Sunday, September 26, 2010


When I was about 12 years old, my mother used to do her grocery shopping at a supermarket next to a discount department store in Parsippany, N.J. The department store had an area with pinball machines. While my mother shopped, I’d use the nickels I saved to play as much pinball as I could.

On one occasion, I noticed that one of the pinball machines had free games indicated on its screen. I walked over to play the games and more and more free games registered, even though I hadn’t deposited any money and, near as I could tell, hadn’t scored high enough to win any free games. After about 20 minutes of playing, the guy who took care of the machines came over and told me that the pinball machine was out of order and he needed to service it.

“Did you put any money in that machine?” he asked.

Flustered — and 12 years old — I responded, “Yes.”

I followed his eyes as he looked at the coin slots. All of them were taped over with black electrical tape to keep people from depositing money. I was caught in a lie. I left, partly embarrassed and partly convinced he would ask me to pay for all of the free games I’d played.

The lesson that’s stuck with me since that day is that lying about the small stuff is wrong. If it’s not enough to know that it’s wrong to deceive someone, then rest assured that you never know when a little bit of electrical tape will trip you up.

On the Friday before Labor Day, at just about 6 in the morning, Bryan Drost, a reader who lives near Cleveland, found himself in a situation where he, too, was receiving something for less than he should have paid.

He had stopped at the gas station he frequently visits to fill up. The electronic sign in front of the station indicated that gas was $2.79 a gallon. While he was about to press the fuel-choice button, he noticed that the price at the pump was set to $2.57, the price from the day before.

“Was I obligated to let the management know that the prices were different?” Drost asks. “Would it have made any difference if there was a long line inside and I was late for work?”

The pricing mistake was the service station’s fault, so Drost could have left without saying a word. Proclaiming ignorance would have been a viable response had someone confronted him. (No electrical tape was marring his ability to pay for the gas he pumped.)

But the right thing to do was to let someone know that there was a mistake. If the service station attendant on duty was smart, he’d have thanked Drost but let him pay the lower price. Making the effort is the right thing to do, regardless of whether there’s a line.

And indeed Drost did venture into the small convenience store at the gas station to try to alert management to the price differential, but he couldn’t find anyone.

“It was pretty early in the morning,” he says, “and I’m guessing they only had one person who was working on something else.”

Though unsuccessful, Drost did the right thing by making a concerted effort to set the station right.

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

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Shortly after we made an offer to buy a house a few years ago, my wife and I were driving through the small village where the property was located. It was lunchtime and, given that we had already bombarded our Realtor with questions in person, we felt it was best to pose our remaining questions by e-mail.

I had my laptop with me and had read somewhere that the village had set up wireless hotspots throughout town for resident access. Unfortunately, I couldn't detect any of these spots with my laptop. But after we parked in the lot of a sandwich place for lunch, I did notice that there was an unsecured Wi-Fi connection available, presumably from a nearby business.

I connected successfully and sent off the e-mail to our Realtor before we headed in to grab a sandwich.

A recent e-mail from E.W., a reader from Ohio, reminded me of my parking lot Wi-Fi adventures.

E.W. recently bought a Wi-Fi capable laptop computer. "Right out of the box," he writes, "I realized that my apartment complex was a hot spot with three or four Wi-Fi connections to access around the complex. This got me thinking: Why pay for my own Internet service when I can sponge off of these folks?"

When E.W. surveyed his friends about tapping into the available Wi-Fi spots, the reaction was decidedly mixed. Some thought it was OK, while others told him it would be dishonest.

Ultimately, E.W. says he "minimally" borrowed his neighbors' Wi-Fi access for the week it took to get his own wireless service installed.

Still, he wants to know if it was wrong to tap into other's unsecured Wi-Fi signals.

I wrote about the Wi-Fi issue several years ago and still maintain that it was perfectly fine to tap into an unsecured Wi-Fi signal. Planning to do so for the long term may be impractical since you never know when neighbors may decide to make their signal secure and leave you without a connection. But my take -- much to the chagrin of many readers -- remains that the right thing for Wi-Fi users to do if they don't want others using their signals is to take the simple steps necessary to make it password protected. It's never OK to try to gain access to a signal that is clearly identified as secured.

Of course, some municipalities may have regulations forbidding users to access any signal that is not their own and users should abide by these laws. But absent these, I believe it is the Wi-Fi signal owner's responsibility to shut the door on others using his signal if he doesn't want them to.

One thing has changed since the last time I responded to a reader's question about using someone else's signal. At the time, I hadn't set up my own Wi-Fi signal as password protected. Now I do . . . because I'd rather not have visitor traffic slowing down my access. If you don't want others accessing your Wi-Fi signal, it's your responsibility not to invite them in by having an unsecured signal.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, 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

(c) 2010 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Forty years ago, J.B., a reader from Columbus, Ohio, was a newlywed happily beginning married life. One day, J.B. received a distraught call from his wife. As she was sweeping some flower trimmings into the garbage disposal, she inadvertently swept her engagement ring into it, as well.

J.B. told his wife not to run anything else through the disposal — including water — until he could get home to take a look at it. “When I pulled the debris out of the disposal,” he writes, “the mangled mounting was recovered, but the one-carat flawless center stone was missing.”

J.B. completely disassembled the disposal, but could not find the missing diamond. Fortunately, the ring was insured and he notified the insurance company, which paid them to have the ring replaced.

Two years later, as his wife opened a seldom-used kitchen window to wipe out the sill, she found the lost diamond stuck between the window and the sill. Apparently, it had been expelled from the disposal in the process of being ripped from its mounting. “It was a little worse for the wear as it had a small chip in the girdle,” writes J.B. Since their homeowners policy was with the same insurance agency, he immediately called his agent to report the finding.

Because it had sentimental value, J.B. and his wife wanted to keep the diamond. But they asked that it be reappraised with the chip in it and they would agree to pay the insurance company based on its value. The insurance agent was taken aback and said he had never handled anything like this before, but that he would get back to J.B. Weeks passed, and after making several more calls without response, J.B. mailed his agent a registered letter requesting resolution of the matter. Still no response.

J.B. then called the insurance company directly and explained the situation to the head of the claims department. He, too, said they’d never had someone notify them of a recovery after a claim was paid, but that he would look into how to resolve it. More weeks passed and no response. J.B. sent the company a registered letter, as well.

As the years passed and no response seemed forthcoming, J.B.’s wife had the stone remounted. J.B. realizes that the stone belongs to the insurance company, but it also has great sentimental value to his wife.

J.B. believes he went beyond making a good-faith effort to resolve the issue. “To this day,” he writes, “part of me feels I should have sent the stone to them, but I am equally positive we would never have seen it again.”

"Your thoughts?” he asks.

Except for dropping the diamond ring into the disposal, J.B. and his wife did the right thing by persistently contacting their insurance company. They went out of their way to try to compensate their insurer for finding the lost ring and the company dropped the ball. They should feel absolutely no guilt.

As testament to his honorable intentions, J.B. writes: “My offer stands should the insurance company choose to contact me today.”

After 40 years, if that isn’t honorable, what is?

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business, 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


Monday, September 06, 2010


At the beginning of July, a reader quit the company where she’d been working for several years. A couple of weeks after she received her final paycheck as a direct deposit into her bank account, she noticed that another paycheck had been deposited. Then two weeks later, still another paycheck deposit had been made to her account.

While she’s only received two “extra” paychecks so far, she writes, “I haven’t really spent them,” although she immediately admits, “OK, just a little bit, but it’s recoverable.”

Now, she says, she finds herself in an ethical quandary.

“I know, one should always be ethical,” she writes. “But when you're faced with debt and suddenly there's free money, it's a threat to one's morals sometimes. I'm a very ethical person 99.5 percent of the time. But when it comes to money, the temptation can be a very tricky thing to deal with.”

My reader writes that part of her wants to call up her former employer and tell them about the mistake. “But then I’d lose that money” she writes, acknowledging that she knows the money is not really hers. “Another part of me says, ‘Wait and see. Let them figure it out and stop it eventually.’”

Some friends have advised her to hold onto the money and do nothing. Others have encouraged her to call the company and return the money as soon as possible.

“I just can’t quite decide,” she writes. “Even if I return the money, what about the taxes being withheld from the checks? I don’t have that money. The government does. How would the company recoup that?”

As tempting as it might be for her to do otherwise, the right thing for my reader to do is to notify her former employer and return the money. Legal issues aside, she acknowledges the money is not hers and that the deposits being made into her account are a mistake.

That she spent any of the money, however small, while knowing it wasn’t really hers was wrong.

Her concern about “losing the money” if she notified her former bosses is misplaced. She can’t lose what isn’t really hers, no matter how tempting the sudden arrival of “free” money might be.

Worrying about how the taxes withheld from her erroneous paychecks is a distraction that doesn’t excuse her from setting the record straight. She certainly can’t be expected to repay the company money it withheld for taxes…but she shouldn’t use that issue as an excuse to delay putting the money back in its right hands.

Whether or not she’s facing debt and regardless of her fondness for someone placing extra cash into her account, no good can come from keeping what she knows doesn’t belong to her. If the ethics of such a decision don’t cause her to do the right thing, then perhaps the concern about how she is going to come up with the money to repay her former company after it discovers its mistake should.

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

c.2010 Jeffrey L. Seglin