In this series we confront readers with ethical dilemmas and ask: what would you have done?
In last month’s dilemma, our versatile consultant Antonia had successfully completed the work of specifying a new IT system for a medium-sized business, and then invited to oversee the tender selection process for a suitable supplier.
After carrying out an evaluation process, Antonia identified one supplier that best met the specification within the budgets available, and the contract was then awarded to that supplier. She then withdrew but was surprised to receive delivery of the latest tablet computer shortly thereafter, which turned out to be a gift from the chosen supplier in recognition of her recommendation that they should be awarded the tender.
Antonia was in a quandary. This was a substantial gift and had it been made before her recommendation, would have amounted to a bribe.
If she accepted all this gift, what would the client think? Could she ever make an objective recommendation in the future? Should the price of the equipment not have been better deducted as a discount from her client’s price? These and other questions crowded her mind. Should she accept the equipment and say nothing or send the tablet back with a polite note ‘thanks, but no thanks’?
Two useful concepts in thinking about a dilemma such as this are transparency and vulnerability, which relate respectively to two questions:
Antonia is obviously anxious about the client’s opinion should they find out about the gift. In a spirit of openness, she might consider telling the client and asking if they were comfortable in her accepting the gift, but whatever they responded, she would have raised doubts about the impartiality of her recommendation. She might also undermine the confidence of the client in the chosen supplier and the integrity of Antonia’s selection, given that the supplier had presumably paid for the gift out of their margin.
So there is little merit in telling the client about this.
However, if it became known, then Antonia needs to have acted in a way that preserves her good reputation, and that can be achieved only by her returning the gift.
This is indeed what she did, and her telling comment when recounting this case was, ‘Had I kept the gift, I would not have slept easy at night!’