July 9, 2012
A current article in Vanity Fair deals harshly with Republican Candidate Mitt Romney. At the very beginning, it notes:
A person who worked for Mitt Romney at the consulting firm Bain and Co. in 1977 remembers him with mixed feelings. “Mitt was … a really wonderful boss,” the former employee says. “He was nice, he was fair, he was logical, he said what he wanted … he was really encouraging.” But Bain and Co., the person recalls, pushed employees to find out secret revenue and sales data on its clients’ competitors. Romney, the person says, suggested “falsifying” who they were to get such information, by pretending to be a graduate student working on a project at Harvard. (The person, in fact, was a Harvard student, at Bain for the summer, but not working on any such projects.) “Mitt said to me something like ‘We won’t ask you to lie. I am not going to tell you to do this, but [it is] a really good way to get the information.’ … I would not have had anything in my analysis if I had not pretended.”
Pretty damning, no? No. Now, read it again, this time like an analyst – slowly and closely, and in context.
The person who worked for Romney was still in school. Romney graduated Harvard Law & Business Schools in 1975, so Romney was just 2 years out. That means he was not a senior manager. Note it was Bain (that actually that means someone higher up at Bain, right?), not Romney, that pushed a student to find out “secret” sales and revenue data.
Of course, sales and revenue data from a private company are not always secret. Hum…but no one said that the competitors were even all private companies, did they? A lot of people may know these figures, including subscription services like D&B, as well as trade associations, local chambers of commerce (shameless plug – for more ideas, buy our new book Proactive Intelligence: The Successful Executive’s Guide to Intelligence ). And, if a company employee gives them out over the phone to someone who calls and asks for them, then they are not really trade secrets, are they?
The request to the student was, well actually, well, was there actually a request? Let’s move on.
And what exactly did the student then do: “pretended” to be a student. And is that illegal? No. As Attorney Richard Horowitz’s insightful recent interview on CI law and ethics notes
If you tell me things that you would have told anyone, the fact that I misrepresented my name or who I am [such as being a student] alone doesn’t make it an illegal act.
Well, this was unethical anyway, right? This happened in 1977, and the only ethical standards barring this, from SCIP (Strategic & Competitive Intelligence Professionals), would not even exist for more than 10 years. So it is a bit of a stretch to call it unethical, too.