Ensure Ethical Vendor Relationships With a Clear Ethics Policy

Arcuri_ethics September 2, 2020 By: Amy Arcuri

Relationships with vendors are complex, but a policy on ethical navigation of these relationships doesn’t have to be. Make sure your ethics policies include clear guidelines for the real-world situations your employees and volunteers may face.

Consider this scenario: An association announces its endorsement of a new insurance partner. Two days later, the association’s volunteer president is seen on television sitting courtside at an NBA game. Immediately, members of the association notice their leader on screen. They also notice the logo of the new insurance partner displayed on signage as the official sponsor of the NBA.

Coincidence? Not Likely.

Legal? Of course.

Ethical? Maybe.

Another situation: An association agrees on three potential sites for its upcoming convention. Soon after, a staff member posts photos on social media of herself with her husband at one of the sites that had been eliminated from consideration. A comment on the post from a salesperson at the hotel reads, “So glad we could host you; hope you enjoyed your time with us.”

Coincidence? Not Likely.

Legal? Of course.

Ethical? Maybe.

These are real-life cases, and answering the ethical questions they pose would be easier if the associations had a formal ethics policy that included how interactions with vendors should be handled. As it turns out, both associations had an ethics policy, but they were vague and too general, leaving the questions up for debate.

Difficult Judgment Calls

In the case of the courtside seats, members of the association complained, some demanding their president resign for behaving unethically. Board members were forced to make a judgment call about whether the president had acted appropriately. Lacking clear language in their policy, opinions were divided.

The board ultimately ruled that the president had not acted unethically because the date of the partnership agreement with the insurance company preceded the date of the game. None of the board members felt confident in their reason for the decision, but they all knew their president didn’t mean to be unethical.

Many association members wanted to see the policy that explicitly supported the board’s rationale, and when they learned there was no such policy, they were not happy. The president was embarrassed and not happy. The board was torn and not happy. The staff was distracted and not happy. The vendor was shunned and not happy.

Would this situation have worked out better for everyone if there had been an ethics policy with clear language that included tickets to professional sporting events on a list of acceptable gifts? It’s hard to tell how the organization’s members would view such a policy, but at least they would know that their leader followed the rules. Their president would not have been embarrassed, the board would not have been torn, and staff would not have been distracted.

In the other case, staff members complained that their colleague had acted unethically when she and her husband accepted the hosted trip to a convention site that she knew her organization had eliminated from consideration. At first blush, it would seem clear that she was acting with dubious intent, but without a written policy stating how she should have managed the vendor relationship, the staff member declared she intended to keep a strong relationship in case the association selected the site in the far future.

After hearing the employee’s reasoning, her manager decided she had not acted unethically. The manager was not confident in her decision, but without a written policy she determined her staff member deserved the benefit of the doubt.

Other staff members called foul, and some complained to the board. Board members felt torn, and some questioned the manager’s decision. The manager felt anxious and confused. The employee was embarrassed. The disruption caused many weeks of hallway gossip and discord among the association’s staff.

All of this could have been avoided with a clear ethics policy that simply read, “No staff member or volunteer should accept a hosted trip to any site that is not under active consideration for association meetings.” To remove any room for confusion, the language could go on to say, “All site visits must be approved by the executive director.” This clear-cut language would have eliminated the need for a judgment call that is seldom clear cut.

Clear Guidelines

A good policy on ethical navigation of vendor relationships doesn’t have to be complicated. Wording needs to be straightforward, with a list of expectations for situations that commonly arise in associations.

Some policies allow vendor gifts without restrictions. Some restrict the dollar value of the gifts that can be accepted or make it mandatory to report all gifts received. Some policies state that family members may not attend a work-related site visit. And some forbid any gifts altogether. 

There is no right or wrong way to approach vendor relations ethically. However, everyone can agree that gifts and even friendships might unintentionally influence decision making, blurring lines between the right company to select and a nice salesperson with goodies. With so much at stake, associations need a clear policy that reflects their views of what is appropriate and what is unethical.

Amy Arcuri

Amy Arcuri is director of member benefits at the Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America and a member of the ASAE Ethics Committee.