The subject of ethics continues to appear during the Mike Duffy trial and it should trigger thoughts about how we work in IT. Duffy’s lawyer has been suggesting that, in the course of doing their work, there are a number of unclear rules that senators do not understand.

You are almost always dealing with consultants and vendors in an IT department and, at least in the government, there are many rules about “conducting procurement in an accountable, ethical and transparent manner.”  And yet I am sure you have found times when you are not sure what expenses you can claim.

One of the unique things about IT is the length of time some of our consultants continue to work with us. These people have unique skills when they come to us, and then they learn all the unique things about our shop. At that point it would be rare to find someone who could replace them without a steep learning curve, so they continue in the role year after year. If you have been working with someone for a decade or more, it is hard not to count them as a friend. And then your friend says “Let’s go out to lunch and discuss renewing my annual contract. My treat.”

There are rules that say we treat all vendors equally. Does this mean you need to have lunch with at least one other vendor and hear their pitch? There are rules that say you should never accept gifts from vendors that are more than x dollars. Does this mean you need to check which restaurant is involved and how high the bill could get? Perhaps it is easier to just pay for your own lunch and expense it. Hopefully your friend will not take this as a sign you do not want him or her as an employee. If you decide to be the one doing the treating do you know what the expense rules are for feeding a contractor?

Shortly after becoming a manager I asked a peer what I should do in situation similar to the one above. The answer was “If that is your biggest issue, you are very lucky.” Dealing with consultants and vendors is very complex and bigger shops have whole sections of people who specialize in knowing the procurement processes and expense rules. Talking to your peers might help you avoid some of the pitfalls they have found, and asking the experts should be a default.

Even when you know the rules, you still have some personal questions to answer. Do I really need to have this luncheon to help me decide about the contract? Do I need any other information before I can give them a decision? Is this the right time for the talk? Is my time better spent elsewhere? Is this really just about personal time with my friend? As in playground rules at kindergarten, you should not assume it is alright to do something just because you see other people doing it.

I did let my friend buy that lunch. I think Mike Duffy would warn me to document the discussion. Just in case there are questions several years later.