An architectural firm, seeking a commission at a university, contacted a major donor of the school that the partners in the firm knew, to use his leverage to get the firm hired, even though the building committee and the dean wanted to hire another architect for the job. The dean acquiesced to the donor’s wishes, but was furious at the firm for applying pressure like that.
In the competitive marketplace for services, enterprises often use whatever advantage they have to convince a customer or client to choose them over others. That often takes the form of persuasion, convincing the client in an interview, for example, that one’s firm will do the best job. But in cases like this, in which the partners know a donor who has some leverage with the client, the competitive advantage takes the form of pressure, a kind of quid-pro-quo in which the favor of donating money gets returned as a favor of hiring the donor’s architect.
In most cases, complying with a donor’s wishes turns out fine; the architect does a good job and everyone ends up happy. But in the situation here, in which the dean and building committee had already decided to go with another firm, the pressure applied by the donor at the request of the architects made the latter an unwelcome interloper in the selection process. The dean and faculty, of course, did not have to acquiesce to the donor’s wishes, but doing so would have harmed that relationship, which clearly the school did not want to do.
The dean and faculty also could have directed their annoyance at the donor for agreeing to apply the pressure in the first place. But, when the school’s leadership heard that the donor had done it as a favor to the firm, the dean focused her anger on the architects, even though she agreed to commission them to do the project.
There was nothing unethical in what the architects did. The commercial world works this way, sometimes pressuring clients when persuasion doesn’t work. But while not unethical, the architects’ actions put them in the unenviable position of starting a relationship with an angry and distrustful client. That raises the bar on what the architects have to achieve, proving that, despite the unfortunate start to the project, they will do the best job. And it also raises the bar for the client, in setting aside the initial anger to build a relationship of mutual trust with the architects and to remain open to what they have to offer.
This leads to what the philosopher H. J. N. Horsburgh has called “the ethics of trust.” The dean has to trust the donor’s judgment in accepting his recommendation of the architectural firm, the donor has to trust the architects in their doing a good job so as not to harm the school he has contributed to, and the architects have to earn the trust of the dean in going forward. Earning and keeping the trust of others requires that we act with the utmost ethical as well as professional care, being absolutely virtuous (fair, prudent, and honest, for example), attending to all aspects of our duty (to the client, school, and community), and weighing the consequences of everything we do (in terms of the budget, schedule, and the greatest good of the students and staff). Ethics, in other words, offers a roadmap for winning and keeping others’ trust. And if they can’t meet that bar, this firm would be better off declining the commission, for the anger and distrust of the client will only grow.