Sunday, September 17, 2017

Don't let the personal get in the way of the bigger picture

What ethical issues concern people the most?

This September marks the 19th year I've been writing "The Right Thing" column. What began as a monthly business ethicscolumn grew into a weekly general ethics column that is published in newspapers in the United States and Canada. Now, as I write what is column number 765, and it heads into its 20th year, it seems a good time to occasionally look back to try to make some sense of the ethical issues that concern readers the most.

While I've written about corporate malfeasance, lying executives and presidents, philandering CEOs, misguided values statements, overtaxed employees, petty theft, contested inheritances, uncivil political campaigns, cheating professional athletes, and roughly 700 other topics, the ones that garner the most attention are not what I would have expected.

Once the column has runs in the publications, which subscribe to it from the Tribune Content Agency, I post it to the column's blog. I've done this for almost 11 of the 19 years of the column's life. Among other things, the blog analytics allow me to see which columns are viewed the most. (It also allows me to see the column has a far larger readership from The Netherlands than I'd ever expect.)

Rather than large social issues involving politics, business or promiscuous scalawags, the most viewed column over the past 11 years was published in January 2006. The topic? Panhandlers who pick returnable cans and bottles from their neighbors' curbside recycling bins. It had almost twice as many views as the second most-viewed column, which was published in May 2016, and explored what a prospective employee should do when an interviewer tells her that the person she'd be reporting to is "mean." Close on the heels of mean bosses (or inappropriate interviewers, depending on how you view it) was a March 2013 column about cellphone customer service operators insisting they couldn't help when ultimately it turned out they could.

It's the day-to-day ethical challenges we face that seem to interest us most. That's not to say that we're not concerned with the larger world around us, but who among us hasn't spent hours on the telephone trying to resolve a cellphone or cable television or internet service provider issue and come away feeling like it was the end of the world as we know it? These are not world shattering issues, but they are those that seem to consume us day in and day out. They too often are the issues that get in the way of us being able to address larger global issues such as war, famine and social injustices.

The right thing perhaps is to keep perspective. While we might be drawn to stories of recyclable cans, bad customer service and inappropriate job interviewers, we shouldn't allow these day-to-day issues to get in the way of doing what we can do to live an honest life and leave the world a bit of a better place than when we entered it. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

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

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


1 comment:

Scott Manas said...

As a teacher, this used to happen to me all the time. I worked with an absolute shrew of a woman. She used to talk about me with her students as if she was 12, as well. She let her personal feelings about me affect her teaching. I, on the other hand, showed up every day, taught to the best of my ability, ignored what the kids were telling me that she was saying about me, and went home at the end of the day. One of the nicest things anyone ever said to me was in a teachers' lounge (the place where a conversation about anything quickly devolves into complaining about everything). She said, "You know, I noticed you never talk about anyone." I said, "That's true. Thank you for noticing."