Sunday, December 28, 2014

Rejected, then erroneously accepted by your favorite college? Move on

It might have appeared to be an early holiday present when almost 300 prospective Johns Hopkins University students previously denied early admission or deferred for later consideration recently received an email welcoming them to the fold.

The trouble was, the welcome email was sent in error.

Johns Hopkins subsequently sent another email expressing regrets that the welcome was sent in error and that these students were indeed still rejected or deferred.

This wasn't the first time a college or university had made such a mistake. And it certainly wasn't the largest such mistake ever made. In 2009, The Los Angeles Times reported that instead of sending a "congratulations on your acceptance" email to the 18,000 students who'd been accepted to the University of California-San Diego, the message was mistakenly sent to all 47,000 students who'd applied.

Over the years, it's been reported that erroneous acceptances have gone out from University of California-Davis, Goucher College, University of Georgia, University of California-Berkeley, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, George Washington University, Christopher Newport University, Vassar College, Fordham University and others. Some of these notifications arrived via email, others via old-fashioned post

After Cornell University made such an error in 1995 by mistakenly sending a welcome letter to 44 prospective students who'd applied for early decision and been deferred, at least one parent retained a lawyer and threatened to sue. While the prospective student involved later indicated she had other options and needed to "go on with her own life privately," the threat of legal action suggests how harrowing such mistakes can be to the recipients.

When faced with such a colossal mistake, what's the right thing for both the school and the applicant to do?

Occasionally, when an institution makes a mistake, it will try to make good on it. If an online company sends a duplicate order of a product, for example, the right thing is for the recipient to report the error. The company should certainly pay the cost of returning the extra goods. If it decides to tell the customer to simply keep the extra shipment, that's not necessary, but acceptable.

It would be wrong, however, to require an academic institution to accept a student it had really rejected simply because an errant email or welcoming brochure was sent. Particularly if the student didn't meet the academic standards of the institution, such a move could set him or her up to fail.

The right thing for the disappointed student to do is move on. And the right thing is for the institution to do is to send a correction and apology as soon as the error is discovered. Ideally, measures would be taken to make sure the problem didn't happen again.

If the school truly wanted to express its regrets, it might consider refunding whatever application fee the student paid. Returning the money might send a clear message to the prospective student of just how sorry the school was for creating unnecessary discomfort at an already highly anxious time of year. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Embarrassing public posts can reflect badly on jobseekers

What's the right thing to do when you notice a friend's child is doing something embarrassing on social media?

It may be rare when a parent's social media activities cross with those of his or her child, but it happens. And because profiles and activity on social media websites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram might be available to the public, it's not unlikely that a parent or the friend of a parent will come across the postings of a friend's child.

Take, for example, the experience of G.S. A friend's college-aged daughter had asked G.S. for career advice, since G.S. worked in a field the child was considering entering after graduation. The two had exchanged several emails, and G.S. offered to provide as much advice as the student daughter wanted.

G.S. knew that hiring managers in her field regularly combed the Internet for information on prospective job candidates. Out of curiosity, she did a quick search on the friend's daughter and found that her Facebook profile picture featured her heartily quaffing an alcoholic beverage. The rest of the Facebook profile was unavailable for anyone but her designated friends to see.

Still, the photo anyone could see when they searched for her on Facebook was one of her drinking.

At first, G.S. wondered if it was her place to say anything. After all, she was not the child's parent. What's more, the young woman was old enough to drink. She wasn't breaking any laws, nor was there any indication from the information G.S. had that the young woman had substance abuse problems.

But since G.S. had been asked for and had offered professional advice, shouldn't she seize the opportunity to say something about what she believed to be the inappropriateness of a public photo? If she did say something, who should she approach?  The child? The child's parents? Both?

G.S. should talk directly to the young woman rather than her parents. Because she had established a relationship with this student, the right thing would be to tell her that G.S. had seen the photo and suggest that she consider taking it down.

Rather than just offer such advice, however, G.S. should go further and explain to the student how images and information available on the Internet can define how a prospective employer perceives a job candidate. While it's fine to choose to have a private life and to engage in legal activities such as drinking, these activities don't present the young woman is the best light for a potential job.

It's not right for G.S. to advise that the young woman try to present herself as something she's not, but if the only image that others on the Internet see is of alcohol consumption this sends an incomplete picture of the skills and abilities the young woman might bring to a job.

Common sense on what to post publicly should prevail. If G.S. can guide the young woman to this realization now, it might prove invaluable as she begins her professional life. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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


Sunday, December 14, 2014

When a company's ethics violate your own, take your business elsewhere

If you sour on the company but still care about some of its employees and value the service they provide, should you stay or should you go?

About two years ago, S.W.'s locally-owned bank in the Midwest was acquired by a much larger bank. Upon completion of the acquisition, the local bank's CEO received a golden parachute payment of roughly $18 million.

"I have no problem with this in theory," writes S.W., since "such payments are designed to assure the CEOs focus on their fiduciary responsibility to shareholders" during an acquisition. S.W. believes it's only fair that if the sale of a company increases shareholder value but results in the acquired company's CEO losing his or her job, "there should be some incentive for the CEO to proceed with the acquisition even if it comes at the expense of losing his or her job."

However, in the case of S.W.'s locally-owned bank, the CEO who pocketed the $18 million was given the top job at the acquiring bank -- and kept the golden parachute payment.

"He won twice," writes S.W. "I regard this as unethical and profligate. Neither behavior deserves my continuing patronage."

But S.W. has a dilemma. The two local bankers with whom he does most of his commercial and personal business remained with the merged bank and he likes working with both of them.

"They continue to treat me very well, though they are hampered by new policies and procedures," he writes. "I feel loyalty toward them individually but not towards their employer, the new bank."

S.W. has shared his feelings with the two bankers, who've told him that the issue of the CEO's golden parachute has been raised by many other customers, as well. Aside from keeping their jobs, the two bankers received no financial benefit from the acquisition.

"They feel my pain," writes S.W.

He's told both bankers that this issue continues to gnaw at him and might compel him to leave the bank. If he does so, however, he worries that his action would be disproportionately felt by his local bankers since he suspects their compensation is based in part on maintaining a quote of customers.

"Do I stay or do I go?" he asks.

While S.W.'s sense of loyalty to these two bankers is admirable, if he truly believes that the management of his bank behaved unethically and that the golden parachute payout to a CEO who kept his job at the merged bank represents profligate behavior, the right thing is to shop around for a new bank.

There are likely good employees at many companies whose values don't mirror those of customers. If these values are so abhorrent that S.W. doesn't want to reward the bank with his business, he should move on.

In his book Integrity (Basic Books, 1996), Stephen Carter argues that showing integrity requires three steps: discernment of the issue, action based on that discernment, and then articulation of that action. If S.W. wants to leave with integrity, the right thing is for him to let the bank's management know precisely why he's leaving and then to take his business elsewhere. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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


Sunday, December 07, 2014

How much should you spend to keep a pet alive?

C.K., a reader from Madison, Wis., writes that she loves her dog and cats, each of which has been "a source of great comfort and love" for her and her family. Now, however, her pets are growing old and she wonders how to decide when it's time to "let them die in peace or put them to sleep."

"Technically," C.K. writes, "our veterinarian can give us many medical supplies that will help them stay alive for a few more years. Unfortunately, these items also cost a great deal of money. How do we take care of our pets without wiping out our savings? Where do we draw the line without betraying (them)?"

Choosing when it's time to euthanize a pet can be harrowing. The American Humane Association provides some useful advice on deciding when a pet's quality of life has diminished enough that the time has come. The first step, according to the AHA, is to consult your pet's veterinarian, who can help assess the situation.

Writing on the website, Dr. Andy Roark, a South Carolina veterinarian, advises to make a list of the top five things your pet loves to do. If the animal "can no longer do three or more of them, quality of life has been impacted to a level where many veterinarians would recommend euthanasia."

But C.K.'s question goes beyond diminished quality of life issues. She seems to want to know what the right thing to do is when it's possible to provide medical care for an aging pet whose quality of life remains good, but the cost of keeping the pet alive presents a financial hardship for the owner(s).

When you adopt a pet, you do take on a financial commitment that includes day-to-day feeding, toys and accessories, and health care that can lead to sizeable veterinary bills. No one should be expected to be bankrupted to care for a pet, but ownership requires a clear sense of the costs involved.

There are agencies, such as the Fuzzy Pet Foundation, a Southern California nonprofit founded by Sheila Choi (a former student of mine), dedicated to rescuing pets that have been abandoned by their owners.

But C.K. doesn't want to abandon the pets she loves. The right thing for pet owners to do when facing financial hardship over veterinary bills is to seek assistance. Animal shelters and veterinary schools in some areas provide low-cost care. The Humane Society of America offers a list of national and state organizations (including those in Wisconsin) that can provide financial assistance. RedRover also has links to resources in the U.S. and Canada that provide emergency assistance to pet owners.

When an owner brings a pet into his or her family, the right thing to do is to care for the pet throughout its life, work closely with a vet to address the pet's quality of life issues, and, if necessary, seek help from agencies that exist to provide emergency support for pets and owners in need. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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