When A Contest Hurts the Winner

Last Updated Jun 4, 2007 12:58 PM EDT

secondplace.jpgI work for a large automotive company, and each year we host a contest for graduate engineering students to come up with "best" new idea for the future of the industry. We recently viewed presentations from the finalists, and one young man's stood out as groundbreaking and having huge potential value to the future of our company. When I met with my colleagues to deliberate about the winner, it was proposed that the top prize be awarded to another candidate -- his idea was good, but not as groundbreaking and potentially lucrative as the other -- because the winning idea will be the subject of a feature story in a trade publication and it was worried that our competitors would steal the idea.
This does not sit well with me, because the award - a one-year contract to work for the company, and a cash prize - should go to the best candidate. Doing otherwise would destroy the ethical backbone of the "contest." But I also understand the need for secrecy in this industry. Where's the line?
Your company is in a bind of its own creation. The need for secrecy -- especially in the automotive industry -- is paramount, as it protects the future interests of your company. But at the same time... come on, you're really going to cheat the best candidate out of what is rightfully his? Your company created this contest for the "best;" consciously doing otherwise would destroy the karma of the whole event.

To rectify the situation, you need to cut a deal with your top candidate that will compensate him for being cheated. One option is to explain the situation, ask him to withdraw from the competition, and offer him something greater than the top prize for the competition, maybe a two-year contract with a nice, fat signing bonus. This preserves the integrity of the contest (somewhat), and since this young man's idea is so groundbreaking, your company will want to lock him up and get him to work anyway. Plus, casting him aside with the full intention of using his idea -- all too common in the business world -- would really set me off.

This option is not perfect. The whole thing does not sit well with me, either. But in the end, it's about your company's best interests. If you can preserve those interests while rewarding this young man for his ingenuity, that's the best solution. Meddling in the contest is lousy; seeing a competitor beat you to the showroom floor with this new idea would even lousier... by a couple billion bucks.

Have a workplace-ethics dilemma? Ask it here, or email wherestheline@gmail.com

  • William Baker

    William Baker is a freelance writer living in Cambridge, MA. His work has appeared in Popular Science, the Boston Globe Magazine, the New York Daily News, Boston Magazine, The Weekly Dig and a bunch of other places (including Field & Stream, though he doesn't hunt and can't really fish). He is a regular contributor to the Boston Globe, where he writes the weekly column, "Meeting the Minds." He holds a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and is at work on his first book.