Sunday, August 28, 2011

He shoots, he scores, he comes clean

[UPDATE TO STORY: "No $50,000 prize for boy who made 'miracle' shot." (THANKS TO READER WILLIAM JACOBSON FOR THE LINK.)

On Thursday, Aug. 11, 11-year-old Nick Smith's name was called out during half-time at a charity hockey game in Faribault, Minn. His father had paid $10 for the chance of a lifetime. If Nick could shoot a 3-inch-diameter hockey puck 89 feet into a target whose opening was 3.5 inches wide by 1.5 inches high, he would win $50,000.

The trouble was that Nick was hanging around with his friends at the time his name was called. So his identical twin brother, Nate, heeded the call, took to the ice and made the long shot long shot.

To most everyone's surprise -- including the professional hockey players who witnessed the shot -- Nate got the puck through the goal. But everyone -- except for Nate and his dad -- still thought that it was Nick, the brother whose ticket had been selected, who had made the shot.

Because the brothers are identical, it was unlikely the promoters would notice that the brother was the one called to make the shot.

Later, the twins' father, Pat, called one of the hockey promoters to let him know that it was the other twin who had made the goal, not the one whose name was on the ticket.

"You've got to do what's right," the dad told a reporter from Reuters. "You don't want to teach kids to lie no matter how much money is involved."

An old friend of mine, Dr. Rick Kenney, an associate professor at Florida Gulf Coast University who teaches media law and ethics, alerted me to the Smith saga shortly after it was reported. Kenney, like most everyone else, would like to see the insurance company still pay out the $50,000.

But for this situation not to be unethical, Kenney says, at least two conditions must exist. First, there was no intentional walking out of the arena to dodge the challenge by the original ticketholder. And second, there was no intent to deceive by their "twinness."

It doesn't appear as if anyone left the arena to avoid taking the shot. But it does seem like the twinness was taken advantage of.

The right thing would have been for Nate to have simply said to those who called him (or for his father to say on his behalf): "My brother isn't here, but I have his ticket. May I take his place?"

If the organizers agreed, they might have run into issues with their insurer who was paying out the money, but Nate and his dad would have been in the clear ethically.

"After he had time to think about it, the father figured out it was wrong," Kenney says. "Still, there's no taking back the original deception."

Does the family deserve to keep the $50,000 because the father decided to come clean after the fact that he has fudged on the rules of the game? He may have sent a strong message to his sons that you need to do what's right even when there are consequences, but it doesn't negate the fact that one brother pretended to be the other. The organizers may decide to pay the family some prize for the amazing shot or for the honesty after the fact or for all the publicity the incident is garnering them.

But there's no ethical obligation for them to do so. Sometimes it's just doing what's right that is the feel-good part of the act.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Let's move honestly with our kids

Let's Move! was launched in February 2010, by Michelle Obama to address childhood obesity in America. The goal of the organization is to wipe out rampant childhood obesity within a generation.

By involving kids, schools and parents with a variety of educational and physical activities, Let's Move! is committed to reversing the trend toward overeating and underactive kids. While arguments can be made over what constitutes overweight, particularly in a very active child with healthy eating habits, the goal of sending a message of how important diet and exercise are to maintain health is a good one.

The effort's website is full of statistics that will likely raise any reader's concerns about just how sedentary childhood life has become. The volume of junk food consumed and television watched and video games played in place of outdoor activities is staggering. On average, Americans consumes 31 percent more calories and 15 more pounds of sugar a year than they did 40 years ago.

There's no question that finding a way to reverse this trajectory is important. And parents are a primary group targeted by Let's Move! to get the job done. Parents are encouraged to share tips online with other parents and are provided with healthy menus to feed their families.

There are also a slew of public service announcements (PSAs) that run online and as television advertisements to make the case. And it's in one of these PSAs that Let's Move! seems to have gone off cue in helping parents share the values with their children that may lead to a healthier, more active lifestyle.

I first saw the PSA when I was pumping gas and viewing those short videos that are displayed on a screen at the top of the pump. Inthe PSA, a young girl runs downstairs shouting to her mother in the kitchen that she wants a dollar. The mother glances at her purse on the counter next to her and starts to say, "Sure, it's right..." and then stops. "I think my purse is upstairs on the bed." The daughter shouts back that it's not there and then the mother suggests she try the dining room, her sister's room, and basically gets her to run around the house looking for the purse.

Eventually, the daughter comes to the kitchen, the mother laughs, and gives her daughter the dollar while the voice announces: "Moms everywhere are finding ways to keep kids active and healthy."

In the scheme of things, it may not seem a big deal. But while we're trying to get parents to instill good eating habits in their children, wouldn't it make sense to suggest they do so without lying to their kids? A small lie, perhaps, but a lie nonetheless and one that suggests to the kid that it might be appropriate to use a similar tact when she is trying to get someone to do something she wants her to do, say, her mother.

It shouldn't take a good parent much effort to find ways to keep their kids active without resorting to lies to get them to do so. Let's Move! has a terrific mandate. The right thing is for its PSAs to match the integrity of the program.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing:Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Paying for picture-perfect referral

While at a Las Vegas conference for wedding photographers, P.A., of Columbus, Ohio, decided to attend an open forum one evening.

One topic high on everyone's mind was how to market their services. A high-end wedding photographer joined the conversation by talking about how she worked with bridal salons to secure recommends.

As the high-end photographer talked, P.A. was reminded of a bridal salon in Columbus that had set a policy about 10 years earlier that required all photographers to pay for referrals. P.A. declined to participate in such a program.

"I felt that the referral would not be an honest one because the salon would only be referring people who paid them to do so," she writes.

During the discussion in Las Vegas, P.A. asked the high-end photographer if she paid salons in her area. She and several others said that they did and saw no problem with it. They likened it to paying for ad space.

P.A. has no problem paying a salon for ad space in its store or newsletter. But the paid referral feels different to her. "A bride would not know the salon had paid for this referral, and would think it was a vendor the salon trusted, not just someone who paid for the referral."

Many of her fellow wedding photographers in Las Vegas disagreed. When P.A. asked if any of them asked for a referral fee from salons for recommending brides to them, all said, "No."

While she knows that a salon would likely have a lot more clients to refer to photographers than the other way around, P.A. also believes "it is unfair for someone to ask for money from us, but not be willing to pay for the same service from us."

"I feel the kickback taints the referral," writes P.A. "If the salon wants to do it that way, it should tell its clients somehow, perhaps by calling it a list of 'preferred vendors' or something, but not call it a 'referral.'"

There are many instances in business where a premium is paid by a product or service provider for better placement or mention. For years, supermarkets have charged food distributors slotting fees for premium shelf space. Book publishers have paid extra for having their titles featured on the end caps of bookshelves or on spotlighted tables throughout the bookstore.

Whenever there are many product or service providers vying for the same consumers, an opportunity arises to charge more for better access to those consumers.

So, it's no surprise that such a practice occurs within the bridal industry.

But my reader is correct to suggest that the right thing is to let consumers know what's behind such referrals. The married-couples-to-be should be allowed to judge for themselves whether it matters that a photographer has paid to be mentioned by a bridal salon. If it's more important to them that they get a recommendation unsullied by a financial transaction, then they can solicit such opinions from friends or other service providers that don't charge referral fees.

There's nothing wrong with the practice as long as everyone involved knows the practice is going on.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of  The Right Thing:Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

When and when not to take employer to task

Companies that don't give prospective employees who've been brought in for interviews the courtesy of some sort of response even if they don't get the job are wrong. That's what I wrote a few months ago and I believe it as strongly today.

But that column generated a letter from the Columbus, Ohio, mother of a college freshman. When her daughter was home over Christmas break, her parents encouraged her to start sending out her resume and filling out applications for summer work.

Her parents knew jobs were becoming more difficult to find before "those who had lost their jobs would also be competing with all the students in the area."

The daughter applied to three places. By late spring, only one prospective employer had responded. The daughter was invited in for an interview. At the end of the interview, the daughter was offered the job.

"As for the other two employers," her mother writes, "I was disappointed and frustrated, as was she, that they did not respond to her follow-up emails and phone calls."

The mother says that she herself has applied for many jobs in her lifetime. Almost always, she was given the courtesy of at least a letter when the employer chose not to interview her or hire her for a position.

"My daughter was ignored and I found this rude," she writes. "This is not teaching our younger generation any good lesson about proper etiquette and common courtesy."

The mother points out that my column "makes the case that employers owe their applicants this kind of respect."

"What is your recommendation about how the applicant should politely point this out to employers when this respect is not shown?" she asks. She hopes such a letter would force employers to "make the necessary improvements" for future applicants, but she also wouldn't want her daughter to "burn any bridges" by writing it.

Tempting as it might be to write that letter to "politely" let prospective employers know about their rudeness, this might not be the best route.

In his book, Leading Quietly: An Unorthodox Guide to Doing the Right Thing (HBS Press, 2002), Joseph Badaracco makes a case for the use of restraint when faced with such circumstances. If the goal is to get the company to change its practices, then receiving a letter from someone about how disrespectful it was not to call her back might not do the trick. The potential downside (closing the door on future possibilities, for example) may outweigh the upside (feeling better about getting a slight off your chest).

The right thing is to figure out how best to get a desired message across as effectively as possible. Rather than write the businesses to point out their shortcomings, the daughter might consider writing a letter to each of the companies that didn't give her the courtesy of any response to let them know that since she'd applied, she wanted them to know that while she hadn't heard back from them yet she was offered and took a position at another company. By politely letting the companies know of her changed employment situation, she also lets them know that another company not only got back to her, but offered her a job. She stays positive, gets her message across, burns no bridges -- and gets to enjoy the summer working.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing:Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.