When independent consultants face an ethical dilemma, there is rarely time for consultation or dialogue. How can we be sure that our initial response is the right one? Intuition is seldom enough to really understand the problem so here are four lenses we can use to gain a better perspective on issues we encounter.
1. The values lens—who we are
Our beliefs, values and world view shape our perceptions, define who we are, and govern our day-to-day behavior. These are formed in our earliest days based on gender, family, race, religion, culture, and education, as well as on geographic, political and economic circumstances. As Melvin Hall (2011) has suggested, our world view shapes our implicit theories about how things work. Our values lens defines our personal bottom line or default position but it is colored by emotion and heritage. How reliable is that likely to be in a crisis?
We can enhance our self knowledge through reflection and personal growth, by realizing what is important to us, and by developing our own interests. In these ways we can add balance to our busy lives and so keep on moving forward. Enhanced awareness also makes it easier for us to tune in to our client's values. If a values conflict is the source of the ethical issue, be open, explain your own values perspective, and listen well when the client explains their own world view.
2. The methods lens—how we plan our work
This lens is probably the most comfortable one for us. There are many resources available but the Program Evaluation Standards (PgES) is particularly useful because it provides five categories of standards, including: Accuracy, Feasibility, Propriety, Utility, and Evaluation Accountability and each of these is sub-divided into a set of related individual standards. When pressed for time, the PgES Functional Table provides a quick cross reference between typical project tasks and the individual standards so we can zero in on the issue area.
For example, if there is conflict regarding data collection, Standard F3, Contextual Viability, may be the sticking point. It reads, "Evaluations should recognize, monitor, and balance the cultural and political interests and needs of individuals and groups." This is followed by a series of recommendations based on the collective wisdom in our field. Maybe we will find our solution here.
3. The conduct lens—how we do our work
Even with enhanced self awareness and a sound research plan, it is how we behave while doing our work that our client will remember. Among the AEA's Guiding Principles for Evaluators is one that speaks directly to behavior: Respect for People. Considerations include abiding by professional ethics, maximizing benefit, reducing harm, fostering social equity, communicating with stakeholders, and respecting differences. The AEA's public statement on Cultural Competence in Evaluation elaborates by stating, "Without attention to the complexity and multiple determinants of behavior, evaluations can arrive at flawed findings with potentially devastating consequences." We must acknowledge both the complexities of cultural identity and the dynamics of power, while eliminating bias and using culturally appropriate methods.
Even so, there is one area of behavior that is greatly overlooked today. We call it communications but not much has changed since 1879 when John H. Young wrote his Guide to the Manners, Etiquette and Deportment of the Most Refined Society. He commented:
To be truly polite, it is necessary to be, at the same time, good, just, and generous. True politeness is the outward visible sign of those inward spiritual graces called modesty, unselfishness and generosity.
Texts, tweets and blogs reveal how far we have strayed from Young's basic tenets. While business etiquette and rules for interpersonal and virtual communications appear to be unstructured, beneath the surface, client expectations are firm. We just don't know what they are. Could our ethical issue be related to a failure in communications? Has it escalated into something more profound? Are humility and generosity required, not retribution?
4. The business lens—how we manage our work
Several of our key resources, including the PgES and the Guiding Principles, address a few business ethics from a general perspective, including contracts, conflict of interest, fiscal responsibility, competence and integrity. However, as far as I know, there is no comprehensive guideline in the research community that focuses on practice management. That is unfortunate because it is our business ethics that will foster both our reputation and our success.
It is not acceptable to plead ignorance. Among the many topics we need to be aware of are:
• Our duty of care to our client;
• The need to reach a mutual understanding with our client about project objectives, scope, work plan, costs, and fee arrangements before accepting the assignment—in writing;
• Avoidance of gaining financial benefit from an assignment in addition to the agreed-upon fees;
• Not using colleagues' or clients' proprietary information or methodologies without their permission;
• Not stealing a client's employee or encouraging them to work elsewhere.
While accountable money management and transparent billing practices are essential, a surprisingly number of consultants have found themselves in jail as a result of shady practice. To protect their clients, the public, and their profession, Certified Management Consultants have codified their business ethics. (See sample codes in Canada and the USA.) Much can also be learned about good management by reading the business news. Corporations differ from us only in terms of scale; the ethical issues are universal. If our dilemma is management-related, we could seek advice from a valued mentor or colleague or perhaps from a trusted accountant or small business lawyer. It may be well worth the effort, time, and money in the long run.
Next up: Refining Your Marketing Approach
See: Barrington, G. V. (2012). Consulting Start-up and Management: A Guide for Evaluators and Applied Researchers. Los Angeles: SAGE.