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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Reconsidering rudeness on a subway car



In early January, I wrote about Marie, a subway rider in the Northeast, who witnessed a seated young woman talking on her cellphone refuse to move her bags from a seat after a young man asked her to so he could sit. The young woman pointed to several empty seats on the train.

Marie found the young woman's behavior rude and wondered if she should have said something. Since the situation got resolved without much fuss, I told Marie that she had no obligation to intercede, but that the right thing when riding a subway is to only take up one seat.

Readers from California, Canada, North Carolina, Ohio, and loads of locales in between immediately took issue and asked me to reconsider my response.

"It's a shame you didn't encourage her to say something to the rude subway rider," wrote G.K. "You essentially were advising her to condone the behavior. If Marie and five other subway riders would have spoken up and criticized the hogger's behavior, perhaps she would have been forced to acknowledge her behavior as rude and behaved differently next time."

But most readers took issue with the suggestion that the young woman was being rude by placing her bag on an empty seat and telling the young man to sit elsewhere.

"Are you out of your mind?" asks N.C. "Plenty of empty seats and a man wants to sit right next to his woman? Maybe she didn't want to be harassed."

"His behavior sounds totally creepy to me," wrote H.D.

E.S. asked that I reconsider in light of "the reality of gender inequalities, personal safety, personal space, and the lack of any pragmatic harm in placing personal possessions adjacent to oneself, space permitting."

While I still believe that Marie did the right thing by not interceding, and that she had no obligation to call out the young woman if she believed she was being rude, those readers who suggested that perhaps there was something "creepy" about a young man avoiding empty seats on and aiming right for the one with the young woman's bag raised good points.

No one riding on public transportation should be asked to put herself in an unsafe situation. If the young man was sidling up to the young woman on the cellphone to flirt with her or to harass her, she had every reason to hold her ground. Marie doesn't believe that this was the case, but neither Marie nor I nor anyone else can know how vulnerable the young woman felt at that moment.

The right thing, of course, is always to avoid potential harmful situations. If the young woman on the train believed she was doing this, then she had every right to ask the young man to sit elsewhere.

As soon as the train filled up with passengers and seats became scarcer, the right thing would be for her to remove her bag from the seat to allow other passengers to sit, even if that meant they might be sitting right next to her. Sometimes having to sit next to a stranger on a crowded train is an inherent risk of public transportation. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

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

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

(c) 2015 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.


Sunday, February 21, 2016

Should employees be allowed to work from home during blizzards?



Massachusetts had a snowstorm a few weeks back -- an occurrence that is likely to repeat itself regularly over the next several weeks. A reader from Massachusetts asks if it is right for an employer to make employees "take unnecessary risks" by driving to work after the governor asked residents to stay off the roads.

The reader works for a health care organization where employees who interact with patients must be in the office to be able to do their jobs. But the reader doesn't interact with any patients and can easily log on to her company's server so she can do her job from home.

But when she emailed her boss to let him know she'd be working from home to avoid being on the roads during the snowstorm, he told her that that would be unfair to the employees who had to show up to work on site. She would have to take a vacation day if she didn't come in.

The reader has colleagues with whom she works who regularly have received dispensation to work from home. "We communicate easily and as needed," she writes.

Other colleagues who have approached the human resources department with similar requests to work from home during extreme weather conditions in the past have had no luck.

"It just boggles my mind that in 2016, I'm working for a company, with a boss, who doesn't allow us to work at home during extreme weather conditions," she writes. "They'd rather we risk our lives or take a day off."

There are a few questions at play here. One is whether it's OK for a boss to insist on particular employees physically showing up to work even when the weather is miserable and they don't need to be on site to get their work done. Unless the reader had an agreement with her boss that she could occasionally work from home, particularly on snowy days, then the boss is within his rights to insist that she show up physically to work.

But another question is whether it makes sense for the boss to be rigid about this requirement, particularly if the state's governor has asked "non-essential" employees to stay off the roads if possible. In such situations, it's not unusual for companies to allow nonessential employees to stay home while others go to work.

That it wouldn't be "fair" to the essential employees if the nonessential employees worked from home seems a red herring. What the boss really is saying, and has every right to, is that he wants everyone to show up to work regardless of the weather. If they don't, then he doesn't want to credit them for a work day.

The right thing would have been for the employee to get clear on her ability to work from home when she accepted the job. Is it wise for the boss to insist on employees who don't need to be on the roads when more drivers could make road conditions more hazardous, especially when those employees could still put in a full day's work from home? No, but he has the right to do so. There are times when bosses get to where they are without wisdom playing into how they got there. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

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

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

(c) 2015 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.


Sunday, February 14, 2016

Was student creative or simply wrong for renting out his dorm room?



Earlier this week, I received a tweet from T.P., a reader who provided a link to a story about a college student who had been caught renting his dorm room on Airbnb, an online site that allows people to rent rooms, apartments, houses, and other forms of lodging to others.

T.P.'s question to me accompanying the link was simple and direct: "ethical or not ethical?"

The student who rented out his dorm room told a Boston Globe reporter that he was taking advantage of his dorm's desirable downtown location as well as his own desire to "make a little bit of extra money." (Full disclosure: I used to teach at the student's college.)

Airbnb is one of many popular businesses that have had wild success on the Internet by participating in the sharing economy -- where people sell access to goods they own, which others might use. Uber and Lyft are comparable services where people who own cars charge others for rides they book online to and from destinations. There a number of services available where people offer stuff or time or goods or services that they have and others want.

While Airbnb has come under criticism from licensed hotel operators and Uber from licensed taxicab drivers, each service seems to be thriving as people use the services to make money by leasing out things they already own.

The college sophomore saw an opportunity and was industrious enough to try to capitalize on it. He told The Boston Globe that he had cleared the rental of his dorm room with others in his suite. He also said he escorted them in and out of the building when they arrived. (It wasn't entirely clear where the student was staying himself when he let out his room, which overlooks a large city park.)

When the college found out about the enterprising student's efforts, it shut him down and he was to face a disciplinary hearing.

Quickly, a student-led support effort emerged on Twitter and a petition was started on Change.org. As I'm writing, the petition has 498 supporters, but the Twitter feed, while largely supportive, has some voices mixed in condemning the student's action.

If the student had owned the room he rented out and he didn't violate any homeowner's association agreement, he would likely be in the clear. If the student rented the room from a landlord and had the landlord's permission, he would also have been in the clear.

But the student did not have the dorm owner's permission to rent out his room, an action that violates both Airbnb's and the college's policy.

It's good to applaud creativity and industriousness among students. Entrepreneurial wherewithal is all the rage on many college campuses. And with skyrocketing tuitions and fees, who couldn't use some extra money to offset costs and staggering college loans?

But renting out a dorm room, knowing that doing so violates the agreement with the college and with the website listing the rental is dubious both legally and ethically.

When embracing the sharing economy, agreements should be honored and youthful enthusiasm should never get in the way of doing the right thing. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

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

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

(c) 2015 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.