Contests, Industry Secrecy, and an Ethical Dilemma


The Where's the Line? blog has posted a very interesting ethical dilemma.

I 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.

The advice given in the post is one potential way to solve the problem, if secrecy is really that important, but I'm not sure that it is. My gut reaction is to call the company a bunch of pansies who are afraid of competition, but that's probably not the correct response either. What do you think? Is the ethical duty to the spirit of the contest, or the secrecy of the company?

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  • I don’t see this as secrecy as much as “staying under the radar.” It’s not unethical as long as the inventor is treated well and gets credit when the idea hits the market. It’s just smart tactics.

  • So, let me see if I get this right, if I have a really great idea and enter the contest I won’t win because it’s too good? Why not just call the big award the “Best Idea We Don’t Mind Sharing Award?”

  • Bob

    If the idea is that frame-breaking and valuable to the company then the inventor should be awarded the prize with the invention concealed temporarily for business purposes if it is that sensitive to competition.

    Determine which is more valuable…press in a trade magazine or an idea that has significant business value. It shouldn’t be that hard.

  • John

    Duh- If the big auto company is willing to award one person a “1 yr contract”, then why not hire *both* the brilliant students? If these guys are clever and have innovative ideas, I’d rather be working with them to get ALL their ideas.

  • I think you find out how important it is to the inventor and then go from there. If a big auto company wanted to make me rich, I wouldn’t care if someone else won the contest. If it’s so good, they don’t want to tell anyone than that’s an even better prize, assuming that the inventor is compensated.