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I have working relationships with two larger companies. They do deals with other companies, then they pass the work over to me, and I fulfil it as a transparent representative. The client doesn't know I'm a subcontractor.

I was approached this morning by both companies asking me to take on a particular job that they are tendering for. I can tell from the description that it's probably the same job.

At some point in the negotiations I am probably going to have to speak to the end client in person. At this point it will be apparent that it's the same person. This will likely cause embarrassment.

What is the ethical way to handle this?

  • Should I tell one company I can't represent them?
  • Should I represent the first company who asked me, or the company I prefer to do business with?
  • Should I let it ride, attempt to avoid facetime, and just let them fight it out between them? Only one company will get the deal, and I'll be there to pick it up.
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    "The client doesn't know I'm a subcontractor." Would the client care if they knew? When you do this sort of job, do you keep the fact that you are a subcontractor a secret? – user45590 Jun 3 '16 at 11:52
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    If the client knew that both companies were actually offering pretty much the exact same service (i.e. me), and they knew that they could actually just have approached me directly for a much cheaper deal, it would be embarassing for everyone, and would likely lead to bad feeling and potentially the loss of the deal. – superluminary Jun 3 '16 at 11:55
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    @dan1111 - Quite a lot of agencies don't have very many full-time staff, only sales people, yet they give out the impression of being massively capable. They can do this by subcontracting work to smaller companies. Their role is reputation management, client liaison, and sales. The end client is never made aware of the implementation details, only that the work was done and done well. This is relatively common practice as it would be expensive for an agency to keep many skilled employees on in permanent roles. – superluminary Jun 3 '16 at 12:17
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    @MarvMills - no, not recruitment agencies. Just regular software agencies. They're not finding a job, they're managing a client and asking my specialist company to do the actual work of fulfilling the brief. The client won't know any different. Most software agencies work like this. It's good for them because they don't need lots of permies for every arbitrary bit of software they may use only occasionally. It's good for my company because we get to specialise in a particular stack and don't have to chase clients. It's good for the client because they don't have to take a chance on an unknown. – superluminary Jun 3 '16 at 15:19
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    Since you got contracted within 10 minutes I bet both companies read a recent posting. Don't try and poach any existing customers either of there companies introduced you to but maybe starting scanning postings so you can get more direct jobs. – paparazzo Jun 3 '16 at 17:29
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I work in pretty similar fashion in Denmark - and the clear expectation here is that you only go with one of them.

I'm assuming the ones you prefer partnering with were not the first to approach you - so it's a bit tricky.

Come clean - tell the least preferred partner that you're suspecting the client/project is similar to the one where you've already opened talks with another party.

-- Edit: Added from comments --

In Denmark, it would be considered the sub-contractor's responsibility to avoid these 'CV collisions' at the client - because only the sub-contractor knows who they've been approached by.

Allowing your CV to be sent more than once to an end-client might trigger a negative response. If the two companies doing the bidding have claimed that their proposed candidate(s) are employees, two identical CVs could make the client reject the person immediately. This is at least the argument made in Denmark for why one must avoid forwarding a CV through multiple channels.

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    I think this is the right answer, and I agree that it is ok to pick the preferred partner, as long as you haven't made a commitment or gotten started for the least preferred one. – user45590 Jun 3 '16 at 12:31
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    OK. I would fix this today. Since the gap is only 10 minutes, you could plausibly claim that the preferred partner simply beat them to it. And since you were busy or the project descriptions were a bit different, you have only just now realized that the project might be the same. – morsor Jun 3 '16 at 12:32
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    Why not say "Sorry, I was also approached today by another client about what looks like the same project, and they offer me better terms." It is honest, and perhaps you could negotiate a better deal with the company out of it. – user45590 Jun 3 '16 at 12:54
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    @dan1111 In this case, I'm gonna agree with you. The difference in payment terms is so massive, that honesty should be the way to go. Whoever was 'first' pales in significance with waiting 2 months for payment – morsor Jun 3 '16 at 13:26
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    "If the client found out the truth they wouldn't do the deal. This is the argument made in Denmark for not doing anything that risks the client finding out the truth" -- I don't know the situation in law, but this sounds rather as if the deal crucially relies on a very specific deception, regarding a lie told to the client about the employment status of the OP, and therefore might be fraudulent. "Don't get caught defrauding your clients" is a rule everywhere, not just Denmark ;-) – Steve Jessop Jun 3 '16 at 16:53
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EDIT: Due to the negative comments this answer has received I want to clarify my assumptions about the situation, which are:

  1. The end client is attempting to secure a third party to develop something and they have approached two (or more) agencies with a brief for which two (or more) are tendering quotes

  2. Two of the agencies contacted, knowing they cannot personally deliver all the work required have sought quotes from the OP for part or all of the work

  3. The end-client doesn't care which individuals deliver the work, they contract with the agency to sort that out for them.

  4. The agencies are contracted to and paid by the end-client

  5. The OP is contracted to and paid by the agency

  6. The agencies are not trying to "place" the OP at the end-client in any way, they are merely contracting the OP to undertake some work they are doing (which happens to be for a third party, the end-client)

  7. The OP's question was not about CV-clash, or the agencies misleading the end-client by suggesting the OP was an employee, or protecting the agencies or the end-client, it was, as stated, about the potential embarrassment felt when/if they find out two of the agencies they are working with both want to use the same third-party, the OP, to fulfil all or part of the work.

If these assumptions are false then I accept this answer is not a good one, but until the OP clarifies what the situation is, these assumptions are equally valid.

Answer

The relationship between your client and their clients is not your responsibility. Irrespective of what you have deduced, all you should do is respond to each of your clients separately (and probably with the same quote!) and let them deal with the tendering process to their prospective clients. It is a risk they take when subcontracting into an open market. I don't see how it would reflect badly on you.

Also, don't be tempted to tell both of your clients that you have been approached by another company in the same tendering process- that is probably breaching confidentiality.

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    True, but making my clients look awesome is my responsibility. – superluminary Jun 3 '16 at 12:00
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    @MarvMills - the difference is that the service is rebranded. If two companies were selling furniture for different prices in different boxes with different brand names, and it became apparent late in the negotiations that actually the furniture was exactly the same, I would expect some head-scratching from the client, probably some social media comments, and perhaps a loss of future business. – superluminary Jun 3 '16 at 12:37
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    @MarvMills - I would also expect the client to migrate away from the more expensive, more highly regarded provider towards the cheaper, less well-regarded provider. – superluminary Jun 3 '16 at 12:47
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    Maybe not his responsibility but the fallout could come on the OP. If the more expensive company is made to look bad then they may not use the OP in the future. If both companies are embarrassed when if it comes out then both may chose not to use the OP in the future. – paparazzo Jun 3 '16 at 13:09
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    @MarvMills: you say it's not the OP's responsibility to manage their misrepresentation, but since he enthusiastically participates in it, I rather think that it's also his misrepresentation and therefore also his responsibility. So the question still stands what to do next (and the OP's first option avoids risk of embarrassment, at least on this job, so there's a route to avoid getting caught). In your furniture analogy: he's already agreed to put two different retailers' logos on identical products, and agreed not to undermine the notion that these are "their" products. – Steve Jessop Jun 3 '16 at 16:49
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If I were you, I would pick one of the companies and tell the other one that you have already been approached for the same job and you are in the process of putting a quote together for them and it would not be ethical for you to work on the same contract from two different angles.

Who you choose is totally up to you. If both of them are willing to pay the same ballpark figure for compensation, choose the one which you feel more comfortable doing business with. If one company pays significantly better and you need that money, choose them. Just don't make them duke it out for compensation. It will definitely blow up in your face and you may not even get the job from either of them.

Being upfront and honest is the best policy for your continued success and ongoing relationship with both of these companies.

This is my take and I know it is subjective.

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You have two possible scenarios here:

1) Both companies are vying for the same contract.

2) Both companies are working similar contracts for different companies.

It's in your best interest to figure out which is correct. I'm assuming you have a good working relationship with both companies. As such, why not just ask them who the contracts are for? Stating that you may have a potential conflict. If it's the same contract, use that to your advantage and pit both companies against each other in order to get a higher bill rate and better payment terms. If the contracts are for different companies but similar deliverables then negotiate a fixed price contract with both and essentially kill two birds with one stone. Double the money, same amount of work.

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    It is almost definitely the former. I suspect pitting my contacts against one another might not go down so well :) – superluminary Jun 3 '16 at 18:13
  • There may be 3) one of the companies is a subcontractor of another, so that OP is in a choice of being either a subcontractor or a subsubcontractor. In such case it may be even more embarassing to meet the "client". – polkovnikov.ph Jun 3 '16 at 23:07
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The way you describe this, two companies asked you if you would accept to do work for them as a subcontractor - which will happen. You figured out that the actual work to be done is exactly the same.

It seems then that neither company actually has the deal yet (they can't if it's the same deal). So if in theory you said "yes" to both, then you would expect one letter saying "great, you are starting tomorrow" and one letter saying "sorry, the deal fell through". So no harm would be done to the company that loses. Also in theory if you say "yes" to one and "no" to the other, and the other company wins the deal, you lose out.

What would you do if you knew there are two different jobs, at the same time, so you can't do them both, and both still in the tendering process, so if they both win their tender, you would have to let one company down? Best would be in that case to tell them each that you have not accepted any other offer, that you would gladly do the job for them, but that there is another very similar offer, and you would sign a binding contract with the first one who offers it.

And that is what they can tell them in this case as well. Except you can tell them you believe the other offer is for the identical job, so you would expect eventually to be offered one contract only.

If you visit the company where the work would be done before the end of the tender, it would be best to tell them what the situation is, recommend both tendering companies, and let them make their decision. If they are happy with you, their decision might be to go with the cheaper tender (since they get the same person doing the work), or with the person who sent you to them first.

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