Lots of literature is available regarding ethics, moral issues, social justice, corporate responsibility, and related topics, but little of it directly relates to IT consultants. But Jim Lichtman, author of The Lone Ranger’s Code of the West: An Action-Packed Adventure in Values and Ethics with the Legendary Champion of Justice, reminded me that our standards of behavior shouldn’t differ due to our line of work.
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If you’re a consultant who’s struggling to stay on the right side of ethical behavior, ask yourself what the Lone Ranger would say.

In the book, Lichtman talks about eight core ethical values that he extracted from a 1933 document called “The Lone Ranger’s Standards and Background.” This document served as a script-writing reference that defined how the Lone Ranger was to behave and how he should be portrayed in radio episodes and later on television. Lichtman suggests that people should use these principles as ground rules for behavior when dealing with others. I suggest that IT consultants let them guide their conduct when dealing with clients. These ethical values are:

  • Loyalty
  • Honesty
  • Fairness
  • Caring
  • Respect
  • Tolerance
  • Duty
  • Moral courage

When ethics come into play
While major ethical issues are not an everyday occurrence in most IT engagements, ignoring “minor” ethical issues or behaviors can become a way of doing business. Therein lies the real danger, because “getting away with” an unethical behavior encourages similar behaviors in the future. That is especially true when the behavior extracts a monetary reward.

Many consultants ignore ethics and morality, and they test their clients’ ability to see the motives that may be lurking behind statements like:

  • “We will definitely have that task done by next Wednesday.”
  • “I apologize, Mr. Customer. We interpreted the contract to mean that this was a billable activity. Please don’t pay that part of our invoice.”
  • “Based on the functional specifications, this is clearly the best equipment for your purposes, and we highly recommend it.”

Nothing is wrong with any of these statements, unless you knew all along that you weren’t going to complete the task as promised; you knew all along that the billable time or item was questionable but thought you would see if the customer would catch it; and your equipment recommendation was heavily motivated because your firm is a reseller or VAR for the hardware manufacturer—something you never disclosed to your client.
Where do you draw the line in these scenarios? Do you know of sketchy or fraudulent behavior among your peers in the field? Have you or your peers suffered any consequences due to unethical behavior? Write and tell us about it, or start a discussion below.
What do “consulting’s finest” have to say?
I reviewed the codes of ethics from several professional organizations, in which many IT consultants hold membership, to look for similarities and common themes. These included the ethics codes of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the Institute of Management Consultants, the National Bureau of Certified Consultants, and the Project Management Institute. The common descriptors and adjectives found in all four codes were remarkably similar to those used to describe the Ranger’s behavior. Qualities that made most of the lists include:

  • Integrity
  • Fairness
  • Honesty
  • Professionalism
  • Accepts responsibility
  • Respectful
  • Unbiased
  • Objective
  • Discloses (potential) conflicts

On financial issues, the Institute of Management Consultants probably promulgated the strongest language. Its code asks members “to disclose to our clients in advance any fees or commissions for equipment, supplies, or services we recommend” and that fees and expenses be “reasonable, legitimate, and commensurate with the services we deliver.” Several of the organizations included some type of language relative to accepting or offering “unfair payments” or “tangible benefits”—more commonly known as bribes. Would the Ranger take a bribe? Would you?

Who holds consultants accountable for their actions?
As with other rules, standards, or laws, the value and effectiveness of these codes depends heavily on enforcement and the consequences of unethical behavior. These days, more and more consulting organizations have their own, and often more stringent, behavioral standards to which their staff is expected to adhere. But the question remains: Who is policing the consultant community?

Edwin Smith is vice president of training for IntraLinux, Inc. and founder and CEO of ITtalent.com.

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