Sunday, November 28, 2010

Severing professional ties with kindness

How much loyalty do we owe the people with whom we work? That's at the heart of a question posed to me by a reader, an editor at a publication that uses a number of freelance writers.

His job is to edit many of these freelancers. "While technically they are nothing more than vendors," he writes, "I have always seen my role as not only to represent the company to them, but also to represent them to the company -- sending information, problems and solutions in both directions on an ongoing basis."

My reader has worked with many of his freelancers for a decade or more. Although in most cases, he hasn't met them face-to-face, he has come to regard some more as friends and co-workers than as vendors.

"Earlier this year my boss told me that she would be terminating the services of one of these freelancers," he writes, "one with whom I have a warm relationship." He was not specifically told not to tell the freelancer what was going on, but it was clearly understood that he shouldn't. "So, I didn't."

A couple of awkward months followed as my reader continued to work with this freelancer while knowing they wouldn't be working together for much longer.

"I felt guilty for not telling him about the situation," he writes, "and was very pleased when the termination date was finally set and my boss notified the freelancer. It was good to have the facts on the table, though his feelings were clearly bruised."

Subsequently, in the freelancer's final days working for my reader's company, my reader advised him about placing his services elsewhere, which he soon did . . . with a major competitor.

My reader is quick to point out that there was nothing illegal about the advice he gave. He had clearly advocated on behalf of his freelancer to his boss to give him more ownership of his work than his contract originally gave him. Still, his boss was unaware that he had coached the freelancer and he was happy to keep it that way.

Now, he is left wondering if he did the right thing. "Should I have dropped a hint to the freelancer earlier, which would have made it easier for him to find work elsewhere?" he asks. "Should I have avoided any discussion of his future prospects outside of our company? Or was the way it worked out a sufficiently ethical way to square this particular circle?"

Deciding whether you owe more loyalty to your employer than to the folks with whom you do business is always a challenge. Sure, the freelancer would have benefitted from an earlier heads up that his services would be terminated. But to do so would have meant violating a trust with a boss that news of the decision would be kept in-house until she decided to make the call. A lot could have happened between the initial decision and that call. The boss could, for example, have decided not to sever ties. If that had been the case and the editor had already spilled the news, it would have made it awkward for all parties.

The editor did the right thing by staying true to his company and also by offering assistance to the freelancer. If he had recommended the competitor before the decision was made to sever ties that would have been wrong. But doing it after the fact displayed both professional courtesy and kindness. Finding a way to show kindness in a difficult situation speaks volumes about my reader.

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.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Does spilling the beans put reader in the soup?

A building management firm orders lunch for tenant companies’ employees. Although the companies pay for the food, building management does the ordering. Once the food arrives, it’s put out as a buffet.

A couple of months ago, a reader took over the job of being the guy who orders food for all of the companies on a particular floor.

My reader and others in his position on different floors are allowed to eat from the buffet. Many also were ordering extra items for themselves. “I guessed this was allowed,” my reader writes, “and I did the same.” He points out no item ordered was expensive. More specifically, he would add on containers of soup that he would eat for lunch.

“I was talking about some soup I was eating, which I had ordered, and a higher-up asked me where I got it,” my reader reports. He told her that he had ordered it for himself and she responded, “Oh.”

Apparently, none of the higher-ups knew that the food orderers had been ordering small items for themselves until my reader spilled the beans.

“I got busted,” he writes, “and was told the others would be informed as well that this practice would not be allowed.”

Now, he feels bad, “like I’ve ruined it for the others.”

He disagrees with the policy, “but I would have followed it without ratting anyone out had I known.”

“Is there anything to feel bad about or is my guilt unnecessary?” he asks.

My reader acknowledges that he feels bad partly because he wants to be accepted and liked by the others who fill his role on other floors of the building. They’re all roughly his age and chummy with one another.

But my reader should have no guilt. He engaged in what he thought was accepted, common practice. That he was open about it with his higher-up suggests he wasn’t trying to hide anything.

The right thing would have been for the higher-ups to be clear on the unacceptability of the practice to those doing the ordering. And if the folks on other floors knew that what they were doing was not condoned, they weren’t being particularly chummy with their new colleague by not filling him in. If they knew this practice was against the rules, they should not have engaged in it.

My reader has it right. He might not have agreed with the policy, but he and others should follow it. It’s generous enough that they’re permitted to eat some of the food the companies order without having to pay for it. If they were pushing the limits by tacking on their own personal orders when they knew they weren’t supposed to, they were just being gluttons for punishment.

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


Sunday, November 14, 2010

You read it, you buy it

Every morning, a woman who lives in a wealthy suburb outside a major city in the Northeast region of the United States, moseys into her local Starbucks coffee shop.

The well-coifed patron is well off financially. She and her surgeon husband own three homes, travel extensively and have put each of their children through exclusive private boarding schools and Ivy League universities.

She always orders a grande latte extra hot, plunking down three-plus dollars for her drink of choice.

On her way to a table, as has been her practice for years, the well-coifed patron picks up a copy of The New York Times from the sales rack. She proceeds to sit down, spreads the newspaper on the table, and reads every section, taking care not to rumple the pages of the daily paper. She then folds the paper back up, making sure that it looks almost unread.

A reader who happens to frequent the same Starbucks every morning questions the wealthy patron’s behavior.

“If she were indigent, I’d offer to buy her the newspaper,” my reader writes. “But she’s not even close. Perhaps this is how the rich get richer by saving a dollar here and there.”

My readers asks: “Is she stealing?”

Good question.

There’s a coffee shop in a bookstore near where I live that has a well-stocked magazine section. The owners of the bookstore make it clear that it is OK with management to peruse the magazines while drinking a cup of coffee, as long as the magazines are returned in pristine condition to the rack. It doesn’t, however, have the same policy for the newspapers it sells. You read those, you buy them is the policy on newspapers. The policy is made clear to all patrons.

My reader’s local Starbucks has no read-and-return to the sales rack policy. The assumption is that you are to buy the newspaper before poring over it, whether in the shop or at home.

By returning the read and refolded newspaper, the wealthy patron might assume she shouldn’t have to pay for the paper, but she’s wrong. She’s read the newspaper through and through and should pay for the product she used. Just as most people know it’s wrong to take an extra paper from a newspaper box when they’ve paid for just one, the wealthy patron should know better than to think it’s OK to read from cover to cover a newspaper she’s expected to pay for but hasn’t.

Granted, I may appear to have a bias here since my compensation for this column is directly tied to the newspapers that carry it making money. But my response would be the same for any item for which a customer was expected to pay if she took it and consumed it and then put it back on the rack or shelf without paying.

The Starbucks baristas may not want to make a scene because they don’t want to anger a regular customer and because they’re likely busy brewing and selling coffee.

But the right thing is for the wealthy patron to pay for what she uses. And the right thing for the local Starbucks is to make it even clearer to patrons that they are expected to pay for newspapers they take and read.

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, November 08, 2010

Send me your questions and stories for The Right Thing column

For the weekly newspaper ethics column I write for the Tribune Media Services Syndicate called "The Right Thing," I am always looking for stories of ethical challenges, dilemmas, and perplexing situations. If you have such a story or question based on an incident and would like it to be considered for the column, please email it to me at 

Please make sure to include enough details about the story, the issue that you're wrestling with, and your name and the city and state or province where you are located. Include a way for me to contact you. 

If you know of others who might have interesting stories, please forward this on to them by clicking on the envelope below. 

Thanks in advance for your stories.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Is free Xbox game a fable?

For two hours on a Friday in mid-October, alert fans of the Xbox game Fable II were treated to a surprise. On Microsoft’s Xbox Live website, the complete game that is supposed to cost $19.99 to download was offered for “free” on the site.

Word got out and was tweeted with abandon to fans — but within two hours, Microsoft issued a statement that it had heard reports of the freeness of Fable II, but that the correct price was $19.99, and the Xbox Live website was corrected.

K.G., a reader from Worcester, Mass., who is a console game aficionado, wondered about the ethics of taking advantage of what appeared to have been a pricing error.

He informs me that he didn’t buy the game at any price, “free or otherwise.” But had he known about the error in time he says he “certainly would have downloaded it for free — and part of me feels guilty for that!”

“If I were shopping in a retail store and the clerk forgot to charge me for an item, I would bring it to his attention and expect to be fairly charged for it,” K.G. writes. “When it comes to a digital product instead of a physical one, the situation somehow seems different. Is taking advantage of an online store’s mistake akin to theft? Do I have a responsibility to not partake of such an error?”

The parallel between a retail clerk forgetting to charge for an item and a software company posting an errant price for a product doesn’t hold up. In the retail setting, you’re likely to see all of the physical products as well as the prices being keyed into the register. You also receive a printed receipt itemizing the goods you bought and what you paid for each of them. But in the online situation, there was no way for anyone to know that the Xbox game should have been priced differently. It wasn’t like a vending machine that dispenses soft drinks for half the posted price. In other words, there was no way for the lucky few who found the free Fable II offering to know it was a mistake.

“Yes,’ K.G., responds, “but now that they know, do they have a responsibility to do something about it?”

K.G. raises an interesting point: If we find out after the fact that we were the beneficiaries of something that turned out to be the result of someone else’s error, are we obligated to somehow make things right for the person or company that made the error?

In cases where it’s clear that a mistake has been made — a bank inadvertently registers a deposit greater than the amount you gave it, a clerk puts an item or two in your bag without ringing it up — the right thing is for the buyer to bring attention to the mistake and make things correct.

But in cases where there is no way to know that a mistake has been made — as was the case with the mispriced Xbox game — the lucky customers have no obligation to make up for the seller’s apparent mistake.

As it turns out, the error ended up creating great buzz for the Fable II game, which, interestingly enough, coincided with the release of its follow-up, Fable III. Sometimes it’s difficult to know if an apparent mistake is just a deliberate marketing maneuver in disguise.

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