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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Who's responsible for cleaning this stain?



Every December for the past 10 years, a reader has ventured on a holiday outing with her daughter and two grandsons to take in some festive show. Over the years, the destination has ranged from performances of The Nutcracker ballet to stage performances of It's aWonderful Life and all sorts of shows in between. After the show, the crew typically takes in the city's Christmas lights and any store windows that might have been decorated.

This year, the reader decided upon a performance by the wildly popular Blue Man Group, a show that near as I can tell is built around three men in blue makeup doing inventive things on stage with PVC tubing, Jell-O, toilet paper and assorted other food items. Since the grandsons are now 11 and 14, it seemed an age-appropriate and festive rollick.

For those of you who have been to a Blue Man Group performance (I haven't), you'll know that audience members in the first several rows are given rain ponchos to wear since at some point in the show various stuff (liquids, foods, Jell-O) are flung into the crowd. Since they would be slightly dressed up for the theater, my reader steered clear of those seats.

As she suspected, the boys loved the show. But as she was leaving she noticed that pieces of masticated banana that had been thrust upon the audience manage to get on her winter coat and leave spots. Not wanting to ruin the moment by complaining to an usher or box office attendant, she broke away from the boys for a second and, explaining that she deliberately hadn't sat in the rain poncho seats, asked a theater manager if she knew how to get banana stains off of a wool coat.

"Some water should take that right out," the manager responded. It didn't.

Now, she was faced with having to have the coat dry cleaned to get the stains out. Since it had a fur collar, the cleaning bill wouldn't come cheap.

"Should the theater be responsible for the cleaning bill?" she asks.

Looking online at the ticket policy, the Blue Man Group does feature a statement on its website similar to those you see on the back of sporting event tickets that indicate your acknowledgment that, say, if you get hit by a puck, it's not the events' responsibility or liability.

Still why give out rain ponchos to only some audience members when others might be in a banana's way, as well?

The right thing would be for the theater to warn all patrons when they purchase tickets that they might not want to wear their finest garb. Better still, it wouldn't limit its distribution of rain ponchos to just the first few rows since banana clearly has a way of spilling further into the audience. But given its disclaimer, I'm not convinced the theater is responsible for footing the cost of a cleaning bill.

Still, a spokesman for Blue Man Productions says that while they have no formal policy covering people outside the poncho seats who might get splattered, they "have for years paid for dry cleaning when appropriate."

So there's no harm in my reader asking, but if the theater declines, then it's on her to eat the cost. 

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, December 23, 2012

Early morning movie boycotts



More than a week before it opened, the film "Zero Dark Thirty" began winning awards. Both the Boston Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Online tapped it as the best picture of 2012, and each also chose Kathryn Bigelow as best director for the film.

But the film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden is also being pilloried (by many who have and many who haven't seen it yet) for possibly justifying torture as a legitimate method of interrogation. There's some dissension about whether the events depicted at the beginning of the movie -- an interrogation in 2003 that ultimately led to Osama's capture and killing -- ever happened. U.S. Secretary of Defense and former CIA Director Leon Panetta (played by James Gandolfini in the movie) has said torture techniques did not help find bin Laden. Others disagree.

With all the buzz, the pre-wide-release awards, and the director's reputation (she won the 2009 Academy Award for directing "The Hurt Locker"), it's likely that "Zero Dark Thirty" will find a strong audience.

But should it? That's the question posed by a reader in Florida who has his doubts about the movie.

"I want to see 'Zero Dark Thirty,'" he writes, "but I'm troubled by the idea of funding (at $12) certain dubious moral enterprises such as this one."

He's concerned that the movie normalizes torture. "If I know, in advance, that a movie 'based on a true story' hangs its plot on an unverified claim that would serve to convince many viewers that an absolutely immoral act of torture had led to the capture of the world's leading terrorist, should I support that movie financially by buying a ticket to see it? Or, should I boycott the movie?"

He knows that not forking over his $12 won't hurt Bigelow, but wonders if boycotting the movie will "marginalize her or the message in some small way." If others independently are doing the same, he figures, the film's message is "reduced to close enough to nothingness."

"I think I'm way too into the idea that my tiny symbolic acts matter," he says. "Or do they? Why aren't all of us with a conscience boycotting the movie?"

My reader has every right to boycott the movie because of what he believes is depicted in it. While I believe he might be able to make a stronger case if he actually sees the film to know that what he thinks he is boycotting actually exists in the movie, it's a perfectly ethical stance to have a strong conviction about the type of movie "Zero Dark Thirty" purports to be without seeing it. I, for one, saw nothing wrong with refusing to buy a copy of a memoir written by a fabricating reporter fired by The New York Times without ever having read a page of it. In fact, I try to avoid most memoirs or novels written by confirmed plagiarists and fabricators. 

The right thing is for my reader to act on his conscience and decide whether to go to see "Zero Dark Thirty" based on his principles. He should draw the line, however, at deciding what's best for others. Wondering why they don't join in his silent boycott is fair game. But assuming they should just because he does rids them of the ability to form their own convictions and then act on them. 

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, December 16, 2012

When doctors don't listen, patients suffer



About seven weeks ago, a relative had an MRI. She had been having some trouble hearing and, after an examination, her otolaryngologist ordered the MRI to rule out any growth that might be causing the loss. The family member waited for a report from her doctor.

A week passed. No report. Three weeks passed. Still no report. Finally, after four weeks, she called the otolaryngologist's office to ask if he planned to notify her about the results of the MRI.

She was reminded how busy the otolaryngologist was and that he would, of course, issue a report in due time. "I'm sure if there was anything wrong he would have contacted you right away," the otolaryngologist's assistant told my family member.

She still hasn't heard.

Then there's the reader in Lake Forest, Calif., who wrote to tell me that she had been called by her oncologist's office because they were curious why they received a report about a pelvic ultrasound. She told the oncologist's assistant that the oncologist had ordered the ultrasound to track ovarian cysts.

The assistant called back the same day to tell the reader she'd better come in. She pressed asking the assistant if there were any concerns, and was told she'd "better come in."

My reader drove 12 miles to her oncologist's office, learned that he was running late, waited patiently, and was finally told to disrobe so a physician's assistant (PA) could see her.

The PA came in with the ultrasound report and told my reader that her cysts are smaller than they had been and "everything looks fine."

"I asked her if this information couldn't have been imparted via telephone," my reader writes. "She agrees it could have. Now Medicare will be billed for what is essentially an unnecessary visit. I don't think this is fair."

She's right. It's not fair. It's both an unnecessary expense and both an inconvenience and was an unnecessary cause for alarm for my reader.

Both the failure to report on my family member's MRI and the failure to simply tell my reader by phone or through the mail that the results of her ultrasound were not of concern represent failures that have nothing to do with the shortcomings of Medicare or pending provisions of the Affordable Care Act in the U.S. Each represents a failure in treating patients efficiently and with respect.

In my reader's case, alarming her by telling her she'd "better come in" suggests the oncologist hadn't bothered to look at the report he had forgotten he ordered. In my family member's case, telling her that "I'm sure if there was anything wrong he would have contacted you right away" is simply a cover for the otolaryngologist who couldn't bother to keep up with his reports.

Each patient might have pressed further on the phone until an assistant took the time to find out the actual results of the respective test so they could give an informed response. But patients should not have to resort to badgering medical professionals to do their jobs. We all know doctors are busy. But the right thing is for them to do their jobs or empower their assistants to do their jobs and treat patients with the respect they deserve whether the news is good or bad. 

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, December 09, 2012

How much truth to tell when referencing a rotten colleague?



Several jobs ago, a senior colleague and I were discussing another colleague whose performance was less than par. The fellow in question was making life fairly miserable for those around him, failing to show up for meetings, blasting angry emails, not acknowledging people who didn't support him, and generally acting churlishly.

My colleague believed this person needed to find a different job, preferably someplace far away. I didn't disagree with his sentiment, but I asked: "Who's going to give him a good reference?"

"I would if it meant getting him out of here," my colleague responded.

It wasn't that my colleague thought he could focus on the positive aspects of this fellow's performance since he didn't believe there were any. It was that he felt that getting him to go someplace else outweighed the importance of being totally truthful about this guy's merits.

I was reminded of my exchange recently when a reader wrote me about finding himself in a similar situation. After dealing with an employee "who stirred up a lot of discontent in the office by his sometimes-abrasive personality," the fellow had the good sense to look for another job.

My reader came back from lunch one day to find that he had a voicemail from a prospective employer who had called to ask some questions about his abrasive colleague.

"I am an honest and (I think) a diplomatic man," my reader wrote. So he struggled with what he would say. Then he remembered that his boss could "sell the guy" a lot better than he could, so he turned the message over to his boss. The boss said what he said, and the abrasive employee got the job. "Whew!" my reader writes. "What a relief!"

But, he asks, whose behavior was more reprehensible - his or his boss's?

My reader didn't lie about his colleague. It's not clear whether his boss did, either. If the boss did lie in response to what he was asked, that would be wrong.

In cases like these, the responsibility for gathering information about an employee falls squarely on the shoulders of the prospective employer seeking the reference. Granted, there are times when the current employer should be forthcoming regardless of the questions asked. If, for example, there's concern about employee or customer safety based on past incidents, the right thing is to tell the prospective employer the facts concerning those incidents.

The right thing in most cases, however, is to respond to the questions asked by a prospective employer. There's no value in blurting out that you simply don't like the guy. If asked if the guy is a good report writer and he's not, it's fair to say that on that job it was not his strength. If asked about whether he showed up on time to meetings, it's fair to say that he did not always do so if that is factually correct.

Regardless of how much you dislike a colleague and would like him to be working some place far, far away, the right thing is never to lie about him or his performance. You needn't disclose more than asked, but the truth about what you are asked will set you, and ideally him, free. 

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.