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Sticky Situations: How do Business Analysts Influence Ethics?

We’ve all found ourselves in sticky situations at work—those grey areas between right and wrong that really test our ethical boundaries. The nature of BA work, facilitating change and protecting stakeholder value, launches BAs into the middle of many sticky situations. We often know things before the masses, we are present when new ideas float for the first time, and we work projects before risks, assumptions and regulations are fully flushed out.

In many cases, decision paths are murky—right and wrong are not obvious. In other cases, greed or tight timelines tempt people to take questionable shortcuts.

BA ethics encompass more than just your own behavior and choices. They force you to stand up for the rights of others including your stakeholders, your team and your industry.

Risk is often rewarded in business, but how do you know when the ethical line has been crossed? How can BAs, with their limited authority, influence others to stay to the right? Let’s answer these questions by taking a look at 5 ethical dilemmas commonly faced by BAs.

Scenario #1: Office Space

The Ethical Dilemma: You remember “The Bobs” from the movie Office Space? Well, many BAs are “Bobs”—they identify and promote organizational efficiencies. When organizations get more efficient, people tend to disappear. So, if your project scope includes “position reductions/eliminations” due to technology or process efficiencies, what should you do?

What not to do: Don’t spill the beans before knowing the sponsors plans and intentions. Also, don’t assume too much—these are very complex situations with legal, compliance, and people/performance implications. The sponsor may not be able to be share details with you.

Suggestions: It’s quite common that BAs learn about organizational strategies and priorities well-before the affected employees. BAs often interact directly with the affected teams to gather information for the projects that will eliminate team jobs. Here are a few tips for managing this awkward scenario: 

  • Ask the sponsor how she is planning to handle the position reductions. Does she have other plans/jobs lined up for the affected employees? Does she have a compliance plan she needs to follow?
  • Understand the communication plan. Find out when/how affected people will be notified.
  • Run through a few scenarios with your sponsor to understand the key messages that should be communicated if questions arise while you interact with affected teams. You need to be equipped with the right information to treat people respectfully and ethically.

Scenario #2: Martha Stewart

The Ethical Dilemma: Technology, process changes, and/or new products accompany strategic moves in many organizations. BAs tend to be on the front line of these changes, helping companies understand business needs, building requirements, analyzing impacts, etc. This means BAs have insider knowledge—knowledge that could be used for financial gain or for minimizing financial loss.

So, what would you do if a close family member owned a significant amount of stock in your company and you were in a position to see great success or huge failure coming around the corner?

What not to do: Do not end up in jail like Martha Stewart. She received insider information about the negative results of an FDA drug trail and sold the drug company’s shares right before the news went public. Stewart was convicted in 2004 and served a 5-month sentence. (Allegedly, Stewart lost the prison’s holiday decorating contest.)

Suggestions: So, do not share insider information with family members, friends, acquaintances or even strangers. Make sure you understand the rules and regulations before you buy or sell any investments associated with your current company, client, or their vendors/partners.

Scenario #3: Competitive Advantages

The Ethical Dilemma: Competition is fierce! Companies use extreme measures to maintain even small bits of competitive advantage. Companies guard their secret recipes, their pricing strategies, their new product ideas and marketing tactics. So, what would you do if you discover knowledge of a competitor from a family member (or vendor) impacting the direction and assumptions on your project?

What not to do: Don’t act on your competitor knowledge without understanding the potential risks.

Suggestions: Your first step should be research. If the knowledge is public information, then you may be free to use it to benefit your project. If the information does NOT appear to be public, then proceed cautiously. Understand the potential impact to the project and consider seeking legal advice to protect your interests and the interests of your company.

Also be cautious of the reverse dilemma—As BAs we often have information stored in our heads, laptops, tablets, smartphones that our competitors would love to gather. Whether they are thriving or failing, don’t discuss sensitive projects in public forums. You never know who is sitting at the next table or who is friends with your friends on Facebook. Don’t hurt your company’s reputation or give your competitors an advantage.

Scenario #4: Global Solidarity

The Ethical Dilemma: Many BAs work for large global corporations. Offshore labor helps large companies reduce expenses and remain competitive. In the best situations, these offshore arrangements boost developing economies and offer training and opportunities where options were limited. But what if you were on a project where a solution on the table involved offshore labor in a country with a poor reputation for worker’s rights?

Suggestions: Just like the last scenario, avoid assumptions. Your fist step should be understanding how the solution originated and why the specific country was chosen. You should also understand the discussion stage—is this one idea out of 100 in the initial brainstorming session or is the solution in the final stages of approval?

After you understand the solution history/path, then, you should focus questions around promoting and protecting stakeholder value:

  • What is the risk/reward to the stakeholders?
  • What are the risks to the greater organization?
  • Can you minimize risks? Can your organization establish ethical offshore practices in this country despite the country’s reputation?

What not to do: Avoid making it personal. Your personal opinion is important, but it should not be the focus of your discussion and actions. Provide a context for evaluating the solution that is framed, preferably with good research and data, in the best interest of the sponsor/stakeholders.

Scenario #5: Copycat

The Ethical Dilemma: In this age of information, it’s hard to track the original source of many ideas, images, articles, and studies. People forward, share, retweet and repost. We know copyright laws exist, but they seem ambiguous and very hard to enforce. So what would you do if a colleague asked you to copy something from a book or presentation, written by someone outside the company, and use it internally?

What not to do: Don’t make a practice of ignoring copyright laws. It opens your organization to legal and financial risk; it also compromises your professional integrity when others see work that is not yours not referenced or protected. This is an easy way to unknowingly build mistrust as many will know the work is copied but not call you out on it. If you see work copied, you need to call the person out on it and remind them of copyright protection obligations.

Suggestions: Copyright laws might seem like a petty, minor concern. No one gets harmed physically, and consequences seem unlikely. However, illegally using copyright protected materials creates financial loss for their creator. For example, sharing bootlegged movies limits the total number of movie purchases and essentially steals money from the creators. On our project as BAs we come across vendor and consultant materials, training materials, educational institution materials, industry and conference materials; all of these even when paid for are likely subject to copyright protection. So, please respect copyright laws as follows:

  • Get permission. Contact the owner and ask for the rights to reproduce the materials.
  • Site your sources when you reference copyrighted materials.
  • Negotiate/Verify use agreements with vendors. Partnerships with third parties usually include contract language about use of copyrighted materials. If you want to reproduce vendor materials, make sure this language is included in the contract. If you are already under contract, verify the copyright language before you reproduce vendor materials.
  • Review basic copyright laws with your legal team or by visiting

Maintaining strong personal and organization ethics are a critical part of the BA Role. As protectors of stakeholder value, BAs must consider a broad range of project risks including those associated with business ethics, regulations and laws.

Have you found yourself in any sticky ethical situations? 

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.