Integrity Matters
January 14, 2004

Let both sides beware (Practice your professionalism)

Question: (E-084)

Dear Jim:

If a small business owner discovers that a former, current, or potential customer has a history of dishonoring work contracts and failing to pay for services rendered, does that business owner have an ethical responsibility to alert other merchants who may be vulnerable? If so, how does the business owner do so in a professional, dignified and ethical way that doesn't reflect poorly on him/her?


First of all, all parties involved need to toughen up and accept that some customers and clients simply cannot be satisfied. Their negative energy drags down others, in all kinds of situations. Chances are that slow payers and complainers will be buddies with similarly motivated gougers and cheats. Get rid of them. Understand their operating habits and avoid future associations with them. In contrast, good clients often attract other high-quality clients. These are the relationships to nurture and the customers to cultivate.

Integrity, dignity and graciousness (and the law) are sometimes able to discourage dishonest and hateful behaviors. Dishonest actions – whether from the customer or the supplier – create climates of mistrust and can slide into animosity that can be costly, in many ways. Hateful behaviors are corrosive and can lead to the destruction of relationships and sometimes even to litigation.

My immediate advice is to be prudent. In a phrase, "Do not get into a spraying contest with a skunk." There are unpleasant and unsavory characters who operate just enough within the law that they can inflict harm without risking any obvious damage to themselves. When these people develop a pattern of inappropriate behavior, thoughtful and responsible citizens know them for what they are. The sooner and the farther you are able to distance yourself from them, the better.

Should you determine that scurrilous and slanderous language is being used by unhappy or dissatisfied customers about you and your work, consider protecting yourself with the advice and counsel of your attorney.

A long time ago our society accepted a principle in commerce that the buyer alone is responsible for assessing the quality of a purchase before buying.

The Latin phrase caveat emptor translates, "let the buyer beware". Given the situation you are describing, about a terrible customer, there may be a need for another protection.

Perhaps we need a new phrase that suggests modern society "let the seller beware." However, until a new law is passed, make sure you remain aware! Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

In the meantime, practice your own profession with dignity and let the chips fall where they may.

Monitor your own behavior. And when asked about you perceptions of such cruel people, consider the advice my father gave me a long time ago: "If you cannot say something good about someone, then say nothing."

In the case of these naughty clients you describe, should anyone ask you about them, practice my father's wisdom with the introduction that you were once told that you shouldn't say anything if you had nothing good to say.

Thoughtful listeners will get the message. Further, you will seldom need to apologize for what you did not say.

In the long run, integrity pays great dividends by providing a foundation for strong relationships and creating a track record of honesty and graciousness. Remember: Integrity

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