Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sweeping others' mistakes under the rug



Computers make mistakes. Let me rephrase that a bit: If incorrect information is put into a computer by a human being, then that computer is likely to make a mistake in computing whatever it is supposed to be computing. Garbage in, garbage out, goes the saying.

It's a customer's responsibility to point out an error at the cash register if a product is clearly scanned incorrectly. Some stores, like a supermarket we wrote about recently, have a policy of honoring an incorrectly scanned price if it results from their mistake. But other times, it's the customer's responsibility to fork over the amount he or she had intended to pay but that rang up cheaper.

Just as you wouldn't believe it to be OK to keep $1,000 from a bank's ATM when your intent was to get $100 and the withdrawal record only shows $100, you shouldn't think it's OK to keep a $129.95 waffle maker if you end up being charged for a $9.95 oven mitt at the cash register and the receipt only shows $9.95.

With some degree of pleasure, a neighbor told me that he had been undercharged for a small rug recently at a discount store when it scanned as a cheaper product. My neighbor knows what I write for a living and he prefaced his story by telling me he had "an ethical thing" happen recently.

Before I could respond that I thought he should have pointed out the discrepancy to the clerk at the cash register, though, he continued with his story -- and explained that because the rug is for a high-traffic area, he was concerned it would wear out quickly. Fearing that the store might stop carrying this rug that fit perfectly in the spot he needed to cover, and also wanting to seize the opportunity to get a deal if the rugs remained incorrectly priced, he returned to the store. He picked out three more rugs and brought then to the checkout, where the clerk proceeded to ring up his order.

That's when my neighbor noticed that the same incorrect price showed up again on the register. What he didn't notice until he was out the door and heading to his car was that the clerk had charged him for one rug, not three.

He thought about returning to report the mistake, but decided not to, figuring that if the store was so careless as to not get its prices right and a clerk so inattentive that he didn't charge for all items, the fault was not his but theirs.

He's right, of course. It was their fault. If the store wants to stay in business for the long run, it would be wise to have its employees do a better job of charging its customers the right amount.

But my neighbor was wrong not to point out the incorrect scan and uncharged-for rugs -- not because the clerk might get in trouble and not because the store might go out of business if enough customers take advantage of such mistakes, but because that would have been the right thing to do.

Getting a deal is fine. Getting the deal when you know it's built on someone else's unintended mistake is not. 

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: @jseglinhttps://twitter.com/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, April 21, 2013

Who were you again?



How do you manage social media accounts without bruising the feelings of others online?

That's the question posed by a relative latecomer to social media, a 50-something reader from California who writes that he was "very reluctant to join Facebook," but that he finally did and "must say that I do enjoy it."

Like many people, this fellow has tried to manage his friends list by limiting it to those with whom he "had a pleasant association with at one time or another." Occasionally, however, he will get an invitation to be friends from someone whose name he recognizes but remembers nothing more about the person or any relationship with him or her, or someone whose name does "not ring a bell in any way."

While he has no problem not responding to those whose names do not ring a bell, he feels it may be wrong to not respond to others he's sure he must have known at one time or another, but simply can't remember.

"I do not want to hurt the feelings of anyone," he writes, "but I also want to keep my friend list limited to those people I at least remember. Is there an answer to this quandary?"

Since being launched in February 2004, initially as a site that was primarily targeted at students at specific colleges, then anyone with a college email address, and soon anyone at all, Facebook has grown from a self-reported 1 million users by the end of 2004 to more than 1 billion users in 2012. With that many people hooked into the site, each of us is bound to know someone well who's on Facebook and we're also bound to have lots of old sort-of acquaintances we don't really remember out there as well.

There's nothing unethical about going on or staying off of Facebook or any other social media site. For those of us who are on such sites where it's easy to lose several hours in tracking newsfeed updates or monitoring tweets, I am sure we share days where the thought of getting off of everything and resorting to anonymity is mighty appealing.

There is also nothing unethical about not accepting every friend request that comes your way. The beauty of such social media sites and free will is that you can choose to keep your circle of connections as small or as large as you desire.

If the reader from California wants to set a rule that he only accepts friend requests from people he can remember, then the right thing to do is to stick to that rule.

If he's curious about those names that seem familiar but he can't remember, then a right thing to do would be to simply send a message in response to the friend request asking the person if he or she can remind him how they know one another. While some requesters might take offense at having to be asked such a question, especially if they remember my reader far better than he remembers them, it's the right thing to do if my reader really wants to connect only to those people with whom he has had some past connection. 

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: @jseglinhttps://twitter.com/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, April 14, 2013

They get it wrong, you get it free



B.F., a reader who lives just outside of Columbus, Ohio, has a disagreement with his wife. He has encountered "a pricing situation" at his grocery store.

The story offers a scan guarantee. If an item scans at the cash register for a different price than what is displayed on the shelf, the item is free as long as it doesn't cost more than $5.

As a "frugal customer," B.F. pays close attention to the prices of groceries when he and his wife shop. After benefiting from one of these scanning mistakes, his casher remarked: "We left last week's sales price up." But the price that scanned had reverted to the non-sales price. The cashier honored the guarantee and gave B.F. the item without charge.

Since that incident, B.F. has noticed that the sales prices listed on the shelves include in small print the date of expiration on them. "These signs with the sales price are almost always taken down after the expiration date," he writes.

Typically, because of his frugality, when B.F. is searching for a particular grocery item that has several variations or brands, he almost always picks the cheapest item. But since that first scan-wrong-and-get-it-free encounter, he now looks for items that had old sales tags up on the shelf. He verifies that they are old and are likely to scan at a higher price than the sales price posted by looking at the expiration date on the signs.

"I pick this item, even though it is not always the cheapest price, knowing I will get it for free under the store's guarantee," he writes. "I do not stock up on these items, nor do I deliberately seek out free items that I wouldn't have purchased anyway."

B.F.'s wife believes it is unethical for him to purchase these particular brands knowing that they will be free, if he would have otherwise made another choice based on the displayed price. But B.F. believes that this is part of the reason the policy is in place. "The store is, in effect, compensating me a few dollars' worth of free groceries for alerting it to its mistake, which it can then fix for future consumers," he writes, asking: "What is the right thing?"

Technically, I suppose, the store has a legal right to claim that by posting the expiration date on the sales signs, it is not obligated to pay out on these items that have reverted to their pre-sale prices. But the spirit of the scan guarantee seems to suggest that if any pricing sign is up and wrong, regardless of the small print, then it will honor the guarantee.

Even though he claims not to go looking for free items that he wouldn't have been purchasing anyway, I'm not convinced this matters. His attempt to avail himself of the guarantee doesn't strike me as somehow being sullied by premeditated attempts to scope out wayward sales signs that should have been taken down when the sale ended. If the store didn't want customers like B.F. to figure out how to score some free less-than-$5 groceries, it shouldn't have set up the guarantee in the first place.

The right thing is for the store to do a better job of keeping its signage current and to honor its guarantee for as long as it is in place. 

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: @jseglinhttps://twitter.com/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, April 07, 2013

How we use the words we do

Ignatz Krauss


How obligated are we to make sure that our actions or words don't offend others, particularly those to whom we are closest? Even when we give it our best shot to be thoughtful, how responsible are we if our positive intentions yield an unexpected negative response?

Almost 19 years ago, I was part of a team of writers and editors who launched a technology magazine. As editor, I was tasked with writing a note to readers about what we were trying to accomplish.

In a series of articles in the first issue, we tried to address how technology has changed our lives. To serve as a counter to all of the change, I started my note to readers with a look at how my great-grandfather, Ignatz Krauss, might have found his job as a motorman for the New York City subway system, originally built in 1904, little changed in 1994, when it remained decidedly low tech.

One exception I noted was that back in Ignatz's day, he and others running the trains may have used a "motorman's friend," a rubber urinal that motormen strapped to their legs under their pants. I noted that while the technology of e trains had changed little in decades that this bit of low-tech equipment had likely been long replaced -- perhaps in part by stronger regulations about how long a motorman's shift could last.

I never knew my great-grandparents nor my grandparents. Ignatz's youngest daughter, my great aunt, was still alive then and I knew her well. I was never in regular contact with her, but saw her at occasional family outings. She served as the maid of honor at my sister's wedding. I had thought that mentioning her father and featuring a photo of him in suit and bowler hat would be a nice tribute to a family member I had never known.

The article appeared and my great aunt said nothing. She did, however, tell my father that she was appalled and embarrassed that I would choose to mention her father's use of a urinal in a national magazine. Here I thought it would be a nice surprise for my great aunt and other family members to see Ignatz cited as an example of someone whose use of technology represented enduring values of ingenuity and hard work.

But upon reflection, I realize that the bit about the urinal tied to his leg could have been a bit too personal of a detail for my great aunt's sensibilities.

So what was the right thing to do? Should I have cleared my reference with my great aunt ahead of time? Perhaps that would have been a kind gesture.

But then where do we stop in double-checking our actions or words before we use them? If we worry so much about offending or being inappropriate, we run the risk of never saying, writing, or doing anything.

The right thing is to try our best to be as thoughtful as we can about how we choose to do what we do and recognize that we cannot anticipate every reaction to our actions. We should never allow fear of potential responses to keep us from doing whatever it is we're trying to do in the best way we can in the time we have allotted to do it. 

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: @jseglinhttps://twitter.com/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.


Don't let the personal get in the way of the bigger picture

What ethical issues concern people the most? This September marks the 19th year I've been writing "The Right Thing" c...