Our role in the morality play

7 June 2010
Every now and then a news story comes along that makes me question if ethics are alive or dead. Let’s talk about Sarah Ferguson and the “cash for access” scandal. For me three things stick out about the story. First, the Duchess of York knew what she was doing was inadvisable because she asked for reassurance that the person she was doing the deal with wasn’t from the News of the World. Second, she was so focused on the money involved that not only did she compromise her own security but seemed prepared to compromise that of the Duke of York’s as well. Lastly, there are still people out there that will offer large sums of money to influence the way money is spent by businesses, maybe more so in the current economy. The best advice a previous boss gave me about what is appropriate within a business relationship was: “If you aren’t prepared to openly discuss it with your boss, your peers, your partner and those that work for you, then it probably isn’t something you should be doing”. Advice the Duchess of York was lacking when she made the decision not to tell her publicist about the meeting. What does all this mean for procurement professionals? There are two things that govern how we all behave at work. We have the values and culture of the organisation we work in and then we have our personal values. Indeed we in procurement are required to exemplify the ethics within an organisation both as individuals and in the contracts we write. Ethics is a complex topic, even at the individual level; for example, when does using your network become unethical? As a procurement professional I have two rules that I would like to share with you: Don’t take inappropriate personal benefits for any actions that you do, and don’t bypass the transparent decision-making process. These rules are simple but they need to be – it’s easy to get sucked into grey areas if you stray from them. Part of our job is to discover potential new suppliers for our organisation and to make the existing suppliers as good as they can be. To benefit personally outside of our organisation for doing either of these is completely inappropriate. Our organisations need to know they can trust us to do the right thing for them as a whole, not for us as individuals. If we want to benefit from the contacts we have, we should exit the organisation and work for ourselves, declaring our interests as we go. If you’ve helped a promising supplier gain some traction then it’s important they are part of the transparent decision-making process. We need to guard against decisions behind closed doors. Following a transparent evaluation process, which includes experts from different parts of the organisation, helps ensure decisions are balanced and transparent. A clear recommendation should be the result. I am sure we’ve all worked in organisations where the senior leadership team have overridden a recommendation, probably because they are in possession of information that the bid team isn’t. The fact that a recommendation is overturned is not necessarily a bad thing, the fact that there is a documented recommendation which requires a documented reason for overturning it is definitely a good thing. The bottom line on ethics is that it’s our reputation on the line. Sam Covell is head of IS procurement at AstraZeneca
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