A colleague asked me recently what to do when a client wants him to change his final report. In one case the last payment (i.e.,70% of the contract) would be withheld unless he made the required changes. My initial reaction surprised me—and not in a pleasant way: Change the report, take the money, and run. Never work for that client again! But then I thought, No, wait a second, that’s not right. It’s not ethical. So I looked for more answers.
Morris (2008) says that pressure to alter the presentation of findings is one of the most frequent—and vexing—ethical problems encountered by evaluators. He suggests we check the AEA Guiding Principles on Systematic Inquiry and Honesty/Integrity.
My second reaction was, Well, you shouldn’t have gotten yourself into this situation in the first place. He could have set up his contract to link smaller deliverables with milestone payments. This would let him:
· Get smaller, regular portions of the total amount to help cover cashflow needs.
· Involve his client in regular update meetings, allowing him to understand study processes and issues.
Hearing our discussion, a colleague suggested that he take his name off the final report. However, as he was no longer “writing” the report, he probably wouldn’t get his final payment. A look at The Program Evaluation Standards (2011) confirmed that competing values, role confusion, and conflict of interest are pretty much inevitable in many studies. Pre-planning for these eventualities is essential.
Upon reflection, I came up with the following options:
· Considering the potential risk for others, you can’t avoid this issue. Call it out into the open. Be transparent.
· Try to discuss the problem with the client and stakeholders in a session facilitated by a mediator.
· Report the issue to a higher level of authority.
· Offer to prepare an alternate version of the report.
· Seek the support of your evaluation colleagues. Who knows, they may have another project for you.
· Be prepared to walk away from the final payment.
You will probably lose this client and this money but the pain is short term and the learning is priceless. Your reputation as an ethical evaluator will be enhanced. As you look at yourself in the mirror every day, be proud of your decision. And remember, we all stand with you!
Gail Vallance Barrington
Thanks to Awuor PONGE, Associate Research Fellow, Research, Policy & Evaluation, African Policy Centre, Nairobi, Kenya, for his permission to discuss this interesting case.
Barrington, G. V. (2012). Consulting Start-up & Management: A Guide for Evaluators & Applied Researchers. Los Angeles: SAGE.
Morris, M. (2008). Evaluation Ethics for Best Practice: Cases and Commentaries. New York: Guilford.
Yarbrough, D. B., Shulha, L.M., Hopson, R.K., Caruthers, F.A. (2011). The Program Evaluation Standards: A Guide for Evaluators and Evaluation Users. 3rd edition. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.