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My employer deals with many many clients, several of which I would like to approach to offer the services of my new personal businesses. I have never personally dealt with any of the clients I would like to approach.

I would like to contact them directly, via contact methods displayed publicly on their website - I would not use any personal contact details from contacts who have dealt with my employer, nor would I mention any specific contact names or the fact that I have any connection to my employer.

My question is, is it ethical for me to approach these companies when the only reason I know they exist is through my employer? Do I need to ask permission from my employer even though I will be using publicly available contact details?

If it makes a difference, my employer is a warehousing company and my new business is web design, so I would be asking them if they would like an updated website and will not be in competition with my employer.

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    You can certainly call them, but some companies may consider this to be a breach of trust, or a potential conflict of interests (you might in some way give these people perks or extra attention in your day job as a means of getting their private business as a web designer). It's a tricky position to be in. Wouldn't advise it. – AndreiROM May 9 '16 at 15:57
  • @AndreiROM I'm finding myself thinking this was a question I shouldn't have been considering... Thanks :) – Lyall May 9 '16 at 16:01
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    It's also unauthorized use of data - property of the company. Even if it's just names. – Raystafarian May 9 '16 at 17:46
  • What does your contract of employment say about it? – A E May 9 '16 at 18:25
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    @AE It's something I've been meaning to do for a while. Unless I can use the lack of contract to exploit the company for my own evil gains (kidding) – Lyall May 9 '16 at 18:42
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Two questions to ask yourself:

  • What would happen if the web design client found out who your employer was?
  • What would happen if your employer found out about your web design client?

Most likely, if you think this through, you will find that you would be placed in a bad position in either case. If either party finds out about this connection, they are likely to think that you took advantage of your position at your job to make this connection (even if that was not the case). This will reflect poorly on you.

And if you don't want both sides to find out about each other, that would place you in an untenable position of trying to maintain secrecy.

I would avoid this.

  • Even if you aren't doing anything wrong at all, it will look wrong if someone finds out (and it will be quite hard to prove that you didn't do anything wrong).
  • Once you got into this situation, you might be placed into a position of greater conflict of interest (for example what if you start doing web design for company X, then your employer asks you to be directly involved with company X for them?).
  • If you do have any "insider" knowledge of the company, from either side, it will be hard not to take advantage of that in your other role.

Also, your question claims you will not take advantage of the company's relationship with the supplier at all. If so, there is no real benefit to approaching these particular companies--just cold call someone else.

  • Thanks for the answer - I understand where you're coming from and agree with the questions you raise. With regards to the last point, it would just give me a 'head start' of businesses to contact from the off which is where I was coming from :) – Lyall May 9 '16 at 15:56
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    @Lyall, that isn't very much benefit for you...definitely not worth it for the risk. – user45590 May 9 '16 at 15:57
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    and that is why I come here for advice before getting myself in trouble. Thanks! – Lyall May 9 '16 at 15:58
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I think the essence of the ethical problem is: what is the relevance of the fact that these companies have a relationship with your current employer?

If just want to make a list of possible contacts by looking at trade directory, that's fine - companies pay money to be listed in trade directories so that people know they exist. You could make the same ethical argument for using an internet search engine to create a list of companies that meet some criterion.

But your employer's customer list is unlikely to be "publicly available" data. The customers supplied the information to your employer for a specific purpose, and (certainly under UK data protection law) it can only be used for that purpose.

Presumably, there must be some added value to you in starting from your employer's customer list rather than a publicly available source.

If you extrapolate that "added value" idea one step further, it should be obvious what the ethics of the situation are: suppose one of your friends was starting a business, and asked you to sell him/her a list of companies that you could get from your current employer's database. It's fairly obvious that is not ethical, and most likely it also breaks your employment contract.

I think what you propose is equivalent to "selling" such a list to yourself.

  • Well put - I hadn't thought of it like that. Thanks. – Lyall May 9 '16 at 19:00
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If you don't think there is a conflict, ask your employer. Why do you need to focus on any of these clients other than you're just aware of their existence? Why not search for other companies in similar industries or locations? Are you gaining an advantage? It seems like you're operating under the ethical assumption, "what they don't know, won't hurt them."

Where you have to be careful, is with continuous contact with these clients, you eventually may let something slip that indicates you may know more about them than you let on. You may recognize someone by name or be a little more familiar with their products and warehousing needs. How are you going to explain that? What are you going to do if someone recognizes your name?

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The main ethical issue is potential conflict of interest. Your employer (if they knew about it) might well want to avoid their employees having independent business relationships with the company's clients, because there might come a time when what's best for your day job is different from what's best for your other business. They even more want to avoid employees having undisclosed business relationships.

If there's no conceivable conflict then your employer might agree to you going ahead, but then again they might be paranoid and if you asked them they'd say no even if a conflict is astonishingly unlikely. Deciding for yourself that there's no conceivable conflict that your employer might be worried about is slightly dodgy even if you're 100% correct.

You say you've never worked directly with these clients on behalf of your employer. Fair enough, that reduces the risk of conflict. However, the fact that you consider it significant means you know that if you were working directly with that client then there would be more of a problem. So by working with that client you're creating an imposition on your employer, that if they re-assign you to different clients then they have a problem.

I won't say it's inherently unethical to create potential problems for your employer, or even that it's inherently unethical to create potential problems and keep them secret. If your company has no contractual terms and no policy about additional employment then they've made their own bed -- really they ought to have written down somewhere whether you're allowed to do side-work for their clients, and if they had they'd almost certainly have written "not without permission". So you might think it's fair game to take advantage of their failure. But it's not overtly ethical either, especially if you think that your employer might have a different idea of "reasonable behaviour" from you, and therefore is (however unwisely) assuming you would never do this thing you're about to do.

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    Mind you, it's just occurred to me that since you're selling them web design, and if the only way you could know about them is their relationship to your employer (i.e. they don't feature in web searches), then arguably even though you're avoiding using any personally-confidential data, you're using business-confidential information from your day job that's of commercial value your other business. Namely, your employer has accidentally done research into companies whose existing web presence is abjectly failing :-) – Steve Jessop May 9 '16 at 19:58
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I see no harm either contacting them through the way you mention or by telling a manager about your business in a non-formal conversation. Sometimes it is good (for them and for you) to be the "guy who knows a guy" and probably that is good enough.

However, this is likely to damage the trust between you and your employer, even, if you are not competing against them so if you happen to have a sales representative working for you, then let this guy be your face in here; if you are on your own, it is better to seek somewhere else, yet the water cooler talk is something helpful.

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The others have pretty much covered everything. I will give you an example. One person I know well thought he was "betrayed" by his trusted employee. The employer had put great effort in reaching out to clients & building relationships with them to get their business. Some of the clients contact information was public. Despite this, the employee could not have (easily) built the relationships & trust which the employer had built, without working for someone like his employer.

Moreover, the employer took the "risk" of dealing with the several clients & figured out which ones are easiest to deal with & how to work with them.

The employee stole some of the clients away from him. There was no legal action because there was no legal contract to deal with situations like these. The employer had not forgiven & not forgotten, but moved on with life. Depending on where you live & how big you are, this kind of information can get around and harm your reputation. Is that really worth it ?

Long story short - Why don't you use your experience to find clients that are not on your employer's list ? See how easy/difficult that is. Maybe you'll be able to better appreciate your employers side of the story.

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Lawyers usually do the same, they start at big firms, make several business contacts. After sometime they found ownselves new firms and try to take the same clients. So yes, its not a big deal.

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