Practical ethics – the journey towards consulting excellence

“I have killed nobody, I have not robbed a bank, I have not taken any money”. These were the words Sepp Blater used on the subject of criminal investigations into alleged corruption under his leadership and his eight-year ban imposed by the FIFA ethics committee.

None of us I suspect, has ever taken a bribe, robbed a bank or purposely caused harm to others – so does that mean we are ethical? According to traditional views of ethics, quite possibly, but unfortunately concepts such as ‘don’t steal’ or ‘don’t kill’ will be of little help to consultants who need to be aware of the risks posed by unethical behaviour. If the consulting industry is to achieve the highest levels of professionalism, and actively demonstrate consulting excellence, it will need to adopt a more practical and pragmatic approach to ethics.

What is ethics?

Many people are familiar with the term ‘ethics’ even if they do not fully understand the many theories and concepts that define the field of moral philosophy. Simply put, ethics explores concepts of right and wrong in terms of our behaviours, actions and decisions.

Being ethical will ultimately mean having the skills and indeed, the courage, to make an ethical decision when one is needed, and as a consequence, ‘do the right thing’. That said, whilst decision-making is a fundamental part of consulting, professional training programmes rarely consider the ethical dimension to a situation.

Ethics is not an exact science and making an ethical decision will not be just a case of choosing what is ‘right’ over what is ‘wrong’. In practice, there will always be the possibility of a situation arising that will require a difficult choice to be made from a number of options, some or all of which may seem ‘right’ from a particular viewpoint. Furthermore, when there is no obvious ‘right’ answer, as is often the case, making an ethical decision will not just pose a significant challenge, but also a potential risk.

The need for practical consultancy ethics

The risks associated with unethical behaviour are out there for everyone to see. Frequent media coverage of ethics scandals is often dramatic and sensational; punitive fines and lengthy prison sentences now seem common outcomes for the very worst cases.

Let’s be clear though, consultants do not wake up one day and decide to be unethical; if they did they would not last very long in a profession that is able to select recruits of only the highest calibre. So what are the risks then? Quite simply, in the absence of proper ethical training, consultants are unlikely to recognize their actions as being unethical, or being perceived as unethical, by others. And that’s a situation that can have very damaging consequences.

For consultancy firms, litigation is always a possibility, as is the loss or reduction of revenue.  Probably the most damaging consequence for consultants and consulting firms however, will be reputational damage. Reputations are a fragile and fickle concept within business: they take years to develop and yet can be lost overnight. At an individual level, the reputation of a consultant is the most important attribute they can possess.  It represents their professional capital, their personal brand, but most of all, it represents their licence to practise.

Ethics and consulting excellence

Ethics must no longer be thought of as just a marketing tool that has no real influence on the culture of the organization, but instead, represent a fundamental set of behaviours that should be exhibited by all consultants regardless of role or grade. How well the consulting profession responds to that challenge will be a key factor in achieving consulting excellence. If there was ever a need for consulting ethics, it must surely be now.

David Yardley is the author of Practical Consultancy Ethics. He is currently an IT consultant with a global provider of consulting and technology services and has over twenty years’ experience working in the IT industry within major organizations and consulting firms.

Over the years, his skills and experiences have enabled him to take an objective look at some of the key challenges facing his profession, understand how and why they occur and identify the practical steps needed to help overcome them.

Practical Consultancy Ethics is published by Kogan Page and can be purchased by MCA members at a 20% discount using code MCA20 and the following link: