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How Do You Deal With Discomfort?

Posted By David T. Norman CMC, Sunday, May 15, 2011
Commenting on my previous blog which discussed ethics,, Jennifer Leake, a fellow CMC from the Southeast, raised a thought-provoking question.

First, as background, her comment was about how (and I'm paraphrasing her) consultants when they get together invariably share stories of their work with clients and, all too often, share the client's name and, perhaps, even references to the problem. Jennifer said, appropriately, that such sharing made her 'uncomfortable' and then asked, "How can one tactfully share this discomfort with a fellow consultant?"

She has, once again, caused me to think about our Code of Ethics. Take again #5.0, as quoted in the previous Message From the Chair, and excerpting, " ... I will treat appropriately all confidential client information that is not public knowledge, take reasonable steps to prevent it from access by unauthorized people ... "

My personal take on this is simply not to share private information. Since becoming a CMC in 1988, I have taken an easy stance on this -- I don't share. Take (my much dated) website, for example, I have no client names, logos or anything identifiable listed. I do have testimonials, but not only do I have their permission but also the client names have been simplified (for example, Steve B) with only a generic industry name. This practice allows me to tell prospects that I will also keep our relationship confidential. But, that's the way I deal with the public side of confidentiality. With that being said, I know some of my peers will post client names, logos, and testimonials with written permission.

But, that didn't address Jennifer's question: "How can one tactfully share this discomfort with a fellow consultant?" I have my ways (e.g., I'm pretty upfront with them), but let's ask our members to help Jennifer, and, indeed, all of us in IMC USA.

So, here's the scenario -- you are in a meeting (such as a Chapter meeting) with other fellow consultants and one begins to address a client problem he/she is working on and, in the process, is using personal names, situations, and problems in quite some detail You become uncomfortable as you listen.

Comment, please, on 'how you would tactfully share this discomfort with a fellow consultant?' Let's create a conversation folks (and let's not make it a discussion on the Code of Ethics language or intent, rather about answering this other important question). Stay tuned, My best, David

Tags:  Code of Ethics  confidentiality  Ethics 

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Comments on this post...

James J. Jackson says...
Posted Sunday, May 15, 2011
I share that discomfort when another consultant is divulging too much confidential information about a client. My approach would be of offer a comment like: "That's a really interesting engagement you're working on. It's great that the client has given permission to discuss the situation with your peers to get additional insight into his (her) problem."
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Deborah A. Smith CMC says...
Posted Sunday, May 15, 2011
Gosh, David, this is such a tough and all too common topic you've broached. Thanks for doing so especially as it pertains to conversations with consulting colleagues! One the one hand, there is the human desire to unload the details of one's woes, resentments and perhaps regrets, on a wise, sympathetic ear; on the other hand, there is a little voice in the back of one's head that says, "Don't go there". That little voice has a lot of wisdom all by itself.
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Michael E. Cohen CMC MBA says...
Posted Sunday, May 15, 2011
If you are uncomfortable with the specificity being provided, tell the speaker at a break or later- preferably in person, but if necessary in a very tactful e-mail. Your feedbacxk to the speaker should preferably be in private, as opposed to being in front of the whole audience. You don't want to put the speaker on the defensive or to embarass him or her.

Please recognize also that issues and approrpaiteness on revealing client information may vary depending on whether the client is from the private sector or public sector. For private sector clients, I have always avoided idetifying the client name, using instead identifiers like "medium size manufacturing firm." In the public sector, especially the Federal Government, identifying clinet agency names, e.g., in resumes, corporate experience, is expected and sometimes required. But there are some issues here also.
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Philippa Gamse CMC says...
Posted Sunday, May 15, 2011
Hi David - I do post testimonials from clients - with full permission, of course. I can point to work that I've obtained from doing that, since people are influenced by what others say about your expertise. Posting testimonials raises credibility, and I'd hope that for those of us who wish to do it, there's nothing against it in the Code of Ethics.
Having said that, I wouldn't discuss any details of an assignment by name beyond what was stated by the client in their remarks. I was trained at Deloitte, and I think it's perhaps easier for those of us who have a background where we were drilled in this type of thinking than for those who have entered the profession by themselves.
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Mark Haas CMC FIMC says...
Posted Sunday, May 15, 2011
This situation can technically have an ethics component if proprietary information is being divulged, but it is often not clear to the recipient (e.g., the consultant) of such information what, exactly, is proprietary. We usually think of client-confidential information as "data" in spreadsheets, brochures, marketing plans, emails, etc. However, for an organization, the mere fact that you are providing consulting services is confidential. I have had a few engagements where the client was clear that if their competitors found out that they were asking for outside advice in the specific area, it might cost them a first mover advantage. Basically, it is not your story to tell unless you specifically ask and get permission.

If you want to see how this works in practice, watch an experienced Inspector General or person with a high level clearance. It is amazing to see them dispassionately avoid a topic they know fully, or discuss it in such generic terms you would think they had no insight into the topic. When they do discuss a specific event, they don't divulge the gender of the person in question, the location of the event, or the size, industry or activities surrounding the outcome. Even when you know all the pertinent facts of the event, you would not know from what they talked about that they were even talking about the same event. In many cases, they will just avoid the conversation altogether as if they knew nothing about it. The need to protect other people's information trumps the desire to show how much you know or how wonderful you are for providing consulting services.
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Manola C. Robison CMC FIMC says...
Posted Monday, May 16, 2011
Being from Venezuela, I can relate to the concept of “saving face,” very important in some Latin and Asian cultures, particularly Japan. On the other hand, I am also very comfortable with honesty in communication. For this reason, if someone were sharing information that made me feel uncomfortable, I would probably first acknowledge their trust and comfort in our relationship followed by “yet I am becoming uncomfortable since I do not know if your client knows about our trusted relationship and would feel comfortable with you sharing those details with me.” If I am very interested in the subject matter, I may add, “Can we extract the issue to the table and leave the real life details out of the conversation?” In general, in conversations, I do not engage in client situations or name naming, if needed to illustrate the point I may mention the industry type or the size of the firms, only if necessary to properly frame the context of the following story. In doing so, I am mindful of what Mark said in his post, sometimes even naming the industry (if only a few players are in it) can be more than one should reveal.
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Don Matheson CMCChair and CEO, IMC USA
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