No Good Deed: I am tempted

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No Good Deed is a column devoted to the discussion of ethical challenges we may face in our profession.  Each issue we’ll feature a member’s dilemma and ask our expert panel to comment on it. We’d love to hear from you, too, so please weigh in on the various “what would you do if…” problems your colleagues are confronted with.

Today’s dilemma:

A very talented young designer who used to work at the agency I use has contacted me saying he’ll do our monthly website work for 20% less than his previous employer charges.  He knows our company really well, he did the work when he was with that agency and I’m tempted.  What’s the best way to handle this?

This raises an important aspect of agency management that ideally requires all new employees to sign a non-compete contract that prevents them from pursuing business with existing agency clients for a specified period of time (usually about two years).  Intellectual capital and creative talent are the lifeblood of any agency. While I appreciate the hunger for new business in someone starting a freelance career, I find this designer’s behavior to be somewhat unethical.  Tempting as it may be to save money and work with someone who knows your business, it is important to consider the ethical implications of hiring this person as well as the impact on your relationship with your agency. At the same time, it’s a free market and no situation is ever black and white.  Depending on the contractual agreement with your existing agency, one option might be to request bids on the work and ask the young designer to submit a quote. If there is an end-date to the contract with your agency, perhaps notify them now that you will be going out to bid on some services.  This tack may mean you (and the young designer) will have to wait, but it may be the cleanest, most ethical path for all concerned.

~ Margot White, Manager of Communications and Membership, Canadian Bar Association BC Branch

What a challenging question for the stereotypical Canadian: can you please everyone here? You already know the answer. Say no to the designer and you may fail to save money for your organization. Say yes, and you may damage your relationship with the agency.  But hang on a minute. Let’s not look for a stereotypically Canadian compromise. Let’s look at this through a business lens.  

You owe it to your company and yourself to have good work done for the lowest reasonable price. That is something the young designer offers. The agency, as a business, offers good work all right—but at the highest price it can reasonably get.  So going with the designer would appear to make financial sense.

What we don't know here, though, is how the designer will manage as a solo act. So how about testing that? Give him a challenging assignment with a horribly tight deadline.  See how he copes, on his own, with this pressure, without the help, resources, guidance and supervision of the agency. If it works out, you’ll have bad news for the agency. And your message will be roughly what Sal Tessio said to Tom Hagen in The Godfather: “Tell Mike it was only business.”

~ Don MacLachlan, Clarity Communications Inc., Vancouver

Everyone has a few things to explore in this situation. It is not unusual for a one-or two-year clause to be included in an employment or termination contract, so ask that eager young designer about his particular circumstances. Further, the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada’s Ethics Code states, “…a member shall not directly or indirectly compete with another member for a project by means of unethical inducements.”  Would the Society consider fee undercutting to be an ‘unethical inducement’?  If you still want to pursue working with the solo designer, it would be best if this is done transparently with everyone aware of agreements, and it may well be fine with all parties. File transfers will need to be arranged with the two design firms and your organization, but be careful: it is illegal to transfer files without approval from all parties. The contract with the current firm needs to be reviewed and adjusted if they no longer are providing work the new designer is taking on. Also, you will need to satisfy yourself that the designer working on his own will be able to provide all of the services you need to the standard you require.  This may sound a bit finicky but, in the end, it’s about maintaining relationships and reputation.

~ Francine L Gaudet, APR, FCPRS, LM, Vancouver senior communications advisor and consultant

About the Author

Deborah Folka 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.