IT Policies optimize

An independent IT consultant's code of ethics

Do independent IT consultants require a specific code of ethics? Chip Camden thinks so. Read the code of ethics he presents to his clients, and then let us know if there's anything that you would change in his list.

 When you sign a contract, you are agreeing to its terms; it becomes a legal commitment. Above that level comes morality -- actions that are determined by your sense of right and wrong. Since I don't believe in an absolute right or wrong, this layer doesn't mean much to me. But the concept of ethics goes beyond even that.

Ethics are principles by which you live because they make life better in one way or another -- even if the realization of that better state is deferred. Often, "better" is simply defined as being able to respect yourself. But it also involves being able to be trusted by others because, without trust, you can't get very far in any endeavor.

TechRepublic recently reposted a link to two codes of ethical conduct for IT consultants. While each of these codes contains some good information, neither quite fit for me. The first one seemed like it was addressed from a large consulting firm to its clients; the second one seemed more like promises from the individual consultant to his/her consulting firm. But what about us independent IT consultants? I decided to try my hand at creating a code of ethics for us -- or, at least, one that works for me.

Given that preamble, let me present my code of ethics for independent consultants, as addressed to our clients.

  1. The time for which you are paying me is yours and only yours. I will eliminate other distractions and focus on the set of problems you have entrusted to me.
  2. I will always tell you the truth even when it hurts. It's better for you to find out sooner than later.
  3. I will try to accurately estimate time requirements when they are requested, but I will also qualify those estimates according to the level of additional research required and with knowledge of my own availability and optimism.
  4. I will keep you regularly updated on my progress. I will break down the elements of my accomplishments to whatever level of detail you require.
  5. I will only perform work for which you have given your approval. However, I will actively look beyond the narrow limits of my project for opportunities and risks that you may have overlooked and bring those to your attention when I find them.
  6. When I don't know something, I won't try to hide behind a facade of expertise. Instead, I'll ask pertinent questions and (with your approval) conduct additional research.
  7. I will do my best to share my knowledge, to document my work, and to make it as understandable as possible. I will never bake in obfuscations to insure job security.
  8. If someone else is better qualified to handle an assignment, I'll tell you. It's more important for me to get the job done right than to hold onto a certain number of billable hours for myself. (I expect that attitude to pay its own dividends in the long run.)
  9. My recommendations will be based on what I perceive to be best suited to your needs in the present and future. I will not let myself be unduly swayed by considerations of what technology is currently in fashion or is more interesting to me personally.
  10. In short, I will treat you as I would like to be treated if I were your client.

What would you add to this list? Is there anything here with which you disagree? Do you have your own stated code of ethics? Share your thoughts in the discussion.

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About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

72 comments
Gabby22
Gabby22

I've written several ethics statements and critted others, for both working organisations and for professional orgs. Your list is excellent advice, and I like to think I follow these. They tend to form the basis of much of the advice in good texts on consulting. I started with Weinberg - I couldn't have done better. So honest, so cutting, so funny, so right! The ethics example I most remember was when I worked in a scientific government org, and some go-getter in HQ had written an ethics statement which was all about obeying the rules and being loyal to the organisation. Silly stuff, really, and at least half of it was already covered by regulation or law, your "legal commitment". So as a researcher, I researched ethics, both in theory and in practice. (I reported my finding, making suggestions, and she shelved the project.) I found that most practical ethics statements, or codes of conduct, are designed to protect the *profession*, not specifically the client. This applies particularly to the the ones we are most familar with, such as lawyers and doctors. They're designed to chuck out bad eggs, blatant rogues who exploit their clients, but also to protect the consultant against the sort of bad luck that does happen. So a number of the codes are based on attitudes to other consultants' work, and not obviously exploiting the client (beyond current industry accepted standards, of course - that is acceptable to the profession). On the way, the client does get some protection of course, but the gist of the ethics is as I state above. As I said above, your ideas are excellent, but most of them don't really fit in a code of ethics or conduct for the profession, which already has been sullied by the legal and medical professions, among others. Instead, I've often seen these sorts of statements listed in an informal Bill of Rights between the client and the consultant (the most memorable being a project manager's bill of rights). It establishes what you expect from the client, and what the client should expect from you.

reisen55
reisen55

And a total goof you can play on your solid clients: To wit: All my clients like and are interested in Windows Vista, but I dare not take them there. Windows XP works for their business software. Case closed? I have one or two clients who have a sense of humor, and if you have some, and they can take a ribbing... There exists a Vista "upgrade" product that lays the visual look, sounds and feel of Vista OVER the XP operating system and so far (and I am using it on this very computer I am writing on) shows no slow down effect at all. Totally cute. And if you feel brave enough to make an account gasp and chuckle a bit, let me recommend it. :-)

mikifinaz1
mikifinaz1

You have to develope a 6th sense about who not to work for.

glen
glen

Thank you for this, it has a number of excellent points. However, I don't see anything about the customer subtly expecting you to go along with their ethics breaches. Too many customers have illegal software and really don't appreciate your telling them they need to buy several hundred or thousand's of dollars to get licensed. Or what about inadverdently finding child porn on someone's computer. For example "I promise to do my best to protect your property and trade secrets from exposure or damage. I will also inform you of any unethical or illegal activity I may find on your systems and work with you to remediate it as soon as possible."

mtoombs
mtoombs

Sorry Chip, but you lost me in the first paragraph with your statement that you do not believe there are absolutes of right and wrong. I'm cannot even imagine that you would thing that statement was relevant to the premise of your article. I believe this concept of moral relativity is one of the reasons this country is in the shape it's in today. Having said that; I would also say one of the great things about this country is that you have the absolute right to say what you like without fear, but accepting the consequences of your actions and statements.

jorge.blat.palacios
jorge.blat.palacios

If every Independent IT "Consultant" could do that... I fully agree with to your code. It should become a standard! ;-)

cmaritz
cmaritz

Once again a thought-provoking post, Chip. Many thanks. A few points: In #3 you mention qualifying estimates based on your availability and optimism. Can you explain a bit what you mean by 'optimism'? I know there is a link there but I'm hoping for a quick description. Perhaps I'm just a little surprised to see a subjective term like that. In #4 I'm sure there must be some practical limit to the level of detail that a customer might ask for, beyond which it would be unreasonable? #9 really speaks to me. To me it means there are times to put down the damn hammer and start looking for the RIGHT tool :-) #10 is a good summary, kind of a 'do unto others' type of truth, which I'm all for. In short, I would certainly want to hire the likes of you rather than a large consulting firm.

wmooneya
wmooneya

Such a code already exists. Contact the Independent Computer Consultants Association, www.icca.org, for more information on this code including their statement of standards and practices as well as the code of ethics. wmooney@consultantcoach.com

paulj
paulj

Excellent article! As an independent IT consultant for 16 years, I frequently avoid getting contracts signed because they usually scare the client and take time to hash out the details. Do you suppose this "Code of Ethics" would be an addition to a contract? or a separate document? I'm looking for how I would advertise this to my clients. A few changes I would suggest... #1 -I agree not to take calls from everyone while on another job, but what about that caller ID telling me it's a very good client, or even one who pays me on retainer for my support contracts? I usually let nearly all calls go to voice mail while on another client's job; then check it when it's convenient. I HATE when other people interrupt their conversation with me to take a cell call; I have to wait and I seem unimportant at the moment!!! #3 -I try to post all my prices for individual tasks on my website. I try to indicate that my rates are there, this way there's never an attempt to say, "I didn't know it would cost me that much!" With my web work, this bailed me out of the only lawsuit filed against me in 16 years!! #6 -I don't charge for research time...should I? Paul J. Montenero President Clear-Cut Computing Corp. www.clearcutcomputing.com

Marty R. Milette
Marty R. Milette

I would preface #6 with something like... I will not take on work for which I am not qualified. When I don???t know something... will either research or suggest someone else... ----------------- I once had a client put forth a contract that DEMANDED that I perform whatever work they asked for -- whether was qualified or competent to do it or not. Naturally, I refused to sign. (Actually I used some much stronger words...)

urcomputerconsultant
urcomputerconsultant

I feel that I should act as if I'm the newest and fastest CPU on the market. The faster I get the job done, the more I can do more. So If I can get the job done right in 15 minutes and only bill for 15 minutes, yes it would be a lot less than billing for the hour or hours, but I can get to the next client sooner...So in effect my client pays less but I can do more clients in that same hour. - Walter

reisen55
reisen55

I have an associate who violated one and almost wrecked a lawyer's office in one day. Said he could do VoIP and he knew nothing of it, technically gifted beyond belief, he thought he could bulldoze his way through it and blew the phones off the map. Result was a lost client, hours of free time, on his part, to keep a lawsuit at bay and no income for me, plus the loss of trade references for future business as well. I ONLY do things I know how to do. I am at my accountants office right now, backing up his office systems as required for THIS ACCOUNT which means periodic GHOSTING as his systems are enormously complex. Good job.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

"... your ideas are excellent, but most of them don't really fit in a code of ethics or conduct for the profession..." Could you give some examples of ethical rules that better fit your definition?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... when it starts to upchuck. You're right. Knowing what jobs not to take is more important than finding the ones you should take.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Obviously you would never agree to do anything unethical for your client, but just how far do you take the role of insuring that your client's behavior is ethical? Are you their conscience?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Thank you for upholding my right to express my thoughts -- and I do the same for you. It seems to me that the right to freedom of speech is based on the belief that nobody has a monopoly on truth. If they did, then they should be the only ones allowed to speak. Given that, what makes one moral code any more authoritative than any other? Because someone said so? I'd rather take a flexible but ethical approach to dealing with situations. Sure, we can all learn from the wisdom of the past, but in the end it is all just human wisdom -- flashes of insight mixed with a lot of fallacies.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I'm sure everyone would have their own tweaks to suit themselves, but it would be nice to see more application of the Golden Rule in our industry.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

#3 - I've always been over-optimistic about how much I can get done in a given time frame. So I promise to qualify my estimates based on a knowledge of my own tendency to underestimate. #4 - As "info" said, bill by the hour. That will keep the level of detail to useful levels. Thanks for the kind words!

info
info

As a matter of course, over a 10 year consulting career, I've had a few clients who really wanted every step that I performed documented (thinking they were getting free training perhaps?). The solution is to BILL THEM BY THE HOUR for the time required to do so... and soon they figure out the ROI just isn't there.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Those are good rules of conduct for sysadmins. Personally, I don't do that type of work for my clients, but many of the principles still apply.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... are usually better than good answers. I think of this as a separate document -- I'll probably post it on my web site. It isn't legal language like my contract, though there is some overlap. Regarding your notes: #1 - Absolutely! I don't take calls while I'm working for a client, either. I check messages at regular intervals and call back between tasks. If someone can't wait an hour, I'm sorry. #3 - That's a good plan for your billing methodology. Personally, I almost always bill hourly, so the only contention I ever hear is "did it really take you that long?" #6 - It depends, but usually I think the answer is "yes". Nobody has a complete knowledge of any domain, and often your work will require you to step outside your areas of expertise. That isn't a failing on your part. But it's up to you to convey that expectation to your customer ahead of time. The exception is when it's something you really ought to have known in order to qualify for the gig -- in other words, you set the expectation with the client that you already had a lock on this topic, but you didn't.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I agree with you, but I think you can ethically take on work for which you're not qualified, as long as your client knows that and accepts your strategy for acquiring the expertise you need -- whether it's additional research, subcontracting, or something else. They key ethical point here is not to represent yourself as knowing something you don't.

fgranier
fgranier

Doing it faster should be better for the client. Why should your client pay less for something that he is getting sooner? ur rates should be higher! Ethically you can only claim that you are going to try your best to be on time.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

The doorstep to the temple of wisdom, as I believe it was Ben Franklin said it. Unfortunately, one of the key ingredients for success among young IT personnel is an overabundance of hubris -- otherwise they never learn to use their wings. But that is precisely the ingredient that also leads to failed projects. I think everyone has to really botch up a few big projects before they learn to accurately gauge their own abilities.

TheProfessorDan
TheProfessorDan

I was an IT contractor for two and a half years and have been in charge of managing groups of IT contractors and this type of situation is all too common. I think that the simple problem is that there is a preconceived notion that you can't say "I don't know" in I.T. I read article that started, "just because I work in I.T. doesn't mean I can fix the coffee machine." I personally try to do the opposite. I like to error on the side of caution when asked about my experience with something.

Gabby22
Gabby22

# I won't overcharge the client, eg for work which was not done by me. # I won't charge rates which are well below industry standards. [This is to maintain a 'reasonable' expectation of rates, and often ignores the common situation of loss leaders.] # I won't badmouth other consultants or their work. [BTW, this is almost always counter-productive in my experience, but doctors treat this so seriously they hide the mistakes of others (or bury them).] # I won't try to steal clients from other consultants.

glen
glen

Of course. If a client asks me to do something unethical I try to drop them as a client ASAP. If they ask me to cheat someone else they are probably going to try to cheat me. How far I take my ethics is of course a personal decision. I don't go browsing through .jpeg's or other files when I am working on a machine and I don't ask a client to show me all their licenses unless they have hired me to do an audit of some type. BUT, if I need to reinstall Office and ask for the CD and then find out they have used it for 10 workstations, then the ethics issue arises. Or if I happen to see a folder called "Kiddie Porn" on someone's desktop then I feel some duty to address this. With a "published" ethics statement" that refers to this I think it would be easier to handle. The question is how do you word it in your ethics statement?

reisen55
reisen55

And that is precisely the issue that landed my talented colleague into HOT LEGAL WATER with a new client we obtained over the summer when HE represented he knew VoIP (did not) and wrecked the lawyer's phone system. Now a phone system is a PRIMARY PRODUCTION UNIT of a business. No phones for a lawyer = wreckage on a big scale indeed. My colleague did not set up the account right, and went into this without my knowledge at all and so had to invest over 100 hours of free time, tons of stress not to mention income loss TO ME because the whole thing was not radioactive as hell.

Marty R. Milette
Marty R. Milette

Here is one related to the point mentioned: "3.5 The Customer or a third party appointed by the Customer may temporarily appoint to a Resource also tasks which are outside the scope of the Services or the expertise of the Resource." In other words, this clause forces the contractor to TRY to perform work outside their competence -- totally in violation of any code of ethics I've seen. Here's another classic (not really related to the code of ethics -- just an example of a really, really, really bad clause...) "The Customer is entitled to freely change, supplement and renew such information and instructions during the validity of this Frame Agreement without a separate compensation to the Supplier." In other words, this idiot Finnish client expects, that on a fixed-price contract, the customer can change, at will and at any time, the scope or anything else in the contract without needing to compensate the contractor. Maybe you can work up a set of ethics for the hiring companies :)

reisen55
reisen55

If I am a client's office, as I was this morning, and running GHOST on a system to make an image, my actual "work" period is far from an hour, and if I am totally honest with myself consists of booting the system off the GHOST cd, typing a few commands, moving a mouse, executing and getting coffee for the half hour or so. Now on one computer, that is honest but if I am doing that on 16 computers, my real WORK time is instead of 8 hours perhaps 2. Pardon me folks, but I bill for the 2 Hours. If I can find other work non-related, OK there but I have an ethical consideration for my own ethics to bill honestly for my work as well.

magic8ball
magic8ball

I have that quote printed out hanging in my office.

Lazarus439
Lazarus439

I agree completely. It's better for all concerned if, after some period of time, the client says "Wow, I'm glad I hired him/her" because they got more than they expected rather tan "Eh, he's ok for an IT geek".

oschmid14
oschmid14

I see it happening more often people pretending to know something because at one time they read about it. But it eventually will blow up in their face and worst case scenario, it will go full circle and bite them in the ... (you know where). On the other side I also blame a lot on the client, customer, organization ... whatever you want to call it ... by asking for to much. Would you want an orthopedic surgeon perform heart surgery or have a the Maytag repair man fix your roof? Companies today should be real and if a job requires different skill sets, hire a person for each skill set.

reisen55
reisen55

In the internal world of corporate work, inside the box, projects are undertaken and tested well before hand (if your group is smart about it). Mission critical stuff is thoroughly vetted BEFORE being put into the world of PRODUCTION. My talented collegue is not of this world, and I come from it into the independent consultant field. So I respect what I CAN AND CANNOT DO and work like the devil to keep those skill sets sharp and working to my client's advantage. Being an engineer like Thomas Andrews advising Captain Smith that there is room in the boats for 1200 when 2204 people are on the Titanic is not a career winner at all.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Some very good principles, but I have to wonder about the second one. Lost leaders are one thing, but an industry-wide conspiracy to inflate rates could be the flip side. I'm all for higher rates, but I don't like the idea of colluding with others to fake out the market.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

You'd think he would see that one coming. Or did he really think that he would be able to fake his way through it?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... end up sounding ironic after a while. Yes, it would be interesting to hear from my clients on my code of ethics. I'm not aware of any past violations on my part, but maybe someone could embarrass me with a reminder.

reisen55
reisen55

NOW THAT WOULD BE AN EXCERCISE IN FUTILITY! Cheaper, faster, better? Meet those elusiva SLA agreements? Simplify processes and procedures? Speak English correctly?

cmaritz
cmaritz

Try writing the code of ethics of a supplier that you dealt with, based on your (negative) experience of them. Perhaps re-write their logo or catch-phrase, e.g. I dealt with a bank some time ago whose line was "Simpler, Better, Faster". However my experience with them was definitly "More complicated, Worse" and "Slower". On a more serious note, ask your customers to write what they think your code of ethics is, based on their experience of you. Just some thoughts ... Great thread!

Marty R. Milette
Marty R. Milette

I've always tried to include a 'stand-by' clause in contracts. Can't count the times I've been held up waiting for client-side deliverables -- so always try to bill for that time -- even if only at half-rate. Client delays also impact promised delivery times -- so that is also a clause to consider.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... when I'm on site and not dealing with other clients, I bill for that time even if I am just waiting for something to finish. I always try to make productive use of that time (discuss something with the client, for instance), but there have been times where there just wasn't anything to do but wait.

mraikes
mraikes

So reisen55, you might actually be on-site for 8 hours, but only bill for 2? Is this dependent upon whether you can be productive in some other fashion with the other 6 hours? I'm a little conflicted about this, because I absolutely applaud your choice, but at the same time, if the customer's circumstances or preference require you to physically be there, do you not incur an opportunity cost?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

But when you can turn to some other billable activity while the process merrily completes itself -- I don't believe in double-billing time.

norbyf1
norbyf1

Most computer repair shops charge for "bench time". If a machine is GHOSTing for 2 hours, they try to charge for 2 hours labor. Maybe they need a Code of Ethics.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

and I agree with urcomputerconsultant and reisen55 about billing only for real hours worked. It speaks volumes about your value, and then, as fgranier suggested, you may be able to raise your rates because of that demonstrated value.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... of spectacular disasters, too. It's just that they tend to learn from their mistakes over time. Of course, sometimes what they "learn" is to go overboard in the other direction, and become so careful that they never attempt anything.