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Ethical dilemmas: A call to arms

In this series we confront readers with ethical dilemmas and ask: what would you have done?

In the mid-1990s Paul Lynch, who was later to become President of the Institute of Management Consultants, penned a regular column in Management Consultancy magazine in which he posed ethical dilemmas that might confront management consultants. He asked readers what they might have done in those circumstances and in following editions fed back readers’ comments and suggestions.

Paul presented the dilemmas in a series of case studies involving fictitious professional firms and their clients in which the dilemmas are confronted by a mythical consultant, Antonia.

With Paul’s permission we are now re-publishing these dilemmas on similar terms.

What is interesting – and perhaps not surprising – is that the dilemmas have not particularly aged over the last 25 years, although where necessary we have made some editorial updates. Like Paul, we ask you what you think you would have done given the same circumstances, and in a following issue of this Newsletter we will present a commentary based on these responses and other reflections.

Dilemma 9 - A call to arms

This month Antonia experienced a situation which may not be unique, but which is genuinely startling in its outcome. While working for a large practice, she was nursing a special relationship with a potential client. She had become friendly with Bill, the director of a substantial undertaking, and over a period of six months had met him several times to discuss and develop his interest in and understanding of a potential work programme, which she was convinced was the most suitable solution to the challenges that his enterprise was facing. So far so good!

During their fifth meeting, he confirmed his interest in proceeding along the lines that they had discussed and asked what the next step should be. She advised Bill to make a formal enquiry to the partner in charge of that type of work (Jack, her boss), which he did a few days later by means of an email.

Several weeks later, Jack told Antonia that the client had accepted the proposal and signed a contract for the work. He also thanked her for her hard work in securing the assignment; since this was the first time that Bill’s company had used their services. Jack said that the project would be led by Tim, a senior partner, who would call on Antonia, if he felt that her further input was required.

Antonia was stunned. Jack was fully within his rights, and it was customary for a partner to lead projects.

The problem was that Tim did not know her or the client, and he had his own team with which he preferred to work. She had worked closely with Bill, the client, to understand his company's unique business problem. In addition, Bill was expecting something that required specialist skills that only Antonia possessed. While Tim and his team may talk credibly about the issues, they lacked sufficient depth of specialist knowledge to deliver what Bill required. This specialist area was newly developing, and as yet, only a few understood the subtle differences which distinguished it from the current consulting practice. Antonia gently suggested this to Jack, but clearly this shortfall was not recognised, and Tim did not ask for her input.

Three weeks later Antonia was offered a position by another consultancy that wanted to develop her specialist area. This competitor had close links with Bill's firm and expected to tender for more work with Bill. If that was the case, Antonia would have the opportunity to demonstrate the shortcomings of Tim's project.

So far, no single decision in the chain of events could be faulted, but the final outcome may be problematic. What obligations does Antonia have to the client? To Tim? And to Jack? If she takes the new position, should there be limitations on her communication with Bill?

What would you advise Antonia to do?

Sunday 11th July 2021
The Thinker statue