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3 Guidelines to Ensure Your Consulting Firm Does the Right Thing

Some messages don’t require a long setup, clever turns of phrase, or revealing frameworks. This is one of them:

Do the right thing.

With McKinsey making headlines for being under criminal investigation, it seems an opportune moment to examine the ethics of your consulting firm’s activities.

Neither you nor other the leaders of other consulting firms are (I think), inherently evil. You don’t plot nefarious schemes to defeat small children at Monopoly, demoralize job-seeking graduates, or steal chocolate from the elderly.

However, you are, at times, under extraordinary pressure.

Temptation to do the wrong thing comes from urgent desires to:

  • Make money (usually in the form of revenue).
  • Save money.
  • Please others or be regarded well by certain individuals.

Those are all legitimate drivers, that intersect with decisions you make on behalf of your consulting firm.

Big decisions such as who you accept as clients (e.g., companies owned by foreign adversaries, known environmental polluters, or “sin” businesses such as cigarette companies).

Also, small decisions such as whether or not to share data purchased on behalf of one client with another client that would find it helpful, but hasn’t paid for it.

In theory, your charge is simple: do the right thing in all cases.

Of course, some decisions for your consulting firm depend on your personal morals and values.

Not everyone will agree, for instance, where your fees cross the line from high-but-legitimate to extortionate when contracting with a client desperate for your consulting firm’s services.

Nevertheless, you can agree to three guardrails below, and to impressing them on your staff too.

3 Guidelines to Ensure Your Consulting Firm Does the Right Thing

As a consulting firm, don’t do anything that:

  1. Is against the law.
  2. Hurts many people for the gain of a few.
  3. You’d be embarrassed to tell your kids, friends or parents about.

How do you ensure you’re doing the right thing in your consultancy?

Alternatively, what other guardrails or bright ethical lines do you draw for yourself and your firm?

  1. Terry "Doc" Dockery, Ph.D.
    May 1, 2024 at 7:16 am Reply

    Hi David,
    Inspirational story: While we were in a strategic update meeting with a wealth management firm, the owner discovered that one of his team had made a $1,000,000 mistake in a client’s account. “Oh, my gosh, what are we going to do?” asked one of the VPs. Without hesitation, the owner said, “Well, we’re going to make it right, of course.”

    • David A. Fields
      May 1, 2024 at 7:40 am Reply

      Great story, Doc! $1M is, for a small firm, a big mistake to cover. Good on the owner for immediately knowing the right thing to do. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Larry Pearlman
    May 1, 2024 at 8:11 am Reply

    David, thanks for this article. It reminds me of a time I was working as a consultant for a super major oil company. We were part of a multi-firm team. The other firm, while not unethical, was doing things that we believed were directionally wrong. We kept our heads down, did our work and had only a few sidebar conversations about our belief. We failed to have a conversation at the sponsoring executive level. Big mistake.

    When client leadership changed, the other firm was fired. The new leader saw that they were doing the wrong things. My firm was asked why we didn’t call it out. It was our duty, and we failed the client.

    After that, our team went from 12 people to 2.

    Tough lesson to learn.

    • David A. Fields
      May 1, 2024 at 8:36 am Reply

      Ouch, Larry. That’s an instructional, painful story. Most of us who have been in the game for more than a decade or two have at least one story where we didn’t do the right thing or we were “wrong thing adjacent,” as in your example. Even if you don’t face immediate consequences, those poor choices stay with you… assuming you have a healthy conscience, of course.

      While it’s not always easy to do the right thing–particularly if it feels like you will take on risk with little benefit, it’s still the right choice.

      Thank you for sharing that illustrative, real-world example, Larry!

  3. Summer Miller
    May 1, 2024 at 1:55 pm Reply

    Thanks for this post, David. I’ve had a few situations where a client has asked if I can expand the scope or extend a contract to include work that is a bit outside of my wheelhouse. I’m pretty resourceful, and it can be tempting to say “yes” to work that I am confident I could figure out, but ultimately, I want the best outcome for the client. I don’t want them to pay in time or money for me to navigate a significant learning curve. It has helped for me to have other consultants that I can recommend to clients to help bridge any service gaps that come up.

    • David A. Fields
      May 1, 2024 at 4:18 pm Reply

      That’s a very interesting example, Summer. Many consultants would take work that’s outside their deepest experience if they felt they could legitimately make the client better off and the work fits under the umbrella of their firm’s equity. If you’re setting fees based on value, then the client isn’t paying for the time you invest in learning, so that part isn’t an issue.

      That said, it’s not right to take work far outside your understanding and experience, and steering a client to a consultant who is better qualified to complete the work, is definitely acting in the best interests of the client.

      I appreciate your posting the thought-provoking example, Summer!

  4. Olga
    May 1, 2024 at 3:25 pm Reply

    Here is a fun dilemma, David.

    I was starting down the path of collaboration with a consulting company with adjacent expertise when I discovered that the former CEO, founder, and majority owner stepped down from the CEO role a few months prior. Not for the usual reasons – it turned out, he was a part of the January 6 insurrection crew.

    Plenty of people seem to think it’s no big deal by now, and many courts in 2024 agree… but I just don’t want to be helping someone like this make more money, even if I lose some revenue opportunities myself.

    But is that the right thing to do? He is no longer running the company, although he owns a portion of it.

    Is it right to presume that most of his associates are totally cool with storming capitols? Or maybe his employees were as horrified as I am? Is anything that guy touches a “sin” company – just like vaping, payday loans, and private equity? (ok half-kidding on private equity…)

    Thankfully, that opportunity fizzled out and I didn’t have to make any decisions.

    • David A. Fields
      May 1, 2024 at 4:23 pm Reply

      You’re right, Olga, that’s a situation that warrants some thought. Also, various people will have various opinions. It sounds like the CEO who stepped down is still the majority owner, so your concern is putting money into the pocket of someone you don’t support. That’s legitimate. I certainly know a lot of people who will not buy products from a company owned by someone whom they feel is immoral or undeserving of financial rewards.

      I don’t think you can presume his associates are cool with the CEO’s actions–after all, you haven’t talked with them, you don’t know what discussions they’ve have or what steps they’ve taken, and you don’t know their situations. Not everyone can leave a job quickly or easily.

      Fabulous case study, Olga, because it makes us all think deeper. Thank you for contributing it to the conversation!

  5. Jon Gilbert
    May 2, 2024 at 8:06 am Reply

    I once got an assignment from a client who runs pawnshops. (I know, bad!) At the time, I had no other work, and it seemed like a reasonable request.

    I got a signed contract from them, traveled a great distance, completed the work, and submitted a final report.

    They ignored my invoice, dragged out payment for months, and only paid after I threatened to call the CFO.

    I came away from the experience thinking that firms in the business of customer exploitation are also likely to exploit their contractors. Never again!

    • David A. Fields
      May 2, 2024 at 8:42 am Reply

      Interesting story, Jon. I’m not sure working for a pawn shop is necessarily doing something wrong; however, working before you’re paid is definitely a bad decision!!

      You’re right that the values of a business is a reasonable indication of the character of the leadership. Choosing who you work with is reflection of your values too, which is why we have to safeguard our values carefully.

      Thank you for courageously sharing that story, Jon!

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