With New York Times Magazine "Ethicist" columnist Randy Cohen leaving to pursue a talk-radio show, we couldn't help but reflect on Cohen's career telling readers near and far how to behave well. A quick search of the archives yielded only one interior designer over the course of the decade-plus who wrote in seeking Cohen's advice. Here's the question, from April 1, 2001:
"I am an interior designer. When I worked for myself, I registered with a carpet store that offered me a 10 percent commission on any business I referred to it. Now I work for someone who was unaware of this store until I told him about it. Recently, I sent that carpet store a customer who placed a big order. Can I keep the commission or must I split it with my boss?" -- S.R., Long Island
"Neither of you should take the commission. The kind term for this practice is ''conflict of interest.'' Rather than direct your client to the store where she would get the best product at the best price, you sent her to the place where you would make a profit. That she is happy with the carpet is neither here nor there. She would be even happier if the 10 percent price reduction went to her, not you. The unkind term for this practice is ''kickback.' That said, the Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct of the American Society of Interior Designers permits such commissions as long as the client knows about them and forbids only ''undisclosed compensation'' from those with whom you do business. (But then again, this is a code of ethics that allows you to put a red velvet sofa in a lime green room.)
In some professions and many parts of the world the payment of such commissions and fees -- what many Americans would call ''bribes'' -- is standard procedure, but just because a practice is commonplace does not exempt it from ethical scrutiny."