If You Don't Ask I Won't Tell

An ethical problem for subcontractors

by Conrad Weisert
February 2, 2006
© 2006 Information Disciplines, Inc.

This article may be circulated freely as long as the copyright notice is included.

Whistle blowing in an organization

In a hierarchical organization you sometimes have to bypass the chain of command. For the good of the organization (sometimes even for its survival) you may have to alert your boss's boss or other higher authority to the likely consequences of current plans and activities. Taking such an action requires courage and carries risk, but it's expected.

But what if you're not a member of the organization? What if you're a consultant or contractor hired by and responsible to a specific individual? Under what circumstances are you permitted to initiate contact with higher-level management? Under what circumstances, if any, are you obliged to do so?

Subcontractor dilemmas

It gets more complicated. I had the experience several years ago of being hired as a third-level subcontractor on a huge system development project. It didn't take long to discover that I was working for the bad guys. The prime contractor was submitting to the client project status reports based on a combination of naive wishful thinking and deliberate deceit.

Naturally, I conveyed my concerns to the prime contractor's project manager. He explained that the project had already suffered a succession of schedule slippages and cost overruns. The client had decreed that another one would be absolutely unacceptable. I tried to point out the folly of not facing up to the inevitable, and he reminded me of the limited role for which my services had been engaged. In other words, this was none of my business. I finished my assignment, submitted my report to the prime contractor, and walked away from the project.

It was October, and the prime contractor was assuring the client of an operational start up in February. The client organization began preparing their people and revising their business practices to fit the new system. But they didn't get a usable system for another year, and of course the prime contractor got sacked. If the true project status had been known in October the client would have been angry but would have saved a considerable sum and been prepared for what actually happened.

A sensible policy

Since I had no direct business relationship with the end-user client organization and since the people who had hired me expected my loyalty to them, it would have been quite inappropriate for me to initiate contact to inform the client organization of my concern. Nevertheless, I had made it clear to my client (the subcontractor) that, while I wouldn't volunteer information, I wouldn't lie if asked. I then sat in project status meetings hoping someone would ask me the right question, but no one ever did.

Although the outcome was regrettable and extremely costly, I believe I did the correct and ethical thing. As an outside consultant-contractor my loyalty is to whoever hires me, whether an internal manager or a prime contractor. I will never openly second-guess, correct, or embarrass my client, however strongly I may disagree with his or her approach, except in these limited situations:

I recommend that policy for most independent or freelance contractors. The lesson for the end-user organization is: You'd better ask the right questions of the right people. In particular, you might conduct an exit interview whenever a key contractor person is about to leave.

1 -- In the case of a client's illegal copying of software, I alert the client in writing, urging them to correct the violation, but I don't notify the vendor or seek a reward.

2 -- Even then I try to limit my response to objective facts rather than unprovable opinion. For project status reporting I do draw upon the burden of proof principle.

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Last modified February 2, 2006