Ethics in Business as a Professional Organizer and Antiques Dealer

Ethics in Business by Leigh MacCready

 

My favorite children’s book is “Go, Dog. Go!” by P.D. Eastman. There is a part in the book where a dog, wearing a hat, walks up to another dog and asks “Do you like my hat?” The other dog answers, “I do not.” (I love how blunt the dog is!) This exchange continues a few times throughout the book until the first dog finally finds a hat, the other dog likes.

I am wearing a new hat of a professional organizer and I want my clients to like my hat. Part of my organizing business specializes in downsizing, where I help a client sort through years of memories and assist them with getting rid of items they no longer need. Some of these items are antiques or vintage pieces, which brings me to the other hat I wear, the hat of an antiques dealer.

You might automatically consider this a conflict of interest. I too, was concerned about how clients would perceive my intentions. I asked Geralin Thomas, CPO-CD, a course instructor for NAPO’s (National Association of Professional Organizers) “Starting an Organizing Business,” about this and she suggested I consider consulting with an ethics professor. Geralin invited me to post the knowledge I acquired on her blog.

So I set out to pursue if and how I can wear these two hats without it being a conflict of interest. I read Debbie Stanley’s book, “Ethical Pitfalls for Professional Organizers,” consulted with professionals whose careers have ethical guidelines and reviewed NAPO’s Code of Ethics.

Professionals who know me saw no issue with me wearing both hats as long as I am being transparent to clients. So I decided to write a policy that informs the clients of the options available for getting rid of items and how I can assist them in each. I hired a local professor, Dr. James G. Coe, who teaches ethics in business at Spring Arbor University, to review and revise my policy. Below is an example of what is included in the direct purchase portion of my policy:

  1. I will remain neutral when someone is deciding whether to sell something or not.
  2. I will guide clients how to best determine a price, but I will not suggest a price, make an offer or counter offer.
  3. I will advise my clients to notify their family and friends what they intend to sell so they have the first right of purchase.
  4. I will not purchase antique items during an organizing appointment.

These policies took into consideration the different ethical scenarios that I may face as an organizer. They will be revised and refined, as I continue my organizing education through real life experience, books, NAPO, and consulting with other organizers. I want my clients to like my hat, and hope that setting my business up in a way that makes them aware of my intentions will help them do just that.

Today’s Guest Blogger: Leigh MacCready owner of Re-Nest LLC
In Business Since: 2012 and Specializing In: Residential Downsizing, Space Planning and Organizing Website: renestleigh.com Email: renestleigh@gmail.com

 

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Geralin Thomas

Professional Organizer, CPO-CD. New Professional Organizer Trainer at Metropolitan Organizing, LLC
I work with people who want to become professional organizers and create sustainable, profitable, and sensible organizing businesses. Through Metropolitan Organizing—"Metrozing" for short—I offer coaching internationally via phone and Skype. Additionally, I offer products like the New Organizers’ Essentials Kit to help get organizers boost their businesses. If you want to become a professional organizer, I can help! Find my "Become a Professional Organizer" board on Pinterest! Additionally, Metropolitan Organizing helps chronically disorganized clients in the Raleigh area organize their office, home, time, or life. For home organization services in the Raleigh area, leave a message at (919) 380-7718 or fill out the contact form on the website. Search for Geralin Thomas on : Instagram | Twitter | Facebook | Google+ | Linkedin | IMDb

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Comments

  1. says

    Thank you, Leigh, for writing an article about this important topic. It was helpful of you to remind everyone that there is a NAPO code of ethics. Professional organizers are privileged to enter client’s homes and they place their trust in us. Thank you for sharing your policies with everyone. Looking forward to more articles from you in the future!

  2. says

    Being that organizing isn’t as developed here in South Africa, on first reading this post I was surprised to hear that organisers took goods from clients spaces and sold them on for their own personal profit. That being said, if you have it clearly stated in your client agreement, it is then the responsibility of the client to decide if this is something they are keen to accept or not.

    When I started Get Organised over 10 years ago I made it a personal policy that I would never take anything out of my client space as I knew I’d struggle to remain objective ( think: designer jacket in my size and style preference going into the charity give away bag) and I didn’t want to fall into the trap of my clients off casts cluttering up my space. This policy has served me well.

    If a client wants to sell goods, I put them in touch with local auction houses or advertise the goods for them on various online platforms – I tell them they can use whatever income they get from this to offset my fee which is a win/win.

    Good luck with your business, you will know in good time what policies serve you well or not and can adjust your agreements accordingly. this is the beauty of running your own business.

  3. says

    Leigh, I think you made a great decision to research your concerns and are very honest to post them. Your intuition is on point, and your heart is in the right place. Personally I am torn about how I feel. I agree with Margaret that humans are frail creatures, even the best of us do fudge. I love the honesty in her post. On the other hand I think that your knowledge could be an asset. What if you come across an item that is fabulous and worth a lot (that might have otherwise been tossed/donated), therefore making your client extra money? You have an eye that a lot of us do not. I often find myself going on Etsy or Ebay trying to find the price of antiques. This takes a lot of extra time. Personally, I take pictures of items and post them on the Craigslist/Ebay/Etsy for clients during the time I am with them. I charge my normal rate for this, and I do not take a commission on the items sold. Thank you for the great share and I wish you the best!

  4. Myra says

    My comments are from the perspective of a client. I am not an organizer.

    In the past, I have consigned clothing, furniture and home accessories. When I take my items to be consigned I am almost always glad to have them out of my house. However, sometimes when I finally get paid the for items, less the owner’s percentage and any sales price discounts, I am [often] disappointed with the money I received. This is due to several issues: 1. how much I paid for the item, 2. sentimental attachment, 3. thinking I could have later used the item or 4. a friend or family member saying, “if I would known you were selling the item, I would have offered you more money” or “I wish you would have given me the item”.

    Also, as owners of an item, we almost always believe what we own is worth more than the real value. Have you ever sold your house or car for as much as you thought it was worth?

    I do not use a financial advisor who earns a commission on stock trades. I do not use a heating and air conditioner repair company that pays their service technicians sales commission or has sales quotas (and some do). I don’t know if I would us an organizer who could possibly have a conflict of interest. The selling of my items in her store having a direct financial benefit, to her? I’m not sure.

  5. says

    Thank you Leigh for such a thoughtful contribution on this tricky topic. As a lawyer turned professional organiser based in the UK, I’m acutely aware of the ethical issues that arise in our line of work. The need to deal carefully with conflicts of interest, actual or perceived, is very important, particularly as our clients may be drawn from vulnerable groups such as the elderly or the bereaved.

    The professional organising industry in the UK is still in its infancy as compared with the US, but at the annual conference of our Association of Professional Declutterers & Organisers (apdo-uk) earlier this month, we devoted one of our sessions to ethical issues. I will certainly be bringing this debate to people’s attention here as there is much for us to learn from you all!

  6. says

    From the client perspective, I think the four points you make are super. If I, as a client, were to hire a professional organizer, that relationship would already be based on the fiduciary trust I placed in that organizer. So, if I trust the organizer enough to work with him or her, then I’m going to have confidence that the individual will have my best interests at heart. Approaching things using neutrality and guidance, rather instructing me what to sell and at what price, would certainly be expected; a hard “sell” to persuade me to get rid of things and sell them through the organizer/dealer at a price he/she suggests would diminish the organizer/client relationship. That said, antiques? If an organizer could help me get rid of the one antique I’ve been trying to unload for almost 50 years, I’d be very grateful. But, he’s awfully stubborn!

  7. says

    Leigh, thank you for even being concerned about this! I have come across organizers who do not understand ethics, copyright or intellectual property, and they are a huge detriment to our profession. I applaud you for analyzing this issue, consulting with objective third parties, and creating a policy. As others have already said, transparency and clear boundaries will be key. Please let us know how this goes for you. Best wishes!

  8. says

    Thank you all for your great comments. Since writing this, I have already had a few experiences that required me to put my policy into play. Thank you Geralin for suggesting I figure this out before it became an issue. I simply don’t do ‘antique business’ while I am hired as an organizer. Although there is lots of grey…this gives me black and white boundaries.
    Leigh

  9. says

    Leigh, this is a wonderful contribution to the development of ethics for the organizing and productivity profession. The clarity of the commitments you make to your clients can serve as a model for others’ client agreements. Congratulations for consulting a professor of ethics and other expert sources. The policies you have written require you to wear only one hat at a time, taking off your antique-dealer hat completely whenever you are wearing your organizer hat.

    And I’m personally still a little uncomfortable. A conflict of interest doesn’t mean that I’ve done anything wrong. It means that I have multiple interests that run counter to one another. And if I help a client declutter, I have an interest in helping them sort out their own goals and make the best choices about how to downsize, while my interest as a seller of antiques is to acquire the best inventory at the best price that I can. The conflict of interest (if not of action) remains. Policies against a conflict of interest exist because good people throughout the development of various professions have recognized that humans are frail creatures, and the best of us can be tempted to fudge a little where our own interests are at stake. Typically an attorney does not represent both sides of a case, even if he or she is completely transparent about who the clients are, because the conflict of interest remains (although I believe it is allowed if all parties agree.)

    Transparency is key, and you have expressed your commitment to working transparently through these policies. I admire the steps you have taken to insure that a conflict of interest does not arise, and I’ll be very interested in hearing your experience of working with clients using these policies. Thank you very much for sharing your experience.

    Margaret Lukens MBA CPO
    (The writer is the current instructor of the class PO-103 “Ethics for Organizing and Productivity Professionals” offered by the National Association of Professional Organizers.)

  10. says

    I do sell items FOR my clients with for a small commission. They pay half of the commission up front and half when the item sells. If the item doesn’t sell then they don’t pay the second half. I never solicit items to sell. I just consider it and additional part of my business. They know I do this and they will inquire if they want the service. I always suggest they can do it themselves and I will help them get started. Most just don’t want to be bothered. I do not store anything. It remains with my client until it sells. I just do the brokering and negotiating. The item is picked up from the client’s house and they pay the client directly. I then invoice the client for my fee on the final value paid. There is a small trust factor but since I negotiated the deal the client knows if I doubt them I could call the buyer to find out the price. I like to ask how clients decided to go with me instead of another organizer and the answer I have been getting lately is they like the idea that I will sell some of their used items for them as well as organize. I don’t see a grey area if it is a service you offer, you have a separate contract for sales, and you don’t solicit organizing clients for sales. I do sell things for people I don’t organize for as well but that is a separate contract too. So until I really get my organizing business going the money I make from the sales offsets the cost of the business start up and it’s also attracting me organizing clients for now.

  11. says

    Powerful discussion! I concur that the policy is the first step. Uppermost is the trust factor between our clients and ourselves. Keep communication especially open in instances that give you or your clients pause or concern. We all know that intuition. Taking extra precaution to uphold your policy is important at times.

  12. says

    I often re sell things from clients. I tell them I will give them a percentage or I offer to exchange hours for the item. I try and be fair. I have never had a client think it was weird.

  13. says

    Leigh, Thank you for being so thoughtful and thorough as you pursue your career as an organizing professional. You have set the bar high for dotting i’s and crossing t’s! I would be interested in knowing your thoughts a year from now.

    I thought I had everything clear as far as policy’s until I hired employees. When they started asking questions, I realized things weren’t as clear as I thought:-)

    In your case, I can see how things look clear and how you will do your very best to keep them that way. But I also understand the idea that this could be a slippery slope. From my perspective, only time will tell. You can’t know for sure until you try.

  14. says

    You’ve shared a very important and controversial topic. Kudos to you, Leigh for taking this subject so seriously, doing your research, defining your boundaries, and sharing your transparency of thought with your clients and us.

    I love the use of the “Go, Dog. Go!” story. I see another side to the “Do you like my hat question?” and the dog’s changing their hat because of the negative responses. Being true to what we like or believe, despite the opinion of others is also something to consider. Of course we want our clients to like us, but not at the price of compromising our values or their trust.

    With ethics, while there can be a clear right and wrong, just as often there are many gray areas. For the scenario you have described and how you’ve handled laying out your policies, I commend you. However, I see this very much as a gray area, and a slippery one. When clients see that we have multiple agendas, they can become confused and less trusting. The success of our client relationships is solely tied to establishing trust. So while your policies are clear, there are potentially subtle body language cues such as voice inflection or facial expressions that could blur your intentions and erode that trust.

    Thank you for sharing this with us. I hope you’ll keep us posted on how things go.

    • says

      Wow. This is a tricky/touchy one I feel. I agree with Linda. Although you have crossed all your Ts and dotted all of you Is, I too, feel there is a lot of grey here. Linda brought up a very good point about trust. I find that my clients look to me for advise and recommendations for everything. So if they know you have this special expertise I think they are going to really look to you to provide that guidance and support. Organically it is hard to wear those hats so separately. I would be interested in hearing how it is going. Please keep us all posted. thanks!

  15. Lauren H says

    After many years in business, I have learned that just because a potential conflict of interest exists doesn’t mean you have to avoid the situation. Not disclosing the conflict and not acting in the best interest of your client is where things can go awry.

    I do believe that it takes a special type of person to be able to execute this while maintaining the clients best interest as well as a profitable, reputable business.

    Leigh, I think you’ve taken some very thoughtful steps toward achieving that in your business. Best wishes!

  16. says

    Antiques knowledge is a great asset! Always be up front and use the opportunity to teach your clients about Antiques. They will have the knowledge to make informed decisions to keep or discard.

  17. Jacki Hollywood Brown says

    Great post! It certainly gives all professional organizers (and their clients) something to think about!

    I think that transparency and policy disclosure are essential. I know many organizers that offer other services or sell products and if they are very clear how and when they offer such products and services I don’t believe there would be a problem. Providing written documentation such as a copy of the policy, receipts etc. is crucial. Should there every be a complaint everything would be laid out in writing and there would be a paper trail.