How to Deal with Unethical Client Behavior

What are some of your techniques for working through a situation where you have an existing client that may be doing something that is what you consider morally wrong or unethical?

From a client behavior standpoint, there’s macro client behavior and micro client behavior. Macro client behavior is how a company operates today. If they’re conducting business in a manner we don’t agree with or is hugely out of alignment with our values, we need to be the strategic advisors we claim to be and speak up. If they follow that advice, okay. If they disagree, it might result in a resignation. We can’t help an organization be understood, believed and appreciated if we ourselves don’t believe and appreciate what they’re doing.

It’s rare for us to have a client be out-and-out unethical. I can remember one instance, way back in my career, where I was sitting in front of a reporter with the executive of a startup technology company. The executive was speaking to the reporter and I suddenly thought, “Wait a minute. That’s not actually true.” He was literally lying – over-inflating his experience, his customer base, and his financial backers – and I had NO IDEA before the interview that he would do that. Afterward, with some guidance from my boss, I called the reporter, outlined the situation and apologized. Then I got to fire the client, which was a completely new experience for me.

Macro behavior, to me, is easy. Where it gets a bit more difficult is on the micro behavior level. When you have, for instance, a client contact whose general ethics are intact, but their manner and approach toward your staff are really negative. Say it’s a huge client and your team is busting their butts doing great work, but the client contact is borderline abusive to the team.  Obviously, you want to try to resolve the issue with that person and that person’s supervisor because it’s really damaging to the team’s morale. Ideally you could resign the client and alleviate the pressure on the staff, but at the same time, because it is a large client, you put your organization and jobs at risk.

So, which do you choose? Do you want the benefit of being rid of an awful client contact, or do you risk people losing their jobs? That’s an ethical dilemma. I think the key is to have a dialogue with the people who are involved, talk through it and determine other ways to work around it. Sometimes you’re able to resolve it. Other times, it becomes unsustainable and you have to make the hard decision to either resign or tough it out and hope the team can outlast the bad client contact.

Who do you get involved in that discussion? How do you work through that?

That’s a good question. It depends on the type of behavioral issue. If it’s an issue that involves sexual harassment, discrimination or anything of that nature, it’s immediately going to HR and accelerated. We’re going to address that as quickly as possible because we have a zero-tolerance policy.

Other behavioral issues can be more insidious – disrespect can build over time with snide comments, constant sniping, lack of appreciation or name calling. This situation is tougher because you have to deal with it, but you also need to ask: Was this a client having a bad day? Is this a client contact that’s had some difficult times? Then you need to figure out how to address it. Obviously, the best way to do that is to be brave, go back to your values and initiate a dialogue with that client contact. Start with, “Hey, the way you’re approaching this is not getting the best results from the team.” If that resolves it, great. If not, you may have to escalate it.

Let’s get to the final point you brought up in terms of ethical challenges you face – employee and partner behavior.

A super rare circumstance, but while it’s rare, HR has to be involved. You have to make sure you follow all due process for grievances, gather information, evaluate the severity of the issue, and determine whether the corrective action is “don’t do it again” or whether it’s a terminable offense. We’ve had very few of those, but they have come up on occasion.

Some situations aren’t necessarily ethical dilemmas as much as they are a breach of ethics by an employee. It could be something like plagiarism or copying and pasting from some public domain source and using it as your own. Those kinds of things obviously must be dealt with. I can happily say that they are very, very rare at our firm – I’m not even sure I can come up with one example. 

If it’s a partner, you have to ask the right questions. You have to find out what happened and give that partner an opportunity to explain themselves. As far as I’m concerned, your partner’s problems are your problems, so you’ve got to resolve it.

This post is adapted from the Ethical Voices podcast interview with Padilla president Matt Kucharski.

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