Thursday, December 9, 2010

Ethics and Collaboration: Is Fear Killing Your Collaborative Opportunities?

A subject that seems to puzzle the masses, but plays such a significant role in the integrity of business overall, and life in general, for that matter. David Kramer says it well in The Lost Art of Ethics and Collaboration: Where Did We Go Wrong? (2004), “In spite of clear and convincing evidence that ethical behavior and collaboration generate better results than dishonest and adversarial negotiations, these best practices are rare in the world of human interaction.” In a world that becomes ever more social on a daily basis, the practice of ethical behavior becomes increasingly important.

So what constitutes ethical behavior? (specifically in terms of business and collaboration). This is an issue that has been at the forefront of my mind recently, especially with the movement of business to social media, and sharing of contacts across various different mediums. It is extremely easy for competitors to see exactly who you are meeting with, connected to, and currently in negotiations with. I’ve spent the majority of my 28-year career working in the nonprofit sector, where ethics and collaboration are key elements in nonprofit effectiveness; so I understand the subject well. However, in the “dog” eat “dog” world of business, the term takes on a whole new meaning.

In my business, I have various collaborative partners. These are companies that provide specific services that my clients want, but that I do not currently provide in-house. I can choose to hire in-house expertise to provide these services, or work with a company that provides such services within a collaborative framework. This happens in business all the time, yet the key to a long-term positive working relationship with the collaborative partner often falls on ethics; something few companies truly understand. For example, if I’m working with a collaborative partner and I introduce that partner to a client or potential client. Is it ethical for that partner to then contact my client directly, share pricing information with my client, or vice-versa? If that collaborative partner offers services that are in direct competition with services that I provide, is it ethical for them to offer those services directly to my client? These questions and the answers seem logical enough for most; yet, this line gets crossed often.

In a conversation recently with a potential collaborative partner, I faced the challenge of explaining this exact dilemma. The potential partner is a young entrepreneur who offers a range of very specific services that I would like to offer my clients, along with other services that may or may not be in direct competition with services that I offer. I have considered working with this particular company, based on a recommendation from a much respected mutual associate, and my own instinctive desire to help others.

Is this a service that I could easily perform or provide myself? Yes, however; I believe we are given opportunities to help others through our knowledge and I’m a firm believer that we all have a responsibility to give back to the community that supports our endeavors. I met with this potential collaborative partner on two different occasions. Upon the second meeting, the partner was briefly exposed to a friend and potential client. Within a week or so, the partner made direct contact with the other company and asked for a meeting. In my mind, this is a direct conflict to my idea of ethical behavior from a collaborative partner. I immediately called the dilemma to the attention of the potential partner.

This brought another question to light. So how do you know who is “off limits”? In my mind, if a collaborative partner is meeting with or appears to be in negotiations with a company, then I consider that company “off limits”. I would not approach the company or try to solicit their work. If I had any question, whatsoever, as to whether or not the collaborative partner was working with the company I would contact the partner directly. Whether or not a contractual engagement is in place, is of no consequence to me. This strikes a visual in my mind: I would no more try to solicit the work of a collaborative partner’s client or potential client, than I would reach out and grab hold of them physically as they stood next to the collaborative partner, and try to pull the client away from them. I believe the ethics of each scenario to be the same.

Ethical dilemmas are not simply “right” or “wrong” answers; but are often ambiguous. I found six basic moral principles based on the Ethical Decision Making Model (Cooper, 1998), that I believe can be applied to most situations:
  • Autonomy: to promote self-determination, or the freedom of clients/collaborative partners to choose their own direction;
  • Nonmaleficence: to avoid doing harm, which includes refraining from actions that risk hurting clients/collaborative partners;
  • Beneficence: to promote good for others;
  • Justice: to provide equal treatment to all people;
  • Fidelity: to make honest promises and honor their commitments to those they serve;
  • Veracity: truthfulness;

A few additional things to consider when evaluating ethical business practices as they relate specifically to Marketing and/or Social Media, based on the work of Laczniak (1983) are:
  • Does the practice violate the law?
  • Does the practice go against the moral duty to honesty and exactitude?
  • To gratitude?
  • To justice?
  • To not place the health and safety of others in danger?
  • Is the intention of the practice bad?
  • Could the practice generate harmful or negative consequences?
  • Did the company consciously reject a practice which would have engendered the same advantages while at the same time generating fewer harmful or negative consequences?

It is the fear of unethical business practices that kill most collaborative opportunities before they even get started. I understand that it is a very competitive marketplace out there. However, if we can find ways to collaborate with one another, share best practices and follow a basic code of ethical behavior, I believe the potential for what we can accomplish together is limitless. I highly recommend reading “The Lost Art of Ethics and Collaboration: Where Did We Go Wrong?” by David Kramer of the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley College (2004), for more on information on Ethics and Collaboration.

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Barbara A. Daniels