With the Covid-19 pandemic, many companies have seen their operational activity disrupted. Because of these rapid changes, rapid expertise was needed, so many companies had to call on consulting firms to relaunch their activity and review their overall strategy. So there has been an increased demand for consultants.
However, two out of three consulting firms say they lack manpower, and one in five are then forced to refuse missions, according to a study conducted by Source Global Research, the London research institute on consulting in management. This is mainly due to a very strong upsurge in mission requests from clients.
The competitive environment of consulting can push consulting firms to have unethical practices
The consulting environment is highly competitive, with increased poaching between firms, consultants leaving the sector earlier and earlier, and turnover in the consulting field which has clearly accelerated since 2021. Faced with increased demand companies and a lack of staff in consulting firms, it is not uncommon for firms to offer consultants missions that do not correspond to their profile, skills, or aspirations. This is not ethical behavior because the consulting firm knows that the consultant does not have the tools or skills to succeed in his mission but still places him with the client. This can be detrimental to the customer business because the work may not meet expectations.
To learn more about these practices, we interviewed a consultant on this ethical aspect of consulting firms. She graduated with a master’s degree from a major business school in consulting. She had the opportunity to work in large firms such as the Big Four, but also in smaller consulting firms. She offered to share her experience with us.
“A lot of firms see profit above all else and are not focused enough on people. Most of the time they just want to open an account and keep an account and for that they are ready to put the consultants they have on hand to plug the holes a little”. To maximize their profit, consulting firms seek to have as many clients as possible and to place their consultants on as many missions as possible. This kind of practice raises a question of ethics because the firm does not consider the needs of the client: if the consultant does not have the necessary skills for the mission, he does not have the keys necessary to carry out his mission and to satisfy the client.
Ambivalence between resources available to consulting firms and expectations of their clients
The academic background is a good base because it provides general knowledge, which is very useful for the world of consulting. For the consultant interviewed, the learning experience is “30% at school and 70% with what you can see on the job and how it works in reality”.
Some missions require having technical skills that are acquired with experience in a field. It is important that consulting firms offer clients to work with consultants who have skills in line with their expectations. The consultant we interviewed was positioned by her consulting firm on a mission for which she did not think she had the skills: "I was sold as a Power BI expert, I was not an engineer, it was not my industry at all". As we have seen, this poses an ethical problem for the consulting firm towards its client because the completion of the mission may be below expectations due to the lack of technical skills.
However, we can also see a problem of ethics of the consulting firm towards the consultant since the firm is lying about its supposed skills and there will be direct consequences for him.
“My partner had put me forward a lot during the interview and behind it was complicated for me”. This puts the consultant in difficulty in relation to the achievement of her mission because she may be asked to do things that she does not control.
When she started her mission, she indeed faced difficulties in relation to the difference between her skills and the client's expectations "Once you arrive there and your client asks you for something and you can't do it because you don't know anything about it and you have to train yourself first, it's definitely a bit complicated". The lack of ethics on the part of the consulting firm when proposing a person who does not have the necessary skills therefore has negative effects not only on the client but also on the consultant.
The ethical issue for a consultant to accept or not a mission that he is not able to succeed
In this situation, should the consultant accept the mission, even if he does not think he has the skills to fully succeed?
For example, the consultant interviewed had never used Power BI and SQL, so the question of her success in her mission arises because she does not have the necessary technical skills. An ethical situation is a situation where a decision must be made that will have a significant impact on the well-being of others, which means that ethical elements are present and require consideration. In this case, the consultant finds himself in an ethical situation because he may think that the conditions are not met to succeed in his mission, and this will have an impact on the client's activity.
To reconcile the needs of the clients with the skills of the consultants, their needs in terms of professional development, their aspirations in terms of types of assignments, and the economic constraint that the occupancy rate of the teams constitutes for a consulting firm, consultants should be able to choose their assignments.
But in practice, consultants very rarely have a choice on the missions on which they are staffed, “We offer you things in relation to your staffing, to that of others, your skills, your resources, your appetites but then you can't choose. In most firms, you are not allowed to give your opinion”.
However, it has already happened that this consultant refuses missions for which she had no appetite. She cautions, however, that this may be frowned upon.
To conclude, the gap between the needs of clients and the resources of consulting firms causes ethical problems for several parties: consulting firms that offer resources who do not necessarily have the skills to meet the client's needs, and for the consultant who must decide whether or not to accept a mission that he may not be able to carry out.
Article by Antoine Bariol and Giliane Ferotin-Rey, Audencia Grande Ecole Program students