Sunday, November 25, 2012

In real life as in fictional life, one value can trump another



A recent episode of the CBS television series Blue Bloods raised the question of how far you would go to help a friend and colleague when you know rules must be broken to help him.

The show revolves around a family of New York City cops. Granddad is a former police commissioner. Dad is the current commissioner. One son died on the job. Two sons are currently on the job. A daughter is an assistant district attorney.

Dad, played by Tom Selleck, is a by-the-book sort of commissioner. It's clear from the storyline that he's made some delicate choices as he worked his way up the ranks, but he's a rules-based guy. His father, on the other hand, is what Selleck's character refers to as "old school." Sometimes the rules applied and sometimes he and his minions took matters into their own hands to get things done.

But Selleck's character occasionally finds himself in a pickle. Such was the case in a recent episode when Selleck's DCPI (deputy commissioner of public information), a hefty fellow in his early 50s, turns in his letter of resignation. It turns out that when he was separated from his wife, the DCPI spent a "lost weekend" in Atlantic City where a woman in her 30s came on to him in a rendezvous that ended with a hotel room tryst. After the DCPI gets home, he receives a letter from the woman's lawyer saying she will sue him for sexual assault unless he pays her $50,000. Viewers are assured no assault was involved, but that the DCPI doesn't have the cash to pay even if he was so inclined. Rather than bring negative attention to the NYPD, he decides to resign.

Selleck's character is torn. He wants to honor his DCPI's wishes, but hates to lose such an upstanding, loyal colleague whom he thinks is being treated unfairly.

So the question becomes: Does the police commissioner accept the resignation or does he find a way to make the DCPI's problem go away? Ultimately, he confides in his father and asks him to lean on his buddies to make contact with the blackmailer, using whatever old-school ways they must, to resolve the matter. The commissioner doesn't want to know the details, just wants it done. "Are you sure?" his father asks him, knowing his son's proclivity for playing by the book. He is and so the deed is done. By the next morning, the blackmailer's lawyer contacts the DCPI and the matter disappears.

"What would you have done?" my wife asks me, recognizing that I am neither a fictional police commissioner nor Tom Selleck. The truth is that I don't know. But the choice the commissioner made seemed true to his character. He valued helping the DCPI to retain his job and escape the blackmail more than he valued sticking to his code of always going by the book.

For the commissioner placing that one value over the other was the right thing to do. But he must rest with the fact that he has gone from being a black-and-white kind of guy to one who now operates in shades of gray like his father had.

Ultimately, each of us may find ourselves facing such decisions where adhering to one value results in violating another. In such stark moments, the question in real life becomes whether or not we are prepared to make such decisions as well as how we live with them afterward. 

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, November 18, 2012

How Florida helps us think about what's right



Earlier this month, we had a presidential election in the U.S. Before midnight, the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, had conceded to the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama. Because the U.S. uses the Electoral College to decide upon a victor rather than the raw vote tally, it was clear to each candidate that there was no way for Romney to have won, since Obama had surpassed the 270 of 538 electoral votes needed to be elected president.

By the end of Election Day, the electoral votes stood at 303 for Obama and 206 for Romney. And that's where they stood on Wednesday. And Thursday. And Friday. Because Florida was having some challenges in completing the count of its votes, it remained unclear which candidate would take its 29 electoral votes.

Ultimately, on Saturday, all the votes were in and Obama won Florida by 0.9 percent. In Florida, an automatic recount would have been triggered if the vote was closer than 0.5 percent. In such a case, Romney's campaign could have waived its legal right to a recount.

While Romney had already conceded the overall election, if a recount in Florida had been triggered, he would have had no legal obligation to waive his right to a recount. If it turned out in the recount that Florida actually went for Romney, the electoral votes would be a bit closer, at 303 to 235, than if the vote went for Obama. Then the election would end up 332 to 206. Either way, Romney loses -- but in one scenario he would lose by a lesser margin.

So, if Romney had a choice of a recount or waiving his right to a recount, what would have been the right thing to do? Just because we have the legal right to do something, is it always right to avail ourselves of that right?

I've written in this column before about the fact that there are ethical theories that are rules-based and then there are the ones that are utilitarian that argue for making choices based on the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Given the values of fiscal responsibility put forth by each candidate during the election, opting for the greater good in such a recount scenario is the way to go. Some estimates placed the cost of a voter recount in the state at more than $1 million. Of course, some estimates place the cost of the 2012 presidential campaign at roughly $2.6 billion, so just how fiscally responsible the candidates have been can be questioned.

The right thing would have been for Romney -- or Obama for that matter if by some happenstance he found himself falling short but within one-half percent range once all the votes were counted-- to write to Florida's election commission and waive the automatic recount. Not only would it reflect a concern over the cost of such a recount, it would also send a strong message about the character and the grace of either candidate.

There would be little to gain by scoring more points, when the bigger outcome is already clear. In Obama's case, there would have been no value in trying to run up the score simply because he could. And in Romney's, nothing would have been gained by cutting a lead that still results in a loss. 

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, November 11, 2012

Union and nonunion help welcomed in hurricane's aftermath



As I was cleaning up leaves and debris in my yard in Massachusetts this past weekend, I mentioned to one my neighbors who had stopped by that one of the areas hard hit by Hurricane Sandy was SeasideHeights, a place on the New Jersey Shore that my family, high school friends and I used to frequent during the summers.

"Wasn't that where they turned away those utility linemen from Alabama who'd driven up to help get the power back on because they weren't union members?" he asked.

I didn't know and I hadn't heard about the incident. If it happened as he described, I was all set to write about how wrong it was, that the right thing when facing a crisis such as this was to forget about union affiliation and embrace the help offered.

It turns out, however, that the report aired by a localnews program in Alabama wasn't correct.

The six-man crew from Decatur, Ala., did travel to Seaside Heights, but communication "with Seaside Heights was poor due to lack of cellphone service in the area," a statement later issued by Decatur Utilities read. "As we waited for clarification, we became aware that Seaside Heights had received the assistance they needed from other sources. To be clear, at no time were our crews 'turned away' from the utility in Seaside Heights."

John Reitmeyer, a reporter for The Record in Bergen County, N.J., wrote that crews from a dozen other states and Canada traveled to New Jersey to assist utility crews. "New Jersey utility companies are taking all the help they can get from out-of-state crews-- including both union and nonunion -- as they scramble to turn power back on for those who've been in the dark for days now," he wrote.

Reitmeyer ended his report with a quote from Gov. Chris Christie that indicated he would block any effort to restrict out-of-state help. "I wouldn't allow it," he said. "I would invoke my powers of the Disaster Control Act."

The local Alabama TV station later posted the video of a press conference with Decatur Utilities General Manager trying to clarify what had happened.

At a time of crisis, it's good that people want to help.

In this case, the linemen from Decatur did the right thing by offering assistance. Those who actually made it to the disaster site to help did the right thing, as well. And Gov. Christie did right by making clear that the issue was never about union vs. nonunion employees. The biggest wrong was to try to sensationalize an issue that, by virtue of the fact that union and nonunion employees were indeed working side by side, did not exist. Focusing on getting help where it was needed was the right thing to do and by all accounts there were many who did just that.

There was clearly confusion in Hurricane Sandy's aftermath, not the least of which was that TV station's early report that fueled false rumors about unions protecting their turf. Sadly, that's all that sticks in my neighbor's head and likely the heads of others who heard the initial report but not the subsequent corrections. At least my neighbor now knows the fuller story. 

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, November 04, 2012

Many honest returns



The neighborhood in which my wife and I live has curbside recycling. Every Friday morning, recyclables are picked up.

We set aside any bottles or cans that can get a nickel back for each return because every several weeks our two grandsons help pile them into the car and then take them to a store that has a recycling machine that eats the bottles and cans and issues a receipt that can be turned in for cash at the store's register.

Our practice is to let our grandsons split whatever money the haul yields. If the amount adds up to anything with an extra nickel, rather than attempt to split it into 2 1/2 cents each, I keep the nickel. The cashiers have gotten used to our request that they split the amount evenly between the boys and give me the extra nickel if there happens to be one.

On our most recent trip, a couple of large family gatherings had preceded the returns, so the amount added up to a healthy $12.15. Each boy happily received $6.05, and the cashier handed me the extra coin. The boys headed out to the car with me behind them.

As soon as I left the store, however, I looked at the coin and noticed that the cashier had mistakenly given me a quarter rather than a nickel. The boys had already settled into the car, but I shouted out to them that I needed to go back inside for a second.

The cashier who was busy with another customer saw me walk back in and asked if everything was OK. I told her about the mistake and we made an exchange for the right coinage.

As I slid into the driver's seat, my youngest grandson, Lucas, asked from the backseat, "What were you doing, Papa?" I told him that the cashier had given me a quarter instead of the nickel I was owed and that I had gone in to return it.

"Why did you do that?" he asked.

"Because it wasn't my money," I responded.

We talked some more and I explained again that the money wasn't mine and it didn't matter to me if it was 20 cents or $20. The owner of the store shouldn't be shortchanged any more than I would be. Plus, when the cashier cashed out at the end of the day, she would be expected to have her cash drawer balance. The right thing in such situations when someone makes a mistake and gives you more than you're due is to make things right.

I expected some great lesson would immediately resonate with Lucas, who is 11, that by setting an example he would forever know to try to do what's right, in big matters as well as small. But, as we were finishing up talking, he said, "Only you would have taken the time to do that."

I'm hopeful that's not right and that others would have done the same. But I can rest assured that at least one other person besides me knows why it's important to do what's right even when the stakes seem small. 

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.

Talking Politics Over Turkey

For those wrestling with how to have a civil discussion over a holiday meal, a discussion with HKS PolicyCast