Sunday, August 09, 2020

The right thing to write about

Next month will mark the 22nd year I've been writing The Right Thing column on ethics. What began as a monthly business ethics column has evolved into a weekly column focusing on how each of us, when faced with an ethical challenge, goes about deciding the best right thing to do.

A lot happens in 22 years. In 1998, I wrote about how bosses, including then President Bill Clinton, might pay a price when caught in a lie. That was quickly followed by examining how much privacy employees should expect when using company email, whether it was acceptable for companies to expect their employees to work for free after hours, whether a corporate code of ethics was worth anything if the bosses didn't follow it, and how cultural differences about bribery made doing business internationally a challenge.

The country's mindset shift after the World Trade Center bombing on September 11, 2001, and questions about the "me too" mindset about disaster aid set in. The ethics of pay equity was covered, but so too was the question of whether the CEO of a handgun manufacturer paid too big a price professionally after he embraced instituting more gun safety features on his products.

Throughout, readers have continued to respond - negatively and positively - whether about doctors taking gifts from pharmaceutical companies or an employee donating a kidney to a boss or the kindness of a National Hockey League player to a 12-year-old fan. These reader responses have influenced how I have thought about writing the column and what I would write about next.

Responding to readers' emails (or in the early days, letters) has more often than not resulted in rich discussions even when the readers initially wrote to take issue with something I'd written. When Vice President Dick Cheney's lawyer took issue with a column I wrote about the then vice president's financial interests, for example, we ended up having a good long phone conversation. Only once did I not respond to a reader comment and that was after a reader wrote to offer to show me his new handgun after he took issue with my column on gun safety mentioned above. (I thought it best to leave that one alone.)

Some of the responses that touched me the most have been the ones from parents writing to thank me for a column that he or she could share with a child on learning to make difficult, honest choices. I send my weekly column off to my editor and remain genuinely touched when readers take the time to read it and even more so when they write to me about it.

I mention all of this now because throughout the past 22 years readers have regularly commented upon how as an ethics columnist I must never be at a shortage of topics to cover. They are referencing a particularly bleak set of circumstances in the news at the time they write, whether it was 1998 or 2020.

In the midst of our current pandemic, economic crisis, and the free-floating uncertainty enveloping us all, I am heartened that there is still an effort among many to work hard to make sense of what seems uncertain, be kind and strive to do the right thing.

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.

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin

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1 comment:

Phil Clutts said...

Thanks, Jeffrey. Keep 'em coming.