IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The Ethics Coach Tackles Thorny Issues of Ownership and If Pay-for-Play Is Ever OK

Our resident ethics coach tackles your tricky ethical dilemmas, such as is 'you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours' ever an acceptable business practice?
/ Source:

Do you have an ethical dilemma?
Write to The Ethics Coach at

Q: I helped develop and brand an app while working at my current company. I see more potential for the app than my company does and would like to take ownership of the brand for a new company I'm launching. I had a conversation with my employers about the subject, and they don't seem interested in turning the app over to me. Can I patent the idea on my own?

A: You fell for the product you were paid to create, but--no matter your vision--it's spoken for. If your employers are open to further discussions, try to find a mutually beneficial solution. If they won't sell the product to you outright, discuss ways you can partner after you leave. But if they say no, that's where it ends.

If you don't have a noncompete agreement, says Richard Mandel, associate professor of law at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., you can use any information the company has made public to develop a competing app, "as long as you don't make use of any of your employer's undisclosed trade secrets, even those you developed." For more on the legal side of the issue, talk to a lawyer specializing in trademark and trade secrets.

Keep in mind: How you handle yourself during discussions and your exit will determine whether your employer wants to work with you in the future or refer you for other projects. When you exit, take only what is yours and avoid burning bridges, relationships or your reputation. And no, you can't take that stapler with you, either.

The Rogue Recruiter
Q: I'm an American living in a country where there's a lot of "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" in business.

I got someone a project and somewhat jokingly told him not to forget me when the money comes through. After he got paid, he gave me an envelope of money. If I get people gigs, is it OK to make them agree to give me a cut?

A: You're recommending friends and strangers to people who trust your judgment--but without telling them that you've accepted money for the referrals. You have an undisclosed bias when you refer only people who have agreed to pay you a percentage of their earnings. That's a great way to lose credibility and influence. Even in countries with lax enforcement, you are vulnerable if someone gets angry with you for any reason and reports you to a government official for not registering as a recruitment agent (and paying taxes and fees) or for taking bribes.

Of course, you might manage to stay under the radar--but is it a risk worth taking? The reality of playing to the lowest common denominator--wherever you work--is that it reduces what you stand for, whether or not you get caught. And that is a back-scratching that leaves permanent scars.

Harsh Words
Q: I own an IT consulting business. On a conference call with some senior members of our team, a client let loose with inappropriate and veiled racial remarks about one of my programmers. What is the best way to handle this?

A: The first step is to talk with the programmer to find out about his or her experience dealing with the client. Be clear that racial remarks and disrespectful comments to or about anyone won't be tolerated.

Then it's time for a face-to-face with the client to explain the kind of team you're building, the firm's commitment to its team members and why the phone comments were not acceptable. If the client really listens to what you have to say and expresses an understanding of why the behavior was wrong, talk about ways you can keep working together. If the response falls flat, respectfully decline to continue the project.

Moving forward, work with your senior staffers to develop policies, a values statement and, perhaps, additional training that will help everybody in the firm feel comfortable speaking up if something like this happens again--even when a client relationship is at risk. The sting of losing a client fades over time; the sting of not standing up for your employees and values does not.