Sunday, May 26, 2024

To maintain friends with opposing views, listening may be key

In 1967, I met my best friend in Mrs. Steele’s fifth-grade class at School Street School in Boonton, New Jersey. My family had just moved to Boonton. Both the school and the town were new to me. I was 10 years old, and Boonton was the eighth town I had lived in. I was used to moving, but making new friends in a new town was always a challenge.

But my soon-to-be best friend and I quickly bonded over bowling, the hamburgers at the old Boonton Diner, and generally just hanging out. Ours has been a friendship that has survived through high school, during college and graduate school even though we were hundreds of miles apart, and as adults as we found our first jobs, fell in love with our eventual spouses, and built our respective families.

Before unlimited long distance on cell phones, email and text messaging, we would write occasional letters in between visits to fill one another in. After John Lennon was murdered in December 1980, I received a pre-stamped post card from my friend that had the question, “What do we do now?” typed on it. Without asking, I knew what he was referencing.

I bring this up now because of the questions I regularly get from readers about how to talk to family or friends when they find themselves on opposite sides of political or social issues. Sometimes a reader will question whether it’s wrong to stay friends with someone whose views you disagree with. My best friend and I hold opposing political views on most issues. We support none of the same candidates for national office. And we also find ourselves in disagreement over many social policy issues. Yet, even now that we live on opposite coasts, it’s not unusual for us to talk or text weekly.

Do we avoid talking politics or other thorny issues? No. But it’s never all that we talk about. We talk about our families, our work, the New York Yankees and who won the latest Super Bowl wager. When we do talk about politics, it can get heated, but we each seem pretty comfortable knowing we are not going to convert the other to our way of thinking. What’s important in the conversation, or at least seems to be, is that we listen to one another and trust each other to tell us what they believe and why. Sure, he does have a habit of sending me vintage T-shirts from political candidates he adores and I don’t, but humor can be a funny thing.

I am not holding myself or this friendship out for laudation. I suspect that there are far more people who are and remain friends with people who have differing views.

In his book, “Working,” writer Robert Caro writes that “silence is the weapon.” If we learn to shut up and listen we can sometimes appreciate why others believe what they do even if we disagree with them. Listening can be hard, but, at least in my experience, it has helped strengthen a five-decade long friendship.

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, emeritus, 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 to have answered? Send them to jeffreyseglin@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin

(c) 2024 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Is misshelving items lazy or a necessity or both?

Is it possible for someone to view an act as despicable while another views it as perfectly acceptable?

A couple of years ago, I wrote about a reader who was troubled that more and more items at her grocery store were misshelved. “I don’t know if people are lazier than before about putting an item back where they found it, if they decide not to buy it, or if it’s because the store can’t find enough workers to keep the shelves properly stocked.”

I empathized with the reader and suggested that whether the customer misshelved an item out of laziness or out of a desire to find it later before anyone else might buy it, it was wrong. “If customers don’t want to take the time to put an item back where they found it because it’s the right thing to do,” I wrote, “maybe they can embrace it as a self-interested way to get a few more steps in.”

“People misshelving items in a store disturbs and even angers me,” wrote K.C. in response. “It’s part of people’s increasing laziness. People just don’t care about doing the right thing and it’s discouraging, disgusting, and disappointing.”

But another reader, R.B., strongly disagreed. “Your recent column offended me,” wrote R.B. “I occasionally misshelve grocery items, either because I find a similar item for less or it does not fit my budget.” R.B. went on to report that she is an “older, single disabled lady who stays as active and independent as possible.” But, she wrote that “walking hurts” and that she would love to be able to walk 100 yards easily to be able to reshelve an item she decides not to purchase. “I am not in a hurry or lazy,” she wrote, and took issue with my suggestion that those who misshelve items likely are.

Both K.C. and R.B. make valid points. It can be annoying for both customers and store clerks if items in a store are regularly misshelved. But R.B. could be correct in observing that reshelving items can prove a real challenge for some customers for whom mobility is an issue. Nevertheless, the incidents of misshelved items persists.

Perhaps then it falls to the managers of grocery and other stores to do the right thing by providing customers with an option to place unwanted items in one area of the store before they check out. Doing so would enable clerks to know where to find the items to reshelve them. It would also cut away any guilt that shoppers might feel about having a change of heart about a product but not the wherewithal to return it to its original place.

Granted, an unintended consequence of providing customers with the option of putting unwanted items in one area might result in more customers being indecisive and subsequently loading up the change-of-mind shelf. That, however, might be a small price to pay to try to get things back where they belong. And even though there might be more items to reshelve, it might actually take clerks less time to do so since they won’t have to hunt the entire store for randomly misshelved stuff.

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, emeritus, 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 to have answered? Send them to jeffreyseglin@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin

(c) 2024 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Is aunt obligated to give nephew money intended for education?

Are you obligated to make good on a promise if the person you promised doesn’t hold up their end of the agreement?

Many years ago, a reader we’re calling Rebecca set up an educational savings account (ESA) for her nephew to support his college education. The account stipulates that it is to be used for education-related expenses.

Rebecca’s nephew has made it clear to her that he has no plans to go to college. Since he has chosen not to go to college, Rebecca asks: “Should I still give him the money?”

In a subsequent email exchange, Rebecca clarified that the ESA she set up was a Coverdell ESA, which has its own set of rules and restrictions. I am not an expert in investments, taxes or ESAs such as the Coverdell ESA Rebecca set up for her nephew. Whatever Rebecca decides to do, she should read the fine print of her account or consult a financial services professional so she can fully understand how best to do what she wants to do.

Rebecca’s nephew knows about the ESA she set up for him. She wrote that she told him she would not release any funds to him until he went to college. But she adds: “I doubt he remembers.”

My understanding is the Coverdell ESAs allow for any balances in an account be transferred to another family member younger than 30 to use for educational expenses. Rebecca wrote that she is considering transferring the money to her niece who is graduating from high school in June and scheduled to attend college in the fall.

Rebecca adds that she promised her nephew “a small bit, $1,000” even if he doesn’t use it for college. If she takes the $1,000 from the ESA and it’s not used for educational purposes, she may face a penalty and be obligated to pay taxes on it. Again, I’m not a financial planning expert, so Rebecca should check to make sure that she doesn’t do anything that gets her into an unexpected financial tangle.

If Rebecca made clear to her nephew that the funds she set aside were only to be used for his college education, she should feel no obligation to give him the money for some other purpose. It’s unclear if she put a time limit by which he must use the funds. If she didn’t, she could decide to tell him that the money will be there to cover some educational expenses when and if he decided to go to college, although she should check to see by what age the money needs to be used.

Before she makes any promises to her niece, the right thing is for Rebecca to decide what she plans to do with the funds and her nephew and to make that clear to him. While he might be disappointed, because the account was always set up as an education savings account, the use of any funds from it were always clear.

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, emeritus, 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 to have answered? Send them to jeffreyseglin@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin

(c) 2024 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Sunday, May 05, 2024

If gift makes you uncomfortable, should you accept it?

Is it inappropriate to accept a gift for doing what you believe to be your job?

For the past decade or so, a reader we’re calling Valerie has regularly shopped at an independently owned clothing store located on the main street of the town where she lives. Valerie had gotten to know the owner of the store who regularly chatted with her when she visited. The owner knew that Valerie was a mental health counselor who worked at a small practice in a neighboring community.

On a recent visit, the owner asked Valerie if she had a moment to speak about a personal matter. The two of them walked to a quiet corner of the store where other customers and clerks could not overhear. The owner told Valerie that the pressure of trying to keep her store afloat and the employees compensated during the pandemic had taken their toll. A few employees ultimately moved, but the owner indicated that the store and its employees seem to have rebounded well.

Where the owner could use some help, she confided in Valerie, was with her personal relationship to her partner whom she had been living with before the pandemic began. Without providing many details beyond the fact that stress had affected their relationship, the owner asked Valerie if she might be able to recommend a mental health counselor who could work with her and her partner. Valerie told the owner she would be glad to recommend someone and within a few days she recommended some names to the owner.

About two months later, when Valerie was shopping in the store, the owner came over to thank Valerie and to let her know how well both her relationship to her partner and to the counselor Valerie recommended were going.

“Thank you,” the owner said to Valerie. “I owe you.” Valerie acknowledged the thanks, but then the owner made it clear that she wanted to give Valerie an item from the store. Valerie thanked her for the offer but assured her she was only doing her job. The owner persisted, but Valerie held firm.

“It seems like a conflict to me to take something for connecting her to a therapist,” Valerie told me. “Am I wrong to feel uncomfortable taking something? Was I rude to decline the offer?”

I don’t pretend to know what kind of code of ethics Valerie has agreed to in her line of work. It strikes me, however, that while she might not be engaged in any real conflict since she is not the owner’s therapist and it was unlikely she would only suggest a good therapist if the owner gifted her a blouse she had been eyeballing, Valerie was right not to accept something that made her uncomfortable.

There is nothing rude about thanking the owner for the offer and declining. Knowing that the owner and her partner were able to get back on stronger footing thanks to Valerie’s suggestion may be the only gift that Valerie wants or needs. If she makes that clear to the owner then she’s done 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, emeritus, 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 to have answered? Send them to jeffreyseglin@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin

(c) 2024 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Sunday, April 28, 2024

How informed does an investor need to be to vote?

Do we have an obligation to be as informed as possible when we make a decision?

When a reader we’re calling Sonra’s father died in 2006 at 100, he and his siblings inherited shares of stock in many different companies. “Between that, existing holdings in my wife’s and my IRAs, and trust we set up for grandchildren,” wrote Sonra, “we have holdings in dozens of companies.”

Sonra wrote that while he doesn’t have the time or inclination to read all the annual and semi-annual reports he receives electronically throughout the year, he feels a responsibility to vote for or against company board directors, housekeeping issues and controversial shareholder proposals for those companies.

“To familiarize myself with all the information required to make informed votes would allow little time for more important issues in my life,” he wrote. “I almost always take the easy way out and go with the recommendations of the board of directors, but I don’t feel right about it.”

He supposes he could just not bother to vote at all, but that doesn’t feel right to him either.

“What is the right and responsible thing to do?” asked Sonra.

While Sonra’s decision is specific to individual stocks, it could easily be asked of other decisions we make on a regular basis. On many of the online agreements we sign for apps or software or product purchases or updates, consumers regularly scroll quickly through the small and lengthy type and click off the box indicating agreement without really knowing the specifics of what they’ve agreed to. Sonra is ahead of the game on this front since at least he reads what it is he’s voting on even if he doesn’t read all the supporting material.

In terms of being informed, he’s also ahead of where many investors whose retirement accounts are invested in a variety of mutual funds. It’s a safe guess that many, if not most, investors have little clue about what specific stocks their mutual funds are invested in beyond having an idea of the broad category of investments that are the focus on each fund.

But Sonra’s question is specific to his situation about what is right and responsible to do in voting on issues related to the stocks he owns. I am not an expert in providing financial advice, so for that sort of thing, Sonra should look to someone who is.

I can tell Sonra that what he’s doing strikes me as responsible. From the details he’s provided me, he seems to inform himself with what his stocks are and what issues are being voted on when he votes. Sure, he often takes the recommendations of the board of directors rather than do a deep dive into issues at stake himself. But presumably, he wouldn’t keep his stocks in those companies if he didn’t have faith in leadership.

If there’s a particular issue that arises about which Sonra cares more or if begins to doubt the judgment of some board decisions, he can choose to rely more on research other than his own. But the right thing for Sonra is to continue to be thoughtful about the investments he holds, try to understand the issues he’s voting on when a vote arises, and get on with what he deems to be “the more important issues” in his life.

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, emeritus, 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 to have answered? Send them to jeffreyseglin@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin

(c) 2024 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Should you vote against your views to send a message?

Is it ever right to support someone whose views you abhor if it helps you achieve other goals?

During the Republican primaries preceding the midterm congressional elections in 2022, there was a bit of a hubbub about how Democrats had helped fund campaigns for Republican candidates whose views included denying the validity of the 2020 presidential election. The idea apparently was that their more moderate Republican opponents in the primaries would be harder for the Democratic candidates to beat.

Beyond the disingenuousness of pouring millions into campaigns of candidates whose views they claimed to abhor, it was a risky gambit. The election-denying candidates could after all end up beating their Democrat opponent in the general election. For the most part, that didn’t happen and Democrats fared well in the fall 2022 election.

Even if they got the results they wanted, were Democrats wrong to financially support something they claimed was destined to destroy democracy?

I was reminded of the tactic a few weeks ago during the presidential primary elections. In Massachusetts, where I live and vote, unenrolled voters (what they call independent voters here) are permitted to ask for a Republican or a Democratic ballot when they vote in the primaries. In February, of the 4,957,403 registered voters in the Commonwealth, 1,336,825 identified as Democrats while 415,438 identified as Republicans. Both were eclipsed by the 3,153,445 who registered as unenrolled. There was a bit of chatter encouraging unenrolled voters who traditionally voted a Democratic primary ballot to ask for a Republican ballot to vote for the only remaining challenger to the former Republican president. The idea presumably was to send a message that the former president did not have as much support in the primary as he and his supporters hoped.

What this meant for many unenrolled voters with more politically progressive views was that they would end up voting for a candidate whose views were far more conservative politically than their own and often fell into the category of those for whom they swore they would never vote. And they’d be throwing away a vote for the Democratic candidate who they knew they would be voting for in the general election regardless of how the primaries turned out.

Was it wrong for unenrolled voters to use their vote to try to send a message even if it meant voting for someone whose views they loathed?

Not necessarily. If these unenrolled voters felt more strongly about trying to defeat the former president than they did about voting for a candidate whose policy views most closely matched their own, that’s an ethical choice they could weigh and make, recognizing that it might result in boosting the candidacy of someone for whom they normally would never vote.

I regularly encourage as many people as possible to register to vote and then to vote. But I draw the line at telling them how to vote. That choice is their call. Regardless of how they end up voting, it strikes me that the right thing is for them to become as informed about candidates or issues as possible, weigh the strengths and weaknesses, think through the implications of their decisions, then to make the choice they believe is best for their community and their country.

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, emeritus, 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 to have answered? Send them to jeffreyseglin@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin

(c) 2024 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.