Developing a Personal Code of Ethics for Consulting

Ethics are important for anyone in business. They're particularly important to consultants because of the high level of trust that organizations grant them and because of the access that many consultants have to the confidential and proprietary inner workings of the firms that employ them.

No single code of ethics is appropriate for everyone, but some very basic ethical beliefs can and should form the basis for your personal code of ethics. Consider the following:

  • Account for your time accurately and honestly. Your client expects and trusts you to be truthful in your billing practices. Anything less is not only unethical but also a violation of your client's trust.
  • Don't make promises you can't keep. Although you may really want to impress a potential client with your amazing abilities, don't make promises you can't keep in hopes of landing the account. Not only is this unethical, but you set yourself up for failure. There's nothing wrong with a little good old-fashioned optimism, but don't blatantly make promises that you know you can't keep.
  • Follow through on your promises. Part of becoming a successful consultant is doing what you say you're going to do. If you say that you'll complete the project on March 31, then you should deliver the results on (or before) March 31 — not a day later. If, for some reason, you can't keep your promise no matter how hard you try, then inform your client as far in advance as possible and present a plan for curing the problem.
  • Don't recommend products or services that your clients don't need. You may speak with clients who are absolutely certain that they know what is wrong with their organization. You could land a very lucrative contract just by proposing to do what they say you should do. However, if you know that the course of action the client suggests is not the proper remedy, you should tell your client so and decline the offered work. In most cases, your client will appreciate your honesty, and your reputation will be elevated a few notches.
  • Be candid and give your honest opinion. Your clients pay you good money for the benefit of your skills and many years of experience. When your clients ask for your opinion, be frank and honest, and don't try to sugarcoat the truth.
  • Protect your clients' confidentiality, and don't misuse insider information. Consultants are often placed in situations in which they have access to proprietary information, the release of which could cause a client serious financial or other damage. Your clients have placed you in a position of trust; don't violate that trust.
  • Disclose conflicts of interest. If you're a popular consultant in your field, preventing conflicts of interest can often be difficult. As organizations vie for your expertise, you may find yourself working on the same problem for two competing companies. However, as soon as you discover a conflict — potential or actual — you should disclose it to the affected client(s) and then take action to resolve it. This may mean signing information nondisclosure agreements. If the conflict can't be resolved through these means, then you may have to drop one of the two firms as a client.
  • Don't break the law. At times, a client may ask you to do something that is not only against your personal sense of ethics but also obviously and blatantly illegal. Do not pass go and do not collect $200. Just go. And don't come back.
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