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Top Five Ethical Missteps Made In Consulting

With an increasingly socially conscious and morally-driven generation of business professionals now entering the arena, does the consultancy sector need to reconsider how to operate more ethically
With an increasingly socially conscious and morally-driven generation of business professionals now entering the arena, does the consultancy sector need to reconsider how to operate more ethically?

Do you have designs on becoming a business consultant? Despite the growing variety in post-study opportunities for business school graduates, traditional tracks such as consulting still remain highly popular. According to the latest Prospective Students Survey from the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) as many as 47% of prospective business students express an interest in embarking on a consulting career as they enter into their studies.

Another increasingly important priority for prospective students is ethics. In the same way that this younger generation is deliberately choosing to make ethically-responsible decisions in their day-to-day-lives, the same considerations are being made both in their education and career choices. Almost half of respondents to the same report viewed sustainability or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) as curricular “must haves” in their education, and said they’d be more likely to seek out organisations who also hold these values at their core.

So it stands to reason that, when it comes to looking at consulting, the discussion of ethical practice is a highly important one – so much so that a new study from Durham University Business School has sought to expand the discussion on the ethics surrounding business consulting by identifying the little-considered, but commonly made transgressions made by those working in the sector.

Conducted by Onno Bouwmeester, a Professor of Consulting and Business Ethics at Durham University Business School, and Director of the VU Knowledge Hub for Consulting and Professional Service Firms at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the study reviewed media reporting, interview transcripts and jokes made on the internet to identify five common ethical problems in typical consulting practice – some of which are not picked up or recognised by industry guidance. Whilst clients are typically portrayed here as the biggest victims of ethical failures by consultants, Professor Bouwmeester’s work revealed a very different reality.

“The media typically positions both consultants and clients as partners in crime in various ethical scandals reported by journalists; from helping their clients to find loopholes in the law or facilitating tax avoidance practices, to links to corrupt officials,” he says. “Clients are not the only, and certainly not the most vulnerable stakeholder in situations where ethical transgressions occur.” Current consulting guidance and literature, he continues, pays little attention to this, focusing instead on how to deliver a service that is up to agreed professional standards to protect clients.

There currently is little guidance or protection in place that considers other, more vulnerable stakeholders impacted in instances when ethical behaviour falls short. “In reality, client staff and junior consultants can often be the ones most impacted by such ethical dilemmas. In addition, these realities have become the theme of popular jokes within the consulting community, seemingly with little action taken on addressing these shortcomings,” Professor Bouwmeester says.

By reviewing interviews given by more than 100 Dutch consultants, his study identified five common ethical transgressions made in consulting. Then, by analysing a sample of almost 100 popular critical consultant jokes found on the internet, Professor Bouwmeester was able to illustrate each issue to provide greater perspective on the problematic wider attitudes.

  1. Being Detrimental to Client Staff: Described as situations where clients ask consultants for an opinion on individual employees. Consultants, in attempting to avoid assessing employees behind their backs may give enough vague indicators to where they think problems within a department or team can originate, so that clients draw their own conclusions.
  2. Jeopardising Professional Independence: Defined as instances of consultants being manipulated when preparing their assignment conclusions, either because the client may want to hear a certain outcome for which the grounds are insufficient, or when a consultant does not agree professionally with the client’s preferred approach, but overlooks this to keep the peace.
  3. Overbilling and Selling Juniors as Seniors: Exemplified by instances where consultants overpromise in client proposals by offering more hours or delivery than they actually plan to provide, or enhancing junior staff CVs in order to secure a higher fee.
  4. Fake it ’til You Make it: Described as consultants suggesting they have more experience, expertise, and capacity than they really have. Or taking on more work than capacity allows for, bluffing to clients and trying to catch up during the assignment. One key consequence of this is junior consultants struggling to cope with the pressure of keeping up pretences and feeling insecure with the expectations placed upon them.
  5. Being Engaged in Unnecessary Work: For example, instances where consultants take on assignments specified as vital by clients, despite feeling such projects will lead nowhere or have minimal impact. Instead of voicing such concerns or stepping back, consultants go through the motions, agreeing with the client to secure the fee and keep the peace, but ultimately offer very little value.

Professor Bouwmeester says,

In short, greater accountability in the sector and wider consideration is needed. Professor Bouwmeester concludes, “While codes of conduct focus on the consultant-client relationship, and in particular on the primary client who pays, who owns the problem and who is mentioned in the contract between consultant and client, consultant ethics should include more stakeholders. The jokes and interviews reviewed in this study provide much evidence for this call, just like investigative journalists.

Good consulting, at its heart, requires good judgement. It is natural for ethics to reside at the core of this. And it’s clear Professor Bouwmeester is not alone in his thinking – in a recent article for Harvard Business Review Tijs Besieux, who is an independent researcher at Harvard Business School, offered his perspectives on what young professionals should consider before embarking upon a career in consulting. In it he says;

In consulting, you’ll be working with a lot of data and facts, and you’ll need to make many decisions. Not all will be the right ones. Becoming a great consultant means that sometimes you make an error of judgment, and that’s okay. If you screw up, don’t beat yourself on it and don’t try to fix the mistake yourself. Seek out experienced resources, such as your mentor or your boss, to understand where you went wrong and how you can fix it.” *

With an increasingly socially conscious and morally-driven generation of business professionals now entering the arena, the consultancy sector would likely do well to take note of Professor Bouwmeester’s and Tijs Besieux’s words, or they might find the career desires of future business school applicants shifting in the not too distant future.

* Text taken from “Is Consulting the Right Career for You?”, written by Tijs Besieux and published by Harvard Business Review on 1st July 2020

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