Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Ethics of Owls

I was reading a story in the (London) Daily Mirror website this week about a little-known crisis in the UK: people who bought pet owls during the Harry Potter craze are now getting bored with the birds and dumping them off on people who run owl sanctuaries – or just abandoning their former pets in the wild. I was surprised to learn that there were no laws in the UK about owning an owl or keeping it as a pet; in the U.S. you’ll need specialized permits to have any raptor as a pet, and a lot of the states won’t allow such a thing. Even more surprising (at least to me) was the idea that you could just buy one; I immediately found myself wondering if there are owl breeders somewhere in Europe who raise broods of the birds for sale, if there are exotic pet stores that carry such animals, or if people just go out into the countryside and catch their own. But this isn’t the first case of movie-related pet fads coming and going that I’ve read about, and it struck me that there’s a larger ethical issue involved here…

Every time there’s a new movie featuring any particularly appealing animal, people will start trying to purchase one for themselves; marine biologists of my acquaintance tell me that this can even extend to seals, dolphins, penguins, and other creatures that common sense would dictate are not practical pets. In cases like the “101 Dalmatians” movies this can mean a huge surge in popularity of a featured breed of dogs, followed by a huge number of spotted puppies being abandoned when the novelty wore off and people realized that Dalmatians don’t really make good family pets. Things have gotten completely out of hand in cases like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies, which had the same effect on turtles despite the fact that pet turtles don’t eat pizza, wield traditional weapons, beat people up, or offer witty repartee while doing so, and anybody with a room-temperature IQ already knew that. The question begged by all of this is why anybody is selling these animals under such conditions – and do they have an ethical obligation not to?

On the one hand, a pet store is a business like any other, and not selling your customers products that they wish to purchase is not only a violation of the first law of business, but also not a good strategy. If you can obtain animals for $50 and sell them for $500 you would probably want to, and if you can do so without endangering the lives or well-being of the animals it would be hard to say there was anything wrong with doing that. Dalmatians are considered high energy and high maintenance pets, but are also highly trainable and rarely aggressive, making them good rescue dogs and excellent companions for runners and other very active humans; it seems only reasonable to let anyone who actually wants one (and didn’t just see the movie and get ideas) purchase such a dog. The same could be said for pugs, St. Bernards, and various breeds of cat which have all appeared in popular movies. If somebody wants a specific pet and can take care of it without endangering the animal or breaking any local laws, should a merchant really be expected to refuse the sale?

By the same token, there are some types of animal that are difficult to care for without specialized training and facilities, or are at least really inconvenient. A large owl will need at least a 20-foot aviary, with room to flap its wings five times before settling onto a perch, as well as specialized food, sanitation and medical care, just to take the immediate example. Rabbits don’t like to be held an cuddled like cats do; they’re a prey species and tend to freak out around 200-pound apex predators like humans. Ducklings and chicks grow up to be ducks and chickens, and are no longer as cute as they looked on Easter morning. Even common pets like hamsters and gerbils sometimes take up more time and effort than people are willing to expend, and wind up being abandoned. And regrettably, there’s often no way for a pet store owner to tell the difference, even if they were willing to sabotage their own business and risk destroying their family’s well-being along with the pet animals’…

So I have to ask: should pet stores be required to determine if customers can reasonably care for the animals they are buying? Should we pass more legislation governing who can purchase what kinds of animals? How do we enforce such laws and regulations if we do? And who gets to decide whether a specific pet owner is sufficiently capable of caring for a specific animal? Can we require people to take state-approved training classes before purchasing a pet – and would that help? Or should we just accept that some people can take care of a European Eagle-Owl, a mountain lion and a badger without endangering either the animals or themselves, while other people will be savaged by anything larger than a Yorkshire terrier, and just let pet lovers and business owners make their own decisions?

It’s worth thinking about…

Friday, May 18, 2012

Mock the Infidel!

Last fall I read a short notice online about a Baptist university in Georgia that was adding a new requirement to all of its faculty contracts for the following academic year: a "Personal Lifestyle Statement" that requires all faculty to “reject homosexuality, premarital sex, adultery, drug use and public drinking near campus.” I recall saying at the time that this would almost certainly decimate the school’s faculty, alienate all of the students who aren’t themselves fanatic-level Baptists, and bring scorn and mockery onto the entire institution; I also recall saying that neither the Georgia Baptist Convention (which controls the university) nor the hardcore Baptists themselves would be likely to care…

You can pick up the story off the AOL News page if you want to, but it would appear that over 50 faculty at Shorter University have already quit, and a survey taken last month shows that only about 12% of the total faculty are planning to sign the statement and remain at the school for the next school year. It’s not clear from the AOL News story, or from any of my other online resources, how exactly the University’s leadership expects to replace approximately 88% of their instructors; it’s also not clear how they expect to retain their accreditation (Shorter is accredited by The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, or SACS) without anything approaching an appropriate number of courses taught by ladder faculty. There is also no indication of their leadership backing off, however…

Now, we should acknowledge that as outrageous as this sounds, the University isn’t actually breaking any laws. Under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, any religious institution is entitled to discriminate in favor of a specific religion (presumably their own) in their hiring practices, even in job positions that have nothing to do with instruction in or practice of religion. It’s one of those provisions in Federal laws that need to be there, otherwise you might have Christian churches being required to hire Buddhist priests or face discrimination lawsuits, and even stupider things. Unfortunately, some institutions will use Title VII to skirt any aspect of the labor laws they don’t like, such as the case from last year of a teacher at a religious school being fired for not being a member of the faith that controlled the school – after she filed for Worker’s Compensation and disability. Or, as in this case, to eliminate anyone who isn’t sufficiently Baptist to suit the Convention’s requirements…

It’s not a story that has much relevance in a business setting except as a cautionary tale – and yet, I think it’s still worth bothering my readers (assuming I have readers) about. Shorter didn’t start out to become a bastion of religious intolerance and job discrimination, and despite its traditional close ties to the Baptists it has been a mostly respectable institution of higher learning, academically sound enough to earn SACS accreditation and acceptance from the U.S. Department of Education. Now, even if they remain academically beyond reproach, they are going to be regarded by tens of millions of people around the world as a bunch of God-bothering homophobic Southern Redneck hicks who care more about their specific religious dogma than they do about education or the truth. And on top of all that, it’s also hard to imagine how this could possibly advance the religious agenda of any of the parties involved, considering that anyone who would consider this “Personal Lifestyle Statement” a good idea is already a Christian zealot – and probably a Southern Baptist as well…

It’s something to think about the next time you hear someone complaining about how the Civil Rights/Equal Opportunity laws are too intrusive…

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Pull the Other One

I was scanning through the news sites the other day and I ran across a story out of Arizona that I can’t help thinking epitomizes the false naivety that is responsible for so much of our current political gridlock. I usually try to avoid political discussions in this space, partly because there are already more political blogs online than there are people who want to read them, and partly because it’s not really my field. None of my degrees are in political science, history or law, and until “running this government like a business” becomes more of a possibility than a punch line there isn’t going to be much I can contribute to the conversation. That said, it’s events like this one that make me wonder if there’s really a dialog left, or if both sides are just trying to score points at the expense of everyone else…

As reported in the Phoenix Business Journal online, Arizona’s governor has just signed into law a new bill that will allow collections companies to use a defaulting customer’s last billing statement as proof of the amount that he or she owes when they attempt to collect the debt. Supporters of the bill claim that this will make it easier for companies to collect what they are actually owed, harder for deadbeats to skip out on their responsibilities, and allow companies to get more money from the sale of defaulted account debts to companies that specialize in recovering those funds. Naturally, the backers insist, this information would never be used to make it harder for people to recover from bankruptcy, add extra fees, charges and interest to accounts after the fact, or defraud people who don’t even owe anything into paying up to avoid legal expenses…

Opponents of the bill, naturally enough, insist that this is exactly what will happen under the new law. Even assuming that every member of every company extending credit, every collections agency trying to recover money, and every finance company buying up defaulted accounts are paragons of virtue and justice – and this would be a very unlikely assumption in a time when certain large banks keep trying to foreclose on properties that aren’t even mortgaged – it’s still hard to imagine how a law that allows a creditor to “prove” that you owe them any amount they like simply by printing a new version of your final statement is good for anybody. In fact, they will insist, at least some of the business interests pushing for this new law are probably gearing up to do exactly that…

Now, as usual, the truth is probably somewhere in between those extremes. I’ve spent some time in collections myself, and it’s certainly true that there are a lot of people who feel entitled to anything they can make off with, and will game any system just for the fun of it even if there’s no actual profit to be had. It’s also unavoidably true that any system built and run by humans is going to include human error, and that means that allowing this practice will inevitably cause harm to people who have done nothing wrong, even if none of the companies involved ever does anything wrong either. The problem here is that the companies already have all of the advantages of money, power and political connections over the consumer, that a single unjust “collections” attempt can destroy a family’s entire world – and that the people pushing this measure are pretending that no such thing as a fraudulent collections attempt could ever happen…

I don’t have an answer for the current financial crisis, or for the ongoing meltdown of consumer credit. And I can’t deny that collections failure is an issue, or that any company that gets dragged down by deadbeat customers and unrecovered collections will take all of its employees, suppliers and stockholders with it, making the whole national crisis that much worse. But whatever the answer might be, I’m reasonably sure that this isn’t it…

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Ethics of Strippers

I should probably start by pointing out that I have no issue, ethical or otherwise, with people who earn a living by taking their clothes off in public. In previous blog posts I have brought you the stories of women who proved that every so often a stripper really is just dancing to put herself through school, and I’ve run across stories of others who have used such jobs to survive when their companies went under or their industries crashed. There are some negative aspects of the job, as there are in any occupation, but most of those result directly from the actions of management or the customers, and very few of them actually compare to having to clean the Incontinence Supplies aisle of a drug store because the janitor called in sick yet again, just to take the obvious example. But what happens when the stripper in question is one of your employees – and you don’t run a strip club?

Consider, for example, the curious case of a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, who also happens to moonlight as a stripper. As reported on CNN this past week, Chronicle reporter Sarah Tressler had put herself through college as an exotic dancer, and still picks up the occasional “shift” at a club in Houston because she enjoys the work, and claims that it’s also good exercise. However, when the newspaper found out about her side job they informed Tressler that she was being fired for not telling them about stripping on the side, despite the fact that her work had been highly regarded to that point, and despite the fact that the paper has no regulation against reporters working side jobs. Ms. Tressler is suing for wrongful termination, claiming that this job action is discriminatory; presenting the Chronicle with a bit of a problem – and us with a question of ethics…

On the one hand, there are certain types of business where reputation and image are important, and the news media are definitely one of those. Any news story depends at least in part on the reporter’s ability to gather, analyze, and present information, and it can be difficult to take that presentation seriously if the person making it is someone you have seen performing in a strip club. In fact, until such time (if any) that the negative connotations of being a stripper are no longer associated with that occupation, it may be to the disadvantage of any business to have those connotations associated with any employee who needs to operate in a position of authority or expertise. Unfortunately, the common perceptions are sometimes wrong – and even when they’re not, the choice to fire someone on that basis may still be discriminatory…

On the other side of the issue, firing someone for working a second job when your company has no policy against moonlighting is unfair, and firing someone for working a specific type of job while ignoring all others may very well be discriminatory. Given that the vast majority of all exotic dancers are women – and that men performing the same function are not perceived as either promiscuous or incapable of more complex tasks – the reporter in our CNN story may indeed have a case; if there are male reporters on the Chronicle staff who work as strippers and have not been fired for doing so, the case may be open and shut. And even if it isn’t, we should probably remember that only a century or so ago most actors and actresses were also considered little more than well-paid prostitutes – and most beat reporters were considered little more than illiterate errand-boys, useful only for relaying information to the re-write men in the City Room who would then write the actual stories…

So let us ask the question bluntly: Does an employer have the right to terminate an employee for doing a second job that the employer feels reflects badly on the company? If they feel that such an association will negatively impact their business, do they have an ethical responsibility to their stockholders, employees, vendors and other stakeholders to terminate the individual with that association? Does an employee have an ethical obligation not to take actions – including second jobs – that will reflect badly on his or her employer? Does our answer change if that employee is a man or a woman, or if that employee is so badly compensated that he or she needs the extra income in order to survive? Or does every man and woman have the right to do as they like with their off time, and does the company have an ethical responsibility to respect their decisions and their privacy?

It’s worth thinking about…

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Not Again...

Since I started keeping this blog in 2007 I’ve brought you a number of stories about financial misconduct, management misconduct, and outright fraud in the nonprofit sector, and ranted about the responsibility of donors to investigate the organizations to which they give their money. It’s always been hard for me to fathom why people get taken in by scams of this type when there is information available online for free that would completely debunk the so-called charity that is trying to get money out of them. But then, people keep falling for the Nigerian Royalty scam, too, just as their parents or grandparents fell for the Spanish Prisoner con on which the Nigerian email scam is based – and despite dozens or hundreds of online resources that would debunk every version of that fraud. It doesn’t look as if things are going to be changing any time soon…

A case in point would be the alleged Veteran’s charity group calling itself the Disabled Veterans National Foundation, based in Washington D.C. You can pick up the story on the CNN website if you want to, or look them up on Charity Watch, but the facts of the case seem clear enough. The Foundation claims to provide services and resources for disabled veterans, but according to their published records they’ve received $55.9 million over the past five years and spent $61 million to the marketing firm that handles their marketing and direct solicitation funds. It’s not clear from the agency’s paperwork how giving tens of millions of dollars to for-profit marketing companies is supposed to help disabled veterans or anyone else; it’s also not clear where the extra $5 million came from, although I imagine the IRS will be looking into that. It’s also not clear what financial relationship exists between the people running the so-called charity and the people who own the marketing companies, but I’d bet you cash there is one…

Once the people running the Foundation realized that they’d been found out they started some of the most farcical damage control efforts I’ve ever seen, sending out what appear to be random lots of consumer products acquired in bulk (and presumably at a steep discount) to a couple of local veterans’ groups – both of which appear to be baffled by the “donations” and completely at a loss about what to do with them. In fairness, it’s hard to imagine what an agency working with disabled veterans is supposed to do with 2,600 bags of cough drops, 2,200 little bottles of hand sanitizer, needlepoint pillow designs, acrylic paints or 11,520 bags (80 gross) of coconut M&Ms, but it’s even harder to imagine how anybody could imagine that this would look enough like a legitimate donation to provide any cover…

Okay, it’s an old story – except for the random “donations,” which I feel are particularly manic – and readers of this blog (assuming I have readers) have heard it all before. I call it to your attention again specifically because it is an old story, and it isn’t going to go away – but this may be the first time in history when it is really possible to fight back. Fake charity scams are the counterpart of the Nigerian Royalty email, preying upon guilt instead of greed – a motivation just as basic, and just as human – and they aren’t going to stop any time soon. But debunking them no longer requires specialized education, professional training, or bitter experience. Just as it isn’t possible for some random know-it-all on the barstool next to you to snow you with a bunch of fake “knowledge” if you’ve got a web-enabled phone in your pocket, it isn’t possible for anyone to sell you on a fake charity when you can visit Charity Watch or Charity Navigator or any one of a dozen other resources before you give them a dime…

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Ethics of Interns

I haven’t had a lot to say about the growing debate overinternships because I don’t really believe there is another side to the issue; asking someone to work menial or even entry-level jobs for your company without pay – and without any other conceivable benefit for the employee – is wrong, and ultimately counter-productive. That is, I believe that any benefit the company might gain from exploiting interns is likely to be outweighed by losses resulting from low motivation, resentment from both the interns and the paid employees they are displacing, poor public relations, poor customer relations (if the customers have any contact with the disgruntled interns) and ultimately lawsuits and government sanctions. But even if we accept that the current standard for unpaid internships is criminal, and that expecting your own employees not to exploit such interns if you have them is na├»ve to the point of lunacy, the question still remains if unpaid internships are inherently unethical, or if the system has just been exploited in recent times…

As originally conceived, an internship was a way of learning a profession that could not be learned in any way other than hands-on experience, much the way a craftsperson or tradesperson might go through an apprenticeship. They weren’t always paid positions – it depended on what profession you wanted to train for and what era you were in – but the interns would generally work directly for an experienced professional, doing the same work under close supervision that they would eventually do themselves. If there is no professional school that can train new individuals in a specific field this type of training may be the only avenue available, and even where such a school exists there may still be aspects of the job that can only be learned hands-on. In that definition, an intern is being paid for his or her work with the job training and professional development received through the experience; this could easily be worth more than the intern would make in a mundane job over the same period. Where this breaks down is when the company is gaining more from the labor of its interns than it is providing in terms of experience, training, or future career enhancement…

On the flip side of the issue, it is entirely possible for interns to exploit the system themselves, most often by working as little as possible and paying no attention to anything the company is trying to teach them, and then presenting themselves as superior candidate for employment because they were interns at, and gained knowledge and experience from, a specific company. In doing so, the intern has wasted the company’s resources (time, ability to instruct new personnel, productivity, etc.) as well as defrauding both the company and any future employers. But is an intern refrains from such abuses, it is entirely possible for him or her to provide a useful competitive advantage to the company with enthusiastic work and fresh perspectives on the process and flow of the work her or she is doing, and wind up providing significant added value to the company, as well as any future employer. And that doesn’t even consider the potential value to the company of getting the opportunity to evaluate potential new hires (the interns) before offering permanent positions…

The real difference would appear to be how all of the parties involved approach the situation. Certainly, there is the potential for savage abuse of the system by interns and their employers alike – but that applies to all aspects of every business. So I have to ask: if both parties receive value in return for their contributions, is there an ethical issue with the transaction? Or does the existence of the power imbalance between employer and employee automatically mean that the company is benefiting more from a situation where it receives labor without providing wages? Does power corrupt, and if so, will it always invalidate the relationship between intern and employer?

It’s worth thinking about…

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

So?

On my first day in grad school here in Michigan, one of the senior members of the doctoral student corps pointed out to me that all slippery-slope arguments are inherently flawed on several dimensions, one of the most important being the assumption that there are an infinite number of similar cases – or, in the case of a business, a sufficient number of similar cases to make any difference. Making an exception to your refund policy for no particular reason will weaken your ability to enforce that policy in the future; making an exception to the policy because something uniquely hideous has happened to a customer through no fault of his or her own is usually good public relations – especially if it is something so horrible that there is no conceivable chance that someone would cause such a thing to happen just to take advantage of your company. An airline customer who wants a refund on a normally unrefundable ticket because he is dying of esophageal cancer and is too weak to fly might be one example of such a happening…

You can pick up the original story off the Fox News site if you want to, but the scenario is basically the same one we have discussed before: a customer is asking Spirit Airlines to refund the price of his economy ticket because his condition has deteriorated to the point where he can’t get his doctor’s clearance to fly anymore, and the airline is saying that they can’t give him a refund because then they would have to allow anybody to have a refund. The company’s policy does state that if he dies prior to or during the flight, a refund is permitted – the money to be paid to his heirs, one assumes – but this really isn’t germane to the situation. The real issue here is that the airline is saying that the cost of granting an exception to their refund policy will cost them far more than the negative publicity they are receiving as the result of this story – and I’m calling shenanigans on that whole idea…

Every institution I have ever encountered that has seen fit to create its own set of rules and regulations (above and beyond those established by the city, county, state and nation in which it operates) has attempted to perpetuate the idea that these regulations were handed down by some higher authority and cannot be violated without dire consequences. In this specific case, Spirit is claiming that any deviation from its refund policy will result in the company being deluged with other customers who will demand refunds on the grounds that since they permitted one refund, they must permit all of them. However, both the general and the specific arguments are absurd…

Any private company can alter its regulations any time it wants, assuming that none of the changes violate the law. Thus, the company could easily change its written policy from “no refunds, ever” to “no refunds to anyone who has more than three weeks to live” – or whatever interval they feel is appropriate – and include exacting specifications on what evidence you will need to invoke their new “goner” clause (or whatever they decide to call it). The number of people who will attempt to get a fraudulent refund this way is going to be minimal, especially since the documentation such a stunt would require would probably cost more than a new economy/excursion-class airline ticket in the first place, and could easily involve perjury and forgery charges if detected. But that’s still not what makes this whole policy absurd…

Spirit claims that employing people to say “no” to customers demanding refunds would cut far enough into their margin to endanger the company’s profitability. The problem with that statement is that people are already making such demands, and the company is already saying “no” to them every day. Paying those people to say “Not unless you can provide all of the documents shown on our website – and are willing to go to prison if those documents are forged” may be slightly more expensive than paying them just to say “no,” but it’s hard to see how it would make a significant difference to the bottom line. Or, to put it bluntly, if the airline says that improving its public image in this fashion might cost them a tiny pittance, my answer is going to be, “So?”