Friday, March 30, 2007


Steve Bailey's column in this morning’s Boston Globe (Urban terrorists) in part mentions the work that Habitat for Humanity ( is doing in the heart of the city where an alarming rate of violence is occurring, due partly to the increasing economic divide among rich and poor communities. Bailey mentions that Habitat has already raised about $2 million to build 22 condominiums and retail space on Blue Hill Avenue on Intervale Street, writing that the project “is exactly what a neighborhood like this needs.”

But the Habitat project on Blue Hill Avenue, which is about half-finished, is still about $2 million short of the money it needs to complete the project. “Any good corporate citizen looking for a way to make a difference need look no further,” writes Bailey.

This afternoon I spoke with Bruce Percelay, the Chairman of the Board of Directors for Greater Boston’s Habitat for Humanity. He told me that the half a city block that Habitat purchased to build on from the City of Boston is the same one that burned down the night that Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot in 1968. It has been vacant ever since, until Habitat came in to build.

Percelay says that the model that Habitat for Humanity traditionally uses in more rural areas of building individual homes for families in need wasn’t going to work economically on Blue Hill Avenue…and it certainly wouldn’t be enough to turn around the area.

“You can’t rescue a neighborhood with a two-family house,” says Percelay, “but you can with a 22-family house.”

The Blue Hill Avenue project still needs $2 million to complete its ambitious project. Individuals or corporations who would like to make major contributions can contact Percelay directly at Other opportunities to contribute money, automobiles, trucks, land, real estate rebates, building materials, or other donations can be found at

Wednesday, March 28, 2007


Judith Dobrzynski has another commentary related to the one she wrote for the Los Angeles Times (Return of the 'glass ceiling') on March 17th that I mentioned in the blog last Friday (How to Get a Company's Attention on Women's Pay).

Her current piece, Female CEOs still rare sight, is in today's Chicago Tribune and it emphasizes the glaring point that the number of females CEOs in Fortune 500 companies not only trails that of male CEOs, it is losing ground. This commentary focuses on Chicago-area companies.

Dobrzynski grounds her commentary on recent census data mined by Catalyst. A report on that data can be found at Catalyst Releases 2006 Census of Women in Fortune 500 Corporate Officer and Board Positions.

Both the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune require you to register to view their articles, but the registration is free.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


Both you and your company have had a banner year. Your boss has told you to expect a handsome bonus for your stellar performance in the past year, and has even mentioned a figure, which you've written down. When you get your paycheck, a few weeks later, you notice that your bonus is twice the amount your boss had mentioned.

Do you say nothing and figure that your boss must have decided to give you an even better bonus than he had anticipated? Do you say nothing and figure that, even if a mistake has been made, you deserve the extra money? Do you thank your boss for the extra money? Do you tell your boss that there must be some mistake? Or do you handle the discrepancy in some other way?

Send your thoughts to or post them here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" 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. (If your hometown newspaper doesn't carry "The Right Thing" column, please request that they do. Contact information at the New York Times Syndicate is available on the left-hand side of this blog.)

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), 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.


Eleven years ago, at a neighborhood yard sale in Somerville, Mass., my soon-to-be son-in-law paid 25 cents for a 1930s-era electric fan made by Diehl. The woman who sold it to him was unloading some clutter from her very cluttered home. He got it home, cleaned it up, fixed the motor and held onto it until four years later, when he decided to unclutter his own home.

After doing some research online, he discovered that people were paying more than $100 for similar fans, so he decided to list his on eBay. He ended up selling the fan for $150.

My son-in-law says that he had no idea what the fan was worth when he bought it -- he simply liked its looks. But his experience begs the question: If he had known how much it was worth, would he have had any obligation to tell the seller?

Precisely that question came up a few weeks ago, when P.J., a reader from Timonium, Md., e-mailed me about what he refers to as "unknowing little old ladies who have yard sales." When they have their sales, he writes, professionals show up as early as possible to spot the valuable stuff, which they buy at bargain-basement prices without ever letting on what they know.

"They may pay $10 for a $10,000 vase," P.J. says. "That makes it a profitable transaction for the crafty, but what about the little old lady?"

For his part, P.J. writes, if he goes to a bank to change $20 and he's handed $50, he knows that he has an ethical responsibility to return the extra money. So far as he can tell, the two situations are essentially the same.

"If I know that a vase is worth five figures," he says, "don't I have some obligation to inform the owner? Would it make a difference if the owner is a pauper and I'm wealthy?"

My take on this is clear-cut. At a yard sale, the rules are simple: The seller tries to get as much as she can for an item, and the buyer tries to pay as little as possible. If the seller wants to know if any of her items are particularly valuable, she should take the time to do the research before the yard sale, the way my son-in-law did before listing his fan on eBay. The buyer has no obligation to inform the seller that an item may be worth more than she is asking, even if it's worth far more. And that holds regardless of how wealthy or how poor either the owner or the buyer may be.

But P.J. goes a step further: What if the owner directly asks the prospective buyer how much he thinks the vase is worth, he asks, and the buyer says, "Five bucks, but I'll give you ten"?

"Surely," P.J. writes, "it's not ethical to lie."

He's right, of course: It's not ethical to lie. But there's a difference between lying and not divulging everything we know, and often telling all isn't in our best interest. To volunteer your bottom-line best offer isn't a good negotiating tactic, whether you're working out a corporate merger or haggling over a yard-sale find, and it's not unethical to negotiate cannily -- again, if you can do so without lying. Rushworth Kidder, the executive director of the Institute for Global Ethics in Camden, Maine, once told me about a woman who said that she found that she never had to lie, because she had so big a vocabulary.

If the seller asks how much the buyer thinks an item may be worth, in short, he's wrong to lie to her -- but not obliged to answer her at all. The right thing for him to do would be to respond by telling her how much he's willing to pay for the vase, ignoring the question of its value or his opinion on same. He's not there to appraise her goods, he's there to get a good deal. That's how yard sales work.

Now, if P.J. would e-mail me the address of this neighborhood where $10,000 vases are going for 10 bucks, I'd be obliged.

Friday, March 23, 2007

How to Get a Company's Attention on Women's Pay

In a March 17, op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, Judith H. Dobrzynski wrote about a study from Catalyst that shows that the number of women among top positions in Fortune 500 companies has shrunk since the last census was taken. So too has the number of companies that do not have one woman on their corporate board.

Dobrzynski report on this "dishonor roll" is worth reading at Return of the 'glass ceiling'.

Dobrzynski was editor of the Sunday Money & Business section of the Sunday New York Times when I wrote the following "The Right Thing" column that appeared there on March 17, 2002. The topic's related and things don't appear to have changed all that much in the past five years.

[The column below originally appeared on Sunday, March 17, 2002, in The New York Times Money & Business section, where "The Right Thing" column ran monthly from September 1998 through January 2004. In February 2004, "The Right Thing" started running as a weekly syndicated column in newspapers throughout the country and internationally. A collection of "The Right Thing" columns from September 1998 through July 2002 is available by clicking on The Right Thing Book from]

THE RIGHT THING; How to Get a Company's Attention on Women's Pay

Women who are managers make less money than their male counterparts. There's no shock there. But for decades, that salary gap has been shrinking -- until now.

In a recently released study of the 10 industries that employed the most women from 1995 to 2000, the General Accounting Office found that the gap between the salaries of men and women had widened for managers in seven of those sectors. The largest widening was in entertainment and recreational services, where female managers were earning just 62 cents for every dollar made by a male manager in 2000, down from 83 cents in 1995. Only three industries showed improvement for women -- albeit slight. The biggest gain was in educational services, where the figure rose to 91 cents on the dollar, from 86 cents.

The G.A.O. report is supported by other studies, including one conducted by the Women's Research and Education Institute in Washington showing that overall managerial salaries for women slipped to 71.3 cents in 2000 from 73 cents in 1995.

An obvious question arises from these findings: Is it is ever ethically justifiable for executives, men or women, who make compensation decisions to pay women less than they pay men for doing the exact same job? There's no gray area here. The answer is no.

Certainly, explanations can be found for the gap. "Just because there is the presence of a wage gap, one should be hesitant to infer that there's discrimination going on," said Elizabeth Owens, a government affairs manager for the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va. "A problem with these pay-gap studies is that they don't take into account individual choices that people make about what jobs they want and what they don't." Some women, for example, may decide to work fewer hours to meet family needs.

Still, it's impossible to dismiss discrimination outright as a reason for the widening of the gap. Jared Bernstein, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, says a study like this turns a spotlight on "basic fairness issues."

Variations in lifestyle choices might justify the existence of a wage gap. So, too, might the varying levels of experience and managerial responsibility that the G.A.O. study couldn't measure. What these factors don't explain, however, is why the gap has grown.

"The change is bad news for women," said Heidi Hartmann, director of the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington. "Women have been getting more education and staying in the labor market longer. Women are doing everything right, and still this is happening. Progress has stopped."

Others say the slippage may result more from losing sight of the issue. "I don't think it matters less to us," said Laura P. Hartman, a business ethics professor at DePaul University in Chicago. "But I think we've paid less attention to it and become complacent."

Consider this, then, the sounding of an ethical alarm to stem the widening gap. But how?

For anyone who notices wage disparity in his or her company, the initial impulse may be to raise a ruckus in the workplace demanding equal pay for equal managerial jobs. But such loud noise may be counterproductive.

"This is a volatile issue," said Joseph L. Badaracco Jr., a business ethics professor at Harvard Business School and author of "Leading Quietly" (Harvard Business School Press). "Most people don't like to be accused of being unfair, and they like it even less if you rub their face in it by documenting it. This is a minefield."

The first step, he said, is to "have some indication that there is a conspicuous disparity within your organization."

"Without that," he added, "you're not going to get anywhere waving a government study."

Next, he suggests going to a couple of people within the organization whom you trust, to see if you have the facts right and to learn who else might be sympathetic to finding a solution.

The wage gap is the kind of issue "where behind closed doors in a friendly rather than threatening way, and with analysis, somebody could make a case," Professor Badaracco said. "And the case is roughly, 'Look, there are disparities; the women in the organization know about them. Things could get stirred up. We could get sued. Can we work together to find some way to move forward?' "
Ultimately, you have to go to someone who has the power to make changes. Regardless, Professor Badaracco said, "you have to move with extreme caution."

True enough. There's no upside to raising an issue in a way that creates only divisiveness. But doing something, cautiously or not, is imperative. It's unconscionable that women make less as managers than they did five years ago. American business should be ashamed.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

My Principles, or the Milk and Cookies?

[This column originally appeared on Sunday, January 18, 2004, in The New York Times Money & Business section, where "The Right Thing" column ran monthly from September 1998 through January 2004. In February 2004, "The Right Thing" started running as a weekly syndicated column in newspapers throughout the country and internationally. A collection of "The Right Thing" columns from September 1998 through July 2002 is available by clicking on The Right Thing Book from]

Growing up in Boonton, N.J., I routinely stopped at the supermarket on my way to the local bowling alley to pick up a package of Archway ginger cookies, my favorite snack at the time. More than 30 years later, as an adult living in Boston, each time I shop at the grocery store I buy three half-pint boxes of milk -- the kind that requires no initial refrigeration -- to have on hand in the pantry. And I continue to buy Archway cookies.

Both products are made by Parmalat, the Italian conglomerate in which executives are accused of making up phony bank accounts and siphoning off millions in company funds to finance other ventures.

Now I face a choice: Should I stop buying both products as a sign of dissatisfaction with the company?

What makes this scandal different from some others is that Parmalat makes products that I immediately recognize. In my daily life, I never encounter the Enron brand, and I wouldn't recognize a Tyco product if it were to hit me through a $6,000 shower curtain. But Parmalat's products are different. I use them. I like them. I feed them to my grandsons.

So do I stage a personal boycott? If I say yes, is it because I believe it's wrong to buy products from a company in the midst of a scandal? Or because this is the scandal that broke this camel's back? Or because I believe that not doing so would signal that I condone bad behavior at the top?

"One of the questions you have to ask yourself is, 'What message am I sending and to whom?"' said Michael Josephson, the president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Marina del Rey, Calif. He said that by boycotting the products, I would be more likely to hurt the roughly 36,000 employees at Parmalat companies who have not been accused of wrongdoing.

But do companies deserve an ethical pass out of concern that a boycott might cost employees their jobs? "Employees can be innocent victims of boycotts and this is unfair," said Joseph L. Badaracco Jr., a professor of business ethics at Harvard Business School. But the problem is unavoidable, he said, "short of giving up boycotts, which isn't good either," adding that doing so would let "bad managers use their employees as human shields to protect themselves from boycotts they deserve."

But the question remains: Is a boycott deserved? "If executives are willing to engage in financial corruption, I would be less likely to trust them and less likely to buy their product," said Linda Klebe Trevino, a professor of organizational behavior at Pennsylvania State University. "I would ask myself if these executives would also be willing to compromise product quality or even safety for short-term financial gain."

Even Mr. Josephson, who expressed concern that a boycott might punish the wrong people, said his biggest fear was that the cumulative effect of egregious corporate behavior would be to make people "immobilized and immune" -- to cynically accept such behavior as the status quo.

All this insight, of course, does nothing to instruct me about my Parmalat conundrum.

"If you don't like what a company is doing, then you shouldn't buy its products, not because you hope it will impact them, but based on the principle that you don't want your personal money going to some firm that is doing something of which you disapprove," said Laura P. Hartman, a professor of business ethics at DePaul University in Chicago and co-editor of "Rising Above Sweatshops: Innovative Approaches to Global Labor Challenges" (Praeger, 2003).

If I buy her argument, am I destined to a life without my favorite cookies and milk? Not necessarily. "If the firm makes the right choices, ousts the bad guys and changes its practices, then you should go ahead and support it again," she said.

As I write this, 10 people associated with the Parmalat scandal have been arrested. A turnaround team had been brought in to try to shore up the company's finances. None of this is enough to indicate that the company has been set straight. But it's a nice start. And, soon, Parmalat's milk and cookies may again be gracing my cabinets.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


[This column syndicated by the New York Times Syndicate originally ran the week of February 28, 2005.]

"Let's say you take a new job with a new company," M.T. of Columbus,Ohio, wrote. "You agree to a salary, and the company pays for your move. Let's say three to four months later you find a similar job that pays more. Should you feel that you owe the company anything?"

It's a terrific question and one that many workers today face as they shift jobs with increasing frequency. M.T. has been going back and forth on the question with his wife. He wants to know what would be the right thing to do in such a circumstance.

His concern is well-placed. A company that invests in moving an employee and then training him expects he will stick around long enough to recoup its investment. But does that expectation equate to any ethical commitment for the employee?

Unless employees have signed a contract that commits them to work a set number of months before they bolt, I don't believe they should balk at seizing better opportunities.

If M.T.'s company relocated him, trained him, and then four months later announced a merger with another company that would result in layoffs, is the company obligated to keep him on simply because he uprooted himself and his family to take the job? No. In fact, M.T. might find himself among the first to go since he has the least tenure there.

Why then should he owe the company more loyalty than it would show him? While the civil thing might be for the company to help laid-off employees find new jobs and for M.T. to give enough notice for a replacement to be found, ultimately the responsibility falls on the company to do what is in its best interests and likewise M.T. for himself.

We all weigh our options and try to make the best decisions while trying not to do damage to others in the process. M.T. may value his loyalty to his company, but he might value his commitment to caring for his family more, and would be right to accept what he believes is a better offer for his livelihood and his family's future.

That said, we also must take responsibility for any fallout from such decisions. If M.T. leaves too many jobs after a short tenure, then future prospective employers might decide he's not worth a long-term investment. (And Mrs. M.T. may soon grow tired of so many moves in so little time.)

Likewise, any company that consistently lays off employees in what's deemed a move for the greater good of the company may find it difficult to attract the best candidates, since few quality people seek out job insecurity.

The right thing for M.T. to do is to weigh the opportunity against the possible downside and decide what is best for him and his family. If it's the new job, he should take it.

Sunday, March 18, 2007


In my entire life I've fired three people. I dreaded every moment of each incident, and remember each occasion vividly. However warranted I may have been -- and I still think I was in each case -- firing each of these employees was a gut-wrenching experience. And, of course, it was far worse for them than it was for me.

Most people loathe firing someone. Many will go to great lengths to avoid dismissing a person, no matter how clear it is that he or she should be let go. But keeping under-performing employees can wreak havoc on employee morale, especially when others must pick up the slack. And when managers don't fire employees who clearly do wrong, the unintended consequences can be daunting.

In February one of my readers from California faced such consequences head on when he walked into the main office of a not-for-profit agency that he used to run. There, sitting behind the reception desk, was a guy who some time ago had stolen several thousand dollars from that same agency.

My reader had started running the beleaguered agency in 1990. The theft, which involved forging receipts for reimbursement, was discovered shortly after his arrival. There was no question of the employee's guilt, but the agency's board of directors didn't want to risk damaging the agency's reputation by allowing the theft to become public knowledge. It therefore directed my reader to eliminate the thieving employee's position, rather than simply to fire him.

He didn't totally agree with that course of action, my reader says, but he carried it out. No mention of the theft was ever made, and the agency never recouped the stolen money.

My reader retired from his position five years ago. Recently, however, the same agency asked him to do some consulting, and my reader was stunned to find the former employee serving in a volunteer job that often leads to full-time employment. What's more, the job involves receiving donations dropped off at the front desk.

Seventeen years ago, the right thing would have been to fire that employee, given convincing evidence that he had been stealing. Besides firing him, the agency ought to have considered pressing charges and tried to recoup as much of the stolen cash as possible. While safeguarding the agency's reputation is important, not taking forceful action made the agency itself complicit in the misdirection of donated funds, a more serious matter. Given the choice between the perception that donations might not go to a worthy cause and the reality that donations didn't go to a worthy cause, the agency did the wrong thing.

Besides, because at the time the board of directors avoided doing the right thing, the agency again is exposed to this former employee who stole thousands. The not-for-profit is no longer being run by those who know his history, so no alarms went off when he volunteered.

Luckily my reader walked in the door, but now he faces a dilemma: Should he tell the current leadership about this person's past? Or, given that he truly believes that people can grow and change for the better, should he keep silent and give the former employee a second chance?

The right thing for my reader to do is to tell the organization's current leadership what he knows. If the agency keeps the formerly wayward volunteer on board, it should do so with full knowledge of his past and perhaps with limits on how much he deals with donations. If it chooses to dispense with his services, neither the agency nor my reader should feel guilty, since the former employee, in offering himself as a volunteer, clearly didn't tell the whole truth about his past work with the agency.

It's not only this former employee who can learn from his past, however -- my reader also has a lesson to learn. Because he let himself be led into the mistake of not addressing the issue head on 17 years ago, his agency was left vulnerable to subsequent exploitation. Now he has the chance to correct that error. He should seize it, and try not to make the same mistake again in the future.


I asked readers whether it matters that some of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's endowment is invested in businesses, such as oil companies, that pollute the air and cause some of the health problems that the foundation seeks to cure. Most believed that it does matter.

"Foundations should make sure that they don't invest in companies that run programs against their core values and mission," Tomasz Babula of Glendale Heights, Ill., writes.

"The bottom line is that they want to help people," writes Susan Hammond of Irvine, Calif., "and that is a good thing. But perhaps they can begin to make any necessary corrections in their investments by looking at the most egregious conflicts of interest and work through the rest from there over a period of time."

"Gates' power to make companies better is as great, if not greater, then his ability to make his projects -- immunization etc. -- better," writes E. Carroll Straus of Orange County, Calif. "To say that they do not have such power ... is simply to misstate the facts, and the harm that some of his supported investments do is very great indeed."

Check out other opinions at or post your own by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), 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.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


The Associated Press is reporting that William Beebe, the man who wrote to Liz Seccuro 20 years after attacking her when both of them were students at the University of Virginia, has been sentenced to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to one count of aggravated sexual battery.

The apology and case were the subject of a recent Sound Off question that can be found at SOUND OFF: MAKING AMENDS. You can add your comments by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" or sending them to Please include your name and hometown in your comments. Comments may be used in an upcoming "The Right Thing" column.

The Associated Press story can be found at Man gets 18 months for '84 attack.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


News just came in that charges have been dropped against former Hewlett-Packard Chairman Patricia Dunn in a case involving H-P's investigation of boardroom leaks. A report from the Wall Street Journal can be found at

Earlier posts on this blog that relate to this issue can be found at:

An interview on NPR's Here and Now can be found at:


[I wrote the following column that originally appeared in The New York Times on Sunday, May 21, 2000.]

When the results of an annual honesty and ethics poll were released last fall by the Gallup Organization, I had just begun a stint as a college professor and was feeling quite smug. There among the 10 professions ranked most honest by the American public was my new calling, with 52 percent of respondents judging its honesty as high or very high.

Then, after just a few minutes of basking in professional glow, I saw where the survey ranked another of my incarnations, that of online journalist: firmly among the bottom 10 on the list of 45, with only one respondent in 10 giving people in that line of work a good score. Talk about professional disconnect.

The findings present a puzzle.

When introducing myself, what do I tell people I do? If I want them to trust me from the get-go, do I just say "college teacher" and withhold the part about writing for online publications?

If disclosing the complete picture leads people to an unfair conclusion about me, isn't it right, not to mention advantageous, to withhold some information? In a legal context, the answer is no. "It's better to include and explain than to omit and cast doubt," said Andrew J. Sherman, a lawyer at Katten Muchin Zavis in Washington. Of course, it is the job of a good lawyer to look through the lens of legal vulnerability and to caution against anything that may lead to trouble.

But real life is rarely so simple.

Imagine that you are applying for a job during the McCarthyite 1950's. Years earlier, in college, you flirted briefly with radical politics. Should you disclose it and risk having the interviewer unfairly take you for a subversive, or hide it and be surer of getting the fair treatment you deserve?

Those pernicious days are behind us, thankfully, but ethically analogous situations still crop up. A few years ago, when a colleague was on vacation in the northern part of Ireland, he wanted to rent a car and was asked the name of his employer (an American newspaper). The rental agent told him that the company could not rent to people in certain "risky" occupations, including journalists.

My friend swallowed hard and pleaded, somewhat disingenuously, that his job -- preparing maps, charts and diagrams for the newspaper -- was really more that of a commercial artist and not of a journalist.

He got the car.

"We all practice selective disclosure," said Daryl Koehn, director of the Center for Business Ethics at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. "If we have been a professor at both Iowa State and the University of Chicago, we tell people we taught at the latter, because it is more prestigious. There is simply not enough time in the day to divulge our entire past history."

The ends figure in how we view these means. Sacrificing integrity to save a life is often, usually rightly, seen as heroic. Trimming the truth for personal gain -- landing a plum contract, for instance -- is difficult to justify. Somewhere in between is withholding true information that you think will lead people to false conclusions.

"We've stopped saying we are consultants, because as soon as we do, we find ourselves faced with a barrage of negativity and preconceived notions," said Michelle L. Reina, co-author with her husband, Dennis, of "Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace" (Berrett-Kohler), as well as, well, a consultant: the Reinas are principals of Chagnon & Reina Associates in Stowe, Vt. Too often, she said, people have difficulty separating individuals from professions and assume that any journalist is like all journalists, that any consultant is like all consultants. Now, she tells prospective clients she "works with organizations that want to bring trust into the workplace." As words go, "trust" strikes a better chord than "consultant."

Trust is also the key to solving the puzzle. Gallup polls notwithstanding, in all but the most extreme cases we simply cannot know with certainty how what we say will be perceived. Deciding to be less than honest about something trivial because we think the truth might provoke an unfair judgment of us is just a few steps away from deciding that deception for naked gain is appropriate any time we think we "deserve" it.

"Trust by its very nature is an act of reasonable faith," Professor Koehn said. "It exists precisely because we cannot control all circumstances. We should not make the mistake of thinking that all trust is contingent upon full disclosure." When in doubt about how the facts will be perceived, she advised, look gently for more clues. Otherwise, she said, she would proceed on the assumption that most people can be trusted to draw fair conclusions about us, regardless of what we do for a living.

Good advice. Did I mention that I was an online journalist?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Business Preparation for Pandemic Summit

The latest speakers for Business Preparation for Pandemic, the executive summit to be held at the Harvard Medical Conference Center on May 14 - 16, can be found at Latest Speakers at Business Preparedness for Pandemic.

The summit is a collaborative program of the Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
  • Day One will examine the potential economic impact, the function of top teams in crisis, and provide a best practice overview including legal and ethical issues
  • Day Two will delve into workforce issues, open our scenario-based sessions and provide historical connections to the 1918 pandemic
  • Day Three will continue the scenario work, explore "predictable surprises" as well as supply chain and reputation challenges

I will be speaking on a panel called "Executive Preparedness: Best Practices Briefing." It is described by the conference organizers: "While no companies plans for pandemic have been put to the test, best practice companies have created extensive simulations to battle test their plans. Lessons have also been learned from the SARS outbreak in 2003 and other recent events. What are the critical questions your teams must be able to answer now? What are common gaps and shortfalls in response plans? How widely should you share your pandemic plans?" Speakers on this panel include: Paul Hemp, Senior Editor, Harvard Business Review (moderator); Jeff Seglin, Associate Professor, Emerson College, and Syndicated Ethics Columnist, New York Times Syndicate; Richard H. Wilkins, General Manager, Health and Human Services, Chevron Corporation; Scott Rosenstein, Health Analyst, Eurasia Group; and Steven D. Gravely, Practice Group Leader, Health Care Practice, Troutman Sanders LLP.

You can find more detailed information at Business Preparation for Pandemic.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Twenty years after sexually attacking Liz Seccuro while both were students at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, William Beebe -- a recovering alcoholic who had wrestled for years with whether making amends would further injure Seccuro -- sent her a letter of apology. Via e-mail, the Associated Press reported, Beebe acknowledged to Seccuro that he had raped her.

She responded by contacting authorities in Charlottesville and in Las Vegas, where Beebe lived. Beebe was arrested. In spite of his e-mail confession, he denied the rape, but eventually he pled guilty to a lesser charge of aggravated sexual battery. The plea is believed to be in exchange for Beebe's cooperation with an investigation of others involved in the attack. Sentencing is scheduled for March 15.

Seccuro has started STARS, (Sisters Together Assisting Rape Survivors), a fund to assist rape survivors which may be reached at She says that she has forgiven Beebe but still desires justice.

Was Beebe right, after 20 years, to contact Seccuro to apologize? Or did his effort to make amends lead to greater harm? Was Seccuro right to press charges after so long and in the face of obvious remorse? Is it possible to forgive and to demand justice at the same time?

E-mail your thoughts to or post them here clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.


Modern technology makes possible what only a few years ago would have seemed like miracles. Unfortunately, however, some of those miracles come with new ethical conundrums in tow.

Take M.W., a reader from Sunbury, Ohio: This past Christmas she received a new CD wallet, and was duly impressed with how many music CDs she could fit into it. She was so inspired that she decided to change over all of her music from cassette tapes to CDs. Therein rests the problem: M.W. can burn CDs on her computer, but her stereo system doesn't allow her to transfer music from a cassette tape to a CD, and she's reluctant to buy vast numbers of CDs that will replicate music she already has on tape.

One option presents itself in the form of her local public library, which has a pretty good CD collection that contains many of the same albums she's accumulated over the years. M.W. could check out a CD from the library, upload it onto her computer, burn her own copy onto a CD-R and then repeat the process until she had replicated as many cassette tapes as possible.

She wants to know, however, if it's ethical and/or legal to do this, assuming that she copies only music that she already owns.

"If yes," she asks, "do I need to keep the descriptive-paper part of the audiotapes when I get rid of them to prove that I purchased the music at one time?"

In short, M.W. wants to know whether it's possible to reproduce her cassette collection without violating anyone else's copyright.

Jonathan Lamy, director of communications for the Recording Industry Association of America -- the trade group that represents U.S. record companies -- says that he wishes everyone gave this much thought to making potentially illegal copies of music before they went ahead and did it.

No matter how thoughtful she's been, however, M.W. still would be wrong to make copies of any CD she borrowed from the library. That she happens to own a cassette version of the same recording doesn't enter into it. Owning music in one form, whether it's an LP, a cassette or a CD, does not give a person the legal right to borrow someone else's music and copy it for his or her own use.

The right thing for M.W. to do is either to buy replacement CDs for her cassette collection or, if that's too costly, to go to any of the number of legitimate music-downloading Web sites to purchase the individual songs she really wants from her old cassettes. Then she can burn these songs onto CD-Rs that she can keep in her new CD wallet.

Alternatively, if her collection is so large that it would be cheaper to go this route, she might buy a stereo or an add-on component that would enable her to copy from a cassette tape onto a CD-R. Anyone can legally copy an LP, cassette or CD that they've purchased onto a tape or CD-R for their own personal use.

Unless the copyright holder gives you permission to make copies, however, it's generally a fair assumption that making a copy of someone else's CD for your own use is out of bounds. For further information on what's fair game when copying CDs, visit and click on "the law."

As for the ethical perspective, it's the same as the legal one. Copying someone else's CD for your personal use means that the people who made the CD, including the people who wrote and performed the music, won't be compensated for their efforts. There's nothing right about that.

Sunday, March 04, 2007


Down the road a neighbor's dog is leashed up for eight to 10 hours a day in a fenced yard while its owners are at work. No water is put out for the animal, which is so skinny that it wobbles on its long legs as it walks around.

Enter my reader P.L., who lives in the same neighborhood in southern California. Before she retired P.L. ran a pet-walking business. She knows borderline neglect when she sees it, she says, and she clearly sees it whenever she passes this wobbly dog chained to its house.

"I sneak it a water container," P.L. writes, adding that several times a week she also gets it a dog biscuit.

Few people like to see an animal suffer, or at least appear to suffer. Providing it with water when it's thirsty would strike few as overstepping any bounds. Feeding it without knowing if it has any special dietary issues may be pushing things a bit. But the good of providing nourishment to an apparently hungry animal outweighs passing by and doing nothing.

How far should you go, however, when you believe that a neighbor isn't caring correctly for a pet?

P.L. decided that the dog should be released from its leash so that it could get into the grassy part of its fenced-in yard to relieve itself. She walked into the yard and unsnapped the leash. Then she went home.

The next thing she knew, P.L. got a call from the neighbor threatening to press charges of trespassing against her. The neighbor's dog had escaped its yard and been picked up by the local dog catcher. P.L. paid the pound fine, but still feels terrible about the whole situation.

When I asked P.L. why she didn't report her neighbors before entering their yard to release the dog, she said that her hesitancy was partly out of fear of retaliation when they figured out who had turned them in. The other reason was that she believes her neighbors may deserve a break because they are in denial.

"They do evidently think that they're adequate owners," she says.

All of which leaves P.L. wondering whether she's done the right thing to date and what would be the right thing to do going forward.

"Should I just be minding my own business, reporting animal abuse or what?" she asks.

If P.L. believes that the neighbor's dog is being abused, she's right not to simply mind her own business. Too many people turn a blind eye to situations which disturb them, only to regret their inaction later on, after the situation has deteriorated into something far worse.

But P.L. should not have entered her neighbor's yard to release the dog from its leash. It was neither the safe thing nor the right thing to do.

It's understandable that P.L. feels sorry for a dog which she thinks is being mistreated, but she has not been authorized to define animal abuse or to determine who is guilty of it. That responsibility rests with the appropriate governmental authorities, and the right thing for her to do would have been to call those authorities, report her concerns and let them determine whether the animal was in danger.

Would the neighbors have found out that she was the one who had reported them? Possibly, though it's often possible to make an anonymous report in such situations. But even if they did figure it out, they probably wouldn't feel any more animosity toward the neighbor who reported them than they do now toward the neighbor who popped uninvited into their fenced-in yard to free their dog.

While it's good to be a concerned neighbor, there are limits to how far you can or should go in trying to make things right.

There are also some people who should think twice before owning a pet, but that's another story for another day.


My readers were of mixed opinion on whether Steve Jobs, chief executive of the computer company Apple, should be allowed to continue running the company even if federal authorities found that he had participated in backdating stock options that were granted to him in December 2001. A Wall Street Journal columnist argued that doing so would punish the victim "and only compounds the crime."

To be clear, so far Jobs has not been found guilty of any wrongdoing, so the current discussion is only hypothetical. Nonetheless, strong opinions were not in short supply.

"If laws were violated, then Mr. Jobs and the company need to be punished regardless of his value to the shareholders," writes a reader from Madison, Wisc.

To Charlie Seng of Lancaster, S.C., however, the issue isn't so black-and-white.

"People generally can't believe that wealthy people got their money honestly," Seng writes. "When people criticize corporate leaders ...such criticism ... must be done with great care and only with expert knowledge."

Bruce Brumberg of Brookline, Mass., also sees a more complex issue, but focuses on when the alleged infractions took place. "What matters is whether this backdating ... is symptomatic of other ... financial-reporting weakness at Apple," Brumberg writes. "We need to remember the era that this occurred in and the widespread attitudes and practices related to granting stock options. Accounting, securities-law, stock-exchange and corporate-governance changes since then make it very unlikely that companies will do this again."

Check out other opinions at or post your own by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), 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.

Thursday, March 01, 2007


From Monday, May 14, through Thursday, May 17, Harvard Business School, Harvard Medical School, and National Preparedness Leadership Initiative -- a collaborative program of the Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government -- are presenting a conference on business preparedness for a pandemic.

The organizers of the event describe it as: "practical and hard-hitting. It is a time-effective way to get up to speed on exactly what you need to know. There are three components:

  • an executive overview day (if you can only come for one day, this is the one),
  • a two-day leadership preparedness summit (going in-depth on critical issues and providing scenario exercises),
  • and a scenario-planning workshop day (to help you plan scenario exercises for your organization)."

I'll be participating on a panel at the event.

You can find details about the event at

A blog with regular updates of the event appears at: