should interviewers report ethical violations revealed in an interview?

by Ask a Manager on July 10, 2013

A reader writes:

I work in higher ed development/fundraising, and I was hoping to get your thoughts on a situation I encountered last month. We are currently interviewing for a position that involves handling sensitive and confidential information on our alumni and donors, and have been conducting group interviews (4-5 employees in each group) with the candidates. During one of these conversations, the candidate shared with us a document meant to show off his work at his current employer, but it very obviously contained real data about one of their donors, including confidential information concerning their philanthropy.

To put it mildly, I was stunned that we were seeing that information, and immediately disqualified the candidate for that reason alone (although the rest of the interview provided others). For whatever reason, I didn’t immediately question the candidate to see if he thought that sharing that sort of information was appropriate. Now, though, I am wondering if we owe it to that candidate’s employer to report that this private information was being shared outside the office.

On one hand, it would immediately breach the trust between the job-seeker and my office as we would have to report that they were looking for another job. On the other, I know that we would want to know if the private information of one of our donors was being carelessly shared externally. Do we have an ethical obligation to report it? I have always felt that we do, but I don’t know how willing the higher-ups would be to do so.

No, you do not have an ethical obligation to report it, and in fact you’d be committing an ethical violation by revealing the candidate’s job search to his employer.

When you’re interviewing candidates for a job, you learn all sorts of information that their current employers might like to hear — that they want to change jobs, for one thing, but also what they like and don’t like about their work, their managers, and their workplace culture, their work habits, what goals aren’t being met by their current workplaces, what it might take to get them to leave, and plenty more. Part of the understanding between an employer and a job seeker is that you’re not going to reveal what you learn to their current employer. That understanding is what allows you access to currently employed candidates. Compromise that trust, and if word gets around, you’re going to have a hard time getting anyone who hears about it to interview with you.

Now, obviously sharing confidential donor data with you is different than a candidate divulging, say, that he’s unhappy with his company’s bonus plan. But this data breach isn’t your problem to solve. Your candidate’s employer is responsible for securing their own data, educating employees on how it can and can’t be used, and ensuring compliance with that policy. It is not your job to that do for them.

The only time you’d be justified in reporting something you learned in an interview to a candidate’s current employer is if you were going to be able to prevent real danger — if the candidate revealed credible plans for workplace violence, for instance. This is far, far away from meeting that bar.

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{ 76 comments… read them below or add one }

Cat July 10, 2013 at 2:31 pm

Isn’t this also a situation where it makes sense to ask the candidate if he got permission to share the document? Sometimes it’s surprising what organizations and individuals are willing to have released. (Or he might have actually changed the numbers in question to placeholder ones, which is stupid of him to do without noting it but at least would let you know you didn’t actually have possession of sensitive data.) And if he didn’t, you’re tipping him off that he should, which would likely be beneficial for the donor in question.

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Anonymous July 10, 2013 at 2:34 pm

Agreed. I’m still not sure if it was actual donor information or a dummy document.

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Kou July 10, 2013 at 3:27 pm

I wouldn’t be surprised if it was– though I also wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t. Where I work I’ve seen a lot of examples using made-up people due to HIPAA issues, but it’s not obvious. They’re not named Tony Tiger or anything, and the record numbers look real, etc. If you didn’t know it was a fake record for example, you wouldn’t be able to tell.

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KellyK July 10, 2013 at 4:00 pm

Definitely. Also, if it was already scrubbed for some other purpose (rather than specifically for the interview), some organizations frown on any silliness in their documents, so you’re not likely to see Tony Tiger or James Kirk or Clark Kent.

When I was updating user documentation with screenshots for a system that contained employee information, the easiest way to scrub it was to move letters around rather than making up names from scratch. (Particularly because I didn’t have any good graphics tools and was working in Paint.) So Jane Smith, Wakeen Robinson, and Tony Parker might become Jan Parks, Robin Wake, and Tom Smith.

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OP July 10, 2013 at 4:11 pm

Good point about the possibility of pre-scrubbed documents, and the fact that if it were “officially scrubbed,” the organization might not want obviously silly names. For the record, the name/photo was of an actual donor affiliated with that institution, as I made a point of Googling it after the fact in the hopes that it was fake. The name, at least, was not.

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KellyK July 10, 2013 at 4:18 pm

Well, it was worth checking. Good thing you’re not hiring them.

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littlemoose July 10, 2013 at 5:44 pm

Once in a while I have to remove names from documents, and I rather enjoy putting silly fake names on them, like John Hamburglar. On a more serious note though, I think it might actually be a good idea to put obviously fake names on documents like this when you’re using them in an interview context – that way your interviewer knows it is dummy information and that you are respecting the privacy of the other organization and its clients.

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Chinook July 10, 2013 at 6:41 pm

I agree that funny names are a great thing in scrubbed documents. One accounting firm in town now has blank financial statements to use for clients that are for Oscar the Grouch LLP. I even researched to make sure I got street names and people on Sesame Stree right (and it only took me 2 minutes).

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KellyK July 11, 2013 at 8:41 am

That’s fantastic!

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Kou July 11, 2013 at 3:42 pm

My org seems to frown on the obviously fake names, which kinda rustles my jimmies because when I make examples I don’t want to have to invent something convincing sounding. I also think it’s a little easier to differentiate what parts you can edit in more technical guidelines.

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Jessa July 11, 2013 at 2:17 am

My thoughts exactly. I remember doing training in one company where we had a dedicated account training system and we could make up whatever we wanted to input. We all made up whatever names we wanted. Famous authors, comic book characters, our dream actors, the names of the heroines in the grand novels we wanted to write.

I would have probably looked at the candidate and outright asked. Is this real data and if it is do you have permission to share it with us?

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Brightwanderer July 10, 2013 at 2:36 pm

I would perhaps suggest contacting the applicant directly, though? Saying what you said here – “I was stunned that you would share confidential information like this, and you were immediately disqualified for that reason.” Would perhaps go some way towards preventing this particular candidate leaking information from their company again, and might do them a favour further down the line.

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Anonymous July 10, 2013 at 2:53 pm

That might put the OP in a tricky spot, though, because if the candidate says that he used fake information or had permission to share the real info, OP has to then backpedal and say there were other reasons for not choosing this candidate.

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Cat July 10, 2013 at 3:07 pm

I don’t think saying one thing is an immediate disqualification implies that they would be chosen if not for that thing; but it might make more sense to leave that part out.

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Just a Reader July 10, 2013 at 3:12 pm

What’s the point, though? They’re not going to hire him. Why open that can of worms?

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Brightwanderer July 10, 2013 at 6:03 pm

Yeah, I guess so. I realised after I posted that I’m coming from a different (and irrelevent, for this question) position – I’m in the UK, where we have a law called the Data Protection Act that specifies what can and can’t be done with personal data, and the responsibilities of the people holding it. Here, not only would the company be potentially liable (by having inadequate procedures to keep their donor data confidential) but the individual would be as well. Going on the assumption that they were just naive, I’d want to give them a heads up that this wasn’t only an ethical question, but one with legal ramifications.

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Kara July 10, 2013 at 6:08 pm

The point would be that you’re giving the interviewee valuable feedback as to what he can do differently in the future. Some interviewers like to give feedback, some don’t, but it can be helpful for a candidate – especially one who seems oblivious to his or her interview issues – so that they can try and make corrections in future interviews.

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Cat July 10, 2013 at 7:42 pm

You’re helping reinforce industry norms that protect your own donors as well as other people’s.

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Ursula July 10, 2013 at 2:37 pm

Alison, do you think the OP should/could have followed up with the candidate to let him know that he should find a way to show the work without divulging private information? I know there was no obligation to do so, but would you have?

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Ask a Manager July 10, 2013 at 2:41 pm

Ideally I’d try to say something on the spot (“before you have us look at this further, is this real data? if so, should we be seeing it?”), but of course sometimes you don’t think to say something on the spot. In that case, I don’t think I’d pursue it any further unless the candidate was otherwise great — in which case I’d ask them about it to see what they said. (And hey, maybe it would turn out it was dummy data.) If I wasn’t interested in the candidate anyway, though, then I’d just move on — not my problem to fix, like so much else that comes out in interviews.

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MiketheRecruiter July 10, 2013 at 2:49 pm

100% agree with Alison.As a recruiter in the tech space, we commonly ask for work samples of code/UX diagrams/business documents to see what type of work a candidate has done – we also ask for it to be both confidential and non proprietary, and make sure it is known that we are looking at this information strictly for evaluation, not for insider secrets. Now, if the candidate is providing information they shouldn’t, that is not your problem and can be grounds for DQing, but are you positive this is confidential data they shouldn’t share? Some companies allow for full transparency, and you mention it being confidential, but is it confidential in your company or in all companies?

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Lora July 10, 2013 at 2:57 pm

Hmm. I don’t know about the fundraiser nonprofit field, but in STEM fields any candidate revealing intellectual property (not necessarily confidential information, but trade secrets or something patentable) would be knocked out of the running for sure. It can be difficult to talk about your work unless you have a lot of already-patented stuff or publications, because you can’t talk about what you’re currently working on except in generic terms. What we do is, we assign the critical part (e.g. the drug target, the teapot-casting process, the eleven herbs and spices) something random–just call it X or Target or Process123 or whatever. The parts of the science that are more commonly known, you talk about normally. And you talk about it like, “In Process123 that I developed for Employer, we were able to use both Droste and Lindt chocolate in our teapot manufacturing line. The ability to use a secondary vendor reduced machine downtime due to materials inventory limitations was reduced by 90%, and added 30% more capacity to our manufacturing line.”

You just pointedly don’t say, “we coated the teapot mold with cocoa butter so the darker Lindt chocolate would release from the existing mold.”

Now, we do not report breaches of IP rights to their current or past employers, *but* the individual sub-fields are not very big, and everyone knows everyone else, and the candidate has probably done the same thing at other interviews. Word will get around. In industry, they are sometimes more “meh” about that sort of thing than academia would be. Not always, but it’s understood that people move to new jobs and they can’t erase the IP from their brains in any case. Academic appointments tend to be much longer-term and getting scooped has the potential to be a career-wrecker, so they are generally less sanguine about that sort of thing.

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Anon July 10, 2013 at 5:03 pm

I’m starting to think that this blog has led to an unusal amount of activity for the phrase “chocolate teapot making” on Google. Nice example of what type of wording to use in this type of situation.

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Chocolate Teapot July 11, 2013 at 4:24 am

I am so pleased to have come up with something that enables people to give examples without going into personal/confidential information!

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tcookson July 11, 2013 at 1:41 pm

Oh, so you’re the actual originator of all the chocolate teapot talk — cool! I wonder if AAM could post the link to the original Chocolate Teapot post for the edification of us readers who joined the community later?

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Ask a Manager July 11, 2013 at 3:09 pm

This is the first post where I used it, but I’m not sure when Chocolate Teapot first started commenting (and I stole it from her):
http://www.askamanager.org/2012/01/are-you-always-at-least-partly-to-blame-if-youre-laid-off.html

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tcookson July 11, 2013 at 5:50 pm

Thanks :-)

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Bwmn July 11, 2013 at 2:45 am

Speaking as a fundraiser – at this point ethics and good practices of fundraising is just not standardized and uniformly aware.

In my first fundraising position, I was essentially the only person in my department. Luckily our finance director had previously been a fundraiser and had years of experience – but my boss would constantly make suggestions that the finance director would fight her about those suggestions being inappropriate by fundraising standards.

For one job I applied to they requested a professional writing sample and it really stumped me as to what work of mine would not be proprietary. I finally remembered one proposal of mine where the donor published all of the written proposals accepted, so I used that. That being said, if someone told me that the proposal was still propriotary and not appropriate I’d be inclined to listen because the standards remain so variable.

Basically, I’m just urging empathy for fundraisers and ethics. Not only may they not have been taught, but former bosses and interviewers may have asked them for “unethical” information in a way that made them believe it was standard or acceptable to give.

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Just a Reader July 10, 2013 at 3:03 pm

Interestingly, I don’t think most employers think of the candidate/hiring company relationship as a contract that includes confidentiality. That’s a great way to frame it.

As a job seeker, it can be terrifying to start looking and applying because you hear horror stories of word getting back around. I was definitely conscious of this when I was job hunting and it prevented me from applying to certain places.

Posts like this one make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Total disregard and lack of respect for the candidate’s privacy–especially knowing that he won’t be employed by that organization.

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OP July 10, 2013 at 3:27 pm

If it makes you feel any better, I struggled with this question (and ultimately wrote in to Alison before doing anything else) because I hold candidates’ privacy in strict confidence. This instance certainly doesn’t rise to the level of what Alison suggests for breaking that confidence, and I do see that I overreacted in considering it in this case.

Still, I have to point out that the candidate himself had a total disregard for the donor’s privacy, whose home address, financial assets, and anonymous giving information they were sharing with us. That sort of thing is Rule #1 when you are working in fundraising. But I concede: one unethical turn doesn’t deserve another.

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Just a Reader July 10, 2013 at 3:33 pm

Sure, and I don’t think there was any malicious intent on your part. But while it’s not your donor to worry about, it would be on your head if you contacted his employer and got him fired.

All you can do is be glad you dodged a bullet when he whipped his poor judgment out in an interview.

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OP July 10, 2013 at 3:46 pm

This is true! Of course, I say that, but it’s theoretically possible that the hiring manager goes insane and hires them anyway, knowing all this. (Our applicant pool has been pretty unexciting.) I’m pretty sure I will be looking for a new job if that happens.

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anon342 July 10, 2013 at 5:05 pm

I disagree for once. It sounds like the information isn’t company information but personal information. After the details that you just shared, it seems like this *could* be enough information to steal the donor’s identity and he is just giving it away. He doesn’t know who is interviewing him and what their ethics are. I am deeply disturbed and would say you should have a follow up conversation with him at the very least. Depending upon the applicants response, I would probably give his employer a heads up. What would you like to have happen if you were in the donor’s shoes? IMO not acting is similar to being an accessory to a crime. Too many people not speaking up because it is not *their* place is an issue with our society and I really disagree with the trend on this particular response thread.

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KellyK July 10, 2013 at 5:26 pm

Wow, ouch. Looking at the OP’s latest post, I do think that contacting the applicant is warranted. If that gets blown off, then you could try to identify a way you could bring it up with the employer without mentioning who leaked the information.

It is a pretty serious breach of privacy. (I had originally thought it was just name and photo, which isn’t appropriate, but is unlikely to cause harm.)

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Bwmn July 11, 2013 at 2:58 am

As someone working as a fundraiser, and who entered the field in a small local organization where I was in a department of 1 – I would challenge you to be more sympathetic to his breach of confidence.

I find that ethics in this field are still very loose and non-uniform. If you’re working in a university with a large fundraising department, there’s a great chance that they have taken the time to think through ethics for their department and made them standardized. But I have had far too many meetings with directors in smaller organizations where they have a suggestion not even followed by “is this ethical” but unfortunately “is this legal”. For me it took having a good mentor in the finance department and reaching out to other fundraisers to get any grasp of ethics in the field. And even then, I know it’s limited to my specific sector and region.

If this guy came from a system similar to where you work and you highly suspect that his former employer would have a rigid system in place – then I understand your reaction. But given the unfortunate reputation so many in our field have – I think it would be really kind of you to reach out to the candidate and mention that the way he showed you donor information was unethical.

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OP July 10, 2013 at 3:18 pm

Thanks Alison for answering my question. I suppose in the back of my head, I wrote because I suspected I might be getting carried away, and your points (as well as the early commenters) are all well taken! It’s funny being a longtime reader and finding yourself on the receiving end of a “not your problem” response. Somehow, they’re easier to spot from the other side!

I do regret not immediately asking something in the interview, as I suppose there could be a small chance that the information was all faked. I find it hard to believe though. Everything looked perfectly real: realistic street addresses (for when a high-level donor would presumably live), specific funding initiatives/programs, etc. He also said something to the effect of, “this is a longer example of this report because so-and-so is such a big donor.”

Ah well, time to forget about it, anyway. Thanks again!

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KarenT July 10, 2013 at 3:48 pm

I think it was a reasonable question. Seeing that kind of information would have bothered me too!
I also agree with Alison that you shouldn’t act on that, but I think you see that too :)

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Kate July 10, 2013 at 4:25 pm

We’re in the same field, and I’ve seen this happen in an interview, too. I had your same reaction– didn’t say anything at the time, definitely struck them from the list, but didn’t tell their employer.

Besides breaking confidentiality (which is so essential to development), the interviewee came off as unsophisticated to me. Like, you think you’ve reinvented the prospect research wheel? We all have databases, research teams, and donor reports. Maybe I’m being harsh, but it felt like the equivalent of someone bringing in an Excel sheet with confidential info to prove they could use Excel well. If you’re in a certain development role, of course you know how to create and/or use a report.

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Brton3 July 10, 2013 at 4:32 pm

It’s funny the way you describe this, because it doesn’t even really sound like a good work sample. If he had written and designed a proposal to this person that would be one thing, but this sounds like a report assembled from their database info and whatever other details a development director might want to see at a glance. In my last job we could have run an impressive looking report directly out of our database with practically no human intervention. I wouldn’t use such a document to show off my skills in the field, since this isn’t something you need a lot of skills to do.

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Anonymous July 10, 2013 at 4:46 pm

Unless you’re interviewing for a prospect researcher position, and then yes, you need those skills.

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Anonymous July 10, 2013 at 4:52 pm

ETA: How do you think the information gets into your database? Someone has to research, decide what is valuable, and then put it in there.

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Brton3 July 10, 2013 at 7:37 pm

I don’t think he would be doing that kind of research on someone who is already a huge donor to the organization, as he says this person is.

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Suzy Schmoe July 11, 2013 at 12:38 am

I didn’t see where OP said the person was already a huge donor to the organization, but that’s not necessarily true anyway. Just because somebody’s given a lot at some point in the past doesn’t mean you might not profile them now when considering them for a major ask.

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Anonymous July 11, 2013 at 8:41 am

As someone who works in the field, I can assure you that yes, we do that kind of research on someone who is already a huge donor to the organization. If anything, I would argue that we do MORE research on huge donors to our organizations than on other donors or potential donors.

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Brton3 July 11, 2013 at 6:07 pm

I said this elsewhere but I think I am just too biased toward writing samples.

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Brton3 July 10, 2013 at 7:41 pm

Also, I still don’t think it’s a valuable work sample. Maybe I’m just a snob. To me a work sample is something that is predominantly your creation, such as a proposal you wrote, not a report you assembled that demonstrates you can use wealth engine. Maybe if he created a new report format with new standards and so forth that was more helpful to the development officers, that would be impressive.

In any event, the original poster didn’t really give enough information for even this level of speculation. I was just reminded of how many people I’ve interviewed who have brought irrelevant or weak work samples.

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Bwmn July 11, 2013 at 3:06 am

Asking fundraisers for previous writing samples I think is incredibly unreliable. Not only is it very possible for proposals to perhaps be written by multiple people at one time, but it’s also very common for proposals to involve lots of cut and paste. Cut and paste from older proposals (prior to the fundraiser holding the post), from website updates, organizational reports, etc.

A good fundraiser will know how to edit, arrange, and provide new bridging content – but there’s no way to know where the individual submitting the proposal stopped and someone else’s writing started. Just give the candidate a writing test during the interview.

Also, I’ve been interviewed before and had directors ask me how many x figure donors I can bring with me. I could see someone hearing that in a lot of interviews and thinking “oh, if I can show information about one of my current contacts it’ll make me look stronger”.

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Brton3 July 11, 2013 at 6:04 pm

Well frankly, I would consider it unethical to bring a writing sample that wasn’t almost entirely your work, unless you were very clear in the interview about who did what.

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Brton3 July 11, 2013 at 6:11 pm

Also, frankly, I don’t know why a report like this would be assumed to be entirely his work yet a writing sample wouldn’t. I maintain that the database in my last org could have produced a very nice looking report with all of this info and no human intervention, but obviously skilled people had to input the data. Who knows if he did all that data entry and research, or how much he was responsible for the final report? There’s always a chance somebody’s work sample won’t really be his work. I personally wouldn’t recommend a writing test, because most professional writing is not done to an unknown prompt in a timed setting.

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OP July 11, 2013 at 8:13 am

Just to clarify some of the points in this thread. It was indeed for a researcher position, and the intent of sharing the document was to show the new format they had designed for their organization. It would be the kind of thing we would share with the CEO/president if they were going to have a meeting with the donor, to give them all the necessary background information. To be fair to them, I believe our job description played up our trying to fiddle with our report formats, so I think it’s fine for someone to show what they’ve done in that respect. But you don’t actually need real data (or much data of any kind) to show what it would look like.

And yes, it was a significant donor–there were at least a few $1M+ gifts listed, included one with ANONYMOUS in bold and underlined. Ergo my complete and utter disbelief.

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Anonymous July 11, 2013 at 8:48 am

Brton3, I’m not sure if you work in fundraising or if so in a large office, but as a prospect researcher, I find your comments a bit disparaging. I do not just assemble reports that demonstrate I can use wealth engine. I spend several hours identifying wealth and giving priorities, as well as any connections with current donors, board members and executives at my non-profit. I read up to 200 contact reports and pick through each one for the most relevant information. These “reports” are my original creations, with all original research, packaged specifically for my organization’s needs.

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Brton3 July 11, 2013 at 6:02 pm

Oh I have been a prospect researcher, for about a year, at a large organization. Maybe it’s just because I wanted my career to go in a different direction, but I still wouldn’t use a report I had prepared as a work sample. Maybe I am just too biased toward writing samples.

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V July 10, 2013 at 7:43 pm

I used to work in fundraising, and you would be surprised what you can find online. There are databases that list a lot of public information about financial assets. These are just estimates, but it’s creepy how close they come. Finding a street address is as simple as a Google search.

Also, are you sure that the donations were intended to be anonymous? There are donors that LOVE the publicity associated with making a donation. Many nonprofits have boxes to check when a gift should be Anonymous and in these cases a warning usually pops up in the database when you are about to run a report. It’s not uncommon to recognize major donors and list the amounts they contributed (although it’s usually a range and not the specific amount).

I’m NOT saying that this was appropriate to bring to a job interview. I’m just saying that it’s not necessarily disclosing confidential information and a breach of privacy.

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anonymous July 10, 2013 at 3:37 pm

This happened to me very early on in my career. I was super green and didn’t really realize what I was doing. The interviewer kindly told me immediately that I should make sure that in an effort to show my work/skills, I need to make sure that I wasn’t sharing confidential information. I apologized profusely and told them I would provide them with a different sample of my work. I guess I got lucky because they hired me and I learned an important lesson.

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Brton3 July 10, 2013 at 4:28 pm

This smacks of rookie mistake. It didn’t occur to him to change the names (unless he did and you didn’t realize it, but that seems unlikely). I am in this same line of work and I have brought all kinds of work samples to interviews, especially grant proposals, but I always take a few minutes and make sure there’s nothing confidential in them. I wonder if it’s not worth contacting the candidate as a professional courtesy and telling him that lots of people bring samples but it’s really necessary to anonymize the documents.

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Sydney Bristow July 10, 2013 at 5:30 pm

I normally remove confidential info and make a note that the document has been edited for confidentiality reasons. This way nobody has to guess whether its a dummy document or not.

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Anonymously Anonymous July 10, 2013 at 8:09 pm

*squirrel*
Love the screen. I was a huge fan of Alias… I’ve been meaning to say that a few times. *squirrel*

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Sydney Bristow July 11, 2013 at 8:30 am

Thanks! I thought it was a good choice for an alias ;-)

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dejavu2 July 10, 2013 at 4:40 pm

I worked in development for over ten years, and from that perspective I find the candidate’s conduct completely horrifying. Revealing that sort of information about a donor, even a donor who does not give anonymously, is a gigantic no-no. While fundraisers are not held to the sort of legal standard of ethics that, say, health care professionals face, many professional fundraising associations have self-imposed guidelines. Many people not in the field are surprised to learn of the strict, industry ethical standards under which development professionals operate.

I have job hunted while employed, and certainly respect the candidate’s privacy. However, as a former development professional, I have an equal amount of respect for the donor’s privacy.

Ultimately, I think AAM’s advice is correct that, at this point, OP should probably stay mum. The moment to say something to the candidate has passed. However, if OP or OP’s non-profit belongs to any professional fundraising associations, OP might conceivably have an ethical duty imposed by those membership guidelines to disclose this incident to the candidate’s current employer. If OP is beholden to such a group, OP should find out what, if any, ethical obligations might have.

This link is a good resource for development professionals facing ethics questions –> http://foundationcenter.org/getstarted/topical/ethics.html

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Bwmn July 11, 2013 at 3:19 am

I think that fundraising is a field where the ethics are still too loose and many many fundraisers get into the field in small organizations where they are managed by a director or manager with no specific fundraising experience.

Unlike doctors/lawyers where ethics are part of schooling (not to mention legally and industry wide enforced) – fundraising ethics at this point are still very “opt in” rather than mandatory. For instance, the point about fundraising consultants (or staff) being paid an agreed upon wage vs a percentage of what they bring in. The ethical standard is to be paid a flat wage – but numerous fundraisers still work by percentage. Either due to their request or the organization’s decision.

My point is not that the candidate did something acceptable – but rather industry wide, if we want to see ethical practices in the industry we need to be more proactive and empathetic about the mistakes. I think the OP should call him as a professional courtesy and say that in future that kind of information should not be shared or if shared that xyz needs to be redacted.

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OP July 11, 2013 at 8:19 am

It’s funny that you bring legal/medical ethics up, as that is part of what prompted me to write in. My fiance is a doctor and had something come up in an interview where he had to alert the candidate’s current employer due to a staggering ethical violation (I believe, falsifying a medical license).

I do agree with Bwmn below that in many smaller shops, that sort of ethical training might not be as common, but I have always worked at organizations that are very strict. What blows me away is that the candidate in question comes from a major organization where this would absolutely not be tolerated, and with many years in the field, there is no way that he shouldn’t know how problematic it is to share confidential information.

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Bwmn July 11, 2013 at 8:29 am

I definitely admit that my tour of smaller organizations has definitely given me a soft spot for how this kind of training can completely fall by the wayside. Unfortunately, when you’re not in a larger development department – it can be a bit lonely. Because the job’s nature can be seen as “competing for funds” – professional peers can be pretty cutthroat.

As I normally work with government donors now, I end up at a number of diplomatic events where other local organizations are invited. My current boss’s instructions for me at these events is that if I see a professional peer make a mistake/gaffe, is to not let them know so that our organization will look better in comparison.

Someone in a large organization with more training should definitely know better than the interviewing candidate – but I definitely have a lot of sympathy for young fundraisers thrown out into the wild with very little in regards to actual training.

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dejavu2 July 11, 2013 at 12:19 pm

All excellent points. I was lucky enough to be employed very early on by a sophisticated operation where ethical standards were drilled into us from the ground floor. A couple of years later, I took a contract gig to write a major grant application for a very, very small org. Because it was so small, it was all hands on deck, and the director asked me to help with some annual giving stuff, too. They wanted me to mine membership directories for similar groups to beef up their mailing list! Obviously, I balked, but I could easily imagine some wet-behind-the-ears newbie thinking that was perfectly fine. I mean, good Lord.

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Anonymous July 11, 2013 at 3:58 pm

How is that an ethical violation? It’s publicly available information. Non-profits do it all the time.

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SMCR July 10, 2013 at 6:21 pm

Obviously this would-be prospect researcher never looked at the APRA code of ethics! Whenever I showed “samples” to prospective clients, I made it clear (right on the document) that it was a composite and that names and any other identifying information had been changed. In hiring prospect researchers, I always found it more predictive of their success to see what they described in the interview as their research *process* rather than showing me the results. The results could have been refined or otherwise edited by any number of managers or even peers. But to answer the OP’s question: You have no obligation whatsoever to play information police by alerting his employer that Joe Candidate (name has been changed to protect confidentiality ;-) ) may or may not be sharing confidential information. The only ethical obligation I see is not to retain a copy of the suspect material in your own files.

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JC July 10, 2013 at 6:25 pm

Yikes. I’m a grant writer, and I definitely have used past grant proposals as a writing sample–am I way out of line? What I usually do is black out the funder’s name, the amount requested, and any budget information, but I suppose there is information in each proposal that is not technically public information (things like, “our metrics for evaluating Program A are X, Y, and Z). I also watermark my documents with WRITING SAMPLE/CONFIDENTIAL. Is that enough? Or am I being totally inappropriate?

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Ask a Manager July 10, 2013 at 6:29 pm

That’s different — you’re not sharing a donor’s private information. It’s possible that what’s in the grant application reveals strategy information that your organization would rather keep confidential, but that’s not always the case, by any means.

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SMCR July 10, 2013 at 6:47 pm

If the proposal is for a government agency, it is public record. (I presume you are using *funded* examples rather than unsuccessful ones.) But if for a private foundation, I consider that proprietary. Also, grant proposals are rarely a solo work. For that reason, it is hard to get a sense of an applicant’s writing ability from a work that may have gone through multiple levels of revision.

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Bwmn July 11, 2013 at 3:34 am

First – I totally agree about submitted proposals but find that usually to be a fault of the employer asking for them.

Second – it will depend on the government agency whether or not the details of the proposals will be released. There have been Freedom of Information Act requests regarding EU funding practices for more information about proposals that they deny to give particularly when they suspect that the information would be used to harm grant recipients. In the region where I work, the EU will only release the title of the project, the amount granted, time period, and applying organizaiton (no co-applicants or other partners). So it would be difficult consider the proposal itself public in any respect.

On the specific question, I’ve been given loads of different answers regarding the proprietary nature of proposals. However, I am “lucky” in the sense that one proposal I submitted was published in full by the donor. Proprietary or not, it’s already out there on the internet.

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Suzy Schmoe July 11, 2013 at 12:44 am

Only slightly related, but I’m nerdily excited to see a question from somebody who works in the same field as I do. I’ve been supporting higher ed fundraising in different capacities for the past 14 years. Love the diversity of readers/commenters on this blog!

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OP July 11, 2013 at 8:20 am

Yes! I was (not so) secretly hoping that Alison would post this one because I knew there were lots of non-profit and development folks in the comments. There are perhaps even more of us than I thought.

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Brton3 July 11, 2013 at 6:14 pm

I have been reading this blog for about 2 years and I am convinced that 2/3 of the regular commenters are in the nonprofit world in some capacity.

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My 2 cents July 11, 2013 at 10:38 am

I’m kind of shocked that this is an issue, and not because I think the person did anything wrong, because I think OP fumbled badly.

I work in nonprofit fundraising and would not think twice about sharing this information in an interview! The person was not sharing this information to the outside world, he was using it as an example of his work product in a confidential setting. If you had hired this person and in the future wanted to approach someone for a contribution that he has worked with at the previous job, would you ask him what he already knew about that donor or would you tell him that he absolutely could not use any of the knowledge he gained about that person previously in this new role? Of course not! We all learn stuff from previous jobs that we bring to our new positions and in the case of fundraising, it’s donor histories that it would be impossible to ignore in future situations. Again, he brought it to a confidential meeting where he assumed (and was hopefully correct) that he could use it for demonstration purposes without that new organization using it for their benefit. To be disqualified for that is horrible!

Also worth noting, and don’t discount the rest of my post just because this probably doesn’t apply, but lots of places actually publish this information (maybe not as fully, but generally) about their donors. I used to work in the performing arts and all of our donors and their giving amounts (aggregate) were listed in the playbill that was given to everyone when they came to see a show. Of the thousands of donors we had, only 2 were anonymous, so don’t assume that the donor wanted to be anonymous unless you know for sure. So, even if this candidate didn’t work in a place like a theatre where you publish that information, it’s still important to note that there are some very legitimate and common ways that donors are already public.

My point is that I think you made a bunch of assumptions about this information (you assumed it was real, you assumed it should have been anonymous, you assumed he didn’t have permission to share the info, etc.) and you did a disservice to the candidate by not bothering to even ask about it when it could have been a completely legitimate thing that he gave you the information. I feel sick to my stomach for this person who may have been disqualified for a position because of the mistakes of the interviewer.

Last point: I hate changing information on work samples to make it anonymous because it feels deceptive to me. I know it’s not technically, but I’m presenting something to an employer that isn’t completely accurate when I’ve been told to ALWAYS tell the truth during an interview. Being in fundraising, a lot of my success stories require me to explain the situation to them about the donor, and in doing so there are very specific things I need to tell them to show how this strategy paid off. In doing so, all but the dimmest people would be able to figure out who I was talking about because, for example, one of my stories is about the owners of a former national clothing store that was featured heavily on a hit TV show, so it’s pretty obvious who I am talking about, so making the writing sample anonymous doesn’t do any good, it just causes confusion. And yes, the info about the national clothing store featured heavily on a TV show is important to note, in fact it’s the whole point of the story and how I got them interested in donating to us, so it’s not something I can leave out of the story. Anyways, my point in this is that there are those of us out there who HATE changing information in a work sample to make it anonymous because it makes it confusing and it feels like we are lying, or not able to paint the most compelling picture. (for example, if I made my info anonymous and applied for a position and my past experience was as the personal assistant to a famous African American leader, that isn’t as strong of a case as if I was honest and said that I was the personal assistant to President Barack Obama. The details DO matter in a case like this, very much so!)

Bottom line: A lot of assumptions were made about that candidate and the information he presented, and without checking into it further, you did a huge disservice to him. At the very least, I really think you owe this person a call to explain why they didn’t get the job. At this point it is obviously too late to hire them, but explain your assumptions, apologize if they weren’t correct, and let them know that in the future this either A) isn’t something they should share (if they didn’t have permission to share it) or B) Specify in the interview that they have permission to share it, because that saves hassle for everyone in the future. You owe them that.

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Elle July 11, 2013 at 1:55 pm

That’s insane. Confidentiality is not about spreading secrets around and then telling people not to pass it on. Unless your donor consents, or it is public knowledge, you should NOT be showing their confidential information to anyone.

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OP July 11, 2013 at 4:35 pm

Sorry, could not disagree more. This wasn’t a name, photo, and a generic summary of their giving. It was a 4 page dossier that covered everything from their address to their kids to their–yes, clearly marked anonymous–giving. Even if the donor had generally consented to being listed in an annual report, I can think of absolutely zero circumstances in which they would consent to the sharing of a document like this. They are never, ever meant to be shared externally.

We are also in higher ed, where donors are only rarely “portable,” if they have dual degrees or a child who attended one of the schools. Besides, if someone’s biggest selling point in an interview is that they know a donor that the other organization is interested in, that’s not saying much for their resume.

I do regret not following up immediately in the interview, but frankly, the rest of it was so bad that I would not have recommended them for hire anyway. I was actually a bit shocked by how he has made it so far if what he demonstrated in the interview was anything like his day-to-day demeanor.

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Brton3 July 11, 2013 at 6:22 pm

I agree that it’s likely a lot of this information was, in some way, publicly available, but probably not all of it.

But I think you misunderstand the purpose of confidentiality. It’s not because the donor is afraid this info will end up in the newspaper if you show it to the wrong person. It’s a basic matter of building trust and being trustworthy. The donor probably would not expect you to be sharing this info especially with other fundraisers, who are pretty freaking cutthroat anyway. More to the point, neither would your employer, who does own the work product and expects you to keep it confidential on their behalf too. Confidential is confidential, it’s a vault with few exceptions.

I’m also a little confused – do you think that blacking out the person’s name is somehow lying? Why does the interviewer need to know the person’s name, probably a name they have never heard before, to really understand your work? You could tell a very convincing story about your work with this report, or with this donor, without using directly identifying details. Even your great story about the clothing store could easily be told without the really specific details if you thought about it a little bit.

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