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
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to email@example.com.