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What could prompt a person to abide by a view, when nobody would notice if he ignored it? That, in a nutshell, is the dilemma of business integrity. Certain moral business values that executives should abide by –and that are certainly highly beneficial to business advancement– could, however, also have negative short-term results on the initiator’s firm.
Business ethics, unfortunately, is not a universally recognized matter; it is an issue of personal understanding and individual compliance. Behavior that, in the view of one executive, is unethical may be completely irrelevant, or perfectly acceptable, in the view of another. The predicament of unethical business behavior is that it is difficult to pin down most of its practices, making it impossible to identify them as indisputably illegal. Although companies often encourage their executives to abide by a set of ethical business principles, they know that overlooking some of these principles helps them to increase their top-line revenues.
Consultancy is probably the most controversial business field; while some executives believe it is a complete waste of energy and resources, others tend to engage in consultancy projects repeatedly. Most consultants are usually talented and competent professionals who have advanced their knowledge and experience through intensive exposure to many diversified companies. Nevertheless, the consultancy dilemma is not about the knowledge that consultants convey, but more about the knowledge that they might not reveal to their clients.
The consultancy business is a double-edged sword, often involving consultants in a conflict between serving their clients to the utmost of their knowledge and manipulating this knowledge to serve their own business interests. During any consultancy assignment, a number of milestones often occur that can either serve the client to perform better instantly, or be structured and shaped by the consultant to prolong his assignment. The catch here is that this is the consultant’s particular call; it is here that his personal ethics play a crucial role.
Furthermore, once a consultant has developed strong ties with a client, he could easily engage the client in projects that he is fully aware –well in advance– are non-starters. Identifying clients’ weaknesses and eventually stressing the importance of correcting these weaknesses is an easy task for any conventional consultant, whereas a tiny unintentional mistake by the consultant could cost the company a fortune. In most cases, the consultant tends to blame other factors, not associated with his recommendations, for this misfortune.
To better manage consultants, companies often request that they submit regular reports elaborating on the assignment’s progress. However, preparing this kind of material is a “piece of cake” for consultants, most of whom are experts in producing slides that do not necessarily provide proof of any achievement! Additionally, consultants, by default, are in a position to distance themselves from the failure of any project by shifting the blame to the clients’ poor implementation of their outstanding ideas.
Sadly, misconduct in the consultancy business is a two-way channel! Clients sometimes hire consultants with the aim of having them endorse their own propositions. Many company executives provide the consultant with hints concerning their preferred project outcomes. By accommodating the client’s demands (something that occurs on a wide scale in real life), consultants are usually able to form intimate ties with the client and are rewarded with further project expansion assignments and positive references to help them access new clients.
Most large consultancy firms tend to require their associates to adhere to a number of code-of-conduct testimonials. Nevertheless, these documents are meant to provide protection for the consultancy firms should any of their consultants misbehave. In other words, consultants are expected to bear responsibility for their blunders (if spotted), whereas overlooking ethical behavior (which often serves to increase consultancy firms’ revenues) is welcome– as long as the omission is undetected. Unfortunately, the larger the consultancy firm, the easier it is for it to get away with many unethical practices.
Consultants often work to obtain various degrees that advance their knowledge, but abiding by decent business ethics is equally important to a consultant’s expertise. Misconduct by consultants often carries a very high cost. Therefore, in addition to learning about their credentials and successful project records, companies should expend more effort on revealing the ethical aspects of consultants’ business practices. Companies and regulators should work together to better control the consultancy business by rewarding consultants who adhere to true business ethics and imposing heavy penalties on those whose conduct is unethical.