Friday, May 26, 2006



THE RIGHT THING: Playing It the Company Way, After Hours

MANAGEMENT at the Bank of America thought it had a winner. In a program called "Adopt an A.T.M.," begun last June, the bank asked employees to volunteer to look after one of its automated teller machines and to keep the machine's surroundings gleaming with pride -- on their own time and without pay.

"We thought it was a great idea," said Kieth Cockrell, executive vice president in Charlotte, N.C., of the bank's credit, debit and smart-card division, which oversaw the program. More than 2,800 of the bank's 158,900 workers signed up to adopt one of the bank's more than 10,000 teller machines.

But when Marcy V. Saunders, the California state labor commissioner, read about the program, she hit the ceiling. She wrote to the bank, saying the program seemed to her in clear violation of "basic precepts of wage and hour law" and demanding that the volunteers be paid or that the program be discontinued within 10 days. The bank met with Ms. Saunders to see if it could satisfy her objections, but rather than comply with the requested changes, it suspended the program and instead set up a toll-free number for employees to report problems at A.T.M.'s.

Even if asking employees to work for nothing were legal, though, the program would have raised important ethical questions about the nature of the company-employee relationship. Not least is the issue of reciprocity. Does an employer that counts on its workers to further its interests during their off hours, gratis, have a right to discipline workers who handle personal business during office hours?

"Companies feel perfectly free to infringe upon employees' time, while not necessarily being extremely flexible when it comes to employees' demand for time," said Daryl Koehn, director of the Center for Business Ethics at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.

On this front, Bank of America's policy is fairly vague. "In our code of ethics," said Ann L. DeFabio, a bank spokeswoman, "basically it just says that the proper use of Bank of America assets is essential to the financial soundness and integrity of the bank." But it is not likely that a giant bank would see much equivalence between, say, employees' using company postage to pay personal bills and using their own paper towels to clean A.T.M. screens.

It is a common ethical disconnect. Most businesses think nothing of expecting extra miles from employees, and are shocked when they are called on it. They automatically think of the employee's commitment to the company as open-ended, but draw a sharp line around the company's commitment to the employee.

Some critics see cynical, deliberate exploitativeness in such attitudes. By and large I don't doubt the employers' good intentions -- just their logic. Still, plans like "Adopt an A.T.M." bespeak a patronizing arrogance, an assumption that company pride is reason enough for employees to give and give some more -- and never mind whether the company gives anything back.

"Quite often the leaders really are doing what they think is in the best interests of the company," said Michelle L. Reina, co-author of "Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace." (Berrett-Kohler, 1999) "They do at times tend to forget the individuals involved. When they get the type of response they're getting in this particular case, they are caught off guard. And at times they feel betrayed in response."

On the surface, such indignation might seem justified. "From an ethical perspective, Bank of America is doing nothing wrong" with the program itself, said Laura P. Hartman, a professor of business ethics at the University of Wisconsin. "The ethical issues come up where there is undue influence of an inappropriate nature."

That is a potentially fatal flaw inherent in any "voluntary" program handed down from management, particularly one tied to company business: there is subtle coercion just in asking, because some employees won't feel free to say no, regardless of how big the word "voluntary" is on the flier.

Employees who truly love the bank enough to freely volunteer for such a program are probably already picking up any litter they find near an A.T.M. -- without having to be asked. Beyond that, all a formal adoption program could accomplish is inducing less-than-willing employees to join the unpaid tidiers. That's why it struck so many as unfair.


Each year many companies sponsor companywide campaigns to raise funds for particular charitable organizations. Often a single manager is designated to spearhead the effort, with the results compared to those of his or her predecessors.

Under these circumstances the pressure on that manager to get full employee participation is great, and that pressure is often passed on to the company's employees, who routinely receive memos on the importance of their participation. Many may fear that not giving to the cause will mark them in the eyes of management as someone who is not a "team player."

Still, many charities that do good work for good causes depend on such company drives to keep them funded.

Do you think that it's right for companies to sponsor such charitable drives in the workplace?

Send your thoughts to or post them at Please include your name, your hometown and the name of the newspaper in which you read this column. Readers'comments may appear in an upcoming column.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.


Several years ago I wrote about "Adopt an ATM," a program that Bank of America had launched for its employees. Each employee was asked to look after one of the bank's automated-teller machines and to keep the area surrounding it tidy. Employees were to do this on their own time and without pay.

The program was terminated after California's state labor commissioner wrote the bank to say that she thought the program violated wage and hour laws. If the program was to continue, she said, the volunteers would have to be paid. (The "Adopt an ATM" column is posted at

When a person in a position to help your career asks you to "volunteer" to do something, it places the requester in a position of undue influence. Some employees may simply feel unable to say "no," regardless of how much the "voluntary" aspect is stressed.

Such situations run the gamut from a pitch by a boss selling Girl Scout cookies on behalf of his daughter to a companywide drive to get all employees to contribute to a specific charity. The lingering question is: If I don't do as requested, will it harm my fortunes in the workplace?

The same holds true when dealing with customers. Last Christmas D.C., a reader who runs a messenger service in southern California, received a letter from one of his most important customers that read: "The holiday season is rapidly approaching and our company Christmas party is being organized. I would like to offer your company the opportunity to make a donation for this year's holiday party. Your acceptance of this offer is appreciated and admired by the entire family here at our company."

D.C. didn't like the pitch, but nonetheless felt that he had to offer something.

"When we found out that another messenger service also used by our customer was sending a check for double the amount of our intended offering," he writes, "we felt compelled to match their $500 check."

He was perplexed by the "audacity" of the customer, he writes, and by the clearly implied "We expect you to contribute."

"In the more than 30 years that I have been in business," D.C. writes,"this is the first time that a customer ever asked me to donate to their company party. Were we correct in questioning our customer's ethics?"

D.C., and anyone else in a similar position, certainly has a right to resent the situation on ethical grounds. A "request" of this nature putsthe recipient in the position of having to decide whether to contribute to something he or she would rather not, or to not contribute and risk losing a customer's future business to competitors who play along. Deliberately or not, the company is taking advantage of its relationship to your business,and that's unethical -- one small step short of soliciting a kickback.

What's more, it's just plain gauche. You're being asked to help pay for a party you're not even invited to!

The challenge, of course, is to decide whether you're willing to risk future business with the company by letting it know how uncomfortable you are with the solicitation. Though vexed, D.C. was unwilling to take such a gamble.

If the situation nags at D.C., the right thing would be for him to follow the lead of many other companies which have policies that prohibit giving or receiving gifts from vendors or customers. If his company makes that policy clear from the outset to all people and companies with whom he does business, such thorny situations will be simpler to smooth out.

Friday, May 19, 2006


I don't enjoy getting calls from telemarketers. I signed up for the federal do-not-call list as soon as I could, but not-for-profit organizations are not bound by this list, so I still get calls.

My general rule of thumb is that I don't commit to giving money over the telephone. If an organization or cause sounds like something that my wife and I might contribute to, I ask the caller to send information. If he or she is persistent about extracting money from me during the telephone call, I say no and hang up. No matter the cause, I feel absolutely no guilt.

My wife and I donate regularly to a variety of not-for-profits, but we like to have a clear idea of what we're donating to and to be comfortable with the organization's goals and practices. And we don't like feeling strong-armed into making a donation.

Joe Read, an aptly named reader from southern California, isn't troubled by pesky telephone calls. Instead he has people showing up at his house seeking a $10 donation in recognition of a newly painted curb address in front of his house.

Read knew it was coming. He had received a notice from the city announcing that a certain not-for-profit organization had received permission to repaint all curb addresses on public streets. Once the job was completed, Read and other residents were advised, a representative of the not-for-profit would stop by to give everyone an opportunity to make a tax-deductible donation. The notice made clear that residents would be under no obligation to contribute.

"The estimated value of this service is $10," the notice added."However, all donations are greatly appreciated, and every $10 received will feed a family for one week."

Read is sympathetic to people needing food, he writes, but he's also skeptical that all of that fee will go directly to those in need.

"Giving where I know my money directly provides help makes me feel good," he writes. "Giving where I can visualize that I'm lining the pockets of an entrepreneur who is leveraging `free meals to the needy' doesn't make me feel good."

He's also not crazy about the fact that the city is apparently not paying for the curb painting "and those curbs belong to them, not me."

Because he considers the maneuver to be a moral squeeze play by the city to escape paying for what it should, he's not going to make a donation. But, he writes, he's "trying to keep from feeling like a bastard for not doing so."

Read should have no guilt whatsoever if he declines to contribute. However, there's also no reason for the town administrators to have second thoughts about an innovative solution to getting the street numbers repainted, which will presumably assist mail carriers, police, ambulance drivers and private citizens in finding the right houses, especially at night. In these tight times, getting the job done without spending taxpayer money is itself a laudable accomplishment.

If Read's real hang-up is worry that his $10 might not go directly to help feed the poor, he should research this particular not-for-profit to see what percentage of its donations goes directly to the cause and what percentage to administrative costs.

The right thing for Read to do is to decide whether this not-for-profit is one whose work he wants to support, regardless of the freshness of the curb number in front of his house. If the group meets his standards, he can donate as much as he likes. If it doesn't, he can politely decline the solicitation.

In either case, his situation is similar to that of someone receiving the free return-address labels that some charities send out in the hope that recipients will make a contribution in exchange. Because he didn't request the service, he has no ethical obligation to pay for it -- especially since, unlike the return-address labels, this service is one that he considers a favor to the city, not to him.

If he decides not to make a contribution to this group, there are plenty of other organizations to which he can give his money and feel good about it.


Should prisoners awaiting trial receive different treatment from those convicted of crimes? Sheriff Thomas Hodgson of Bristol County, Mass.,thinks not, but when I asked my readers, many disagreed. "The detainee should definitely be treated differently from a convicted felon," writes Don Hull of Costa Mesa, Calif. "Until you are convicted, you are not a criminal, so the sheriff is simply being an SOB to treat detainees as if they were criminals."

Tom Guzzetta of Mission Viejo, Calif., agrees. If a defendant has entered a plea of not guilty, Guzzetta argues, the defendant "has not lost any constitutional rights and should not be treated like he or she has."

But Gail Liles of Windsor, Ontario, believes that too often criminals manipulate the system so that they "have it made due to the time they spend `waiting' for trial."

The pretrial time spent in jail often counts toward a sentence if they're found guilty of a crime, she writes. She finds no justice in these "taps on the wrist," particularly for those found guilty of violent assault.

Check out other opinions or post your own at:

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Spiro Press, 2003), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.

Friday, May 12, 2006


[This column originally appeared in the Sunday New York Times on August 17, 2003.]

IN "Glengarry Glen Ross," David Mamet's play about cutthroat salesmen trying to move less-than-alluring residential real estate, the overarching mantra was "always be closing." The message was this: Do what it takes to sell property to the unsuspecting, even if that means being selective in what you disclose about the houses you want to unload.

The characters in the play may be extreme examples, but the practice of businesses selectively using information to sell products is widespread. "Selective marketing is basically emphasizing the positive elements of whatever goods you have," said Stuart C. Gilman, president of the Ethics Resource Center in Washington.

"You can say that it's unfair, but it's absolutely reasonable. In a marketplace you expect people to make sensible decisions."

Is it fair, then, for politicians to use such selectivity when trying to sell a policy to their constituencies? The question was brought to the forefront by news reports that President Bush, in his State of the Union address in January, might have staked part of his support for a war against Iraq on doubtful British intelligence suggesting that Iraq had tried to buy uranium for nuclear weapons from Niger. If the president's staff couldn't find United States intelligence to support the allegation, was it wrong to selectively use foreign intelligence to make his point?

"Since I've been involved in campaigns, it's always been within the strike zone to use selective information," said James Carville, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton and a current co-host of "Crossfire" on CNN. "But the obligation to tell the truth is heightened when one is proposing to start a war as opposed to proposing to put a television spot up.

"Business marketing and politics often overlap in election campaigns. Someone vying for office is essentially trying to sell himself to voters. "When you are campaigning, you're like the businessman who has a limited responsibility, a limited set of people to whom you owe something," said Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College and author of "Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice" (W. W. Norton).

But, increasingly, because of the fund-raising involved in running for national office, "you have to be in an almost permanent campaign mode," said David Gergen, now a professor of public service at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, who was an adviser to four presidents. "In politics, you fall into the trap of short-termism. You do whatever it takes to keep the headlines up today." This short-term thinking is not dissimilar to what causes some businesses to make poor decisions in trying to bolster stock prices or earnings reports.

"The trap of the permanent campaign is that you diminish statesmanship," Professor Gergen said. "Statesmen rise above the daily concern and look to the long haul."

BUT it's difficult to affect the long haul if you find yourself voted out of office. For that reason, Dick Morris, a former adviser to Mr.Clinton and the author of "Off with Their Heads: Traitors, Crooks and Obstructionists in American Politics, Media and Business" (Regan Books, 2003), said he thinks that "using polling and all of the tools of an election to help you govern is a good thing."

"It gets the president to be very aggressive in figuring out what he can do in an active way really to help the country," he added. "The motivation is to govern well so he can get elected.

"Even if President Bush has to campaign constantly and, as a result, selectively uses information to sell his message, we still expect him to tell the truth. "If they decided to lie to make the case stronger that's simply unethical," said Mr. Gilman, who was a senior official at the United States Office of Government Ethics from 1988 to 2001. Mr. Gilman said he hopes that the president "got one bad piece of intelligence and the rest was correct."

Some political analysts say President Bush crossed a line in selectively using information by pointing to British intelligence to make an argument, when American intelligence doubted the claim. "As in all marketing, when you go too far, it creates a small cloud over you about credibility," Professor Gergen said.

There's more at stake when President Bush selectively uses information than when a business executive tries to move a product. The president's role clearly distinguishes his unique moral responsibility. As an executive, you don't order young men and women to give up their lives for a cause.


A colleague at work takes you aside and tells you that your manager asked him if he could use his name on an expense report to justify an expense that really wasn't business-related. It's a minor expense -- say, the cost of a meal at a nearby restaurant. The colleague agreed, but felt uneasy about it. Now he has confided in you.

Do you feel obliged to confront your manager? to tell his boss? or to strongly encourage your colleague to do either? Or, because you weren't directly involved in the situation and you didn't actually see the expense report in question, is it best to do nothing?

Send your thoughts to or post them here by clicking on COMMENTS below. Please include your name, your hometown and the name of the newspaper in which you read this column. Readers'comments may appear in an upcoming column.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.


Not everything that's wrong is a breach of ethics. Despite what some people seem to think, it's possible to simply be wrong without being morally culpable.

The other day an old friend called to ask my advice. A consultant he had hired was having trouble meeting agreed-upon deadlines, and my friend had discovered that the consultant had taken on another project with someone affiliated with his business. The new client was not a competitor, but my friend believed that the time the consultant spent on this new project was causing him to miss his deadlines on my friend's project. He wanted to know if he would be on solid ground in questioning the consultant's ethics.

The consultant clearly was late in delivering what he had promised, but -- beyond his not keeping the promise implicit in every agreed-upon schedule -- I didn't see any ethical breach. There were no restrictions on the consultant taking other jobs.

My friend didn't have an ethical problem on his hands, in short. He had a management problem, namely, how to get the consultant to deliver on time.

But my friend was in an all-too-familiar position. Instead of addressing the challenging management issue, he felt that he would have a more powerful argument if he could attribute the consultant's behavior to some ethical breach. That sort of thinking is misleading, however, because the attempt to place the other person on the defensive elevates the problem to a moral issue and distracts attention from the real problem at hand.

The tendency to shove tough decisions onto the ethical battlefield isn't limited to the workplace, of course.

D.T., a reader from Orange County, Calif., wrote me recently with one such example. She and her boyfriend are planning to marry by the end of the summer. Each of them has children from previous marriages.

Her son is 21 years old. He works and pays for his own college and personal expenses. Her fiance's son and daughter are 13 and 9, respectively. They live with their mother in another state, and her fiance pays more than $1,000 a month in child support.

The couple has drawn up a prenuptial agreement regarding their premarital assets. They plan to commingle most of the assets they accumulate after they are married.

But they are at odds over their wills. D.T. believes that the surviving spouse should agree to divide whatever remaining assets the couple may have so that her son gets half and her fiance's children each get one-quarter.

"He feels that we should think of them as `our' children and divide assets three ways," she writes.

She is writing to me to ask what would be the most ethical thing to do here.

While D.T.'s fiance may have a good idea in thinking of all the children as simply "theirs," there's nothing unethical about either of their approaches. As long as each is honest with the other about his or her intentions, either solution would be a sound one from an ethical perspective.

What they're facing is a good, old-fashioned disagreement. The right thing to do is to take the time to talk through their differences, explore both options as well as any other alternatives, and find a decision that satisfies both of them.

The risk of seeking the ethical upper hand in resolving day-to-day issues is that it removes one of the key responsibilities that each of us bears: to learn how to deal with people who occasionally see the world differently from us.

That's a valuable lesson for anyone, particularly those who are headed into marriage.

Sunday, May 07, 2006


In her cover story on Sunday (, Boston Herald writer Jessica Heslam explores whether NBC's Dateline crossed the line in helping to catch online pedophiles.

In her article, Heslam quotes me as saying:

If it weren’t compelling television, “Dateline” wouldn’t run the series, said Emerson College professor Jeff Seglin, who writes the New York Times Syndicate’s column “The Right Thing.”

“ ‘Dateline has an issue of crossing the line from being a watchdog to being a participant because they’re actively involved in helping to find these people,” he said.

What do you think? Did Dateline go too far in getting involved in this effort to catch online pedophiles? You can post your comments below by clicking on COMMENTS or email them to me at

Friday, May 05, 2006


In the part of Allston, Mass., where my reader M.B. lives, there are some longstanding-yet-unwritten community rules.

Rule No. 1 affects his entire neighborhood. Long-time residents mark their parking spots on the street with garbage cans, orange cones, old folding chairs, empty plastic milk crates or other objects.

The city permits residents to mark parking spaces in this manner for the first 48 hours after a snowstorm. Otherwise it's illegal -- which doesn't mean that it isn't done in M.B.'s area.

"The residents in this neighborhood do this year-round," he writes,"regardless of whether it's snowed or not."

Rule No. 2 is limited to the shared laundry facility in the apartment complex where M.B. lives. Whenever all washers or dryers are taken, those waiting for a machine place their baskets of laundry on top of the machine they're waiting for. The trouble is that often M.B. goes down to the laundry, sees a basket and then returns, 45 minutes later, to find that the cycle is finished but whoever marked the place still hasn't returned to use the machine.

"Is it ethical to cut in front of the person who hasn't started their laundry yet," M.B. asks, "since they've waited a long period of time before checking to see if a machine was available?"

Both rules are examples of social norms that have gained acceptance through the years in M.B.'s community. The challenge for new people, as they move into the neighborhood or the apartment complex, is to decide whether or not they feel bound by the same traditions.

There is no ethical obligation to observe such "rules," since you didn't agree to abide by them and doing so is not a stipulated condition of living in the area. As long as you make a point of ignoring the "rule" from the start and ignore it comprehensively -- that is, you not only park your car where other people have marked their spaces, but also don't mark a space of your own -- your behavior is ethical. Obviously, disregarding the rule only selectively, when convenient to you, is a different story.

The fact that there is no ethical obligation to obey a "rule" doesn't mean that there aren't practical reasons to do so, of course. Deciding to challenge the norms requires a willingness to accept the likely consequences of doing so to you, to your clothing or to your car. Not everybody feels strongly enough about every "rule" to take a stand on it.

M.B., for example, has defied the laundry-basket rule several times when it seemed clear to him that the owner of the place-keeping basket wasn't returning anytime soon.

"I had the laundry washed, dried and folded before the other person even came back to put their laundry in," he writes.

But he's never moved someone's parking-space marker, because the consequences are more than he wants to face.

"Since it's technically illegal, I feel that I should be able to move the garbage cans and not have to incur any sort of retaliation," he writes."The common payback is having your car scratched with a key."

The right thing, of course, would be for the city to enforce its laws banning such place markers, or for residents to discontinue the practice of illegally holding a space.

Short of these things occurring, however, M.B. and others residents are in a gray area where ethics and practicality collide, forcing them to decide whether they think that challenging the norm will have enough of along-term positive outcome to make it worth accepting the likely short-term negative consequences.


Few readers took issue with police officers using entrapment tactics to catch lawbreakers, even if it means committing a crime in the process.

But F.Getz of Huntington Beach, Calif., thinks that it depends on the tactic used.

"I feel that police who prostitute themselves in order to entrap johns (are) morally disgusting," Getz writes, "as opposed to them posing as johns to arrest prostitutes. The former does not rid the streets of the problem, but the latter does."

Monsie Crane of Fullerton, Calif., has no problem with the practice as long as the police don't "hurt innocent citizens in their effort to catch lawbreakers."

Jennifer Jarvis of Orange, Calif., also agrees.

"They are catching the people who are breaking the law," she writes."That is their job."

Elaine Roberts of Laguna Beach, Calif., wonders who could have a problem with police going online and posing as children to catch pedophiles.

"It could be your child getting in that kind of trouble," she writes.

"Anyone who is afraid of this sort of activity," writes John Minard of Huntington Beach, Calif., "may have engaged in activities that can be trapped and they are protecting their own activities."

Check out other opinions at: or post your on by clicking on COMMENTS below.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Spiro Press, 2003), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.