Q: My company keeps all employees' contacts in a database, which allows people to see if a sales prospect they are pitching to already knows someone else on the team. I have some contacts that I would rather keep to myself. Is it ethical for me to keep them out of the corporate system? More broadly, what is my obligation to share my network of contacts with colleagues in the interest of my company?
A: Your carefully nurtured contacts are among your most valuable assets. The people you know professionally or even socially can become your currency in the workplace. Indeed, the ability to connect your company and your contacts can be one of the main reasons you’re important to your employer. So it’s understandable that you want to protect these resources and make sure you get credit for any business your company wins due to your network.
There are two concerns here. First, you’re worried about someone using your contacts without your control or input, which could damage your relationships. Second, you are fearful that someone else may profit from your connections. It’s understandable that you are nervous about sharing. However, you are contemplating something unethical — keeping your contacts out of the company database when you’re required to submit them.
Don’t do it, says Marshall Schminke, Professor of Business Ethics at the University of Central Florida in the US.
“The solution is to raise the issue along proper channels, to explore whether management has anticipated the potential downside of this policy and if so, what measures are in place to prevent such thefts from happening,” Schminke said by email.
First, remember that if someone in the company accesses your contacts without your control or input and damages your relationships, that’s not to the company’s advantage, either. You and the company share an interest, Schminke says: “Each has a considerable investment in the relationship and thus, as partners, each has an ethical obligation to protect the other’s investment.” If you developed these contacts in the course of your job, the company has a stake in them. To guard against misuse, you may wish to discuss with your managers what systems are in place to track who’s contacting the people in your network.
As for whether you will correctly be rewarded for deals tied to contacts you brought to the company, it could be that higher-ups considered this when they designed the contact-management system, Schminke says. For instance, maybe “sales by another employee after the contact is posted to the database will be credited to the original employee,” which would give you an incentive to upload your contacts as soon as possible so they get tagged as yours.
Still, the company may not have been so forward-thinking. “The employee may learn that however well-intentioned management was in establishing this policy, they simply overlooked the potential downside. If this is the case, the employee can ask the firm to either correct the oversight or “perhaps to revoke the policy if they cannot establish measures that will protect employee interests,” Schminke said.
If you withhold your contacts you’re breaking the rules, and putting yourself “in an ethically untenable position from that point forward”, said Schminke. If you feel you cannot trust the company, or specific individuals, with the contact information, then you are likely working at the wrong place.
Work Ethic is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that workers face around the world. We welcome tricky questions from readers at email@example.com.