Saturday, August 13, 2011

Conflict of Commitment

A property manager has a corporate client trying to decide whether to expand in its current leased space or to have a custom building designed and constructed for it. With an architect spouse whose firm is on the development team for the new building, the manager is torn between wanting the best for the client, which would save money by expanding in their existing space, and the best for the spouse’s firm, which would benefit from the commission to do the new building.

Marriage has its challenges as two people learn how to live together and to work together maintaining a household. And successful couples learn that preserving a marriage often entails putting it first, above the demands of work or other pastimes. That can become difficult, though, when spouses have a professional as well as a personal relationship. While the personal relationship would put the marriage first, the professional relationship can cause the opposite to occur or at least, as in the case here, make us feel torn between divided loyalties to a client or a spouse.

Ideally, we wouldn’t have to make that choice. But as sometimes happens in the design community, in which both spouses work in similar occupations or even in the same offices, the potential for conflicts increase. In this situation, there exist two kinds of possible conflicts – a conflict of interest and a conflict of commitment. The former seems more obvious and so easier to address. A conflict of interest would exist if the property manager urges the client to commission his spouse’s firm for the new building, since he would indirectly benefit from the fees the client pays for that work.

In this case, however, the property manager and the architect have taken great pains to avoid any conflict of interest. The manager has advised the client to commission two different firms to look at the implications of the company staying and renovating the existing space versus building anew. That not only gives the client two different perspectives; it also incentivizes the design teams to do the best job they can to win the commission and it avoids biasing the client toward one approach of another if the same firm did both projects.

At the same time, the architect has excused herself from being a part of the project because of her husband’s role as an advisor to the client. And while her firm would benefit from getting the project, she wouldn’t benefit directly from participating in it, nor would the firm’s winning the commission affect her salary one way or the other, with plenty of other work in the office to keep her busy. The best way to handle conflicts of interest, apart from avoiding them altogether, involves acknowledging their potential to occur and taking steps to recuse yourself from any involvement that would lead others to suspect that a possible personal benefit skewed your professional judgment.

Even though this couple has done everything possible to avoid a conflict of interest, there still remains a conflict of commitment. That can prove harder to spot and easier to overlook, since it involves not material benefit, but instead affects the time and energy you put toward one endeavor versus another. Might the property manager, in this case, steer the client to the new-construction option, not for personal financial gain, but simply because it would make his spouse happier if he did? The very possibility of that suggests that, in this case, the architect’s firm should simply not get involved in the project. Sometimes having an in requires that we stay away.

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