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Colorize the Shades of Gray: A Look at Consultant–Client Ethics

By Cyndi Maxey and Debbie Ahlers

Like many independent consultants in the training and development field, we each own businesses, yet often have opportunities to collaborate. Shortly after we met five years ago, we drew up a contract with each other to set expectations for the co-authorship and co-facilitation of a series of employee development courses for a mutual client. In the process of wording our agreement, we became amused by the situation; neither of us had a legal, fair, ethical model to use as a foundation, so we “made one up.” Today, our professional relationship builds on the trust earned from that initial “made-up” agreement.

As we continue to collaborate, we often need to discuss ethical issues. From our conversations with colleagues and clients, we know that they are also concerned about the ethics of the consultant–client relationship and the shades of gray therein. To begin to take a local look at consultant–client ethics, we interviewed four experienced Chicago area consultants and five experienced clients—buyers of training services—all local CCASTD members. To determine an interview scope, our initial research revealed two excellent resources on ethics in our field: “Models for HRD Practice,” and “Ethics in Training and Development.”
In 1989, author Patricia McLagan, then chair of the ASTD Task Force on Competencies and Standards, wrote “Models for HRD Practice.” The booklet, made known to us by former CCASTD President, Stan Piskorski, serves as a guide for competence and professionalism in human resource development. It cites thirteen major ethical issues associated with HRD work. Here are the top five issues which, according to McLagan,” …apply across the broadest range of situations.” (1)

  1. Maintaining appropriate confidentiality
  2. Saying “no” to inappropriate requests
  3. Showing respect for copyrights, sources, and intellectual property
  4. Ensuring truth in claims, data, and recommendations
  5. Balancing organizational and individual needs and interests

Additionally, Info-Line, the resource series published monthly by ASTD, focused its August 1995 issue on “Ethics for Training and Development.” Co-authored by former CCASTD Board member, Ed Gordon, PhD, the booklet reviews standards for both buyers and sellers of training. Buyer standards include contracting, use of materials, and developing/delivering. Seller standards add bidding and pricing, and representing skills and credentials. The booklet cites the ASTD National Code of Ethics (2) for its members, which lists eleven guidelines for professionalism, including:

  • Complying with all copyright laws and regulations
  • Keeping informed of pertinent knowledge and competence in the human resource field
  • Maintaining confidentiality and integrity in professional practice
  • Supporting peers and avoiding conduct which impedes their practicing their profession
  • Fairly representing HRD credentials, experience, and ability

Would local CCASTD training professionals’ experiences reflect the issues brought forth in these publications? What other situations might they have encountered?

The Client’s Perspective
First, we asked buyers of training services to describe several ethical issues that they face in their relationships with consultants. We found that their input focused on confidentiality, contracting, materials usage, and balancing organizational and individual needs. Here are some examples and tips from their perspective.

Trade secrets, especially in privately held organizations, can’t always be shared, even as part of the needs analysis. Cindy Schiro, National Director Training & Development, Novus Services, encourages consultants to do their homework on the organization before the sales interview; this allows her to ask specific questions that use the interview time well. She adds that there is a trust factor with current vendors; the new supplier must work to achieve that trust. Certain types of company information can’t be given to every vendor.

It is important to clarify expectations in contracting. Perhaps one of the most extreme examples was described by a training manager of an international Fortune 500 food industry company who cited unclear expectations that resulted in consultant production costs being four times higher than the contract–estimate costs; these resulting production costs included wine and cheese parties and lunches supposedly to discuss the work.

Longer contracts may need attention. Another buyer advised both parties to re-examine three-year contracts on a yearly basis, adding that mutual troubleshooting at intervals leads to a more successful long-term relationship.

Role responsibilities should be clarified. For example, sometimes additional consultants are brought in after the “front end” of a project has been developed, resulting in the second consultant suggesting approaches which may contradict the original. Judy Schueler, Director UCH Academy, University of Chicago Hospitals, advises a clear pre-contracting dialogue—to clarify roles of both consultants and sponsors. To help clarify roles, the UCH Academy also has a one-page “Job Specific Service Standards” guideline for internal and external training providers that includes key contracting elements such as telephone communication, needs analysis, learning priorities, and frameworks for communication updates.

Materials Usage, Copyright
Clear copyright agreements are essential. The food industry buyer we interviewed told stories of consultants representing materials as their own or used with permission, later to discover that neither was true. To avoid confusion as to whom owns the work, copyright and materials usage policies should be agreed upon up front. A good copyright attorney may be a wise investment.

Balancing Organizational and Individual Needs and Interests
Buyers can sense and appreciate honest, ethical recommendations. A training manager of a global telecommunications equipment company outlined a rather unique situation wherein an employee, who also works in a consulting firm, hires additional consultants through his own firm. This situation is a conflict of interest which should be openly discussed in order to avoid unethical practice.

Several buyers, including a training manager of a mid-size electronics company, thought consultants tended to recommend what was best for them because they “…wanted to make money, have a product, do it their way…” etc. One person emphasized that one of the first opportunities for an honest, ethical relationship comes with a consultant’s initial recommendation following needs analysis. Is there a sense that the recommendation is truly for the client’s benefit? Is the reasoning for the recommendation clear? Does it have value?

In summary, we found that the buyers we talked to have experienced many of the key ethical issues that the models in our field ask us to consider and uphold. Communicating clear expectations and making honest choices are two that stand out.

The Consultant’s Perspective
We asked consultants to describe several ethical issues that they face in their relationships with clients. Their responses also focused on contracting, but, interestingly, they had a lot to say about when to say “no” to work requested. Here are some examples and tips from their perspective.

Honest, accurate communication of costs is essential. Consultant Stan Piskorski feels that charging a fair price for work is a personal ethical choice in our business, adding that consultants should convey to the client early on that their billing is honest, accurate, reflects work done, and has value. He advises clients to be clear about the scope of projects and to be willing to pay for real effort, adding, “Training is way more expensive to create and develop than even the most experienced people really believe.”

Contracting parties need to agree on the project costs without being scared away by real costs. This avoids situations like one experienced by another consultant when, even after contracting and work completion, the client did not want to pay because he was over budget, and actually never did pay in full.

Be assertive if the scope of the project changes after initial contracting. One person described a situation when an agreement was signed to deliver a certain amount of training days. Halfway through, the buyer ran into budget problems and canceled the remaining booked days without pay and without explanation. According to the consultant, this was a company which had included “ethical treatment of contractors” in its mission statement. Yet another consultant described an eight thousand dollar loss of income that resulted from a junior college’s disregard for a cancellation policy agreement, which both parties had previously signed in good faith. In retrospect, both acknowledge that these situations involved not only ethics but also unclear contracting and unspoken expectations.

Don’t “nickel and dime” your clients. Our interviewees felt that some costs quoted as fees are actually expenses that an independent contractor should assume. They had heard stories of charging the client for waiting time when arriving early for an appointment or charging for train fare from the Loop to the suburbs.

The details are important in contracting: Who is responsible for what? Clients should be clear about the little things they expect. For example, the type face, font, and layout of training materials may be extremely important or extremely unimportant, but if they’re not mentioned, who knows? Consultants in an OD (organizational development) role should be careful about what they promise; reports, joint answers, independent recommendations, and timelines are all to be options to be considered. Consultants who are frequent facilitators should get clear answers on who does room setup, copying, cleanup, and housekeeping duties.

Saying “No” to Inappropriate Requests
Alignment of consultant and client values is important. This is very important to consultant Barry Lyerly, Lyerly Seminars, especially with respect to deciding to do the work:”If your values in your gut and from what you see and hear tell you, ‘No,’ then don’t do it.” He continues, “I was asked by a company that I had done a lot of training for to do a needs analysis for a department that had a lot of turnover and conflict. During interviewing, it became clear that this department wasn’t going to change. For example, one interviewee stated, ‘If someone from that area was dying on the floor I’d walk over them,’ which was extreme but not out of character. I declined to do the work, saying, ‘I will do it at a later date if things change.’ Things did change and I did do work that was fairly successful.” Consultant Stan Piskorski agrees, adding, “Should you do work that you won’t be proud of?”

Be responsible to the learner. With respect to confidentiality, Barry Lyerly adds that he feels responsible to the participants in his training sessions—to treat their remarks as confidential and also to tell the client that he will keep them confidential. He feels that the classroom should be a safe place for people to face issues and that clients who say,” How did so and so do (in the training session)?” leave the consultant in an awkward position.

In summary, the consultant’s responses reflected a heavy emphasis on contracting, details, and the myriad of ethical choices one makes as an independent businessperson. Their disappointments stemmed from unclear expectations and unkept contracts.

Shades of Gray
Unfortunately, there is some shady ethical behavior going on in the Chicago area—on the part of both clients and consultants—from disrespect for copyright to underselling competitors to blatant disregard of contracted cancellation agreements. Both buyers and sellers of training services need to constantly be on the look-out.

Certainly, shades of gray exist. What seems right in one situation may seem wrong in another. However, what appears to be an ethical issue may be just sloppy business practice. Our growing corporate training industry will continually be faced with shades of gray and with the need for better standards. James E. Baumhart, 1997 President and CEO of the Chicago Better Business Bureau acknowledges, “When you’re talking about buying a car, you have a pretty good idea of what you can expect. When you’re buying corporate training, you really don’t have as much of an idea of what to expect. You know what you want and what your needs are, but you don’t know what the industry is prepared to deliver or what’s fair for them to be delivering or saying.” (3)

Baumart’s remarks serve to remind both buyers and sellers of training services that we need to be prepared to contract ethically together in our field. Through education, reading, networking, attending conferences and staying on top of standards in our industry, we can all better know what’s fair and what isn’t.

Trust, Openness, Partnership
The stories of our interviewees verify that ethical relationships are based on trust, openness, and true partnership. We would like to leave you with some of their trust-building ideas; we hope they will help you colorize any shades of gray.

Cindy Schiro, with her sales background, sees trust building in constant client contact, even in unrelated topics and issues. She adds, “View everything as a sale. Networking is important.” Judy Schueler selects associates that are a reflection of the internal unit, adding, “We want to treat our consultants as if they were full-time employees and develop their sense of ownership in our enterprise.”

Barry Lyerly asks that clients be as open as possible about the cultural norms of the organization and allow contractors to become intimate with the organization. He adds, “Create a true partnership and an openness, as if you were orienting a new person on your staff.” Stan Piskorski quotes the work of Eric Baron, “Trust is created by three things: credibility times empathy equals risk. Good consultants lead with empathy and follow with credibility. The balance offsets the risk.”

1. McLagan, Patricia A. Models for HRD Practice, ASTD, Alexandria, Virginia, 1989, p. 40.
2. Gordon, Edward E. PhD, et al. “Ethics for Training and Development,” INFO-LINE, issue 9515, ASTD, Alexandria, Virginia, August 1995, p. 6.
3. “Training and Development Trade Standards adopted by BBB,” Corporate
University Review, July/August, 1997, p. 10.