Sunday, March 30, 2014

Am I my coworker's pizza keeper?

If a colleague interprets rules differently from you, does that make her unethical? A reader from the Midwest seems to think so.

The reader has a colleague who works as a counselor for her church's youth group. Until some members of the youth group are baptized, the coworker said she had chosen to abstain from eating bread.

"In her mind, this is some sort of meaningful religious sacrifice," the reader writes, suggesting he's doubtful that the meaningfulness extends beyond his coworker's mind.

When a group of people at the reader's office, including his bread-abstaining coworker, were discussing where to go for lunch, they decided they'd go to an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet.

Obviously, the reader believed this would cause some concern for his coworker. However, the woman readily agreed to the group's choice and said she'd just eat the cheese and toppings off of the pizza and leave the rest.

"I believe it is unethical for a person to do this," my reader writes.

He explains that he believes the all-you-can-eat deal works because "it assumes people will get full and stop eating." To go to an all-you-can-eat place with the intent of not eating half or more of the food, he writes, "is shady."

"In the same way that you can't share food with a non-paying tagalong at such a place, or take leftovers home, I don't think you can go to such a place with the intent of not consuming the food you are taking."

At the restaurant, the reader's colleague had the opportunity not to partake of the buffet and instead order her own pizza off the menu. If she had done that, my reader concludes, "she'd be free and clear to eat or not eat it in any way she saw fit." But the reader seems surprised that his coworker saw nothing wrong with ordering the buffet and then eating only the toppings from the pizza.

"Is her approach ethical?" he asks.

Years ago, my wife and I frequented a restaurant in Western Massachusetts that featured a salad buffet with printed signs that implored diners to: "Take as much as you want, but eat as much as you take."

The reader is likely right that restaurants would prefer buffet customers eat what they take from the buffet table. Clearly, he'd never go to a buffet and take food with the intent of not eating all that he took.

It is inappropriate for the reader to pass judgment on whether or not his coworker is making a religious sacrifice through her actions. That's between the coworker and her God.

Ideally, the coworker would eat what she takes from the buffet table to avoid being wasteful. But it's not convincing that the coworker's behavior would be any more shady than that of a customer who doesn't like pizza crusts and leaves them on her plate. It's unlikely the reader would pass similar judgment on the crust abstainer.

The right thing is for my reader not to let his judgment about whether his coworker's self-professed religious actions and decisions are legitimate to color his assessment of how she behaves at the buffet table. She'll be back to eating the whole slice soon enough. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Should we help those unwilling to help themselves?

A few years ago, a reader from California joined a local church's singles group. The group's leader planned for the members to help cook, serve and clean up after one Saturday evening meal per month at a local homeless shelter.

On their first visit, members of the group were told that because a cookout had been planned for the shelter residents and some graduates would be manning the grills, the singles weren't needed for cooking. Instead, he handed the 10 singles trash bags and disposable gloves, and asked if they'd help pick up litter from the fenced-in yard outside the shelter.

When they went outside, there were about 200 men sitting on chairs, picnic tables and blankets on the ground. Cigarette butts, cans, bottles and candy wrappers were strewn around the yard.

"Something in my mind just immediately said, 'no' in a loud voice," the reader says.

She told her leader she had to work at midnight, which was true, and that she had a headache, which was not true, and she went home.

"All the way home, I questioned myself, and I still do," she writes. She wonders why she was willing to cook, serve and clean up for the program, but not to pick up litter.

"If (the homeless at the shelter) have it together enough to manage to get themselves to this dining room at the appointed times for meals," she writes, "they could be expected to contribute some effort."

The reader works in a hospital emergency room, so she interacts regularly with the homeless. "I contribute clothing, have found meals when they are with us, and have helped soak feet and cut toenails." She also does lots of community service, but picking up litter, "I could not do."

She never went back to the homeless shelter.

"Am I way off the beam thinking that people who are there expecting to be fed could be expected to pitch in and do what they can?" she asks. "I guess I have a dose of that old saying, 'He who will not work shall not eat.'"

That 'saying' the reader cites is an admonition from Paul to the Thessalonians in the New Testament portion of the Bible. The Thessalonians, expecting the imminent return of Jesus, exhausted their own resources and then began mooching off of others. Not cool, Paul pointed out.

It's fair for the reader to expect that the residents of the homeless shelter would be asked to help clean up the yard. What's not clear, however, is that they refused to do so. Since the job for which the singles group originally volunteered was covered, the organizer may simply have been trying to find an alternative.

The reader had every right to choose whether or not to participate. Lying about a headache to get out of the task was not the right thing to do, however. It would have been the right thing to tell the organizer the truth: that she was comfortable cooking and serving a meal, but not cleaning up a yard while those who presumably littered it sat around. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Is there a by-the-book way to buy a book?

Are we obligated to buy something from the first place we discover it?

After requesting a catalog, a reader received it in the mail. He thought he might be interested in some of the products the catalog had to offer.

He perused the catalog and found a book listed that he really wanted to read. He writes that he'd never heard of the book before and wouldn't have known about it if he hadn't seen it in the catalog.

Once he knew he'd like to read the book, however, he searched around a bit to see if he could find it more cheaply than the catalog price.

"I found that I could buy it cheaper somewhere else," he writes. He also checked his local public library and found that the book was available there, as well, and on the shelves.

Since he wouldn't have known about the book if he hadn't discovered it in the catalog, he wonders about the propriety of going elsewhere to either buy the book at a cheaper price, or borrow it for no direct charge from the library.

Some readers of the column have taken me to task in the past for arguing that there's nothing wrong with browsing for a particular item one place, then buying it online or in another retail establishment if you can find a better price. Those readers and I continue to differ in our opinion.

In the case of the catalog browser, I'd make a similar argument.

It's up to me and other shoppers to decide if we want to buy an item from the place we first saw it, or if we're willing to shop around and buy it elsewhere at a better price. Or we can buy the item from a catalog or online seller and have it shipped to us at a better price. And it's up to bricks-and-mortar store owners, catalog purveyors or online sellers to decide how to make their products and service so good that we're not tempted to go elsewhere.

The right thing is for my reader to decide how he wants to spend his money and where he wants to spend it, or if he wants to spend it at all. He has no obligation to order the book from the catalog simply because that's where he first discovered it. If he decides there's some added value to doing business with the catalog supplier -- whether in the form of a special reader's guide, frequent buyer plan or other perk -- that's his choice. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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


Sunday, March 09, 2014

Must we leave all of our children the same amount?

A married couple who read the column is nearing the age at which they say they want to get their financial affairs in order, including deciding how they will leave their assets to their three children after the couple dies.

When they drew up their will several years ago, they planned to split their assets equally among their three children.

"But each child's circumstances have changed considerably," the husband writes.

The couple is financially helping out one child and his family because of that child's poor health.

Another child, however, is in good financial shape with a great job and good pension.

"Our third child and family are doing quite well in good part because of our involvement in assisting them in some business dealings."

The parents are torn between leaving their will as is, or apportioning their children's inheritance according to their needs.

"We don't want to be unfair to any of them," writes the husband, "but the one with the least income and poor health can certainly use more money than the others."

The couple estimates that the total inheritance will be a little more than $1 million.

"My wife and I are both getting to an age where we must make a decision regarding this matter soon," writes the husband. "I'm sure we are not alone in trying to solve this sort of thing. But we don't really know who we can discuss it with."

There are financial professionals who advise on wills and estates. But the couple already knows who to go to for a will. The problem is trying to sort out the "fairness" of whatever choice they make.

They are certainly not alone. Many couples wrestle with how to allocate their assets after they die. While it's often possible to leave equal shares of whatever assets there are to any surviving children, there are sometimes mitigating circumstances that cause parents to wonder about the best thing to do.

Some parents who've loaned one child and not others large sums of cash and have never been repaid, for example, decide to deduct that amount from that child's share of an inheritance. If one child provided primary care for an ailing parent, there are occasions when parents decide to leave that child a bit more.

Leaving equal shares might be the simplest thing to do, but since the money belongs to the parents, they have every right to allocate it however they wish. They also have every right to spend as much of the money as they wish (or all of it) before they die.

If they do decide to leave more money to the child with significant health issues, the right thing to do is discuss their plans with all three children. There's no requirement that they do this, but if they truly care for their children and want to avoid creating ill will among them after the parents' deaths, discussing how the assets will be divided before the time comes is the best way to handle the situation. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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