In a previous post, an exchange of comments among Andy Hoye, David Harkleroad and me brought to mind an issue that has troubled me over the years. As noted in many posts (see, for example, Mark Buckshon, Bob Burg or Tim Klabunde) on many blogs and as I have described in my books, networking is based on the belief that if you help people, the help will eventually be returned by some of them in the form of new business and referrals.
Though in each case you may give without expectation of return, it is consciously a numbers game; you count on some people giving back some of the time. You may give generously to many, but you also give sagaciously, looking for opportunities to give to buyers and influencers. You seek out stable, mutually beneficial relationships where you give back and forth over the years.
My question: At what point does this sort of mutual help cross the line and become unethical?
The term, reciprocity, doesn’t have negative connotations to most of us, but it certainly does in the professional purchasing world of corporate buyers. That should caution us, because ethics in buying behaviors is central to that profession. Earlier in my career I knew a facilities manager at a large corporation, whose handicapped son drove a specially designed van donated by a group of suppliers to the company on a major building project. Each had anteed up a part of the cost. Generous, yes, even heartwarming, but I cannot believe that accepting this gift didn’t have some impact on his judgment when making decisions about hiring professionals, thereafter.
We can, of course, draw a continuum between buying a cup of coffee and buying a beach house. And money isn’t always involved in the exchange. In recent posts I described how to help a contact’s child find a job. I like giving this kind of help—who doesn’t enjoy helping a young person get started in the world—and have never been given business after doing this, but I am aware of how grateful parents are for this help. Bluntly, I am asking, when does help become a bribe?
This is not just an issue with clients and prospective clients. In a previous post I wrote that ethical concerns about referral fees keep me from accepting them. But is a referral fee so different from a relationship based on back-and-forth referrals? I always refer people who I believe to be of high caliber and right for the client need, but I also refer those first who have been helpful to me.
Enough agonizing. What do you think?