see," she writes, "I am trying to justify just keeping the 'free' bookcase, but I have that nagging feeling that it would not be the right thing to do."

She says she has "this thing about karma," and she doesn't want "to get a knot in my stomach every time I take a book off one of the shelves," so she wants to do the right thing.

My reader faces a common conundrum. It wasn't her mistake that led to the extra bookcase being sent, so why she wonders should she have to return it. Still, she knows it doesn't feel right to just keep it and not acknowledge the error.

She's right to want to acknowledge the error. Most readers know it would be wrong not to notify a bank if its ATM gave out too much money when you went for a withdrawal. But it doesn't always feel as clear cut when a retail store makes an error. The error may be the store's, but the right thing is still to notify the store that the extra bookcase has been sent in error.

It's perfectly reasonable to make the case to the customer service department that she's been a longtime customer of the store, hopes to remain one, and that the hassle of having to return the bookcase is significant. If the store personnel wants to let her keep it, that's up to them.

Ultimately, the right thing is to call attention to the error and find the best solution about which both sides can agree.

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, July 01, 2012

Three cheers and you're out


Commencement should be a joyous time of year. Witnessing students receive diplomas earned after completing their course of study is a ritual of which any parent can be rightfully proud.

Reports of two incidents, one in South Carolina and another in Ohio, however, raise questions about just how far the celebration should go when children receive their diploma -- and raise even more questions about how strongly an institution should respond to keep over-the-top celebration in check.

The first incident occurred in Florence, S.C. Spectators were told they would be removed from the Florence Civic Center if they cheered for students as they received their diplomas from South Florence High School. Shannon Cooper cheered for her graduating daughter nonetheless and was escorted from the building by police into a van outside the building. She told reporters that she was then taken to the Florence County Detention Center and held until she posted a $225 bond. She subsequently pleaded not guilty to disorderly conduct and requested a trial by jury, which is scheduled for September.

The second incident occurred in Cincinnati, at Mt. Healthy High School's commencement ceremony. After graduating senior Anthony Cornist's family was deemed to have engaged in excessive cheering, he was informed that his diploma was being withheld -- and told he must complete 20 hours of community service before receiving it.

Having attended commencement ceremonies over the years, I'm familiar with the regular incantations from the administrators to withhold all applause until after all graduates have received their diplomas. I'm also familiar with the fact that rarely if ever does an audience of family members and loved ones comply with these requests.

That everyone ignores the pleas for restraint doesn't make things right. But it does raise the question of what's an appropriate response to cheering that's deemed to be "excessive."

If the attendees at South Florence High School's commencement ceremony were clearly warned that excessive cheerers would be removed from the ceremony, it seems fair to expect that it would not be an idle threat. But removing someone from the hall is one thing. Arresting the excessive cheerer as well seems a bit overboard. If attendees were warned that they would not only be removed but charged with disorderly conduct, however, then at least those breaking the rule were the ones being punished.

That doesn't seem to be the case in Cincinnati. There, the students were held responsible for the behavior of the spectators cheering them on. It hardly seems fair to punish a graduating senior because his family and friends can't contain their enthusiasm. It would seem akin to punishing a high school athlete because his loved ones got into a brawl during a game.

The right thing is to make the rules clear, but to make sure the rules hold the violators directly responsible for their own actions. Punishing graduating seniors who presumably were well behaved themselves throughout the ceremony sends a warped message about fairness and accountability.

Rules are rules and if they're made clear people can be expected to abide by them or risk facing consequences. But it would also serve school administrators well to examine whether the rules they set for a celebratory occasion are out of whack to begin with and some re-education is needed to not cast a pall on an otherwise joyous occasion. 

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. 

College food fight gets messy

This fall, a teenager, let's call him Ken, has been settling in as a freshman at a large state university. Three months in, he appe...