A new study on ethical practice in business consulting has expanded the discussion by reviewing media reporting, interview transcripts and jokes made on the internet to identify five common ethical transgressions made by consultants.
Research conducted by Professor Onno Bouwmeester, from the Department Management and Marketing and Director of VU Knowledge Hub for Consulting and Professional Service Firms at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, identified that, whilst clients are typically portrayed within industry guidance as the biggest victims of ethical failures by consultants, media reporting, accepted industry attitudes and conversations with consulting staff reveal a very different reality.
Professor Bouwmeester says,
“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. Clients are not the only, and certainly not the most vulnerable stakeholder in situations where ethical transgressions occur.”
Current consulting guidance and literature pays little attention to this, focusing instead on how to deliver a service that is up to agreed professional standards to protect clients. However, there currently is little guidance or protection in place that considers other, more vulnerable stakeholders impacted in instances when ethical behaviour falls short.
Professor Bouwmeester continues,
“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.”
His study contributes to the business ethics debate by widening the discussion. By reviewing interviews given by more than 100 Dutch consultants, the study identifies the top five ethical transgressions commonly made in consulting. Then, by analysing a sample of almost 100 popular critical consultant jokes found on the internet, Bouwmeester illustrates each issue to provide perspective on the problematic wider attitudes.
“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.”