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Eighth Commandment of Government Contracting: Thou shalt maintain thy integrity

November 19, 2014

(This article is part of a 10-part series for the blog of Public Contracting Institute called, “A Government Contractor’s Ten Commandments.”)

By Tim Sullivan

On reflection, most seasoned veterans of our business would tell you that your integrity — your reputation for honesty — is your most valuable possession in the business world, including Government contracting. Judging from countless media accounts over the years of men and women who have been convicted of a crime relating to a Government contract, it would appear that this message was either not delivered to them or simply ignored.

Personal integrity should never be confused with the Federal Government’s insistence that its contractors have codes of conduct. Integrity starts with you, the person you look at in the mirror every day. Without personal integrity, a code of conduct is meaningless. You would be naïve to believe that your organization’s code of conduct is designed to protect you. In fact, it is designed to protect your employer if someone, including you, gets caught doing something improper. The code of conduct allows your employer to argue that the company and all of its good employees should not be punished for the acts of one bad apple.

Due to the advances in technology that have swept through the business world and the world at large, we are all accustomed to handling entire business transactions without actually meeting the people on the other side of the table. That is unfortunate because inter-personal relationships are still a critical part of the dynamic between sellers and buyers and are essential to long-term, mutually-productive business relationships. Those long-term relationships depend almost entirely on the integrity of the individuals involved; one unethical move can destroy even the most traditional of relationships, and the short-term gain you might achieve rarely outweighs the long-term risks.

Most of us put great stock in our ability to size-up the people with whom we deal, and we often make the mistake of transferring an individual’s qualities and behavior to her organization. We believe that the way our adversary acts and deals with us reflects the values and culture of her employer, whether a private company or a Government agency. That being the case, we must be painfully aware that when we negotiate with others, for example, we are not merely attempting to promote our own image. We represent a company and its stockholders or the Government and the taxpayers, and our performance and behavior will form our organization’s image in the eyes of our opponents. In this context, unethical behavior can cause major problems.

The world of Federal contracting is complex and often confusing, and the dollars involved can be staggeringly high. Little wonder that this market would attract some unsavory characters. If you are in the Government contracting business for any decent length of time, you will encounter ethical challenges. Some can be blatant and easy to identify and reject; others can be far more subtle, proposed by people you believe are trustworthy and honest. These are much more difficult. Perhaps the worst situation is when someone senior to you attempts to involve you in an unethical scheme. This puts you in a very uncomfortable and difficult position.

What can you do when you are confronted with an ethics challenge? If you have the time, your first task is to make sure you understand the situation. If you are convinced there is a problem, contact the person in your organization charged with handling ethical issues. If no such person exists, talk to a trusted colleague or superior and see how he or she views the situation. If you still are not satisfied, ask your lawyer.

If you don’t have the luxury of time to take these important steps, ask yourself these questions: First, if I go ahead and do this, how would it look on the front page of The Washington Post? Second, what would my parents say if I told them I was going to do this? If the answer to either of these questions suggests there is a problem, you should probably distance yourself from the situation. Finally, trust your instincts. If alarms are going off in your head, even soft ones, avoid doing anything until you have had an opportunity to take the steps outlined above.

Your ability to recognize an ethical problem immediately will increase with your experience. This also serves as a reminder to those of us in leadership positions: Our younger or less-experienced team members are watching us very carefully. We cannot afford to send the wrong signals on ethical issues. If you think someone may have misread or misunderstood you, make sure you clear it up before things go too far.

In a March 28, 2005, New Yorker article about Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Margaret Talbot quoted Justice Scalia’s father Eugene as saying, “Brains are like muscles — you can hire them by the hour. The only thing that’s not for sale is character.” You can’t go wrong living by that advice.

TimSullivan is the chair of Thompson Coburn’s Government Contracts Group. He can be reached at tsullivan@thompsoncoburn.com or (202) 585-6930. Tim previously authored a series of articles on the “ 10 Myths of Government Contracting"