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A friend of mine works as a management consultant. On a previous project she was working closely with a Fortune 500 client's team. One of the team members and her had chemistry, but they maintained professional standards and didn't act on their feelings for the duration of the project.

The project wrapped up, and she was assigned to a new project with a different work group, in a different industry.

  • Is it unprofessional and/or unethical for her to pursue this relationship at this time?
  • Would it prove problematic given that the other person was technically a former client?
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A friend of yours, eh???? ;-) – Adam Rackis Apr 10 '12 at 19:49
I'd like to stress that this is genuinely not applicable to me. For one, I don't have clients. – Aarthi Apr 10 '12 at 19:54
I believe you, and I wouldn't lose an ounce of respect if this actually was you. – Adam Rackis Apr 10 '12 at 19:57
@AdamRackis - Of course its not her. Its always the friend that has problems :) Its an online forum and she is probably using her real name and real photo. Cut her some slack :) – Borat Sagdiyev Jun 22 '14 at 17:46
@Aarthi - If this is truly you, then I suggest that you make another account for questions like these. Why do you think I call myself Borat Sagdiyev ? – Borat Sagdiyev Jun 22 '14 at 17:47
up vote 35 down vote accepted

Is it unprofessional and/or unethical for her to pursue this relationship? Would it prove problematic given that the other person was technically a former client?

I believe it depends on two factors:

  • Whether there is a likelihood of that client being accepted for new work again.
  • The industry you are in.

To explain - whilst on the project, the two individuals will have had equal access to any discussed intellectual property and sensitive material. If that's the only project undertaking, then I cannot see an issue.

However, it gets technical if for example the company deals in intellectual property belonging to multiple partners and there is a likelihood of the customer being signed up again. In this case, the relationship could be construed as inside information - and discussing work at home might potentially give away other companies' intellectual property.

If you're having trouble visualising that, let's take an example. Fred works for a big airline, IFly. He really likes Jill, who works for GoodEngines. IFly contract GoodEngines to make some engines, they do, all done, Fred and Jill start dating and so on. Then, IFly want some more engines making. GreatEngines submit some IP as part of their bid. Fred reviews the bid, but has a stressful day and goes home ranting to Jill about it. Over chicken fajitas, to which he's partial, he accidentally lets slip that GreatEngines are using SuperFuel to Jill. Whoops.

Usually, this sort of thing can be managed as with any conflict of interest. I would suggest the following action be taken:

  • What does your contract say about it? Ultimately, it may be a breach of your T&Cs of employment to even engage in the relationship.
  • What do management/HR say about it? I am not suggesting asking permission - however, assuming you are not barred from having said relationship, covering your bases by raising a potential conflict of interest would be a legitimate thing to talk to HR about.

Of course, this assumes a specific problematic scenario with which I have some experience (not necessarily romantic experience, however). Clearly, if it's just a paper order from your local stationary supplier, that's a bit different!

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Proceed, but with caution. Be discreet for a few months, since it may come to naught. But if your friend sees a future with this person after 3-6 months, she should make a disclosure to her HR department. It's a formality, but an important one, since both people might be asked have to waive certain rights to sue.

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Here's a pretty good test for questions of the format:
"Is it ethical/professional to _?"

The answer is almost always the same as this question:
"Would you feel uncomfortable telling your boss about _?"

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Caveat, doesn't work in the case of "My boss just asked me to _, is it ethical?" :) – Benjol Apr 11 '12 at 6:32
In case of the caveat: "Would you feel comfortable telling your boss's boss?" – Atif Apr 12 '12 at 21:21
Also doesn't work in the case of "Half my conversations with my boss are uncomfortable regardless of what we're talking about". – weronika Apr 24 '12 at 6:21
Then of course if it is unprofessional, and you would feel uncomfortable telling your boss, the question is: Is the relationship worth it? If you tell your grandchildren "I met your grandad when I was a management consultant and he worked at a client, and it was totally unprofessional", that's fine with me and being unprofessional was the right thing to do. – gnasher729 May 9 at 8:49

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