50 shades of gray

By Joan

Ethical dilemmas in consulting

I’ve worked as a management consultant for about two decades. Through that time, I’ve experienced ethical conflicts that have challenged me as a professional and as a person who wants to make a positive contribution to the world.

Values conflict

As I’ve gotten older, it has become more important to me to choose clients and missions that align with my own values system. I have to believe that my consulting will result in a client organization that is more effective. Some of my clients have been school systems and of course helping them become more effective at delivering public education is aligned with my values system. But do I want to help a cigarette manufacturer become more effective? Could I help a gun distributor streamline their processes? The answer is no.

But does that conflict with the professional obligation of providing help where it is needed? Similar to a doctor who cannot withhold her care because the patient is malevolent, do we have an obligation to help organizations whose missions we don’t agree with?

Ethical business practices

Going into a client engagement, I usually tell them that my objective is to work my way out of a job by transferring skills and knowledge into their organization. This is easier said than done. The desire to be needed or helpful is present in many of us “helpers.” At some point in the relationship, our helpfulness comes to an end. Accepting this and looking for the next opportunity is the challenge, especially if we have a lot of affection for the client or the organization.

Another situation that arises is helping clients identify needed interventions and then delivering those interventions. Are you recommending interventions because it means more business for you? I’ve always tried to maintain a strict line of putting the client’s’ best interest in front of my own financial gain, but most of the time there are no strict lines and instead we are navigating a gray area.

I had a situation last fall where I had helped an organization do an assessment following a large restructuring. The client ignored my recommendations and instead wanted to start a training program to address some skills gaps. She hired my firm to provide this training. Was I wrong to accept this work?

Technical competence

Lastly, I want to talk about ethical issues around technical capability. Here too, an ethical practitioner is navigating a gray area. Few of us have no technical competence in the areas we are asked to support. So how much is enough technical competence in a particular area? I find in my management consulting practice that we are frequently asked to do things we haven’t done before. If I have facilitated a strategic plan for the Army, am I competent enough to do it for a public school system? The school system thought so but I struggled during this engagement. But am I the very best person for the job? There will always be someone more expert than me. But I’m here now with 75% of the capability so let’s go.

Ethical issues in consulting are rarely black and white. In my view a good consultant relies on her own values system to help navigate these questions. My latest ethical dilemma is about a client engagement for which I have lost any interest or passion. To continue to support this client will be a struggle and they won’t get my best support. Do I renew the contract and bring in an employee to support them or do I let it go to another firm that may bring fresh ideas and interest? I’m still thinking this one through. As I said, it isn’t black and white.