Q: I’m grooming an employee to run my next location, but she has also developed (on her own time) a prototype for a product that can benefit clients in our field. She kept me informed about the project, and I’ve been providing ongoing feedback.
I declined her offer of partnership because I don’t want to divert time and money, but I’m tempted. She intends to keep working for me and is also looking for investors to take her product to market -- but recently, with my feedback, she turned down an investor we thought wasn’t trustworthy. I’m happy to continue advising her, but could my involvement backfire?
A: The good news is your ethical radar detector is on. The bad news? The volume is way too low to be of much help. Dial it up several notches to avoid good intentions going wrong. You’ve combined being a boss, training your employee for a promotion, mentoring her invention and figuring out whether you want to partner with her -- and that’s ripe for potential conflicts of interests. You have power and influence over her, and that gives your ideas, advice and even off-the-cuff comments more weight and impact than you may intend.
Let’s start here: It’s not ethical to keep her guessing about whether or not you’re going to partner with her on the product. It’s time to decide. If you don’t know, figure out what information you need to make that final decision -- and set a deadline for it. Your current lack of transparency is giving her mixed signals. Are you sometimes thinking like a partner when you give her advice? Tell her where you are on this and be consistent. Conflicts of interest can creep up when we aren’t aware that our self--interest is impacting our actions.
Also, the roles you’re playing in her work life are at odds with one another. As a boss, you want her to stay with the company, accept the promotion when offered and not have her investor search disrupt her job. However, as a mentor, your focus should be directed only on her best interests, not on your company’s.
Unless you decide to create an in-house incubator (or, at least, an inventor-friendly climate in your workplace), it’s unlikely that other employees will barrage you with inventions. But just in case, you need to figure out what your business’s standard of fairness should be. It will keep you from inadvertently creating an impression of favoritism, which is always toxic to a workplace.