Business Practices

Ethics in Purchasing

If you are driving in the middle of nowhere and no one is around, do you come to a complete stop at a stop sign, or do you just slow down a bit?

Do you call in sick just because you don’t feel like going to work. You have sick leave—it’s your time, and you have the right to take it. Are you wrong? Is it ethical to go to work but spend your time shopping on the Internet?

If there were no laws, regulations, or policies, what would dictate your ethics?

Purchasing is an area of school district management where the question of ethics might arise. Here are some procurement dos and don’ts to help guide your purchasing practices:

  • Know board policy. Your board of education adopts policies that are unique to your district. It is important for all employees to read and understand those policies regardless of job title.

  • Know state laws. Most states publish the statutes online on the state’s procurement Website.

  • Know federal law. Laws concerning federal money are strictly defined. Make sure you and your teams are familiar with them.

  • Concentrate on what you can control. Consistently run a clean, honest procurement process. When asked for your professional opinion, give it. If the process is not operated ethically, if accurate records are not kept, and if the rules are not followed, the entire process is jeopardized. If the final decision does not follow district policy, the law or good ethical behavior, speak up.

  • Do not become tempted to take shortcuts. Don’t try to find a way around the process. It is much easier to do something the correct way the first time.

  • Be mindful of the importance of perception. Going out to lunch or dinner with a vendor is not against the law (up to a point). Even if you pay for your own meal, a board member or reporter who sees you may assume the worst.

  • Don’t let your friendly relationship with a vendor cross the line. You may run into vendors outside the office at school functions, at church or at the store. Agree not to discuss work outside the business office setting.

  • Never make verbal or written promises to a vendor until your board has acted. If you inform vendors that they have been selected, they may buy items in anticipation of the award. But if the board does not follow your recommendation, your district may be monetarily liable for the items purchased.

  • Never discuss a quote or unsealed bid that has been received with anyone until all bids are in and the tabulation is released.

  • Never manipulate quotes. Never purposefully seek out quotes that are higher or lower in order to use or not use a particular vendor.

  • Give all vendors equal access. A mandatory prebid meeting is the best way to ensure that everyone has the same information at the same time. Invite key district personnel so vendors can ask questions.

  • Do not allow contact between vendors and school personnel during a bidding process. Encourage your sites to inform you immediately if a vendor contacts them during a bidding process.

  • Communicate everything in writing via email or fax. Never have verbal communication with a vendor during a bid phase.

  • Be fully transparent about your sources. Try to avoid using a single vendor to help you build specifications for a bid. If it’s unpreventable, add a disclaimer to your bid stating, “One or more vendors who may respond to the bid request assisted in the building of these specifications.” You should also explain to the vendor or vendors who help build specifications that their work will be shared with others when the bid is released.

  • Don’t assume that others have the same ethics. Report anything that is questionable.

  • Take responsibility for your actions. No one is perfect. We all make mistakes. You have been placed in a position of trust, so make every effort to be worthy of that trust.

  • Don’t allow your emotions and personal feelings affect your decisions. They have no place in the procurement process. Regardless of whether a vendor has hospital bills or you play golf or attend church with a particular vendor, do not allow such situations influence your decisions.

Remember, if you have to question whether an action or a statement is unethical, it probably is.

— An expanded version of this article appeared in the May 2014 issue of School Business Affairs, published by ASBO International.

This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Kimberly Bauer is Purchasing director for Norman Public Schools, Norman, Okla.

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