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Summary:

We’ve looked at the ethics of web working before, but one of our readers sent in a novel question: I started webworking when I moved out of the geographic area of my former company. They retained me on a contract basis, but I worked exclusively for […]

We’ve looked at the ethics of web working before, but one of our readers sent in a novel question:

I started webworking when I moved out of the geographic area of my former company. They retained me on a contract basis, but I worked exclusively for them for 3 years. I recently took on a new client and have been with them for a couple of months. Now, through no involvement of mine, these two companies are contemplating a business relationship.

Here’s my question. If they do decide to work together, am I under any ethical obligation to disclose to either company the fact that I’m doing work for the other? The work I do for each company is completly unrelated to the other and is strictly back-end (DBMS/data analysis). At this time, I don’t perceive any conflict of interest, but is that all that counts?

This particular question has several dimensions – legal, ethical, and practical. Let’s take them one at a time:

  • On the legal front, I hope you’ve got signed contracts with both companies. Assuming that you do, and that neither contract includes a restrictive noncompete clause, you should be covered. The paper will spell out your other legal obligations: for example, to hold each company’s information confidential. Presumably it also makes it clear that you’re an independent contractor, rather than an employee, and thus expected to have other clients.
  • On the ethical level, things are a bit trickier. One question to ask yourself is whether you’d be comfortable if you were the customer, and one of your contractors was doing what you’re doing. You don’t make it clear whether the two companies in question are competitors or frenemies or what, but if they do compete, that sets off a red flag in my mind. Even if you’re keeping the work completely separate, your clients may wonder if one or the other is getting more attention than is their due, while the other’s work gets neglected.
  • Finally, as a practical matter, I think it would be in your own best interest to disclose the situation. If the two companies are working together, that opens the possibility for your name to come up in the course of a casual phone call or over a lunch meeting: “Hey, we have this great data analysis subcontractor.” “Really? We have one too. His name is…” That situation would be very awkward for all concerned, including you.

To me, this looks like one of those situations where you’re best off making sure that everyone is happy with the arrangement, even if you’re not doing anything legally or ethically wrong. If it turns out that one of your clients isn’t on board, you have to ask yourself whether you really want a client who doesn’t trust your professional ethics. My experience has been that such clients are not worth the trouble they cause.

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  1. I agree with Mike, some clients are just not worth the bother. I only like to work with people who trust me and respect me.

    As long as one can legally work for others i think its okay.

    On the disclosure front, I would as soon as possible set up a professional blog/website and list both under clients and make it public knowledge.

  2. Jean-Francois Arseneault Friday, August 1, 2008

    It’s common practice for very large consulting firms to work with many players in a given industry, who are obviously competitors. I don’t see aything wrong with that, given someone professional will keep confidential what they work with.

  3. I don’t see why this is a problem. As Jean-François points out, it’s common practice for consultants to work with multiple firms, including firms that compete.

    You’re not an employee. You’re a business owner. Just as a dentist is free to accept any patient, you’re free to work with anyone.

    You shouldn’t sign anything that restricts who your customers are, and as long as you’re professional and respect confidentiality, you should have no problem working with multiple companies in the same niche. I’ve been doing it for years.

  4. I agree that it’s not a problem. I work primarily as IT support, but my contacts are mostly all from competing firms. I can’t help but work for competitors, but it sure does make me feel valued moving among them.

    I take care not to disclose anything that might be valuable from once place to the next, but I do regularly do the same kinds of projects for competing companies- and why not? I’ve gotten good at doing it many times.

  5. I personally work for a company that has MANY real estate agents in the same area as clients. We mostly provide each one with the same services (web design, email, hosting, etc) and they all know that we work for the competition. I think disclosure is all that’s needed in this sort of situation. If they aren’t comfortable with it, then Mike is right, you don’t want that kind of hassle.

    The hard part to me is keeping the companies separate, and reserving myself so that it doesn’t seem that I am helping one company get ahead over the others.

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