Sunday, January 27, 2013

Looking a gift card in the mouth



I dread the day our dentist closes up shop. It took a long time for us to find one we truly liked, but once we found our current dentist my wife and I have been going to him for decades. His location isn't convenient, but he's a great dentist and we're committed to going to him. (It doesn't hurt that our grandkids now live close by his office and that he was a Cy Young Award winning pitcher in the late 1960s who regularly donates signed baseballs to our grandkids' school's annual fundraiser.)

Not everyone, however, is as willing to overlook the inconvenience of how long it takes to get to a good dentist.

A reader from Columbus, Ohio., recently switched dentists precisely because of the inconvenience of his location. The dentist's response raises a question of how to respond to a gift intended to keep your business when you have no intention of returning.

"We've gone to the same guy for years," the reader writes, mentioning that her husband has gone to him since he was a young kid and that her parents-in-law still go to him. But their dentist is located across town and with traffic, it's taking longer and longer to get there.

"We like the guy, but it's just not convenient anymore as our lives get busier," she writes.

So she called and spoke to the receptionist, explaining the situation and canceling their future appointments. The receptionist nicely offered to send their files to their new dentist.

The following weekend they received a handwritten letter from the dentist asking them if there was anything he could do to get them to come back. His note indicated that he just doesn't "lose patients" and that he hoped they would continue coming to see him. Enclosed was a $25 Visa gift card.

"We do really like the dentist, but don't intend on going back to his office," the reader writes. She plans to reply to his note to thank him for his service and to explain again about his location being the issue.

"Should I return the gift card?" she asks. "Or should I keep it?"

The reader made clear to the dentist's receptionist that it was his location that resulted in their switch. While the dentist's gesture may be kind, there is no obligation for the reader to return the card. There were no preconditions established in the dentist's note. He included the note both as a thank you for their patronage over the years and as an incentive to ask them to reconsider leaving his practice.

Writing a note thanking the dentist and again explaining that it is his location and not his service that has caused them to leave is a nice gesture. They can also tell the dentist that they will gladly recommend his services to other prospective patients.

But the right thing is to treat the gift card as a gift and do with it whatever they like, whether that's to spend it, contribute it to a local charity, or give it to their parents to pay part of their next dentist bill. They can even return it if they want to. But what they do with it is their own guilt-free choice 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.

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net. 

(c) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Sunday, January 20, 2013

Am I my neighbor's tax keeper?


Most people want things to be fair. If you have to follow the rules, so should they, goes the thinking. So if someone doesn't follow the rules, is it your responsibility to call them on it? Or, in the case of a couple of readers from different parts of the country, is it your responsibility to turn someone in if you suspect they are cheating the government?

A reader from New York has a hard time believing that the Internal Revenue Service will catch everyone who evades taxes. She writes that she knows a couple claiming to make $100,000 a year who brag that they pay no taxes since they are "under the radar."

They say the government won't catch them because the couple's son, who is in business with them, pays them under the table, writes my reader. "My husband and I have always paid our taxes and can barely make it from paycheck to paycheck. Yet they live high on the hog and have yet to be caught."

The same reader reports that someone she hired to work for her will not reveal a Social Security number so she can fill out the proper forms to file on what she paid her. "I want to report her income as soon as possible, so I don't face penalties because she is irresponsible."

Another reader in Ohio writes that her neighbor runs her own service business, but that she has not reported any income for at least five years.

"We live in a good school district and I struggle to pay federal, state, city and school district taxes as a single parent," the Ohio reader writes. "It seems unfair that she would not have to pay her fair share."

But the reader continues that there seems to be some unwritten code "that keeps telling me I should mind my own business and not turn her into the tax authorities, especially since she considers me a friend."

She wrestles with whether turning her into the IRS is the right and patriotic thing to do or if it's in some way wrong in this case.

My take on the right thing to do when facing such questions has always been that the first response, especially when it's a friend telling you of their tax evasion, is to express your discomfort with what they're telling you and encourage them to right the wrong. In some cases, it's difficult, unless you observe the actual documentation, to know if the person claiming to avoid paying taxes is actually doing so or if they get some sort of perverse joy in claiming they're getting away with something that others aren't.

But if there is proof that someone is cheating and direct confrontation either seems unsafe or doesn't result in any change, there are avenues for reporting the cheat. Both the IRS (with Form 3949-A) and the Canada Revenue Agency (through its online Informant Leads Program) provide avenues for reporting.

If there's proof that someone flagrantly cheats on his or her taxes and that person flaunts the fact that they are doing so, then the right thing is to let them know you believe it's wrong and to remind them that breaking the law is generally frowned upon by federal revenuers, as evidenced by the routes given to citizens to report such scofflaws. 

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) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Sunday, January 13, 2013

If you don't speak up against bad public behavior, who will?



Do you ever speak up against bad public behavior?

At least a couple of readers think you should.

A reader from Helper, Utah, writes that a few years ago she was at a fast-food restaurant with her children and saw a group of teenagers sliding down the slides on food trays. "They were big kids and going very fast on those trays," she writes. "You couldn't miss what was happening since the noise was incredible."

My reader writes that she immediately walked right up to the group and chewed them out. "I told them they didn't belong in there, that what they were doing at their size and at those speeds would kill any kid they hit. I ended that if they didn't leave immediately that I wasn't calling the manager, I was calling the cops."

The teenagers left.

"The other parents in the room thanked me," she writes. "None of them said 'boo' to those teenagers. They just got their kids away from them and let the teenagers take over."

Another reader from Columbus, Ohio, writes to tell me about the time a couple of summers ago he was driving his Honda CRV down the main highway in his city. A young woman driving in a red Mercedes convertible passed him in the right-hand lane and then, he writes, she cut him off while exceeding the speed limit by what he estimates was at least 30 miles an hour.

As the light ahead of them turned red, the red Mercedes pulled into the left-turn lane and stopped for the light.

"I pulled next to her while waiting for the light to turn green," my reader writes. "I looked down at the young lady thinking that I would 'glare' at her to show my displeasure at the way she was driving."

As he looked down, the driver looked up and glared back at him.

"What are you looking at old man?" he says she asked him.

"You're using your cellphone, smoking, not signaling to turn, and driving like you want to die. You'll never be an old woman," he recalls telling her, noticing as she pulled away to make her left turn that her turn signal wasn't activated again.

Did my readers do the right thing by confronting those misbehaving in public?

The driver wasn't wrong to say something. Given the litany of bad behavior he noted, it's not clear that what he said would keep the red Mercedes driver from continuing to be a menace as she drove on. But he spoke up.

The mother in Utah saw a situation that others chose not to confront and decided to tackle it head on. Her actions resulted in rescuing the play area for the children for whom it is intended. That other parents stood by and didn't say anything might not have been ideal, but that they were there when she confronted the teenagers should have given her some comfort knowing there were many standing by in case the teenagers weren't so compliant.

When someone's public actions threaten the safety of others, particularly young children, the right thing is to speak up. Doing so without adding to their or your own safety risk wherever possible is the wise course of action. But if you don't speak up to bad behavior, who will? 

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) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Thursday, January 10, 2013

We may speak resentment, but our actions reveal the truth



Awhile back, I wrote about a reader who had found $200 scattered about the parking lot of a bank. She walked into the bank and asked the manager if anyone had called in to report the lost cash. The manager had gotten a call and the reader turned over the money and the manager saw that it was returned to the loser.

My reader was disappointed that the loser never took the time to thank her. A bit down on her luck and $196 overdrawn in her checking account, she began to doubt whether she had done the right thing by returning the money. I, and readers who wrote in after the column ran, assured her that she indeed had, even if the loser failed to acknowledge her efforts.

One reader, however, felt different. "I can say without a doubt that if I found money now, I would not say a thing and would think to myself, 'This is my lucky day!'"

It turns out, he writes, that he had once found a wallet outside of a man's car. He checked a nearby sports bar and learned that the man who belonged to the wallet was there watching Thanksgiving Day football games. "I did not look inside the wallet because I knew if there was a lot of money in it I would have had a really hard time doing the so-called right thing," he writes. So he went inside the bar and asked who drove the car out front. The man identified himself and the bartender looked at the ID in the wallet to confirm it was him.

"He was very thankful and even bought me a drink," my reader writes, "though to this day I regret doing the right thing."

Instead he writes that he should have taken whatever money there was and dropped the wallet where he found it. "He had a nice truck and was taking the day off to watch football and drink while I was working my crappy job, not owning a car, and in debt. He was obviously in a much better financial situation than I was."

The reader would "only feel bad about taking money from someone as poor as I am," though if that person didn't at least say thanks, he'd rethink whether to ever return a found wallet.

When asked about values, I regularly tell people that I can't change a person's values -- whether through a column or a class I might be teaching. What I can do is try to help people sort out what their values are.

While it might be understandable to feel that it's unfair for others to have more than you might have, the values that my reader acted on at the time were to do what he believed was fair. The wallet he found was not his. He knew the owner might be in the nearby bar so, regardless of his resentment over his plot in life, he did the right thing and made the effort to return the wallet to its rightful owner.

His actions speak louder than his words after the fact. Ideally, they will continue to do so if he's faced with a similar situation in the future. 

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) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


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