Each year, most employees of large organizations are asked to complete some type of ethics training. Darn glad for it, too. Yes, it can take up some valuable time, but a company has to at least have plausible deniability, right? “We told them not to do that, so don’t hold us responsible.”
The problem, though, is when these ethics classes age. At first glance, that might not seem to be a problem. Right and wrong don’t generally shift about. Bribing a foreign official isn’t likely to become your go-to strategy any time real soon. Sexual harassment is not going to become a benefit to be touted in recruiting. So why should we worry about updates? How much really changes over time?
I’m glad you asked.
I have spent the last year or so meeting some wonderful people in the Human Resources field. Really smart, friendly, practical and helpful individuals, some of whom I dig spending time with and would happily host in my home. Some of them have invited me to theirs as well, despite my being a poor guest. (In fairness, they probably didn’t know it at the time.) They have enhanced my career and my personal life in a lot of ways.
And many of them are consultants. Or vendors. Or both.
A good deal of time is spent in ethics training talking about the ubiquitous phrase, “conflict of interest.” The advice given to employees in usually along the lines of “don’t do anything that could be construed as creating a conflict, even if there is no intent and you are transparent about it.” It is good advice, generally speaking, and had given guidance to a lot of people who weren’t sure where the line of demarcation should be. Just play it safe, kid, and you’ll be fine.
Then along comes that pesky “social media,” where you get to meet all kinds of vendors and consultants with whom you might never cross paths. People with similar backgrounds, interests and passions. The exact kind of people you might be interested in having as a friend, sounding board or mentor. A wide array of possibilities open up for you, and your professional network explodes.
Then, as you tool along in your HR world, your organization decides to bring in a consultant to help design a new succession planning system. And you happen to know one of the three finalists. In fact, you’ve got pictures of the two of you together at a professional event. Or two. Or five.
The appearance of impropriety gets tough to duck in a hurry. When you know lots of people in the field, and you are engaging them in discussions, and you (*gasp*) become friends, it can be misconstrued pretty quickly. Even if you’ve done nothing improper, if you are transparent with your professional or personal relationship, you excuse yourself from decisions about which consultant to choose, you are not part of negotiations or contracts, people will wonder. That’s what people do. Especially the ones who wanted to choose a different vendor.
There is also the issue of friendships that develop while working together. Sharing a foxhole with someone can foster a relationship pretty quickly. Spending a weekend together fishing in the Gulf of Mexico might raise some eyebrows. Especially if you are working together in a vendor-client relationship at the time. A year after you worked together? Better, but still, people will wonder. That’s what people do.
So how do we deal with this environment. How do you stay impartial and LOOK impartial when your professional and personal lives become intertwined? Clearly we need to update our thinking on ethics and vendors, right? What’s the right approach to take? I’d offer a few thoughts…
- Transparency: Once you do anything under the table, even if genuinely harmless, you are sunk. Secrets don’t keep well. And one secret found will turn everything else into a deception.
- Recuse yourself: Be open about your relationship and excuse yourself from any decisions that could be looked at askance.
- Push for objectivity: Make decisions based on numbers and facts. Then let someone else gather the information and make the decisions, if possible. The less personal judgement is used, the less likely someone is to question yours.
Can you avoid any appearance of impropriety in a world that includes friendships with vendors, clients or consultants? No. But that’s not news. We just live in a world where those relationships are more pervasive. Will these behaviors prevent someone from questioning your integrity? Of course not. But you’ll be better positioned, hopefully, to put those concerns to rest. Should you be defensive when those concerns are raised?
Only if you’ve got something to hide. So don’t.