Sometimes the world of consulting is seen like the world of insurance salespeople, and that’s not meant to denigrate them. When someone asks you what you do for a living and you say “consultant”, they look at you like they believe your job is to go into businesses and tell them everything they already know. Either that or they see you as someone who will make bold promises that can’t be kept. Dilbert hasn’t been kind to consultants over the years, yet we all know the comic is fairly accurate much of the time.


I’ve been a consultant for 19 years, and I’ve experienced a variety of emotional responses based on who I talk to and when I talk to them. The best experiences I’ve had are when I’ve been able to share something that not only works but is totally truthful, and representatives of the client being shocked that something actually worked. I’ve actually had people surprised when I said every once in a while “I don’t know”, thinking that’s the most honest thing they’ve ever heard.

The flip side of course is having those people who don’t want to give you a chance because they’ve had other consultants who have failed them or heard about consultants who came across as unethical. Suddenly you’re grouped with those who violated the ethics of being a consultant because they weren’t properly prepared to do the job, or cared more about how much money they were making and how long they could drag things out. Those are hard things to overcome.

I’ve known some of these other consultants. Probably the worst of the lot was the guy who kept telling upper management and the company I was consulting for that he could do pretty much everything. Upper management ended up giving him some extra responsibilities that quickly showed he wasn’t qualified to do those jobs. I know this because I was qualified to do the job and I kept telling him he was wrong.

It never occurred to me to even mention that I was qualified for that work because I was doing a different aspect of the project and not trying to find ways to keep myself there, where we were all earning pretty good money. When I finally went over his head and got the corrections that were needed to help the department he’d been put in charge over do their work better, he actually tried to make me the heavy for making him look bad. I had to tell him that it wasn’t about him; it was about doing the right thing for the client. The project manager backed me, to which I was grateful.

I’ve actually heard business coaches tell consultants to never admit to not being able to do something. In their opinion, you always said you could do something, then you went and found someone who could actually do it for you. In my opinion this is definitely unethical; no wonder the profession of consulting is sometimes suspect.

The big thing about being an ethical consultant isn’t whether you look good, or someone else looks good, or whether someone else has to look bad or you have to look bad. It’s supposed to be about the clients and their needs.

Of course clients can be a pain in the behind as well, and one of those ethical things that I believe some consultants need to learn is how and when to fire clients. If you’re working with someone who keeps getting on your nerves you not going to give them the best you have to offer, and that’s going to make the world of consulting look bad as well. I’ve had to do that a couple of times over the years.

A local consultant’s organization I’m a part of, whose board I was a member of for many years, has an actual ethics page that’s the most visited page on the site. It’s a big part of our mantra; we believe that good ethics should be a standard that we should require of everyone in the profession.

I recently shared with a group of business people that a hospital I was trying to consult for wanted me to take a personality quiz; that was a first. After the first few questions, I knew how I was supposed to answer, but refused to do so. The quiz wanted to see if people would be loyal to the employer and do and say whatever the facility wanted them to do. As a consultant, not only is that not my role, but it wouldn’t be ethical to tell them only what they wanted to hear; how honest would that be?

Ethics are never totally black and white; if they were, Captain Kirk and Captain Picard never would have violated the prime directive as many times as they did. As long as we as individual consultants continue to try to do the best we can, it’s the best anyone can ask for. If our moral base is clear, and we understand that the client’s needs are what we’re supposed to address, whether or not they like what we tell them, then we’re following the proper business ethic of our industry.

Anyone not ready for that, client or consultant, probably needs to look deep into their own ethical base. How’s that for a bit more honesty?
 

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