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A useful voice of reason in 'Be Good'

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Your favorite customer is playing with fire.

He's forgotten some important paperwork and, since he considers you a friend, he's asked you to cover for him. Sign here, back-date, no problems.

The problem is, you know it's wrong and it makes you uncomfortable, but you hate to say no. You'd like to save his bacon, but if he's caught, you'd be the one to fry.

So how do you get out of such situations with your principles intact? In "Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything," author Randy Cohen tackles the ins and outs of right and wrong.

As a 12-year veteran columnist on ethics for The New York Times Magazine, Cohen has been asked a lot of unusual questions. Much like his heroine, Ann Landers, he's dispensed advice, settled disputes and soothed matters of conscience. This book — including situational updates — is the result.

Let's take your place of business, for starters. If it has an elevator and you're on the ground floor, is it ethical to refuse to pay an elevator fee? What about posting a sign that says you're protected by a security system, if you're not? Nobody's hurt by these things… are they?

What do ethics have to do with government bailouts?

The guy down the street was given a break on his mortgage, while you've conscientiously paid yours. It's irritating, yes, but is it unethical? Or are there other "actors in this drama" who have behaved even worse?

Then there's hiring. These days, you have to be extremely careful in taking applications, interviewing and beyond. Is it OK to Google prospective employees — or employers? Is it necessary to bring your personal life to the table? Is it permissible to use a first initial to skew the call-back process?

And on the subject of salaries, Cohen weighs in on transparency and permission to peek at documents carelessly left out.

Should you allow anonymous posting of comments on your website? (Cohen says yes, and that it's OK to ask an intern to run for coffee.)

What about a pregnant employee? Should she come clean about her ambivalence toward work after maternity leave?

Should you put a stop to texting during meetings?

And what should you do if you accidentally find porn on the boss's computer?

So you're faced with an iffy step at work. What next? It's hard to decide sometimes, but you'll find a useful voice of reason inside "Be Good."

Taking on everything in the workplace and out, Cohen's advice is thoughtful and well considered, with a twist of humor and occasional sarcasm. Readers who've disagreed with his counsel are also featured here, and Cohen seems to invite further discourse. That lends a certain vitality to this book, breathing life into a subject that sometimes seems lackluster.

While there's plenty of common sense inside this book, there's also a lot to ponder about right and wrong. Overall, if such issues land on your desk daily, "Be Good" could keep your feet out of the fire.

Contact book reviewer Terri Schlichenmeyer at

“Be Good”

by Randy Cohen

2012, Chronicle Books


319 pages

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