No Good Deed Dilemma: A sighting of the loose-lipped freelancer

The Dilemma du Jour:

As the co-owner of a PR agency that employs a mix of full-time, part-time and freelance practitioners, I host an after-hours get-together every week to which everyone is welcome. Last week, a freelancer told us he’s involved in a project at a competitor’s agency and he spilled quite a lot of intel on that agency, their work and their clients. I was uncomfortable hearing this, but my partner laughed when we talked about it later. She said, “It’s not our fault he’s chatty. We didn’t ask him to divulge inside information. No harm in listening!”

We use a standard agreement with all employees and contractors that covers confidentiality, but I’m still concerned. Who knows what he’s telling the competition about us? I’m for letting him go or at least reminding him of his obligations. My partner says we shouldn’t do anything. Who’s right here?

Signed, An Unwilling Ear

Karen McCluskeyDear Unwilling,

First off - you’re right, no question about it. 

Now I have to ask you and your partner something: How could you possibly think it’s a good idea to share staff with your competition? You don’t say how long you’ve worked with this freelance practitioner or what role they play on your team but frankly, it doesn’t matter. It also doesn’t matter that you pay them from invoices rather than through payroll. While we’re not exactly talking about Darren Entwistle splitting his time to serve as CEO for both TELUS and Bell, the concept is the same and it’s just bad business practice.

I’m not suggesting you should view people who aren’t working for you full-time with a suspicious eye. We’re a friendly, connected bunch in the PR community. If you’ve been around long enough to have your own shop, it’s highly likely you have former colleagues and current friends in competing agencies or working for organizations that compete with your clients. You may refer potential clients or employees to each other. You might look forward to seeing them at CPRS events or make a point of holiday drinks. Heck, you may even be close friends. I went through a period where I led the team for an agency’s biggest client, and the PR person for the competition and I were each other’s bridesmaids. Confidential business information never crossed our lips. Still, even if you trust everyone involved, sharing workers with the competition just doesn’t model the critical judgement clients expect from professionals who are supposed to guide them in spotting potential PR issues.  

Your current situation is precisely why sharing a workforce with your competition is a bad idea. The freelancer may be great at what they do – they’re certainly good enough to have multiple clients – and they are apparently pretty comfortable with the people they work for. The fact remains, that confidentiality agreement or not, this freelancer shared inside info with their client’s competitor and that’s just not ok.  

It’s a baked-in ethical practice in client service industries like PR, accounting and law that you don’t represent competing businesses of the same kind. This freelancer is acting as a de facto member of your team, and they must be held to the same standard.

Even if your partner thinks you’re overreacting, insist on letting this freelancer go. In the long run, you’ll be doing them a favour when you kindly, but firmly, explain why. They will learn from that and so should you and your partner. Having ongoing relationships with freelance practitioners is a fantastic way to instantly expand your agency’s bandwidth so you can take on large projects as they arise, without the expense of maintaining a large staff full-time. Just make sure those arrangements specify that the freelancers can’t have a similar relationship with other agencies at the same time.

~ Karen McCluskey, APR, Principal, KM Strategic Communications

Jackie AsanteOne of the elements I value most about the work that we do lies in the fact that, as PR practitioners, we are often afforded the opportunity to learn as we work. Clients choose consultants and consulting firms to act as their trusted advisors, supporting their efforts to tell accurate and effective stories to a wide range of internal and external audiences. In this role, we are often privy to ‘inside baseball’ – events that others won’t know about for days (or even weeks or months), after we’ve spent time preparing for them to happen. Over the years, I’ve helped lay the groundwork for eventual mergers and acquisitions, and met and worked with new CEO’s and senior executives before their appointments had been announced. I’ve helped clients prepare for large-scale staff layoffs, gala openings, industry closures, cyber-attacks, team moves, impending legal actions, new construction unveilings and employee fatalities. So many of life’s shocks (both positive and negative) need to be dealt with intelligently and sensitively. 

Putting those types of initiatives into a day-to-day perspective, it goes without saying that essential qualities for PR consultants include not only the ability to leverage one’s training and expertise, but to do so while exercising a high degree of discretion. The signing of NDA’s aside – which should leave no room for doubt -- it also should be obvious that sharing details about clients and their initiatives is a dangerous practice contravening the most basic principles of confidentiality. This important element of our practice seems to be one your loose-lipped freelancer has either forgotten, or doesn’t believe is worthy of their ongoing consideration. Either way, that’s a double-edged sword for you and your firm. While your partner may find it amusing the freelancer ‘overshares’ facts about your competitor, you can bet that the other edge of the sword means the same type of information is being shared about you, your work and your clients, with your competitor. I’ll bet that situation feels a lot less funny.

In one way, your partner is right – you didn’t ask your freelancer to dish out the details – but that’s not the only thing happening here. Oversharing, once it starts, could in fact cross a line, taking you and other staff members down a path towards liability. It doesn’t sound as if things have progressed this far, but similar chatter could lead to accusations of corporate espionage, insider trading, and intellectual property theft. For that, and other, more obvious ethical reasons, I agree with your contention that the behavior should not be tolerated, and needs to be walked back. Way back.

If it happens again, I believe it is fair and appropriate to tell your freelancer that you don’t want or need to hear what other firms are doing, in terms of the support they provide to their clients. Going a step further, you might also take the opportunity to remind everyone that we are all bound by contracts to uphold confidentiality, which is important not only to every client we serve, but to the overall reputation of the firm. You don’t have to deliver your expectations with a heavy hand – in fact it’s positive and empowering to be in positions of privilege, when it comes to the trust inherent in client relationships! 

If, after that discussion, your freelancer continues to overshare, it will be a clear illustration they lack maturity and insight – as well as the ability to take your direction. All those are failings you’ll be well served to keep in mind, should you choose to continue to work with them.

~ Jackie Asante, Senior Vice President, FleishmanHillard HighRoad (Vancouver)

Martin LivingstonThe bedrock of any corporate reputation is trust. So, when an employee, freelancer, or anyone who represents your organization, breaches confidential information the “reputational capital” of the individual and the company they represent is put at risk.

While it may seem like common sense not to share private information with third parties, it’s all too easy to let down one’s guard during a casual conversation with friends and colleagues. In reality, when it comes to business etiquette, few things are as inexcusable as divulging sensitive or competitive information about a business you’re associated with. It’s simply taboo in today’s business environment. It doesn’t matter if the dirt being dished is about a competitor. What if the shoe was on the other foot? Would your business partner be as quick to shrug the transgression off if the freelancer was blabbing indiscriminately about your agency and your clients?

What are the implications of intentionally or unintentionally benefiting from the leaked information? If the competitor lost business as a result of the freelancer’s careless disclosure and decided to pursue legal action against the individual, could you really risk your agency’s name being dragged through the mud along with the chatterbox? 

The whole situation really revolves around a lack of good judgement on the blabbermouth’s part. No matter how stellar the freelancer’s work may be there’s a certain element of discretion and propriety implicit in any professional relationship. Ideally, appropriate corporate conduct relating to divulging confidential information should be spelled out in a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) signed by both parties at the outset of the relationship. Surprisingly, most NDAs are viewed as a mere formality by PR executives, and most agency heads don’t walk freelancers through the finer points of safeguarding sensitive information explicitly underlining what’s expected of them when it comes to privacy and discretion.

It all boils down to a matter of trust. If you can’t trust a freelancer to maintain confidentiality, should you be entrusting them with sensitive information in the first place?

Breach of confidentiality is cause for termination. And in this instance, I don’t see any other avenue than to cut ties with the freelancer. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an abrupt termination, but I would be very guarded about the information I entrusted to the individual and their access to clients. Upon conclusion of their contract, I would sit them down and explain to them the potential implications of disclosing private information about clients and how uncomfortable you were with their apparent indiscretion on behalf of your competitor. Hopefully, it will serve as a learning moment and they will continue unencumbered in their career.

The situation also provides a good opportunity to reinforce with your staff what’s expected of them and the importance of maintaining a high level of confidentiality and professionalism in all social situations.

Trust is a fragile commodity. It’s easy to lose and often impossible to earn back. In today’s highly competitive business environment, it’s not something to be trifled with either.

~ Martin Livingston, Principal, Living Communications Inc.

About the Author

Deborah FolkaDeborah Folka, APR, FCPRS, LM, is the editor of the ethics column, No Good Deed. She is also a senior accredited public relations professional with over 25 years of experience in strategic communications planning, issues management and crisis communications planning, prevention and management. In addition to working in-house for a variety of public, private and not-for-profit organizations, she has run one of the most successful independent pr consultancies in Western Canada for over 20 years.