Gathering corporate intelligence has gained a shady reputation thanks to the gloves-off, anything-goes approach some companies have taken, which has led to the use of tactics that are less than ethical (and quite possibly less than legal).
For example, Uber’s corporate intelligence methods — particularly its 'greyballing' program — have landed the ride-for-hire company in hot water. The company’s Greyball software gathers data to identify and decline service to law enforcement officers who are trying to monitor the company’s practices, reports The New York Times. The company is also facing a probe into potentially unlawful tactics that tracked Lyft's employees and pricing.
But for every bad scenario, there is a good one. Corporate intelligence investigations, conducted legally and ethically, can help you earn new business and protect your company’s reputation.
Corporate intelligence can, for instance, level the playing field by identifying when competition is unfair (e.g., a request for proposals process in which a competitor has an inside relationship with reviewers), protect your company from legal risk by raising a red flag over a potentially dangerous business partner (e.g., a company that been involved in criminal activities in the past), or help you hire high-quality executives by discovering candidates’ reputational concerns ahead of time (e.g., a CFO candidate with a reputation for violating IRS rules).
Business That Benefit the Most from Corporate Intelligence
All businesses can benefit from corporate intelligence, but the financial services industry is one in particular that needs either in-house or third-party intelligence investigators. With high-quality intelligence, banks and other financial institutions can limit their exposure to the legal risks posed by irresponsible business partners. For example, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (18 U.S.C. Section 1030) is a federal law prohibiting hacking and other unauthorized access to computer records, and it makes it a crime to improperly obtain information contained in a financial record.
But it’s not just financial services companies that are affected — any company expanding overseas also benefits from corporate intelligence. If you attempt to expand into an unknown market, your company may inadvertently become complicit in exploiting poor working conditions or other unethical standards.
Even if your standards are exemplary, you may experience delays in your supply chain or other interruptions if you’re not aware of the political and economic realities abroad. Corporate intelligence can warn you of known risks and investigate allegations by whistleblowers.
Finally, firms dealing with sensitive information, such as law firms or health insurance companies, can benefit from corporate intelligence, too. Every employee handling sensitive information should be subjected to an in-depth background and character check to ensure they can be trusted with that information.
Information Corporate Intelligence Investigations Can Uncover
Perhaps the most popular service performed by corporate intelligence investigators is the due diligence investigation, which closely examines a business or an individual. The investigator uncovers background information and generates a full character and behavior profile.
Businesses often use due diligence to confirm that their leaders can do what they say they can do. For example, in one survey, an auditor found that 24% of executives surveyed had either exaggerated or misstated their education credentials, and 32% had included inaccurate details about their employment.
It’s hard to tell for sure whether the job candidates were mistaken or dishonest, but it’s important for your company to be armed with this type of information and bring it up in the interview process before making a hiring decision. As a result, it can help avoid scandals — like the one that arose around former Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson when he was accused of padding his résumé with a college degree he hadn’t earned.
Lastly, investigators excel at e-discovery as well. Law firms gather corporate intelligence for their cases, and corporations that are conducting internal investigations do, too. The art of sifting through electronic documents requires a person who knows how and where data is stored, how to retrieve it ethically, and how to organize it and make it viewable.
How to Ensure Legal and Ethical Corporate Intelligence Investigations
Corporate intelligence is more important than ever to avoid scandals and make sure you’re hiring the right people and following all the rules. To gather intelligence ethically and legally, here are a few tips:
1. Establish formal procedures around intelligence gathering. Companies that practice good corporate intelligence gathering tend to adopt formal guidelines especially focused on how they get their information. If you take an “anything goes” approach, evidence of wrongdoing will likely come out, and the information you obtain is never worth that risk. Instead, establish procedures for keeping track of where your information comes from and for ensuring no user agreements or privacy policies are violated.
2. Rely on an expert who understands the law. The laws concerning data management, privacy, and corporate conduct are complex and can vary by industry, but you don’t have to know them yourself — you just have to know who to hire. Consider hiring a third-party investigative service whose full-time job is conducting investigations that are legally and ethically aboveboard.
3. Articulate clear, limited goals. More often, companies get into trouble because of their investigative methods rather than their goals. Focus on the goals, and leave the methods to the investigator. For instance, focus on making sure your potential business partner is trustworthy rather than using an unethical tactic — such as retrieving messages from a private email account, for example.
Most industries are incredibly competitive, so it’s no surprise that companies want every advantage they can get. But don’t turn an advantage into a liability. When gathering corporate intelligence, make sure your investigations are beyond reproach.