Sunday, March 25, 2018

Just because it's legal, is it the right thing to do?


Almost 20 years ago, I started off a chapter of a book I wrote on business ethics with the observation that it's very possible for someone to make a perfectly legal decision without ever exploring the ethical aspects of that decision. Sometimes, I wrote, the law gives us an excuse to ignore whether the action we are taking is right or wrong.

I was reminded of this observation while reading reporter Connor Sheets' story in The Birmingham News about an Etowah County sherriff, Todd Entrekin, who apparently managed to abide by Alabama laws by keeping for personal use whatever funds allotted to food provisions for inmates. Over a three-year period, Sheets reports, Entrekin managed to sock away $750,000 in excess funds.

Some residents wondered how Entrekin and his wife had managed to amass real estate worth more than $1.7 million on his annual salary of $93,178.80. On the surface, it wouldn't be incomprehensible to believe that someone could have saved that much over the years and manage to invest wisely in real estate, which grew in value over time. But Entrekin's ability to make such purchases was undoubtedly made a bit easier by his ability to save on food provisions for Etowah County prisoners over the past three years.

If it's a perfectly legal maneuver, then what's the harm?

That's a question that many people might find themselves asking, although typically on a smaller scale. If a community is hit by a natural disaster, such as a flood or hurricane, for example, and all residents of the stricken community are offered free food and other forms of relief, what's the harm in residents whose homes weren't affected at all from availing themselves of free stuff? Legally, they reside in the same community as those who were left homeless and possession-less.

When those who aren't in need of the relief get in line because something is free to be had, there is less for those who are truly in need. From an ethical perspective, those who choose to cash in in such situations fail to take the time to assess the intent of the relief efforts, or simply allow self-interest to keep them from caring.

In the case of the Alabama sheriff, his choice might have been legal. But how much better might the food provisions have been for the inmates in his care? Entrekin told Sheets that "we utilize a registered dietitian to ensure adequate meals are provided daily." Even if the inmates food needs did not go wanting, how far could those $750,000 in taxpayer money have gone to addressing other needs of the community if any excess were turned over to the Etowah County?

Using the law to make questionable ethical decisions, which result in enriching ourselves, raises questions about our integrity, whether we are a county sheriff or a self-interested homeowner.

It's only after we ask ourselves whether the decisions we make might do any harm can we hope to do our thoughtful best to do 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 senior 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) 2018 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Drilling down on patient loyalty



For more than 30 years, A.L. and her family visited the same dentist. Even after they moved a half-an-hour's drive away from the dentist, they continued to visit him for regular checkups and any dental work they needed over the years.

Last year, the family's dentist announced his retirement. He was selling his practice to another dentist whose office was in the same office park. The plan was for the old dentist to continue practicing for three months at the new owner's location as the patients who wanted to transition to the new dentist did so. After those three months passed, A.L. continued to book visits with the new dentist.

While A.L. loved her old dentist (words not often enough heard), she also was quite fond of the work his long-term dental hygienist did for routine checkups, cleanings, and X-rays. Even though the dentist was retiring, the plan was for his hygienist to keep working for the new owner of the dental practice. Because A.L. and her family liked working with the hygienist, they decided to keep making the twice-a-year schlep to get their teeth checked on and cleaned.

On the few instances A.L. interacted with the new dentist, she wasn't all that fond of his chair-side manner. "He was thorough," writes A.L., "but seemed a bit condescending and a bit abrupt with his hygienist."

Nevertheless, A.L. persisted in remaining a patient of the new dentist. If nothing else, she felt she was being loyal to her hygienist.

About a week ago, A.L. learned that her long-term hygienist had left the dental practice. Apparently, it just became too difficult for her to continue to deal with the new dentist's manner.

A.L. doesn't know for certain what happened to cause the hygienist to leave the practice. But now that she's gone, she feels as if there's no reason not to find a dentist closer to home.

"Would it be wrong to leave the new guy and give him the impression I didn't like him when I really haven't established any kind of relationship with him?" she asks.

A.L. has every right to find a new dentist for whatever reason she wants to find one. That she continued driving a half-hour to the new dentist showed a great sense of loyalty. But there are a few things in her question that suggest she knows the answer to her own question.

It doesn't really matter whether the dentist was condescending or abrupt or if A.L. misread his manner. (OK, it certainly does matter to those who have to work with him.) That fact that A.L. has been seeing him for more than a year now and hasn't established any kind of relationship with the new dentist is reason enough to decide it might be time to find someone else.

She might find it will take time to establish as strong a relationship she had with her old dentist even if she does leave the new guy and find someone else. But at least she can try to do so much closer to home. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior 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) 2018 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

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