Sunday, April 14, 2024

Is it OK to snoop on a neighbor if the neighbor won’t know?

Should you look at something that you know wasn’t meant for you to see?

I regularly write recommendation letters for former colleagues, students and others whose work I know and with whose character I’m familiar. It takes time to write these letters well, but I gladly do it for most who ask.

A few weeks ago, I emailed off a recommendation to the emails provided me by the person I was recommending. A few hours later I received an email from one of the recipients telling me he may have the same name as the intended recipient and they may work at the same large institution, but he was not the person for whom the letter was intended. He wrote that he didn’t know the correct email address for the other guy and ended with: “But I can reassure you that I destroyed your recommendation without reading it.”

The incident reminded me of a recent report from a reader we’re calling Tom who wrote that a neighbor of his had asked if he could print something on the reader’s printer since he didn’t own his own. The neighbor emailed Tom the document, a job offer letter, so Tom could print it out and his neighbor could pick it up. Tom waited for his neighbor to arrive and then opened the attached document on his email, printed it out and let his neighbor grab it from the output tray on Tom’s printer.

Tom noted, however, that the document itself was still in his email and if he wanted to he could easily look at it without his neighbor ever knowing. He suspected that financial information and details about the neighbor’s job offer were in the letter. Even though he told Tom the nature of the letter, he never told him that it was confidential and never asked him not to read it.

Tom wondered: Would there be anything wrong with taking a peek out of curiosity, especially given that he didn’t plan to do anything with the information or to share it with anyone else?

A good rule of thumb to remember is that just because no one might discover we did something wrong, that doesn’t make that wrong action OK. This goes for reading someone’s email that they might leave open on their screen when you happen to be near their computer. Or to glance at their text message if they left their phone sitting near you when they weren’t around. Or to read the details of a document inadvertently left on a copier by a colleague. Or to read the hard copy of someone’s performance review if they left it on their desk and happened to notice it when no one was around.

In cases where a piece of information is clearly personal and likely meant to be confidential, the right thing is to treat it as such and either destroy it without reading it or fight the urge to read it if the opportunity to do so arises.

The only reason Tom should read his neighbor’s letter would be if his neighbor had told him it was OK to do so. That Tom knew it was unlikely his neighbor would do that should confirm for him that he should simply delete the email with the attachment and feel good about lending his printer when his neighbor was in need.

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 07, 2024

Should you speak up when boss’ actions bug you?

Should you always say something when your boss does something that bugs you?

A reader we’re calling Clarence works as a teacher in a public school. He enjoys his work and likes his colleagues. He regularly receives work-related emails on his work email.

Lately, however, the chair of Clarence’s department has sent the occasional group text message to him and his colleagues, following up on a recent issue or preparing them for an issue that is soon to arise. The chair had access to each of the teachers’ cell phone numbers in case of emergency so they could be reached.

Even though the chair had not let the teachers know that they'd be receiving texts, Clarence didn’t really have an issue with receiving the occasional message as long as they arrived during the workday.

Increasingly, Clarence said, the texts have been arriving randomly and throughout the day and evening, often during dinner time or late at night. So far, he says, there’s been nothing urgent that couldn’t have waited until the work day or, even better, couldn’t have been sent through official work email since the texts were all work related.

Clarence checks his email regularly, but he can set it aside when the work day is done. His cell phone, however, remains on and texts come through on his personal cell phone whenever someone deems to send one.

If there were an emergency and his chair were to text or call him, Clarence says he’d have no problem. But receiving random, non-emergency texts on his personal phone after hours strikes him as inappropriate. He’d like to say something to his chair but he says he knows they would be “mortified” if the intrusion were brought to their intention, so he is reluctant to do so. He also doesn’t know if the practice is bothering his colleagues as much as it bothers him since they haven’t discussed it. He is concerned that raising the issue with colleagues might result in building the issue into more of a crisis than the nuisance it is.

Nevertheless, he would like the practice not to persist. What, if anything, should he do?

It was bad form not to let the teachers know that the chair planned to use their personal cell phone numbers to text them from time to time. It also seems perfectly appropriate for Clarence to say something if the practice of after-hours texting bothers him.

That Clarence is concerned about his chair being mortified shouldn’t stop him from saying something if he wants to change things. He might do well to decide how strongly he wants to register a complaint about the practice.

One thought is for Clarence to ask his chair if it’s possible to use the school email for communication so the teachers don’t have to try to remember if a message about a meeting or an issue is in a personal text or in school email. Approaching the issue this way lessens the possibility that the chair will be mortified in learning how they have been invading the teachers’ personal space.

But saying something is the right thing to do if Clarence would like the practice to stop.

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, March 31, 2024

Baby, you can drive my car if the timing works out

Is a conditional offer binding?

A regular reader we’re calling Lennon and his spouse we’re calling Paula had a 19-year-old car with 109,000 miles on it. After the car began to experience issues, they decided it was time to consider a new vehicle.

When their son learned they might be shopping around, he asked if he could buy Lennon’s car for his teenage daughter who had recently wrecked her car. “We quickly agreed,” wrote Lennon. “In fact, we agreed to just give it to her.”

But Lennon’s granddaughter’s need for a car became more immediate after she got a new job.

Lennon and Paula had started looking, but it wasn’t going as quickly as they had hoped. That Lennon needed hand controls to drive slowed the search process down even more.

“We felt a lot of pressure to buy a car before we were ready to make a decision,” wrote Lennon. Paula felt they had made a commitment to their son, but Lennon felt that circumstances had changed when their granddaughter needed a car sooner than theirs would be available. Since their son had texted Paula that he was prepared to buy a car for his daughter if his parents weren’t ready to turn theirs over to him yet, Lennon thought it was “painfully OK” to renege on the initial offer. “My wife thought differently.”

After some serious thrashing through, Lennon and Paula agreed to “soften the blow” by offering their son a considerable sum of money toward another car.

Now that their granddaughter has a safe vehicle to use, Lennon believes they are “over the hump.” But he wrote that “my wife doesn’t think I/we honored our word or did the right thing, because she saw our verbal agreement to give our son a car as a commitment.”

Lennon asked my opinion, observing that even if he’s “vindicated” by my opinion, “that doesn’t mean I’m right in hers, of course (lovable as she is).” He also wrote that this has been probably the worst controversy in their 51-year marriage.

Paula is right that they made a verbal commitment to give their granddaughter their car once they bought a new one. Lennon pointed out, however, that they hadn’t agreed to hand over the car before they were able to purchase a new one. Once it became clear that their granddaughter needed a car before Lennon and Paula had been able to purchase a new one, they faced a conundrum. Should they have handed over their car and be left figuring out how to get around without a vehicle? Not an ideal solution.

Ideally, Lennon and Paula would have honored their commitment, but they did the right thing by being forthright with their son when circumstances changed. If their granddaughter could have waited, that might have been the best outcome. Once it became clear she couldn’t, Lennon and Paula’s offer to help fund the purchase of a car for her was generous and honorable.

Neither Lennon nor Paula were wrong in their assessment of the situation. Each of them was trying to do something kind for their granddaughter. Ultimately, they simply came down differently on a solution to this particular challenge. Even if they never resolve their differences on this one, if this is the worst controversy in 51 years of marriage, their track record seems on solid ground.

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, March 24, 2024

What should a conscientious voter do to become informed?

What should someone do to research candidates or issues before an election?

A reader we’re calling Harris recently emailed observing that it is a presidential election year and he wants to cast an informed vote. He mentioned that in addition to the presidential and gubernatorial candidates who will appear on his ballot where he lives in North Carolina, there are likely to be “a total of 56 candidates running for 13 offices.”

In spite of all the promotional flyers sent out, Harris contended that the average person, including him, has no clue as to who the best candidates are – “especially the non-political ones, like state auditor or commissioner of insurance.” Harris asked a town council member for his recommendations, but he suspects the guy doesn’t really know any more about the more “obscure” offices than Harris does.

“My local McClatchy newspaper has probably dug deeper into those candidates than my town councilman has had time to do,” wrote Harris. “It has made some recommendations that conflict with his, probably reflecting opposing political points of view.

“What should a conscientious person do when he/she can’t invest a lot of time researching candidates, especially when the ‘mainstream media’ or other resources aren’t neutral?” asked Harris. “Rely on an equally uninformed friend?”

Harris believes we are all victims of too much information and is concerned information overload will get even worse “now that artificial intelligence looms large.”

I applaud Harris and others who are committed to voting in local and national elections. That Harris wants to become as informed as possible about the issues and candidates running before he casts his vote strikes me as a good thing. Anyone who wants to take even a small bit of time to become an informed voter should be able to do so.

Harris has already tried one avenue that I would have suggested and that’s to search the newspaper covering his local area for election information. Where local newspapers don’t exist, this proves a challenge and Harris indicated that what he found in his local newspaper left him wanting more.

The online sites for the various state election agencies that oversee local elections can be a useful resource. Harris can find a link to those agencies here.

I also spoke with Ashley Spillane, the president of Impactual, a consulting firm whose mission is to focus on “creating a healthy democracy.” (Full disclosure: I’ve known Ashley since she was a graduate student in a course I taught.) While Ashley is someone who’s worked vigorously for years to help get people out to vote, I wanted to know what nonpartisan resources she turns to for the type of information Harris seeks.

“There are two resources I use to help fill my ballot out all the way down to the most local races,” she responded: BallotReady and Vote 411, a site run by the League of Women Voters. As an election draws closer, each site will include information on national and local ballots. Users can type in their location to get information on the elections in which they can vote.

Again, I applaud Harris for wanting to become as informed as he can. Making certain that accurate information is available for him and others who want it to use is the right thing to do.

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, March 17, 2024

Storytelling still works only if the stories are true


 

How far should you let a good story go to make a point?

A quote widely attributed to Mark Twain with no evidence that he actually said or wrote it is: “Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.” Perhaps it’s a good thing that this particular gem does not seem to be a piece of wisdom imparted by Twain; it remains questionable if lying for the sake of a good story is a good thing, especially when you are trying to use that story to convince others of something.

Almost 25 years ago, I wrote a column titled, “Storytelling Only Works if Tales Are True,” in which I cited several people on how useful being able to tell a good story was in convincing an audience of whatever it was you wanted to convince them of.

Robert Metcalfe, the retired founder of 3Com Corporation, embraced the use of a good story to make a point in business or life, but he was clear on its limitations. ''By telling a story, I don't mean story as in make things up,'' Metcalfe said ''I have told the story of 3Com a thousand different ways. You make it dramatic. You select facts. You add drama. You wink. You smile. You leave out unimportant things that might weaken your point. It's all part of the gentle process of persuasion.

''But,'' he was quick to add, ''one of my rules is: Never lie.''

Crossing from making a story dramatic to telling an outright lie could have “devastating effects,” I wrote at the time. If colleagues who experienced the same events discovered you were lying about those events, your credibility could be lost. If lies found their way to the wider world, then you risked becoming known as a fabricator who made stuff up.

That was 25 years ago. Does it remain a bad thing to lie to colleagues or the public in a story you’re telling? Are there enough incidents of howlers of lies being told on a stump speech or in a widely disseminated media interview that result in boosting a politician’s popularity to make it time to rethink whether lying really matters?

In the movie “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” a newspaper reporter discovers that the legend of a showdown with a local outlaw surrounding an aging and beloved U.S. senator was not factual. The reporter chooses to rip up the notes detailing the facts and utters the now-famous line: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That’s bad journalism, but it does point out how people can become more comfortable with what they believe to be true rather than with the actual truth.

Telling or spreading lies to make people comfortable, however, falls short of striving to live a life of integrity where we embrace the hard truths as well as the comfortable ones. Witnessing that others get ahead or thrive when we believe them to regularly play fast and loose with facts doesn’t justify telling lies to get whatever it is we want.

When telling a story, the right thing remains to make sure it’s true. We owe that much to our audience, but also to ourselves if we want to continue to strive not to become the type of person we swore we never wanted to become.

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, March 10, 2024

Is silence golden?

In celebrating someone’s accomplishment, should you point out a mistake she’s made?

A long-time reader from North Carolina who we’re calling Rosalind wrote to report that she’d just finished reading a book that raised the question. She wants to know if she should report an error she noticed while reading.

The book was written by Rosalind’s distant older cousin. They’d met a few times when they were teenagers, but Rosalind doesn’t think they’ve had any contact in more than 60 years. Rosalind’s older sister had read the cousin’s book, enjoyed it, and wrote to their cousin to congratulate her.

After hearing about the book from her sister, Rosalind, checked out a copy from her local library and found it to be a well-written and enjoyable read about her marriage to a controversial and well-known theatrical producer in New York City.

“As I read the book, I considered reaching out and giving my cousin positive feedback on the book too,” wrote Rosalind. That many of the plays the cousin’s husband had produced were “cutting edge” and not shows that she “as a conservative” would be likely to consider seeing gave Rosalind some pause, but then she decided she could simply recognize her cousin’s accomplishment in writing the book.

“Here’s the hitch,” wrote Rosalind. In the acknowledgments, her cousin wrote that her parents “would have been please to know that I, like them, wrote a book.” Clearly, the cousin meant to write “pleased” rather than “please.”

Rosalind would like to write her cousin to praise her work but also to point out the typo in case she doesn’t know about it already and might be able to fix it in future printings. “If she doesn’t know it exists, however, my pointing it out could be a source of some irritation” instead of any “relative joy” (Rosalind’s pun) of hearing from a long-lost cousin.

Rosalind wrote that her spouse says she is honest to a fault. Nevertheless, Rosalind believes that pointing out the typo could be appreciated by her cousin. She’s concerned, however, that she might be making much ado about nothing and should forget about pointing out the typo.

“What do you think?” Rosalind asked me.

Years ago, I wrote about a college librarian I knew who was crushed after being corrected on her pronunciation of English words by a student. She wasn’t crushed because the student had corrected her, but rather because she clearly had been mispronouncing words for years and no one had ever said anything to her. Generally speaking, people appreciate learning about an error they’ve made, especially if they might be able to do something about it in the future.

The right thing, I believe, is for Rosalind to mention the typo to her cousin. It likely shouldn’t be the first thing Rosalind mentions. Instead, she can lead off her note about how well-written and enjoyable a read the book was. I would imagine Rosalind might also want to add a note or two with selected highlights of what she’s been up to over the past six decades. As long as the pointing out of the typo isn’t presented as a gotcha-type moment or a scolding about imprecision or a suggestion that one typo ruined the whole book, I would hope that Rosalind’s cousin would appreciate the sentiment with which the notation is delivered.

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.