Sunday, September 28, 2014

Should you ignore the stench in a crowded subway car?

A crowded subway car can bring out some curious behavior.

Not long ago, as the subway train pulled into a downtown station in a Northeast city in the U.S., a group of riders got on board. There were no seats available and little standing room remained. A well-dressed man who looked to be in his 40s got on board with his traveling companion and walked to grab a spot to hang onto in the car. As he made his way in, he looked at the people standing near him and then said in a loud voice to his companion, "That stench. Can you smell that stench? Let's move."

The two passengers moved, but as they did so, the same man repeated, "What a stench. Can you smell that stench?"

Once they'd settled in another spot, the man could again be heard throughout the car commenting on the smell where he'd originally boarded the train.

While it was difficult to determine if the smell emanated from the subway car itself (unfortunate incidents regularly occur on city subway cars) or if a passenger generated the odor, the man seemed to be directing his comments at the people who stood where he originally intended to stand for the ride.

Finally, after yet another loud comment, a passenger standing in that original spot, shouted back, "OK. We heard you." A smattering of laughter and light applause followed. The man curtailed his comments for the remainder of his ride, but his behavior begs the question: What is the right thing to do is when confronted by someone who gives off an unpleasant smell?

If you're in a subway car and it's difficult to pinpoint where the smell is coming from, the question is moot. If the smell bothers you, the right thing to do is simply move to another part of the car. Making boisterous pronouncements solves nothing and risks insulting other passengers who presumably already notice the smell.

But what if it's a friend or family member giving off a bad smell?

Family members might be more comfortable letting a sibling or a child know about the problem, but friends might have more trouble talking about it.

While it may be uncomfortable to alert someone to such a problem, equally uncomfortable is having a friend who later finds out from others ask you why you didn't tell him or her when you smelled on them earlier in the day.

Faced with this problem, the right thing to do would be to find a way to alert your friend. Feelings might be hurt, but the honesty would go a long way toward protecting the friend from embarrassment in among others who might not be so charitable.

There's no need to go into excruciating detail about just how bad the smell might be. Truth dumping, as Sissela Bok called it in her book, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (Vintage Books, 1989), goes beyond the call for honesty and can careen into cruel behavior.

It's highly likely that on that subway car, just as many people were eager to get away from the well-dressed man complaining about the odor as they were from the stench. The right thing is to be honest, but kind. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Send your ethics stories and questions...

For the weekly newspaper ethics column I write for the Tribune Media Services Syndicate called "The Right Thing," I am always looking for stories of ethical challenges, dilemmas, and perplexing situations. If you have such a story or question based on an incident and would like it to be considered for the column, please email it to me at 

Please make sure to include enough details about the story, the issue that you're wrestling with, and your name and the city and state or province where you are located. Include a way for me to contact you. 

If you know of others who might have interesting stories, please forward this on to them by clicking on the envelope below. 

Thanks in advance for your stories.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Baby, you can subsidize my parking

Parking at work can become a heated issue. At some businesses, negotiations over who gets to park where -- or for how much in adjacent lots -- can ignite fiery arguments. When a deal is finally struck, the cheers can be heard for blocks.

How much attention employees pay to such a benefit once they have it can a whole other story.

A professor -- let's call him Reg -- at a small liberal arts college located in the center of a major city writes to tell me that he recently received an email from human resources informing him that he'd receive a rebate of just over $465 for overpaying for parking during the previous 18 months.

It turns out no one had noticed that the college, which foots part of employees' parking costs, had been underpaying its portion of the parking bill each month for some staff.

Reg was informed that all employees still "active" at the college at the beginning of this academic year who were affected by the error would receive a rebate dating back 18 months.

"There was one problem," writes Reg. "I had been out of the country for one of the three semesters I was being reimbursed for." Even so, the college was set to reimburse him for a portion of the parking fees for that extra semester.

"I alerted the college to this discrepancy," Reg writes. "But I'm curious: Was this my ethical responsibility or would I have acted ethically had I ignored the college's error?"

Reg's question is a variation on a question readers regularly ask. A reader might receive too much money in an ATM transaction and wonder if it's his or her responsibility to return the extra cash. A reader might get too much change from the local coffee shop. Should they call attention to the errors?

Yes, the right thing is to call attention to such mistakes and try to correct them, just as Reg did. And the right thing was for the college to return the money as soon as the overpay errors were discovered.

But Reg and his fellow employees' plight raises a couple of other questions. The notification to Reg and others only specified that "active" employees would be reimbursed for the billing errors. The right thing would be for the college to make sure to reimburse anyone who'd been short-changed, regardless of whether they still worked for the school.

The notification also indicates that employees everywhere would do well to examine their pay stubs from time to time to see if errors exist. Granted, in this case, it was the college's mistake, but it's good for employees to understand their compensation and make sure they get what's owed them. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Would you report being undercharged?

Few of us would hesitate to correct a store clerk if we found he or she had charged us too much for an item, returned too little change, or failed to ring up the correct price of a sale item.

About a month ago, I lined up in a food court at a local mall to purchase a soup, sandwich and drink combo listed on the menu at $7.99. I was the first customer of the day and the young man behind the counter admitted he didn't know how to ring up meal combinations, so he called over a more senior member of his crew. She rang me up and told me the total was $10.68.

I pointed to the menu and observed that even with sales tax, the total should be well under $10. She looked at the menu, eyed me again me, and said, "I know, but that's what the register says."

A few moments of silence passed as I waited for her to correct the error. Nothing. So I canceled my order and told her I wasn't willing to pay more than the listed price for the item.

"Sorry," she said.

I skipped lunch - likely the healthier thing to do anyway.

Like most of you, I'm not inclined to let being overcharged go unnoticed. But how many readers would call attention to an error made in their favor?

While it's nice to believe most would report being undercharged, but there are those who would simply chalk it up to good fortune - even if undeserved. If you're among those who'd do the honest thing and point out an error in your favor, what if you knew that doing so might mean an employee received a reprimand or worse? What would you do?

Years, ago, J.W., of Russells Point, Ohio, writes that he faced just such a scenario. J.W. and his family were buying goods at a local grocery store. After they got out to the parking lot, J.W. noticed on the sales slip that the clerk had rung up a 10-lb. bag of potatoes. He was pretty certain they had purchased a 25-lb. sack. J.W. checked his groceries and confirmed that the clerk had charged him for a less-expensive item. He went back in the store to get the matter corrected.

"The sales girl was furious that I'd called her attention to the error," writes J.W. She explained, angrily, that if the customer wanted her to correct the price she'd have to call her manager. "She was afraid she'd get fired," writes J.W.

Without hesitation, J.W. did the right thing and told her he wanted to pay the correct amount and that she should call her manager if that's what was needed to get it done.

"I wasn't about to let it go by."

Following J.W.'s example, I didn't let my food court experience go by, either. I emailed the company on the form provided on its website and explained what happened. A representative acknowledged my plight and offered my next meal on the house. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Never assume you know the deal without all the facts

Over dinner on a late summer evening with friends, the conversation at L.S.'s house turns to professional baseball. L.S.'s home-town team is doing well in the standings and tickets are hard to come by.

One dinner guest happens to have season tickets to the home games. After L.S. mentions that his oldest grandchild has become quite a fan of the team, the dinner guest reveals that he has tickets for an upcoming game - one he won't be able to attend due to a conflict.

"Sweet!" L.S. thinks. He and the grandchild can take in a game.

"Are you interested?" the dinner guest asks.

Without hesitation, L.S. say, "Yes!"

L.S. promptly calls his grandson to see if the date is free and ask the boy's parents if he can be out on a school night. The child is excited and his parents are excited for him to see his first professional baseball game.

"All set," L.S. tells his dinner guest.

"Terrific," the guest responds. "I can drop off the tickets later this week. I'll give them to you at face value."

Suddenly, L.S. feels stupid. He'd thought, foolishly, that the dinner guest was giving him the tickets. But the guest clearly thinks he's doing L.S. a favor by only charging him face value since the games are sold out.

He's got great seats and the face value of the tickets reflects that greatness -- $125 per ticket.

L.S.'s grandson is already excited about the game and L.S. doesn't want to disappoint him. L.S. also doesn't want to seem like a cheapskate, nor does he want to make his guest feel bad by suggesting that he assumed the tickets would be free.

The tickets would cost more than L.S. ever would normally have spent on a sporting event. Buying them would put a significant dent in his monthly expense budget.

What's the right thing to do?

If L.S. truly can't afford the tickets and buying them would cause financial hardship, he should tell his friend the price is a bit steep and pass on the opportunity. The next step would be to tell his grandson the deal fell through -- a potentially difficult task, but better to temporarily disappoint him than go into hock to attend a baseball game.

However, if L.S. can afford the tickets and wants to take his grandson to the game, the right thing is to pay his friend face value.

Suggesting that the friend should simply hand over the tickets for nothing or sell them to L.S. at a discount would put the friend in an awkward position. After all, while he could have been clearer when making the offer, he never said the tickets would be free.

It's always best to be clear on the cost before making commitments. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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