Home » Interviews » Interview with Jeffrey Seglin NY Times “The Right Thing” Columnist

Barbara: Tell us a bit about your background, qualifications and expertise. If you have written a book, please provide the title.

Jeffrey: For many years, I was an editor at Inc. magazine when it was still based in Boston. When I was executive editor, I noticed that a curious thing occurred with the letters we received from readers. Whenever we would run a story that highlighted how an entrepreneur had cut some corners or played fast and loose with the truth to get ahead, we would get letters from readers who objected to us featuring such behavior on our pages. We’d run some of those letters and then in the next issue we’d get letters from other readers who took those who had a problem with the practices we features to task and claimed it was how you had to behave to succeed and grow a company. We found something fascinating there and that led to my writing of several features that focused on ethical issues company owners faced.

Shortly after several of these features ran, I was offered a year-long fellowship at the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at Harvard University. I had done my graduate work at Harvard Divinity School years earlier. I spent the year of my fellowship there running a seminar on ethical decision-making in business (largely attended by business and divinity students) and completing my book, The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart. As I began the fellowship in September 1998, I also started writing a monthly business ethics column called “The Right Thing” for The New York Times. A collection of those columns appeared in book form as The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business. I have also written about a dozen other books on writing, marketing, banking, and other topics. In 2004, “The Right Thing” column became a weekly column syndicated by The New York Times Syndicate.

Barbara: Trust Across America’s mission is to rebuild trustworthy behavior in America, starting with public companies. Is ethical behavior a component of trustworthy behavior, or are they essentially the same?

Jeffrey: Trustworthy behavior can be one critical component of ethical decision making in business. But ethical decision making encompasses a broad range of elements that result in a final decision. Ethical decision making explores how someone walks through a tough decision. Trustworthiness can be an important character trait and certainly one that should be valued in business. But it in itself does not guarantee that someone will do the necessary work of making an ethical decision.

Barbara: Is the “trust” climate in corporate America improving or worsening? What actions will turn things around?

Jeffrey: Hard to say. There is a great deal of skepticism about honest behavior in business that heated up during many of the business scandals of 2002. The recent issues of safety with Toyota and oil spills with BP have not helped restore the public’s trust. The vast majority of business owners may indeed be trustworthy. But a handful of high profile cases of bad behavior can wreak havoc on public perception. When things go wrong, business leaders need to address issues head on if they expect to turn the situation around. They must come clean and make right what has gone wrong. Given that by the time things go wrong few can agree on what will make things right, this is no easy task.

Barbara: It seems that ethical corporate behavior has frequently taken second place to short term stockholder returns. Do you see companies shifting towards long termism and greater emphasis on all stakeholders?

Jeffrey: Such a shift will only be possible if stockholders don’t demand short-term rewards. Given the impatience of the markets, it’s hard to see how this will turn around fast. But boards should take the lead here and do what’s in the long-term interest of the company and all of its stakeholders…even if they know they might take a short-term hit.

Barbara: Please provide contact information.
The email for the column is rightthing@nytimes.com. My personal email is jseglin@post.harvard.edu.
Jeffrey L. Seglin
617.824.8240 (Emerson)

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