Sunday, September 30, 2018

A yard sale discovery yields priceless character


When Sam Lapin of Union, Ky., bought a box of roughed-up model railroad pieces at a yard sale he saw advertised on Facebook, he never expected to find a small box containing a diamond ring among the purchase.

After taking the ring to a local jeweler, Lapin learned it was worth about $900.

He wrestled with whether to return the ring.

"What are your thoughts on the ethics of me keeping or returning the ring?" he asked me in an email.

Typically, at yard sales the burden falls on those selling the goods to make sure they know what they are selling. If a painting sold for $10 turns out to be a masterpiece worth thousands, the luck falls on the buyer of the portrait.

While Lapin's experience was a bit different and it seemed likely that the ring got mixed in with the model railroad by mistake, it still fell on the seller to make sure what he was selling ahead of time.

But I told Sam that none of this meant that out of kindness or thoughtfulness he mightn't let the seller know, particularly since it could have been a misplaced family piece that had far more value to the seller than it did to him.

Sam didn't wait for my response to decide the right thing to do. He sent the seller a message via his Facebook posting, letting him know about his find and asking him if he would like the ring back.

It turns out the seller, Jeffrey Kotz, had no idea the ring was in the box with the railroad stuff. About 15 years ago, Kotz's daughter had been given the engagement ring by a boyfriend. The engagement was broken off, and a few years later, Kotz bought the ring from his daughter when she needed some money.

"I was pleasantly surprised to hear he found the ring," Kotz told me, explaining that he had intended to set the ring and some other stuff aside that he didn't want to sell at the large yard sale he staged to "rid myself of some junk."

Lapin did not ask for anything in return. But Kotz asked him if he'd seen anything else at the yard sale that interested him. As luck with have it, Kotz still had the used laptop Lapin had had his eye on, and he gave it to Lapin as a thank you for the return of the diamond ring.

"There are a lot of folks out there that would have been happy and fortunate" to find the ring and would have said nothing, writes Kotz.

Lapin offered to drive the ring over to Kotz's house, but Kotz insisted that Lapin had already gone above and beyond so he drove to Lapin's house.

"We need more people of integrity like Sam," writes Kotz.

"Character is how you behave when no one is looking," writes the psychiatrist Robert Coles in The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination (Houghton Mifflin, 1989). In offering to return the ring no one knew he had, Lapin showed character and did the right thing.

"I am glad the ring is back where it belongs," writes Lapin. 

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, September 23, 2018

What ethical issues do you care about most?


What ethical issues do readers care about most?

Is it how to wrestle with coarse behavior by political leaders? Choosing not to lie when faced with seemingly attractive options?

From time to time, I check the online analytics to see which of the ethics columns I've written receive the most page hits. Given the current political environment, you'd think coarse behavior and choosing whether to lie might make the top viewed columns. But none crack the top of the list.

Granted the assessment is highly unscientific since it's impossible for me to know if a column that is called up is actually read, but by far the top three columns viewed are whether to accept a job offer made by someone who bad mouths colleagues, whether to stop a scavenger from taking returnable cans and bottles from your trash can, and whether companies have an obligation to try to actually help customers in need.

The three columns span 12 years in appearance, with the scavenger piece having run the longest ago (Jan. 29, 2006) and coming in second, the customer service column running five years ago (March 24, 2013) and coming in third, and the bad-mouthing job interviewer piece running two years ago (May 29, 2016) and receiving more than four times as many views as the third-place finisher.

What does this tell me about readers?

For one, it doesn't mean they don't care about other issues since those receive a good number of views as well. But the viewing habit does suggest that readers care the most about ethical issues, which are likely to affect them on a deeply personal basis. Almost all of us have had bad customer service experiences. Many of us have wondered if it was wrong to let scavengers pick from our trash rather than let the city reap any recycling benefits. And few of us have not had to wrestle with how to respond to someone bad mouthing someone we don't know.

Should we care more about political leaders lying to us? Certainly.

Should we be concerned with how honest we are with other people? Of course.

But day to day, we seem to lose sleep over what might seem like petty issues to some. It makes a certain amount of sense that we spend more time worrying about the pressing issues at hand that involve things others are doing to us. We can turn down the job offer from a bad-mouthing interviewer, change cellphone providers, or change the way we dispose of our trash.

We should care as much about our own behavior and whether we choose to lie, of course. And we should care as much about politicians behaving badly. But it's easy to set these issues aside when we need to deal with the trash habits of strangers.

The right thing, however, is to care as much about how we behave and the leaders we choose. Fortunately, it's not an either or situation and we are capable of doing both.

In the meantime, please continue to tell me about the ethical issues you care about most. 

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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