Sunday, December 26, 2010

Money for nothing

A couple of months ago, the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement (BBM) called J.P., a reader from London, Ontario, and asked if he would participate in a survey that involved completing a radio listening diary for a week. The BBM is an audience measurement company for Canadian radio and television broadcasters. (It's comparable to Nielsen Media Research or Arbitron in the United States.)

J.P. reports that he "willingly complied" with the request, believing that "my input might have some, however minor, influence on what was broadcast." To encourage J.P.'s cooperation, BBM included a toonie (a $2 coin) with the survey.

J.P. dutifully filled out the survey and sent it back to BBM. He would have completed and returned it regardless of whether any money had been included in his survey package. After all, he had agreed over the phone to participate.

In mid-December, J.P. received another package from BBM, this one unsolicited. He hadn't been called ahead this time to assess his willingness to receive the package that contained a 70-page consumer product survey. But accompanying the new lengthier survey was a crisp $5 bill.

"I have no intention of completing this survey," writes J.P.

His first inclination was to place the unanswered survey and the $5 bill in the postage-paid envelope and send it back to BBM. But, he observes, that this might cost BBM more in postage than the $5 they sent him. He wonders if he should just pocket the $5 and drop the survey in the recycling bin. A third option J.P. doesn't raise, of course, is to put the $5 bill in the postage-paid envelope and just return it to BBM.

J.P. is wrestling with what the right response should be.

"No one called to ask my permission," he writes. "Am I under any obligation to respond in any way?"

In the past, I've written about not-for-profit businesses that send potential donors personalized mailing address labels as an inducement to contribute to some cause. More than a few readers wonder if it's ethical to use such labels if you don't donate to the cause. My take has always been that it's perfectly fine to do so since you didn't request the labels and were offered them as a gift just to consider giving.

When cash is involved, it might somehow feel different to a reader. But if, as J.P. reported, the $5 was given to encourage him to fill out the survey and not as an agreed-upon payment for doing so, he has no ethical obligation to return it. Presumably, his lack of responsiveness will signal the end of BBM's efforts to entice him to fill out future surveys by using such nominal cash incentives.

Once J.P. decides for certain that he has no intention of filling out the survey, the right thing is for him to do as he pleases with the $5 bill. It was meant to entice him, not to obligate him to fill out an unsolicited survey. He's under no obligation to do anything but consider the request, which he appears to have done.

Given that it's the holiday season, J.P. may decide to donate his newfound $5 riches to a worthy charity. But that, too, is his decision to make.

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, December 19, 2010

My subway stop

Last week, I had to leave work early.

Since it was late afternoon, the subway car was filled with students who had just gotten out of school. Shortly before we arrived at my stop, I heard a commotion breaking out on the other end of the car. One of the adult passengers standing near me kept repeating, “Go to the other end of the car and pull the alarm.” I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about.

Still, I started walking toward the other end of the car — nearer to where the commotion seemed to originate. It was then I saw a teenage girl pummeling a smaller teenage boy who was sitting in one of the passenger seats. As she was finishing, a teenage boy took his turn pummeling the seated victim. Other kids were hovering around as were adults who had done nothing to try to break up the beating.

A momentary panic hit me. I’m not a small guy, but with graying beard, book in hand, backpack on my shoulder, and glasses perched on my forehead, I’m hardly menacing. Do I step in and risk a gang of teenagers descending on me? Do I walk to the other end of the car and “pull the alarm,” now that that fellow’s instructions had become clear? Or do I do as everyone else seems to have done and mind my own business?

I regularly dole out advice to readers who find themselves in such situations, but what’s the right thing for me to do here?

I would never advise readers to put themselves in harm’s way in such a situation. Jumping in and starting to wrestle with the kids who are pummeling the seated teenager seems fraught with peril. But standing by while this kid is getting hurt just isn’t right.

Half expecting — or at least hoping — that other adults will help out if I insinuate myself into the situation, I continue walking toward the entangled teenagers and shout, “Cut it out!”

Remarkably, the pummelers retreat. The victim gets up and moves to the other side of the train as quickly as he can. He’s pulled his hood up over his head and is slumping against the door, but he appears to be a safe distance from his attackers.

When the doors open to my stop, he also gets off the car. I walk him up the stairs to the station attendant, tell her that the kids who accosted him are on the last car of the train, and I sit with him. It’s only then that I notice that his nose his bleeding and a black eye is beginning to welt up. The attendant radios for medical help and also says she will call ahead to alert authorities that the accosters are still on the train — along with witnesses to the incident.

The victim’s cousin gets off the next train and comes to sit with him. I give the station attendant my card and tell her to call if they need to know what I saw.

I don’t know what caused the fight. I don’t know who the others involved were. But I do know that in such situations the right thing to do is something, anything . . . even if it’s something as simple as yelling out, “Stop it! Stop it now!”

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, December 12, 2010

I am not a clinical psychologist

I am not a clinical psychologist.

My opening declaration might seem a bit of non sequitur for those readers who never entertained the notion that I might be a clinical psychologist. But there’s a reason for my opening salvo.

Last week, I appeared on a local morning news program to discuss a piece I had contributed to an article in Whole Living magazine on the ethics of forgiveness. I’ve appeared on the news show before and, as has been the case previously, the producers and hosts were very well prepared, asked terrific questions and treated me graciously throughout my visit. The television segment aired live, but I knew I would be able to see it later on the show’s website.

I left the television studio to retrieve my car from its lot. As I was preparing to start the car, my cell phone rang. It was my wife.

“The segment went great,” she said, commenting upon how easily the host engaged me in conversation on the topic. She paused. “But they misidentified you.” I had thought that maybe the station had misspelled my name or the name of the college where I teach. “No,” she said. “They identified you as a ‘clinical psychologist.’”

Uh-oh. Like I wrote at the top, I’m not a clinical psychologist.

But the honest mistake (another contributor to the Whole Living article is indeed a clinical psychologist) led me to the question: How much of an obligation do I have to set people straight when I’m identified as something I’m not?

On a smaller scale, such misidentifications have happened before. Students or others who e-mail me for the first time occasionally address me as “Dr. Seglin,” assuming that because I’m a college professor, I have a doctorate. I don’t, so I try to correct them at the end of my e-mail response without making them feel foolish for making such an assumption.

But the clinical psychologist label was broadcast on television, so I had no idea how many people saw the label or how to reach all of them. Nowhere on the station’s online description to the clip was the reference made and the anchor who interviewed me identified me correctly throughout our discussion.

I also recalled the episode of the BBC comedy “As Time Goes By” when the Judi Dench character introduces her boyfriend as a psychiatrist (which he wasn’t) in an effort to change topics with her deceased husband’s sister. When the sister-in-law’s husband seeks out the non-psychiatrist’s services, he responds, “I am not a psychiatrist.” The fake patient believes this is a therapeutic tool to entice him to figure out his own problems and no matter the protests continues to believe the non-psychiatrist is in fact a psychiatrist.

When I write, “I am not a clinical psychologist,” I mean it. I’m not.

The right thing for me to do is to make this point clear to viewers of the clip. So when I posted it on my column’s blog, I introduced it by pointing out the error. When I sent it to my college’s public affairs office, I did the same. When friends, students or colleagues view the segment and tell me they didn’t know I was a clinical psychologist, I assure them I am not.

When we receive credit for degrees we haven’t earned, even if it’s in passing, the right thing is to correct the mistake. It’s not only the right thing to do, but also prevents such errors from taking on a life of their own.

As someone who is married to a therapist and sees the kind of hard work she does every day, I can assure you I am not a clinical psychologist.

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, December 05, 2010

Every choice you make defines you

The choices we make define us. Ideally, we're proud of these choices, recognizing that when faced with a challenging situation, we opted to do what we knew was right regardless of any fears about possible consequences.

But often, we find ourselves making choices that in retrospect we knew were wrong at the time. The effect of such decisions can linger long past the event. These choices define us, too.

Many years ago, when a reader from Wisconsin was the director of a not-for-profit organization, he found himself facing such a choice. His not-for-profit generated money by reselling used goods that were donated to his organization's resale store. My reader managed 50 employees and reported to a board of trustees consisting of a dozen people.

My reader recalls that the president of the board was "mean-spirited behind closed doors." Both the president and his girlfriend liked to be "stroked and flattered" and exhibited signs of "self-importance."

One day when the president and his girlfriend were visiting one of the not-for-profit's workshops, she noticed that her former brother-in-law was working there.

"She immediately grew hostile," my reader writes, "and told her boyfriend, the president, that she wanted him fired."

Several minutes later, the president told my reader that he had to fire the former brother-in-law. "There was no cause other than his girlfriend was demanding it. He told me I had to get rid of him by the end of the day."

If he didn't appease his boss, my reader was convinced he would become the target of the girlfriend's wrath. Fearing retaliation, my reader gave in and fired the former brother-in-law at the end of the day.

"I still carry the shame and self-disappointment that I allowed myself to be 'bullied' into doing this," my reader writes.

My reader knows he could have stood up to his boss and refused to fire the former brother-in-law. He feared, however, that the consequences of not doing so might have been worse for him. Even if he stood his ground, the president might still have had the brother-in-law fired by someone else. He could have stood up to his boss only to find both the former brother-in-law's and his own job in peril.

Years later, however, he finds himself haunted by his decision. He had a chance to choose what he believed was right, but when push came to shove, he caved and accommodated a boss he knew to be vindictive.

Granted, in an environment where jobs are scarce, the courage to stand up for an injustice brought to bear on someone else grows incredibly difficult when your own job may be on the line. We'd all like to think we'd have the conviction to do what we have no doubt to be right when faced with such a choice.

That one choice made years ago, in part, defines who my reader is today. "On that day, I lacked the courage to do the right thing," my reader writes. But the lingering effects of that one choice have bolstered his courage to choose to do the right thing even when he knows there might be risks. That one choice may partly define him, but it doesn't limit him from being able to recognize that he never wants to allow himself to be bullied into again making a choice he doesn't believe is the right thing to do.

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, December 01, 2010

Letting go: Ethicist on forgiveness (Fox 25 Morning News)

Here's a clip from an interview with Emerson College alum Gene Lavanchy on Fox 25 Morning News show this morning. The topic was the ethics of forgiveness. It was based on a piece on the topic that appears in the December issue of Martha Stewart's Whole Living magazine.

At one point in the interviewed I'm incorrectly labeled as a "clinical psyschologist." I'm not a clinical psychologist, but another contributor to the Whole Living piece, Janis Abrahms Spring, is.