Professionalism and Ethics in Consulting

Professionalism and Ethics

Professionalism and Ethics in Consulting

The growth of management consulting has provided ample evidence that at one time almost anyone could call himself or herself a consultant and set up the practice of Professionalism and Ethics in Consulting. In its early years and even now, the business attracted the good, the bad, and the indifferent. The word “business” is used deliberately: “professions” seldom start as such.

Knowledge and skills of Professionalism and Ethics

There is a defined body of knowledge proper to the profession, which can be acquired through a system of professional education and training.  The necessary level of professional expertise is reached only after a certain number of years of practical experience in addition to completing higher education, preferably under the coaching of senior members of the profession. Furthermore, the practicing professional has to keep continuously abreast of developments in theory and practice. The professions tend to have their own criteria and systems for verifying and assessing required knowledge and experience, including examinations on entry, assessment by professional bodies, testing the results of further training, and similar.

The concept of service and social interest

Professionals put their knowledge and experience at the disposal of clients as a service against appropriate remuneration. Real professionals are characterized by the “service ethos”: they serve clients’ needs and interests, to which they subordinate their own self-interest. Furthermore, they view individual client interests from a wider social perspective and keep broader social needs and implications in mind when serving individual clients.

Ethical norms – Professionalism and Ethics

There is a set of recognized ethical norms, shared and applied by the members of the profession. These norms define what is proper and what improper behavior in providing a professional service is. They demand more than respecting the law: a behavior that is perfectly legal may not always be ethically judged by the profession’s norms.

Community sanction and enforcement

The community in which the profession operates and the clientele recognize the social role, the status, and the ethical and behavioral norms of the profession. There may be explicit recognition (e.g. by means of a legal text governing and protecting professional practice). This may include definitions of educational or other standards required and special examinations to be passed, as well as behaviors considered as unprofessional and illegal, and corresponding sanctions.

Self-discipline and self-regulation

While serving clients, members of the profession apply self-discipline in observing the profession’s behavioral norms. The profession organizes itself in one or more voluntary membership institutions (associations, institutes, chambers, etc.), thus exercising collective self-regulation over the application of an accepted code of professional conduct and over the development of the profession. An equally important purpose of member institutions is to defend the collective interests of the profession in dealing with representatives of the clients and the community.

Any consultant who seeks to act in a professional manner must clarify his or her own conception of ethics and the norms to be observed in working for clients. This applies equally to external and internal consultants, as well as to anyone who intervenes in a consulting capacity.

Impartiality and objectivity

Clients who turn to professional advisers expect to receive impartial and objective advice. They assume that the consultant will be free of biases, prejudices, preconceived ideas, and prefabricated and prepackaged solutions, which may have worked in other contexts but be inappropriate for the given client. The true professional aims to be as impartial and objective as possible, controlling emotions and not letting prejudices erode the value of advice. In practice, however, absolute impartiality and objectivity are difficult, if not impossible, to attain.


Confidentiality is another universal principle of work done by independent professionals for their clients. Management consultants should accept neither to disclose any confidential information about clients, nor to make any use of this information to obtain benefits or advantages personally, for their firms, or for other clients. Clients must be sure that they can trust consultants.

In internal consulting, the situation with regard to confidentiality can complicate. In certain cases, consultants have an obligation to (or there is a possibility that they might) disclose information on a client to a common superior (minister, director-general, or another official).

Under such circumstances, managers regard internal consultants as central management’s spies and are reluctant to use them. To counter this, many business corporations have declared confidentiality as a principle that will scrupulously respect in using internal consultants as well as external ones. A similar approach increasingly takes within the public sector.

Legal liability and professional responsibility

While such legal liability might be more problematic in the case of engineering or computer consultants, it is not insignificant in the “pure” management consulting area. This section. Looks briefly into the standards used in various legal systems in determining liability and in assessing the number of damages awarded.

Minimizing liability

One way of minimizing possible legal liability is for consultants to ensure that the terms of reference and specifications of the consultancy are clearly and unambiguously spelled out in the consultancy contract. Such misunderstandings can, in turn, lead to allegations of failure by the consultant to adhere to the contract, and to claims and lawsuits.

Professional Responsibility

The relationship between legal liability and professional responsibility in consulting, generally speaking, is a relationship between law and ethics. The legal liability of professionals is a legal construct, imposed by law. It is applicable only if there are appropriate rules or laws, and an institutional framework able to enforce them. It is an ethical and cultural concept. Differences in the application of legal liability in various countries are due to different legal systems. Differences in professional responsibility reflect different social and professional cultures.

The quality of the consulting service is the best example.  Legal liability will be applicable only to a very small number of extreme cases, where service quality has dropped to the level of malpractice and has caused damage to the client.

The policy of professional consulting – Professionalism and Ethics

It is the policy of professional consulting associations to define ethical and behavioral norms. That expresses their members’ professional responsibility above and beyond the requirements of law. In this way, the professional associations guide and educate their members and protect the profession. This protection also includes disciplinary procedures and measures in cases of violation of the codes of conduct. However, in management consulting these disciplinary measures tend to be exceptional and their impact has remained limited. Professional associations can deal with cases of conduct that are contrary to the adopted codes. They have no mandate and no resources for acting, on a continuing basis, as inspectors of their members’ professional behavior.

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