Sunday, November 27, 2011

Gift-giving grandmother gets no graciousness

Every year, as the holiday gift-giving approaches, I begin to receive questions from readers struggling with the season.

This year, a reader from Southern California writes to report on her six grandchildren, "all very bright and excellent students." Her grandchildren range in age from 12 to 19 - three girls in one family and two boys and one girl in another family.

"We all get along," she writes. "No problems there!"

The children in the family with two boys and one girl "appreciate everything I do for them," grandma writes. "Even the 12-year-old sends me beautiful thank-you notes in his own words and handwriting." From these grandkids, she never fails to get a thank you note as well as a verbal thank you for checks, gifts, and "everything" she does for them.

The problem, however, lies in the family of two girls. Well, not in the family, but in the girls themselves.

"I have to ask the girls in the other family if they received their birthday check or gift," their grandmother writes. When the girls respond to her, "it's sort of a ho-hum, 'Yes.'" The ho-hum affirmation is immediately followed with: "I know you want a thank-you note, Grandma." So, after her call, she reports that she gets a two-sentence note, "not even signed with the word 'love' in it."

Over the years, the grandmother has done the same for all of her grandchildren when it comes to gift giving. But her inclination this year, she writes, is to be more generous with the grandkids who actually show appreciation.

"With Christmas approaching," she writes, "I would like to know what you think is the right thing to do."

Whenever I've received questions like this from readers, I've been very clear that a parent or a grandparent has no obligation to treat every child exactly the same when it comes to giving gifts, leaving an inheritance, or anything else that involves deciding how to dole out assets. Most parents and grandparents, however, do try to be as fair as they can be and treat each of their children and grandchildren as equally as possible. Perhaps partly this is to send a message of how none of the children is loved any more than another. It might also be a way to keep from creating a rift among the children brought on by jealousy.

There is no ethical rule, however, that the grandmother from Southern California must give grandchild A the same amount that she gives grandchild B or grandchild C.

But since the grandmother suggests she loves all of her grandchildren equally and maintains good relationships with all, the right thing to do is for her to ask herself if being less generous with one set of grandkids will really accomplish what she hopes to achieve. If the less-grateful grandkids don't know they're getting less, will it really matter all that much to them? If being less generous is designed to make the grandmother feel better, the right thing would be for her to ask herself if she'd really feel better by being less generous.

The appropriate response should be driven by what the grandmother really wants to accomplish. And it wouldn't kill the less-gracious grandkids' parents to remind them that it's a good and appropriate thing to thank people when they do something nice.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal
Responsibility in Today's Business
 and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apartis 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, November 20, 2011

Your parents or your spouse

A reader from New York City writes that he believes most of the questions I try to tackle in the column each week are "relatively small scale." He, however, believes he has "a biggie."

"From an ethical point of view," he writes, "whose interests is a married person obliged to place foremost, if they come into conflict: His or her parents? Or his or her spouse?"

My first inclination upon reading his question is to assess who reads my column the most, my father or my spouse. But while such checking might prepare me for reactions from my father and spouse to my response, it doesn't change how I'd answer the question.

"The obligations to one's parents are obviously more comprehensive and of much longer standing," the reader goes on. "On the other hand, one swears a personal vow of loyalty to one's spouse, but not normally to one's parents. The obligations of a son or daughter are more or less imposed on you without consent, consultation or specific articulation. ('Because I'm your mother, that's why!')"

While it's obviously best to honor obligations to both parents and spouse or, if you can't, to find a compromise, the reader recognizes that in some cases the obligations are specific and mutually exclusive.

"What then?" he asks.

I'm not so sure my reader has as much of "a biggie" as he thinks.

Sure, anytime you try to drive a wedge between a spouse and a parent or a spouse and a spouse by introducing a divisive issue, there might be fireworks. In such cases, my own spouse reminds me, it's good to remember that you live with the spouse with whom you are building your own lives together.But my reader seems to forget that missing in his premise is that there's a third player in the equation, presumably with a mind of his own. Not only might a spouse disagree with his parents. He might disagree with both of them.

My own spouse believes that this fellow may just be "looking for trouble," trying to engage a columnist in settling a score between his spouse and his parent, so he doesn't have to take a stand.

But I'm not so sure that's the case.

Instead, like many of us, my reader seems to be looking for a set of rules that apply to any situation all the time. The trouble is that situations differ and so do our responses to them. There is no one set of rules that defines whose side you should take in a disagreement, beyond the rule that you should side with the person you believe is right. If you believe neither side is right, then express that.

The right thing to do when parents and spouse collide is not to arbitrarily side with either, but instead to have a mind of your own that presumably can produce an opinion of your own. But given that you have a committed relationship with your spouse and plan to spend the rest of your life with him or her, it's also the right thing to give a heads up to your spouse beforehand if your view differs rather than launch it by surprise in front of your parents. Such an approach honors loyalty and increases the likelihood that your spouse won't feel betrayed by your contrary views.

Jeffrey L. Seglin is the author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal
Responsibility in Today's Business
. Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

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

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Don't send money to far-away princes

My cellphone rang as I was getting off the train to head to my office.

"Did you get Klara's email?" the caller asked.

I had. In it, my relative Klara (whose name I've changed) - or someone purporting to be Klara - said she had been mugged while vacationing in London and needed money wired to pay her hotel bill. Word for word, it was exactly the same email I had received from a business associate months earlier. Neither had been in London. The emails were scams.

My caller asked if he should be concerned. I told him not to be since my wife had already been in touch with Klara and she was fine.

Earlier, I received emails from readers telling me about emails they'd received from people who were trying to get riches out of a particular country, but that they needed money wired to them to help them do so.

"My husband thinks these are from the same people who did the famous Nigerian scams," one reader writes, referring to variations of emails that made the rounds promising to transfer substantial sums of cash to your bank account that would be shared with you. All you needed to do was to share banking information.

Another variation involves a Craigslist poster purportedly in search of a nanny. The poster sends a fake check to nanny prospects and then proceeds to get the victim to send cash or goods to an address. Only later do the victims find out that the check was fake and end up on the hook for the money they spent.

Clearly, the scam artists are behaving unethically. There's no ethical upside to committing fraud and sucking unsuspecting victims into parting with their cash - even if the victim is drawn in by the promises of riches or a job.

But a reader wanted to know if she behaved unethically by initially falling for one of the scams. She just barely fell, mind you, having responded to the ad for nannies, but smartened up before actually sending any cash.

Being gullible is not the same as being unethical. Falling victim to a scam artist might be embarrassing, but it does not reflect a moral failure. Even if the victim's motivation is untold riches (one of the Nigerian email scams promises 20 percent of $23 million for allowing a short-term transfer to the victim's bank account), the victim is only guilty of being a bit too starry eyed at an offer that appears too good to be true.

"Is there somewhere you can go to check out the latest scams and maybe add new ones?" asks a reader from Wisconsin.

There is no central source that gathers all scam efforts. But websites such as ( are a great place to check on the veracity of such emails making the rounds. These scams tend to be cyclical and ones that were prominent in the past have a
tendency to pop up unexpectedly years later.

Whenever an email that appears to be a scam alleges to come from a particular organization or mentions an organization in the text of he email, the right thing is to report that email to that organization. Scams will never go away entirely, but if prospective victims are vigilant about reporting them when they do arise, the chances are greater that people will not all victim to the scams in the future.

Jeffrey L. Seglin is the author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal
Responsibility in Today's Business
. Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

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

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The things we carry: A POW bracelet, a Medal of Honor recipient, and how the two came together

 In 1998, I started writing a monthly business ethics column for the Sunday New York Times, called “The Right Thing.” In what became a bit of a ritual…well, more of a panic, really…I spent part of each month scouring for ideas for the column. I talked to regular sources, kept an eye out and an ear open for egregious examples of corporate malfeasance, and pored through a collection of newspaper and magazine clips I’d collected in a big pile in my office that might yield some good premise for a column.

In late 2003, I was reading through an article I’d saved from The New York Times about some of the cases that the Supreme Court had declined to hear. One of them struck my eye in particular. It was a case brought on behalf of veterans of World War II and the Korean War who had been promised lifetime medical benefits for themselves and their families by overzealous recruiters in an effort to get them to serve in the military for at least 20 years. The United States Court of Appeals had ruled that these claims were invalid since the recruiters didn’t have the authority to offer them.

It struck me as a bum deal that these veterans were being cheated out of medical benefits because they had been misled and that the government had decided not to step up to the plate and honor the promises made by these recruiters… Great fodder for a column, I thought, looking at how our ethical obligations often go beyond what the letter of the law requires us to do.

But what really caught my eye was the name of the guy who was leading the case – a veteran from Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, named George E. Day. … God, that name – George E. Day – sounds familiar, I thought. … No, actually, it LOOKED familiar, as if I’d read it or seen it before.

So I started doing some digging online and found that George Day was at the time a lawyer in his seventies based in Florida who also was a heavily decorated war veteran who had served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. He had received the Congressional Medal of Honor, was one of the most highly decorated soldiers in United States military history…and, starting at the age of 42, he had been held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for 67 months, where for a period of time his roommate had been John McCain.

And then it hit me. I looked up from the newspaper clipping over at the basket on my desk in which I keep pens and pencils…and there, hanging on the side of the basket was the nickel-plated POW bracelet I had worn 30 years ago when I was in high school. And there on the bracelet was the name: “Col. George Day” and the date on which he had been taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese – August 26, 1967.

All these years I’d assumed that Col. Day had never made it back since I never saw news of him during any of the prisoner releases that happened during the 1970s. But it turns out that not only did he make it back, he was a bonafide war hero who’d won the Medal of Honor.

For 30 years, I’ve been carrying around Col. Day’s bracelet with me, never knowing what happened to him. I had purchased the bracelet for $2.50 when I was a high school student in Boonton, New Jersey, in 1971. Thousands of people wore the bracelets during the waning days of the Vietnam War as a testament – regardless of their views of the War – that POWs should not be forgotten. As a high school student, I had been against the war, and I wore my bracelet through my freshman year in college and then kept it with me as I’ve moved over the years.

I’d been carrying Colonel Day’s bracelet around for 30 years and, now that I knew he was alive, I felt an obligation to go to Ft Walton Beach, FL and give it to him.

When I meet Col. Day for the first time, he was much smaller than I had imagined. This should have come as no surprise. I’d read his autobiography, called Return with Honor, where he’d written that he was only 5 feet 9. But he’d also written about one of the most harrowing imprisonment experiences I’d ever read – full of torture, defiance, resilience – that in my mind he’d taken on a larger than life stature.

During the 14 days that Col. Day had escaped his initial captors and was trying to find his way to South Vietnam, he was hallucinating, living off a couple of frogs and berries, bleeding from his nose, vomiting blood, nursing a broken right arm, and ultimately only giving in to being recaptured after he was shot in the arm and leg. … And, all of this while he was 42 years old.

When I set up the meeting, I hadn’t told the Colonel why I wanted to meet with him.

During the Vietnam War, I was a high school student who protested the war. I registered for the draft and got a lottery number in 1974, but, lucky for me, that was the year the draft was suspended. I ended up writing my phone number on my draft card to give to a girl I’d met at a college mixer.

While he was in the POW camp, Col. Day’s North Vietnamese captors would play speeches from anti-war protestors in the United States or from those – like actress Jane Fonda – who had visited Hanoi. In his book, he writes that this broadcasted propaganda “diluted the reasoning power of the public, confused the issue of how bad the Communists were, and supported the claims of the peaceniks and pro-Commie anti-war groups. During rational times in other wars,” Col. Day wrote, “such people would have been hanging from telephone poles. A pity these were irrational times.”

Knowing that I was in his office to give Col. Day the POW bracelet that I’d worn as a sign of protest against the war, I was a bit nervous that his hatred of the anti-war protestors will extend to me and that perhaps he thinks that I too, along with my high school buddies who wore similar bracelets with other names on them, should have been strung up as well.

When I finally mustered the courage to tell the Colonel why I’m really there, I reached into my left pants pocket, pulled out the bracelet, fumbled with it a bit, and then handed it to him.

It turns out that Colonel Day has received so many of these bracelets with his name on them that he’s donated the bulk of them to two different art projects, where they were fashioned into POW/MIA statues.

He still received several bracelets every month, but said that most of the bracelets he’s received over the past 30 years have obviously never been worn – they’re almost fresh out of the package, if not still in the original packaging. But not mine.

I didn’t know how the Colonel would respond when I gave him the bracelet. That he responded so warmly was partly due to the fact that he says he never knew that the bracelets were worn by anti-war protestors as a signal to end the war and bring home the POWs.

When Day returned to the States, he was told the bracelets were manufactured and sold by a Los Angeles radio host named Bob Dornan, who would later go on to become a Republican Congressman. And while Dornan did support and promote the wearing of the bracelets on his radio show, the nickel-plated POW bracelets were actually manufactured and sold by a group called VIVA, Voices in Vital America, a student-run organization out of Los Angeles that began selling them on November 11, 1970. The requests for the bracelets quickly reached 12,000 a day. Before it disbanded in 1976, VIVA had distributed nearly 5 million bracelets.

It’s somewhat uncomfortable to be the first person to explain to Col Day that these bracelets were the work of the VIVA students and that, regardless of their original intent, quickly the bracelets became another visceral symbol worn by those opposed to the war.

Col. Day is the most decorated soldier in the Air Force and is one of the country’s most highly decorated war heroes. He holds nearly 70 military decorations and awards. In addition to the Medal of Honor, he holds the Air Force Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart.

He’s been honored at dozens of fighter pilot ceremonies, and was the first president of the NAM-POW association. The airport named in his honor in Sioux City, Iowa, features a 9-foot tall bronze statue of him wearing his fighter pilot’s uniform and his Medal of Honor around his neck.

After returning from Vietnam in 1973, the Colonel stayed in the military until 1977, when it became clear to him that he was not going to be offered the type of top military leadership position he felt he deserved. He’d been a lawyer since 1949, and was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1977, where he established a law practice in Ft. Walton Beach. He also became heavily involved in Republican politics.

Then came the lawsuit that made its way to the Supreme Court. For years, stories of overzealous military recruiters promising lifetime medical benefits to veterans with 20 years of service and their dependents had been circulating. Col. Day was outraged that World War II and Korean War veterans had not received these benefits and in 1996 sued the government for reimbursement of medical costs on behalf of two veterans. The government refused to take responsibility for these overzealous recruiters.

Colonel Day was a huge supporter of John McCain when he ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 and, if you watched closely, you could see him on the stump for McCain when he ran again in 2008. McCain had made the restoration of medical benefits a major campaign promise in 2000. When McCain lost the nomination, Colonel Day dutifully shifted his allegiance to George Bush, who Day says had picked up McCain’s promise of restoring veteran’s benefits. He goes so far as to claim that he and his friends working the campaign personally delivered the election to Bush by giving him the narrow margin he needed with the absentee ballots of overseas servicemen based out of North Florida.

Soon after the election in 2000, Col. Day met President Bush at a gathering for Medal of Honor winners. He cornered the President directly about his promise of medical benefits for World War II and Korean War veterans. It was a disappointing meeting for the Colonel.

What’s been remarkable to me in this whole story is that here was this guy who has spent his life defining himself by his service to military and government – here was this guy who vociferously condemned acts of protest during wartime – and here he was suing his government.

The suit seeking reimbursement of medical expenses was brought on behalf of two veterans. The original suit was rejected in one court, then overturned on appeal, then rejected again on another appeal, before the Supreme Court refused to hear the case in June 2003.

Toward the end of our conversation, the Colonel tells me that the reason he thinks he was spared during three wars and 67 months of grueling captivity in North Vietnam was that God had a higher mission for him … and that that mission was to deliver North Florida to the Republicans and enable him to do the work he’s doing now to get veterans what’s due them.

I’m taken aback anytime someone declares they’re on a mission from God. But there’s something strikingly refreshing and ennobling about Col. Day’s declaration. For himself, he knows why he’s here. He has a clear sense of what his obligations are.

In a small and much less clearer sense, I’ve come to realize that I held on to Col Day’s bracelet all these years not for any profound reason other than the fact that I felt an obligation to carry it with me until I found out what happened to him.

Now that that obligation is fulfilled and I’ve given him the bracelet, I suppose I could have either felt a great burden lifted or a sense of emptiness at no longer carrying it with me. But the truth is, I felt neither. Years have gone by when I gave the bracelet or the man’s name on it little if any thought. If not for the serendipitous encounter with his name in a newspaper article, I never would likely have exerted the effort to find the Colonel.

But I do know that on seeing the Colonel wear the bracelet I’d given him on the final day we spoke and on hearing him ask me if it was okay with me if he and his wife, Doris, hung the bracelet on his Christmas tree, I felt a sense of joy and connection to this man I’d never known.

[This essay originally appeared on True/Slant on May 23, 2009.]
[Original research funded by This American Life.]

[Colonel Bud Day died on Saturday, July 27, 2013. He was 88 years old. His obituary in The New York Times appears here.


Sunday, November 06, 2011

Freeloader or working stiff?

Several weeks ago, I tried to tackle the question a reader posed about whether those who lack the resources to pay for medical services or who haven't taken the time to donate blood or fill out organ-donor cards should be denied services.

I responded, "No, they should not be turned away."

My reasoning was, I believed, straightforward.

If we've determined, as a society, that it's inappropriate to turn away people who need medical or emergency services that could save their lives, even if they can't afford such services, we should not withhold such services. Such a position reflects an ethical choice we've made about how we're going to live together.

The goal might be for everyone to take responsibility for his or her own heath and to contribute toward paying for such care. But the goal doesn't remove our responsibility of caring for those who might not have been as capable of making the same decisions.

After reading the column, a reader writes to tell me that it really got under her skin.

"What about all of those people who choose to work part time?" she asks. "Those who barely get by, live hand to mouth, and expect the rest of us to pick up the pieces when they get injured or sick?"

The reader reports that she works four jobs to pay her bills, but that "the lazy freeloaders get taken care of with the same care."

What's more, she writes, "we all know people on disability who work under the table and collect money that should be going to people really injured."

"Where," she asks, "is the incentive to turn these frauds in?"

Where to begin.

First, my reader has no idea what the plight might be of the part-time workers who work just enough to qualify for benefits. Although she might be working four jobs, they might have all they can do to work part time and meet their other obligations. Labeling others as "lazy" or "freeloaders" because they don't happen to clock as many hours as we do is to presume we know their entire life story or how hard they work to put food on their table. Often as not, we don't.

My reader's assumption that we all know people who fraudulently take money when they're on disability is false. I don't know anyone who is doing this. Aside from occasional stories you read about such misdeeds, how many do you know?

But if my reader's main question is about reporting fraudulent workers compensation cases, the right thing is for her to report them. Such fraud is not only illegal, it can drive up the costs for the rest of us. So, if she knows "these frauds" and can prove her claims, she should turn them in. If the illegality of the action or the potential expense or her general outrage are not enough incentive for her to turn them in, then she should do it because it's the right thing to do.

But before she does, she should make sure that her assessment is accurate. One person's "lazy freeloader" may be another's hard-working stiff simply trying to get by.

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

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

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