Business ethics question -- theft or not?


#1

So, I have this acquaintance – she claims to be a business school graduate, but really not sure. I have no proof. Says she did the coursework but can’t get the diploma because she still owes money to the school.

Anyhow, while discussing future career plans, she stated that she had an idea to work as a consultant for businesses, but concurrently perform market research for her own future business by market researching clients of the businesses she consults for.

I’m no businessman, just an artist, but I told her I figured that it sounded like a good way to get into serious trouble and get your pants sued off. I mean isn’t client information gathered by a particular company proprietary, unless paid for? Going through client demographics for personal future business marketing ideas seems parasitical and illegal to me. Am I wrong?

Business law experts? Care to weigh in?


#2

Not an expert, but it would make sense that consultants would be asked to sign an NDA and/or NCA that would cover this type of situation.

I’ve had to sign away my patent rights to get a job doing field tech support. Like, schlepping and imaging PCs for a hospital. They wanted my patents for FIVE years after I left, which is ridiculous, and an unconscionable contract.


#3

Seems dubious; I know precisely dick about what folks in suits get up to, but even I’m pretty sure this bright idea would breach almost any contract under the sun.


#4

Exactly. I’ve worked a job where I had to do the same, and I was simply doing map analysis. Not to mention your standard satanic binding arbitration agreements with other jobs.


#5

[quote=“knoxblox, post:1, topic:52438”]
So, I have this acquaintance – she claims to be a business school graduate, but really not sure. I have no proof. Says she did the coursework but can’t get the diploma because she still owes money to the school.[/quote]

That in itself is suspicious. You don’t go to B-school first and then pay for it. You pay in advance for the term you are about to start/just started. If you can’t afford the following term, you don’t go until you can pay for it.

[quote=“knoxblox, post:1, topic:52438”]
Anyhow, while discussing future career plans, she stated that she had an idea to work as a consultant for businesses, but concurrently perform market research for her own future business by market researching clients of the businesses she consults for.[/quote]

As @LDoBe said, there are standard NDA/NCA forms that would have to be signed as part of becoming a consultant to a particular business.

You are not wrong. Even if she doesn’t get caught, her ethics are totally off. I wouldn’t get too close, either personally or professionally.


#6

I have this framed in my office.


#7

Only people who made money on the Telecom boom and bust were Consultants.

The behavior described above is unethical and depending on the agreements between customers and clients and the Consultant, very murky legally.


#8

Not if you’re in default on student loans. Universities are pressured by loan agencies to suspend diploma and credit statuses until someone pays the piper. It happened to a friend of mine.


#9

Well, the business school she claims to have attended is right here in her hometown, and is one of the bigger schools in the country. I think perhaps she over-borrowed on her school loans and hasn’t paid back the difference yet?


#10

I think this is more along the lines of what probably happened.


#11

Sounds unethical to me, unless she starts a .com, such as Amazon, Google, Facebook, Uber, where collecting data from customers users and using it for other business purposes is considered SOP and worthy of being drenched in start up cash. (I guess this is like the kill one person and you are a murderer, kill 100 and you are a terrorist, kill 100,000 and you are a world leader. kind of thing.)


#12

That’s not true - it’s actually pretty common for students to end up with a balance after a year or two, and the school will carry that as a loan, at least for a little while, rather than just kicking a student out in the middle of a semester. Or if a school is being lax, they may allow a student to finish the year or the degree with a small outstanding balance, and just get it after they graduate. It’s also common that students who graduate with an outstanding balance are allowed to graduate, but are given a blank piece of paper at commencement instead of a real diploma. Technically they have the degree, just not the piece of paper.


#13

Yes, I have distanced myself from her already. She has said and done a few things that have made me question her ethics and/or sanity.
Like the time she said without thinking, “I wish I had more friends I could use.” Like that’s what friends are there for.

Her personal life is kind of a shambles right now, and she’s drinking heavily with 2 DUI’s to her name. The one thing she has going for her is that she’s quite attractive, and seems to be trying to leverage that into a relationship where the guy takes care of the big ticket items for her. The scary thing is, I think there’s enough rich, desperate guys in this city who just might do that. In the meantime, she uses them for what she can get while safely avoiding any sexual contact (not that sex is an obligation, just expected by stupid guys).

Didn’t happen to me, but only because I’m not rich and saw the red flags very early on. I’d just like to be able to give her something to think on before she makes her life even worse.
I know this may not be possible. Only the engineer can stop the train, and that often is not soon enough.


#14

Possible. She’s good with IT and computer services. But her plan still sounds shady to me.


#15

Well, I was being sardonic - more a commentary on how doing something in a large enough way lets people get away with what would immediately be considered unethical on a smaller scale.

Other than this woman is a babe you can’t have, why do you continue to associate with her? She sounds a bit sociopathic, so I’m not sure why you think “proving” to her that her idea is unethical would make even a bit of difference to her.


#16

With all the personal remarks about her, I’m starting to think this thread is more about you finding support for your feelings about her than it is about finding actual rational arguments about ethical behavior.


#17

Never wanted to date her. Too much chaos.

I just figure that when someone spells out a sketchy business plan to you, no matter how vague, you kind of want to warn them about the legal trouble they could get into, especially if they have enough legal problems to begin with.

I’m going with Sardonic’s idea that it probably won’t make the least bit of difference to her. At least, until she’s in seriously hot water.
I’ve given her my two cents, so perhaps we’ll just have to see how it plays out.


#18

I don’t understand: if you got the diploma at graduation, the fact that you stopped paying off your loans 2 years later shouldn’t affect whether or not you still have that piece of paper as “proof” of graduation.


#19

Oh, OK, I haven’t seen that myself, but I’ll accept that it is something that happens.

Business school is usually pretty cut-throat when it comes to finances. They’ve got a waiting list of ready customers, so they don’t usually carry anyone who can’t pay their way. But I can see that someone might squeak through that with a small amount of back-owed.

Still, I’d be more inclined to believe her if she said she had an incomplete in one class and that’s why she hasn’t officially graduated yet.


#20

I think your stated intentions are good, but all this smearing you’re doing of her 1) doesn’t really make this a “clean” ethical question and 2) doesn’t really make you look all that good yourself. Better to ask the question and not throw in things like she’s a debtor, a drunk, a drunk driver, a manipulative gold-digger…

Anyway, if your intention really is to sort this issue out, here are a few thoughts;

First, separate the legal issues from the ethical ones. Theft is a legal issue, and to me “market research” of the clients she’s working for doesn’t sound like it would fall within the legal definition of theft - accessing data, or even making copies of it provided it is within the scope of her consultation, is probably legal. It depends on the state she’s in and what she is “researching” though - it may very well be that the kind of information she is accessing or copying represents a trade secret or similar protected data that would fall under a theft statute. There are other criminal laws that she might be violating as well, such as unauthorized use of a computer system, which she might violate simply by accessing a database that she was not permitted to access. And in addition to criminal law, there would be civil violations as well that could put her at risk of a lawsuit. Certainly giving or selling this data to third parties would represent another layer of liability, potentially criminal and civil.

As to the ethics of it, that also somewhat depends on the circumstances; if she’s pulling information that she’s not authorized to, or that is not within the scope of her consultancy, then I would say no - this is not ethical behavior. If however she is simply learning about a kind of business by consulting with them, that seems perfectly fine.

For instance, let’s say she’s hired by Company X that makes widgets at price $Y to do an analysis of their sales and give guidance on future sales. She works for them for a few months and finds that selling widgets at price $Y is not working all that well, and that though their margin might be less at a lower price, the increase in volume would more than make up for it. So long as she does her job and presents her findings accurately, she’s done her job and she’s learned something. That something that she’s learned is now her knowledge as well as that of the employer - there’s nothing the employer can do to make her unlearn that information. So if she decides she wants to go in to business selling widgets and price them at $Y-1, there’s nothing unethical about that. And if the employer wants to prevent her from doing that, they should protect themselves with an NDA or noncompete agreement that reasonably limits her ability to take her newly acquired industry knowledge to start a competing business.

Where it gets a little more complicated is when she gets her next consulting gig with Company Z, which is a direct competitor. Of course that’s why she got hired; her experience and knowledge of the industry. And she can use that in an ethical way, by communicating her knowledge without violating the trust of her previous employer. Where she would cross the line is in divulging anything specific, such as the specific sales volume, costs, prices, history, etc of the previous employer, or worse actually handing over any documents. That would be unethical.

The test for determining that seems pretty straight forward to me - a variant of the universal imperative; if your future employer found out she did what she did with her previous employer, and knew that she was likely to do it again with them, would they hire her? Simple; if she provided thoughtful analysis by understanding the clients needs and interests without revealing other clients’ information and damaging them in that process, that would be ethical and nobody would have anything to hold against her except that as a consultant, she’s learning a lot about an industry. If future employers found that she had used previous clients’ information to damage them after she left, by helping competitors or helping herself, then that would be unethical and she would not get the job.

Finally, I would say that there is often a solution to questions of ethics; transparency. If she’s honest and discloses that she intends to access certain information from clients and use that information for her own market research, then as long as she tells her employer that, there’s not a problem.