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Ethics of Unsolicited Compromised Data

What would you do if a plain envelope arrived in your business post that included a competitor’s complete client database? This happened to an Australian web design agency and they quickly did the ethical thing… but what would you do?

The Temptation of Knowing vs the Stain of Being Known

Who knows what motivates a disgruntled employee to copy sensitive company information and send it out to competitors? Perhaps the employee was fired, or they didn’t get a Christmas bonus or there’s an office politics issue that needs to be addressed.

Whatever the reason behind the leak, all players in an industry have an active interest in ensuring this does not lead to exploitation.

Of course it’s tempting to have a peek at that database, but ask yourself… what if it became known that you did? What would your own clients… not to mention those clients you hope to oneday win from the competitor… think about your indiscretion? It would more than likely backfire and toast your reputation.

Remember that person who anonymously sent you the package – they know you received it and you don’t know anything about them except they’re a malicious employee in a competitor’s firm.

The Industry Needs to Operate on Competitive Trust

Let’s look at this from an ethical perspective… what if it was your employee who sent your database to your direct competitor? What would you like (or expect) them to do in response?

On another ethical tangent… what if everybody in the industry were to always take advantage of opportunities to gain access to each others database? Notice the “always”… it’s because if you condone it once for one person you have to condone and expect if of all players in the industry. And if one business were to gain underhanded advantage then it would be right for all people to gain that same advantage?

Where would the industry be? Because we’re talking about the theft of property from another business. I think ethically it’s obvious that if everyone in an industry stole from everyone else in the industry at every opportunity then it would be a rubbish industry. Not only that, but the decent people would go out of business because they’d be constantly stolen from by the unethical bastards taking constant advantage.

Your Options in this Ethical Situation

So I hope we agree that option 1 – viewing the client database – is unthinkable.

Option 2 is to destroy the database and forget you ever saw it – again unthinkable and the assumption is that you have viewed it.

Option 3 is to directly notify the competitor that you received the parcel and are in possession of their client database.

Option 4 is to directly notify the competitor and personally take that database to their offices so that any employees in their firm can see that this is not an action condoned within the industry (remember you or someone you respect might inadvertently hire that employee when they leave your competitor). This also sends an indirect message to the person’s team that they may all be suspect and find employment in other firms difficult in the future if the behaviour persists.

Option 5 is to directly notify the competitor and personally take that database to their offices AND notify the police. After all, a crime has been committed against everyone in the industry – referring back to the ethical discussion.

The Choice will always be Your Choice Alone

Nobody is going to hold you against the wall and force you to open or not open that client database. It’s tempting because it’s knowledge you are constantly trying to find out for yourself as a course of competitive business. However, handling the situation elegantly will not only send a clear message to the industry and improve the playing field for everyone involved… but it will enhance your business reputation.

One of the most valuable assets your business possesses is the ethical playing card. We all begin with it… we only ever get to lose it once. You’re either ethical or unethical. The choice is always your choice alone. If you’re curious, in the case that I mentioned at the beginning

Option 3 was chosen.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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