A well-known consulting firm frequently joins more than one design team competing for the same commission. Each competitor wants the consulting firm on its team because of the expertise it would bring to the project. And presence of the consulting firm on several teams gives it an advantage, increasing the chances that it would win the commission. But the firm’s presence on several teams also raises ethical issues related to the privacy, confidentiality, and impartiality toward its multiple partners.
Monogamy or devotion to one sexual partner at a time has long had a central role in most ethical traditions. Anthropologists have observed that polygamy can arise in cultures where maximizing offspring has clear survival value or where there exist a small number of men in relation to women. Such situations, however, remain relatively rare and even in cultures that once accepted polygamy, like the Mormons, they often move toward monogamy once they have achieved a degree of security and relative equity in the number of men and women.
These relational issues, however, extend beyond those related to a sexual partner to include professionals teaming up to pursue a project. While jealousy, fear, and anger rarely occurs in work-related teams and they do in personal relationships, many of the same ethical issues apply to both our private and public partners.
That becomes most apparent in cases such the one described here, in which a consulting firm “plays the field,” with a similar relationship with several competitors for a project. In the business world, of course, contracts can address the problems that can arise from a consultant’s presence on several teams, requiring, for example, that the consulting firm have different staff members on different teams, that the firm treat each team equally in terms of staff time and support, and that the firm’s employees keep the conversations and activities of their teams confidential – all to ensure that each competitor faces a level playing field and that each has an equal opportunity to win a commission.
Despite such contractual agreements, however, there remain situations that can color the equanimity of the consultant. For instance, what if the consulting firm sees one team having a real advantage over others competing for the same project and a greater likelihood of winning the commission? Should the consulting firm put its best people on that team most likely to win? Or should the firm, instead, treat even a likely winner the same as every other team, with equally strong people on all of them?
Ethics may seem divided on such questions. Duty ethics urges us to treat others equally, as ends in themselves and not means to our ends, while utilitarian ethics asks that seek the greatest good for the greatest number, which if applied to the fortunes of this consulting firm, suggests that it should try to pick winners. The similarity of this situation to marital polygamy suggests otherwise, however. Those who live with multiple marital partners have spoken about the necessity of treating each partner as equally and fairly as possible in order to reduce the potential of jealousy, fear, and anger among them.