Questions of ethics are always a point of interest in competitive intelligence (CI), and workshops on this topic are a staple of industry conferences. Guidelines such as the Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP) Code of Ethics are a great start, as are legal or ethical guidelines established by your company or customers. Our discussion here adds to that type of formal policy with discussion that can help CI professionals establish their own ethical foundations.
Scenario: Avoiding the Temptation of Identity Games
Most of us have at least considered whether we would get an advantage by hiding our true intent when we are gathering competitive intelligence. Whether as simple as turning a conference badge backward or as complex as inventing an elaborate cover story, not disclosing who you are violates a core ethical requirement. It’s worth mentioning that the same is true online, and creating fake social networking profiles for the purpose of collecting CI is out of bounds.
Note that these ethical considerations are binding even if you know for certain that competitors are being unethical toward you. The tendency to do otherwise follows from the “business is war” mentality, but we should all recognize that even in war, participants are subject to rules of engagement such as the Geneva Convention.
Scenario: Overhearing Sensitive Information
Imagine that the person next to you on an airplane is talking on their cell phone about sensitive information that could benefit you or your client. They may be talking about flaws in their product, for example, or challenges they are having in selling. What do you do? In this case, we would not feel ethically bound to stop them from disclosing the information.
That person has an obligation to protect the sensitive information, and this situation represents a failure on their part to fulfill their responsibility, rather than an ethical breach on your part. This sort of failure to keep information private is no different, from an ethical point of view, than inadvertently disclosing information in job postings or LinkedIn profiles, which are typically considered “in bounds” for CI research.
Scenario: Identifying Limits on Full Disclosure
Consider being on a call conducting research for a client, when your research subject asks you who the research is for. While you clearly must identify yourself, it is a different question altogether whether you are ethically bound to disclose the identity of your client (which could also be a violation of the client’s privacy).
The way to handle this conundrum is to avoid it altogether by being forthright up front about the fact that you are not a potential customer, for example, when you are talking to a sales professional. If you identify yourself as a CI professional but say, “I can’t tell you whom I am calling for,” you have done your ethical duty. That practice can also play a key role in avoiding the appearance of impropriety, which is vital to protecting your reputation, which benefits you in the long run.
By Sean Campbell
By Scott Swigart