Monday, December 30, 2013

Top 10 “The Right Thing” posts of 2013

Here are the top 10 “The Right Thing” posts of 2013, starting with the most viewed post of the year. Each is linked to the original article, but a short reminder of the post’s topic appears here.
  1. I sure can't help you (March 24) – About the challenges with her wireless phone provider’s customer service after my wife’s iPhone is stolen.
  2. Did you read my email? (August 4) – From the reader who believes it unethical for recipients of his regular and many emails not to acknowledge receipt.
  3. You look, you pay (July 28) – A store in Brisbane, Australia, charges $5 for the privilege of browsing.
  4. Finders not always keepers (June 16) – What’s the right thing to do when you find someone else’s cash?
  5. Day-old food takes on a new life (March 10) – Businesses that make a business of selling older foodstuffs at lower prices.
  6. Return to sender, please, return to sender already (March 17) – Just how long does it take the post office to acknowledge the former resident of your house no longer lives there?
  7. Like pulling teeth to settle a bill (May 26) – What’s a reasonable about of time for a medical bill to be firmly established?
  8. The homeless at the door (Mary 12) – A retailer has conflicted views about the homeless man who sits outside her retail establishment.
  9. The return of the power saw (September 1) – Was I right to return a power saw I had purchased and used after I had mostly finished the job I needed it for and it stopped working?
  10. Am I my neighbor's tax keeper?  (January 20) – Should you turn in a neighbor you suspect is cheating on his taxes? 
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.

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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


Sunday, December 29, 2013

Honestly inspecting a few good men

For 48 years, a reader from the Midwest writes that he has been suffering over a choice he made during his military service as a U.S. Marine.

In 1965, after his first tour in Vietnam, he was posted to a base in the United States. His commanding officer (CO) was a World War II veteran and a lieutenant colonel hoping to be promoted to full colonel before his impending retirement.

My reader was assigned to train instructors in general military subjects. These instructors were tasked with training junior Marines how to service and repair airplanes and helicopters.

After they received notice of the annual inspection by the Inspector General (IG), the CO instructed my reader to prepare the command for the IG's visit. The inspection would include separate but concurrent inspections -- obstacle course, uniforms and equipment, and a general military subjects written exam. My reader was to divide the command into three groups. Because he had already conducted similar inspections as part of his regular duties, he knew who was capable of what.

It crossed his mind to rig the inspection by assigning "the jocks to the obstacle course, nerds to the written exam and pretty boys to uniform and equipment." He could also make sure that anyone not falling into one of those categories would take leave that day.

"I rejected this on the basis of an ethical choice, in short, that this would not result in an accurate picture of the command thus defeating (what I assumed to be) the inspection's purpose," he writes. "Therefore, I chose to divide the command on a random basis." 

After the IG's inspection they met in the CO's office for a review. They'd scored 92 percent overall which my reader thought was pretty good. But the IG's team blasted them because their 92 percent was considerably below that of other similar units. In a later conversation with a member of the IG's team my reader mentioned that they could have scored higher had he rigged the category-selections. Without blinking, he replied, "Of course, we know that."

My reader writes that he has no problem taking responsibility for his own ethical choices. But he has long suffered because the responsibility for his ethical choice "fell upon the shoulders of my CO." My reader was later transferred while his CO was still a lieutenant colonel.

"I never found out whether he was promoted before retirement or whether the poor inspection may have affected his chances of promotion," my reader writes. "As you might infer, it bothers me to this day."

My reader chose to do the right thing. While his CO may have taken responsibility for his command not doing quite as well as others, the inspection truly reflected the readiness of the Marines in all areas rather than having been rigged to come off better than reality. If there was a competing loyalty to the CO and to having the inspection accurately reflect how capable his Marines were, my reader made the right choice. He carried out his orders without deception.

If the member of the IG's team knew that others were "rigging" the results, the right thing would have been for him to call them on it rather than chastise one of the commands that chose to show integrity by providing an honest assessment of his Marine's capabilities. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Does my new job mean I've sold out?

A reader from the Northeast recently started working for an investment bank that specializes in helping companies to establish employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs). ESOPs are often used as a way for companies to give employees an ownership stake in the company for which they work.

My reader was not trained as an investment banker, but rather as a social worker.

"I am always stumped when former colleagues ask me what I am doing these days," he writes. When he tells them he works for an investment bank, they often tell him that they think he's "sold out."

But my reader believes that there is a direct correlation between his training and work as a social worker and the current work in which he is engaged.

"Because ESOPs are all about employing workers as capitalists and giving them a slice of the pie too," he writes, he is "fairly confident that I am still pursuing a kind of social work ... just in a different field."

He wants to know what I think. "Is employee ownership the most ethical business strategy?" he asks. "Can I legitimately call myself a 'financial social worker'?"

While engaging employees in a company and providing them with the opportunity to share in the fortunes of a successful enterprise can be a great way to create an empowered and motivated workforce, is it the "most" ethical business strategy? It would be challenging to grant it that honor. Others might argue that creating a workforce where owners teach employees to understand the finances of a company and share that information freely with them creates an even more engaged workforce. Are each ethical? Sure. Does either always ensure ethical behavior among bosses and employees? No.

What my reader really seems after is a way to justify his early calling as a social worker with the work he does now. That seems clear from his question about legitimately calling himself a "financial social worker." He, like anyone else, can call himself whatever he likes, but it's hard to imagine the title bears much weight if no one knows what it means.

If my reader is looking for affirmation of what he does now, then the right thing is for him to ask himself if his current work aligns with his personal values. Does he find himself motivated to do good work? Does he believe that the mission of his company is one he can support? Do his bosses refrain from asking employees to do things that are ethically questionable? Are his colleagues honest and dedicated to working in the best interests of the company's customers?

These strike me as more important questions to be asking if my reader wants to get a sense of whether his position at the investment bank aligns with his own values. Focusing on whether he can be called something that incorporates a profession he was once called to partly to allay concerns of former colleagues that he might have "sold out" does not seem as important as devoting himself to doing good honest work that is in the best interests of his customers, his colleagues, his company and himself. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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


Sunday, December 15, 2013

Doing right when no one is looking

Several weeks ago, I wrote about professional baseball player Shane Victorino leaving his wallet on a chartered plane when he was traveling with the Boston Red Sox. Someone in Paris found the wallet and returned it. Victorino was asked if he was surprised his wallet had been returned. "There's honest, trustworthy people in this world," he responded.

I asked readers to send me their stories of a particularly proud moment when they chose to do the right thing, even when it wasn't required.

In many cases, readers recounted how others were surprised or curious about why they would bother to make things right.

M.W. from Boston remembers the time in the seventh grade she found 35 cents on the school's floor, the exact amount that a school lunch cost in those days. She turned it in to the vice principal. "What I remember most," she wrote, was how with his tone and attitude he thought this was a "very funny thing for a student to do. He clearly thought I should've just kept the money."

K.L. from Lewis Center, Ohio, had a similar response from her college professor when she pointed out to him that he had given her credit for an answer on an exam that she realized she had gotten wrong. "You have just lost your B for a C, why?" he asked her. She told him that if he had marked something wrong that was correct she would have sought credit. His only comment, she recalls, was that she was "crazy."
Another reader was one of many who recalled finding themselves in situations where someone else needed a helping hand.

S.B., who was living in Michigan at the time, was on her way with her husband to vacation. After filling their car with gas, S.B. went in to pay the bill while her husband cleaned their car windows. Inside a clerk was berating a customer who was short of cash to pay his bill. When the clerk turned to her to take her credit card, she instructed him to put the cost of the other customer's gas on her card as well. She returned to her car and drove off.

And finally, there were many readers who made a choice that initially was painful but ultimately turned out well.

T.S. was at a London Monarch baseball game in Ontario with his 8-year-old son. A foul ball was hit into the crowd. It bounced and landed right in T.S.'s hands. His son was thrilled when T.S. handed him the ball, but they heard a little girl crying and realized that the ball had bounced off of her foot. His son asked his father to give the ball to the girl.

"I gave him a hug and told him that was a really nice thing to do," writes T.S.

Another fan told an usher what had happened. The usher retrieved another ball from the dugout and presented it to T.S.' son. "This helped enforce the theory of do the right thing and good things will happen."

As evidenced from the many stories sent in by readers, sometimes good things happen in return for doing the right thing and sometimes they don't. But the vast majority of readers concurred that regardless of the response they receive they would choose to do the right thing all over again if faced with a similar choice. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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