50

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?
  • 78
    A friend of yours, eh???? ;-) – Adam Rackis Apr 10 '12 at 19:49
  • 8
    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
  • 23
    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
  • 2
    @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
  • 2
    @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
42

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!

  • Your objection is unrelated to whether they worked together on a project or not. – Loren Pechtel Oct 21 '18 at 12:24
7

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.

  • Sorry, I don't understand this answer. Why do you think a disclosure is required? And what rights should they waive? And why? Could you add some context? – sleske Mar 31 '17 at 10:03
4

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 _?"

  • 4
    Caveat, doesn't work in the case of "My boss just asked me to _, is it ethical?" :) – Benjol Apr 11 '12 at 6:32
  • 3
    In case of the caveat: "Would you feel comfortable telling your boss's boss?" – Atif Apr 12 '12 at 21:21
  • 10
    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
  • 1
    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 '16 at 8:49
  • 2
    This does not answer the question. Plus, it's not always applicable. For example, most people agree that it's ethical to go job hunting while employed, yet most would not tell their boss. – sleske Mar 31 '17 at 10:04
3

Whether this is unprofessional doesn't really matter. There are things that are more important than being professional. Not being with the love of your life who you would be married to for 50 years with four children and a dozen grand children, because the love of your life was at some point working for a client, that is unethical. On the other hand, having a one night stand with an employee of a former client, that's a different matter.

Instead of asking whether it is unprofessional, you need to decide how to behave and weigh up the consequences. If at all possible avoid any publicity until you are sure you are in a long term relationship. Don't start anything unless you believe that a relationship can be finished if needed, without any scandal (that depends on both people of course). If you don't get there, break up in a polite and sensitive way so that nobody finds out and nobody cares. Meanwhile, avoid any conflict of interest.

If you manage to get into a long term relationship, then you post here again :-) Good luck.

  • 2
    +1 - Work to live. Don't live to work. – Wesley Long Oct 19 '18 at 18:42
2

If the business relationship is over, there is absolutely no reason why a personal relationship should not happen - assuming both parties want it, of course - perhaps something to consider with a little more caution than normal if there is or was a power dynamic involved. (It's never appropriate for a manager to invite one of their direct reports on a date, for example).

If the business relationship is ongoing, it would still be reasonable to pursue a personal relationship with the same comments as above, though with a little more caution (looking out for conflicts of interest, potential for (accusations of) preferential treatment, etc.). This happens all the time - we spend half our waking lives at work, of course we will meet people for whom we develop personal feelings - and I've yet to work at a company that didn't have at least one married couple somewhere in the business.

(Obligatory warning: a friend of mine was once involved in such a relationship that ended spectacularly badly, to the extent that my friend very nearly had to quit his job; to this day, my friend and the other person involved refuse to both be in the same room at the same time - which has made certain work situations extremely difficult. It can happen. But I suspect that entering a relationship wondering how badly it might end probably isn't healthy, so I wouldn't worry about it too much.)

Either way, call me a hopeless romantic if you will, but as long as direct conflicts of interest are avoided, I'd personally rank personal relationships as of higher importance anyway; who wants to die alone at eighty saying, "well I was lonely my whole life, but at least I never dated any former clients"?

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.