Sunday, January 29, 2012

Whom do I go to for advice? And whom don't I?

I'm not the only person who writes a regular column on ethical issues.

But awhile back, I pointed out that when facing my own ethical issues, I had no one to write to for ethical guidance. "It would be a conflict of interest to write to a competing columnist," I said.

A reader in Columbus, Ohio, took issue. Frankly, he didn't understand my point about not being able to write to a competing columnist.

"Why wouldn't you use another columnist and his or her expertise to answer an ethical question (whether it was about you or from a reader)? It seems to me that the service you provide should give the questioner the best possible solution with an adequate explanation of how you got to such a recommendation. If the goal is to 'do the right thing,' why not use all the resources you might have?"

He explained that as a doctor, he regularly referred patients to other internists when he felt he wasn't solving their medical issues. 'The goal is to get at what will work best for the patient."

Likewise, he asks, isn't it the ethical thing for a columnist to ask an expert, even if that expert is a competitor?

The doctor is right that outside experts are critical to anyone who dispenses advice. Several years ago, Amy Dickinson, who writes the"Ask Amy" column, called to ask my advice about an employee who wrote that she worked at a company whose owners "sanctioned" managers expensing thousands of dollars of trips to "gentleman's clubs." (Both Dickinson's column and mine are syndicated by Tribune Media Services, but when she called, I worked for a competing syndicate.) Dickinson contacted me because I've written and taught about business ethics. (She and I agreed the office manager should find a new place to work.)

But Dickinson didn't call me to do her job for her. She presumably called because she wanted to talk it over with someone who wrotemore frequently about workplace ethics.

I make similar calls regularly to folks who are experts in a field beyond my expertise - whether it's local administrators who know the regulations on who owns fruit on a tree that sits in a person's yard but overhangs a public walkway, or whether alcohol in baked goods actually burns off or remains in the cake or myriad issues in between.

I also talk regularly to a wide variety of people who work in ethics to get input on the type of responses I make to reader questions.

What I don't believe is right, however, is to avail myself of the opinion of other columnists who cover the same turf as I do and then use their wisdom to come up with my own solutions to various issues posed. It feels too much like trying to impress dinner guests by ordering takeout from a fine dining establishment and then foisting the food off on them as my own creation.

The reader from Columbus is absolutely correct that the right thing is for me to avail myself of the resources I need to provide readers with the best information possible in the column. But the right thing for me is to draw the line in getting those who compete with me to do my work for me. Readers go to their columns for their insights, and to mine for mine.

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 Apart, 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) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

1 comment:

ger said...

Jeffrey, I totally disagree that opinions of collegues/competitors should not be sought.

I work in the Information Technology area. In many instances I collaborate with friends/competitors as long as it does not compromise propietary information. We even have user groups set up to exchange information.

If you cannot debase yourself to contacting your peers please change the name of your column to "The Right Thing - As Far As I Know".