Baker Wright talks about the ethical line between business and personal relationships.
Standing in a recently cleaned and dusted living room (probably cleaned in anticipation of my visit), I quietly place my yellow paper legal pad on the counter behind me. This is not the time for note-taking. As I tuck my pen into the place between the top two buttons on my shirt, I scratch my chin and the back of my head although neither itches. I walk behind the counter and wait to get eye contact with a mother and father who are engaged in a serious battle with their 9 year old. Tempers exploded, the child is yelling and crying, the father is noticeably angry, but also noticeably holding back because I am there. The mother is more exposed. She begins to cry when her daughter says, “I HATE YOU!” and looks over at me as if to say, “THIS is what I am talking about.” It is at this moment I give them the universal symbol for “let her go,” or maybe it is “let IT go.” The daughter runs upstairs, the dad goes to the refrigerator to get a bottle of water, and the mother tries to regain her composure. They wait on my response.
“That was pretty bad, huh?” I say as I enter into what is sure to be an uncomfortable conversation about what just went down.
My job as a Behavior Analyst puts me in the position of helping parents and teachers better manage the behavior of the children in their lives. Rather than sitting in a leather chair talking with someone reclined on a matching leather couch, I sit in the back of the classroom. I walk around your house during afternoon chore and homework time. I am where behavior occurs. Essentially, I am in the most delicate, private spaces of a parent’s world.
I often have to tell parents what they have been doing is not working, and then tell them I want to change the way they interact with their children. I have to tell a teacher of 30 years experience that “her way” is not working, that she needs to do things differently. They don’t automatically trust me because I have letters behind my name or even if they are personally paying me. It can be a tough audience.
As you can imagine, there is some sensitive maneuvering to do here.
My business, not unlike most others, is not a simple transaction. It requires a relationship. I cannot communicate with parents and teachers if they do not like me. If they do not trust me, I fail. If they cannot open themselves up to me, I will likely not influence them in the way I need to encourage them to change their behaviors, which will, hopefully, change the behavior of their children. I have to be a reinforcing agent. This is Dale Carnegie on steroids.
The point here is oftentimes the business relationship has just as much to do with the business as it does the relationship. It is more than simply building and maintaining rapport.
I mention this to raise a point about the sometimes-thin line between maintaining one’s professionalism and engaging in personal relationship building that likely leads to behaving unethically.
How much time do I spend talking about children (mine and theirs)? How much do I ask the father about his recent hunting trip to Colorado? How much do I answer questions about my fishing trip to Montana? Do I take some time to look at the new guest bedroom décor? Do I sample the lemon squares from the mother-daughter tea?
Do any of these things lead me into a position that compromises my professional decisions? That is where the professional relationship quietly, but most assuredly merges into unethical behavior. That is, changing the way I act professionally due to the relationship built.
Herein lies the slippery slope:
The lemon square turns into acceptance of a dinner invitation and next thing you know, your business relationship is compromised by your personal relationship. You begin making decisions differently about the person, not the client. You aren’t quite as honest today in your work because that would make tomorrow’s trip to the market with them uncomfortable.
Ethical questions and debates will continue forever because these kinds of situations are not as clear as standard rules or laws.
On the outskirts of town, there are no stop signs at the intersections.
Drivers are cautioned by their overall knowledge of physics, rules of the road and good sense. It is at these intersections of business relationships where we must make the right ethical decisions based on all the information we have at the moment. It has to do with understanding of relationships, where yours has been with the client, where it is going, what the current situation is, how that person is feeling, and maybe what topics are going to be discussed today.
We should strive to better understand the role relationships play with better serving our clients, consumers, customers, employees and employers. However, being aware of how these relationships can evolve is not only crucial to maintain professional standards, but also protect against potentially unethical and harmful behaviors.
Photo—Gourmet homemade lemon bars from Shutterstock