The seemingly increasing publicity of ethical and/or criminal activities by consulting firms (e.g., false payments, kickbacks, insider trading, conflict of interest, plagiarism) is unsettling for a profession I have been proud to represent. Is this just more publicity or have the standards of the profession declined?
As with many newly discovered "trends,” it is always hard to tease out what part is actual change, an increase in reporting, or increased sensitivity to the news itself. Take the recently reported increase in domestic violence in a particular ethnic group that was commonly to be rare behavior. It turns out the increase, rising to the same levels as for other ethnic groups, was only due to newly available language-capable case workers. The "crisis" in the community was just a correction in reporting.
It is true that a lot of books have been published about unseemly behavior in management consulting firms. These authors pick on the larger firms because the stories are more spectacular. However, with greater scrutiny of corporate management, stiffer penalties and greater mobility among executives at consulting firms, it is logical to have greater visibility of such activities. As with any professional services firm, the pressures are high to sell more work to current clients, prove the value of that work, and to create opportunities to provide your services in new markets.
What has changed are the business models of consulting. What once was a relationship business in reality has become less of one today. Clients increasingly look for specialized expertise, lower cost and shorter term engagements and, because of greater migration of client executives, have less loyalty toward a particular consulting firm. This creates incredible pressure to step closer to the ethical line than ever before. As Ethics Officer of IMC USA, I hear more allegations of impropriety than in the past. In reality, however, it is a testament to the ethics and professionalism of many consultants that there are as few of these transgressions as there are.
I don't have empirical proof that consultant behavior is worse than it has been in the past, but the conversation
about consultants has definitely coarsened over the past few years - both among clients and consultants. It is uncomfortable to hear executives say that they spent millions of dollars for a prestigious firm's services that left them with nothing of value. However, what is really troubling are conversations among consultants that disrespect colleagues, other firms or the profession. Take a series of consulting cartoons by James Sanchez called Big Consulting
. While clever and painfully true, they make light of consulting firm compensation, disrespect for associates, questionable client relationships, and of highly unethical practices. Laughing at yourself is healthy, but crosses the line when it poses unethical behavior as funny. Tip:
Management consulting is a respectable profession but only deserves the respect we are willing to give ourselves. Let's use our intelligence and self-respect to promote excellence and ethics in our chosen field and treat our colleagues, our competitors, and particularly, our clients and communities, with the respect they deserve.© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA