Sunday, February 24, 2013

Stand by your grade



My stock response to the question, "Can't they sue me for that?" -- and it gets asked far more often than I would have anticipated -- is, "They can sue you for anything. Whether or not it gets tossed out of court is a whole other story."

Attention was drawn earlier this month to a college student who sued her professor because she gave her a C-plus in a course she took in 2009, making the student unable to complete the coursework for a professional degree she wanted that would enable her to become a licensed therapist. The professor had deducted the full 25 percent of the student's grade for class participation.

When protesting the grade to the professor and the college went nowhere, the student decided to take the professor to court and sue her for $1.3 million in earnings she would never see as a result of not getting the grade she needed in that course to get the degree she wanted.

While a judge initially allowed the case to proceed, he eventually ruled that the grade should stand. The defendant's lawyers had argued that the U.S. Supreme Court barred courts from interfering with colleges on such matters.

The question that looms large here is whether, given how wronged she felt, it was the right thing for the student to bring the lawsuit in the first place.

In the interest of full disclosure, I, too, grade papers for a living at my full-time job. So while I have sympathy for any college instructor who must do the same, I believe that professors owe it to their students to commit to trying to teach them when they come to your course. While it's amusing, I don't entirely agree with the sentiment behind the story of the graduate student who tells her business school professor that he should treat her better because she's his customer only to have him respond, "No, you're not my customer. You're my product." Good teachers should be willing to work at least as hard as their students do.

Teachers should not have to live in fear of students who receive the grades they deserve for the work they do but don't happen to want. Students have every right and should question their grades if they believe the grades are inappropriate -- or even if they simply want to know how the grades were calculated. And teachers should be prepared to explain. Sometimes teachers make mistakes. Often they don't. If a student wants to take the case to higher-ups at the school when they believe they're not getting a fair response, that's fair game, too.

If the student truly felt that she was wronged and that no one at the college (where her father also happens to be on the faculty) fairly addressed her concerns, she had every right to seek justice elsewhere. A judge saw fit to rule that the C-plus grade should stand, leaving it to the college to make the final determination about the fairness of the grade.

Professors shouldn't take the ruling as an indication they have no responsibility to grade thoughtfully and responsibly. Sometimes, however, C-pluses are legitimately earned. 

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, February 17, 2013

My $500 hamburger



This is the story of what my wife, Nancy, likes to call our $500 hamburger.

In early January, I received an email from Sven, the fellow who is in charge of development -- a more refined term for "raising cash" -- at the undergraduate college I attended. Sven was going to be in my city and wanted to know if we would have time for him to take us to dinner. We agreed to meet at 6:30 p.m., at a restaurant in our neighborhood.

Sven was waiting for us when we got to the restaurant. The three of us talked for a bit about news of the college since we'd last seen him. We ordered our food. Nancy chose what, at $12.50, seemed to me a slightly overpriced hamburger from the menu.

As we waited for our food, talk turned to various efforts under way at the college. I mentioned that years earlier I thought I had given to a fund that Sven mentioned. He told me he could check if I wanted and then took out his smartphone to consult an application that allowed him to see what every alumni had given annually to the college for at least the past two decades.

Sure enough, I'd given to that fund in honor of a former professor. But just underneath that entry was an indication that in 1999, I had pledged $500. Next to it was the notation "not fulfilled." In other words, this deadbeat sitting across from Sven hadn't paid up on the pledge.

"That can't be right," I said.

Sven showed me the phone again.

I'm among those people in the U.S. who try to give regularly to education and other not-for-profits without a political agenda. (I don't give to candidates or elected officials.) According to the Giving USA Foundation, the amount individuals gave in 2011 was $217.79 billion, up 4 percent from 2010. Giving to education, the second-largest recipient of donations, increased by 4 percent to a total of $38.87 billion that same year.

I don't like to be called out as someone who reneges on a pledge. As I again told Sven that I couldn't possibly have missed the mark 14 years ago, I noticed that every other donation we made over the years was carefully noted with precise detail.

Sven wasn't trying to shake me down for the cash. He wasn't even making a big deal over it. I got the sense that he found it somewhat amusing that it bugged me so much to have discovered a blemish someone noted on my record.

But before I could continue arguing how this couldn't be, Nancy had slipped our checkbook in front of me. "Make good on that $500 pledge you made," she said. "It's the right thing to do."

Clearly, she was right. The pledge had been made whether I remembered making it or not. Sven quickly loaned me his pen.

Within a week I received a nice note from Sven thanking me for my donation of $500 in 1999. 

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, February 10, 2013

What subjects should expect from writers


When I began writing a column on ethics almost 15 years ago, my approach when I wanted to interview someone was to identify myself, tell the person where the column appeared, and then start in on the questions. It was only after the third column appeared that I realized this wasn't enough.

In that column, I wrote about a particularly noble act someone had taken in the workplace. An employee had offered to donate a kidney to her boss. I wrote about how altruistic an act this was, but also focused on how the act could change the relationship between the employee and her boss -- and that this had never been discussed by them or anyone else within the company. I believed then and still do believe, that it should have been.

My mistake was that I had not revealed to the subject of that column, or the handful that preceded it, the nature of the type of column I write: that I look at ethical choices people make and how they go about making them. The subject's reaction to the piece about that noble workplace act was not positive. She suggested I was calling her intentions disingenuous, that somehow I was suggesting she was trying to curry favor with her boss and ensure job security in the process. I didn't write that in the column. I believed then and still do now that what she did was altruistic.

So, where did I go astray in doing the right thing by my subject?

Writer Tracy Kidder and his longtime editor, Richard Todd, explore the implications of letting writers into a subject's life in their recently published book Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction (Random House, 2013). They believe that it's important for writers to help their subjects think through these implications. They stress that it's essential for writers to be clear with their subjects about the nature of their relationship.

The writer, they argue, should "assume that all potential subjects don't understand what they might be getting into" by talking to a writer.

"Explain to subjects," they write, "that there is no predicting how you will portray them or how they will feel about their portraits, or how readers will judge them, and that they can't determine any of this because you cannot give them control over what you write."

I wish I had had their advice prior to writing those first few ethics columns, because what Kidder and Todd advise is exactly the right thing to do. Since that experience writing about the noble act of the altruistic employee, I now make very clear to anyone I interview for the column who isn't already familiar with it that I write about how people make ethical decisions or how they might make better ethical decisions.

This caveat to subjects doesn't change what I write about or how, but it better prepares subjects for what to expect. Doing this often results in a more focused and better interview -- but, more important, it's the right thing 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) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

An expensive drinking lesson



"What price honesty?" asks a reader, who describes himself as a senior citizen from North Carolina.

Recently, he was asked by his son and grandson to join them on a trip to a fast-food franchise.

"I ordered a chicken sandwich and water," he says. The water button on the self-serve fountain-drink dispenser was quite small and located on top of the lemonade option. "Somehow I filled up my cup with lemonade that I didn't want."

He also hadn't paid for it, so he went back to the ordering station to tell an employee there about his mistake.

"How much do I owe you?" he asked her.

"$1.70," she replied.

"That much?" the reader asked.

"Yes," she responded.

He gave her the money and that was that, he writes. No thanks, no other options, no comments on being honest since she never would have known he filled his cup with lemonade rather than water if he hadn't told her.

"Now, I feel more stupid than honest," he writes, asking if he did the right thing.

Given that the fast-food franchise lets customers fill their own cups, it would have been simple for the reader to simply empty his cup of mistakenly poured lemonade, rinse the cup out, and then fill it with water. If there was no sink or receptacle in which to drain the lemonade, he could have simply walked outside to pour it out, and then returned to fill the cup with water.

While his honesty was noble, there also would have been nothing wrong with him spilling out the lemonade and simply refilling his cup.

He went above and beyond in returning to the ordering station to tell the employee of his mistake. The right thing would have been for the employee to check with a manager before insisting that the customer pay for what was clearly an honest mistake. He wasn't requesting a new cup, so it wasn't a matter of the employee worrying that the cup count might be off when they took inventory.

My reader also would have done well to ask to speak with the manager if the employee didn't offer to check on her own.

Still, the reader's impulses were good in wanting to be honest about his mistake. That he was penalized for coming clean sends a terrible message to an honest customer. It suggests that simply concealing mistakes in your favor could be the way to go since doing otherwise might cost you. It falls dangerously close to the cynical wisecrack that "no good deed goes unpunished."

But my reader takes no such message from his experience. He did the right thing by wanting to be honest and concedes that he knows what he did was right and that the employee was wrong in not forgiving the mistake.

Ultimately, such bad judgment on an employee's part hurts the business, something my reader knows.

"Whether or not I did the right thing," he writes, "I won't be going back to that franchise again." 

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.


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...