Why aren’t consulting firms held to the same standards as their clients?

Working in the shadows.
Working in the shadows.
Image: Action Images/Richard Heathcote via Reuters
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Almost every aspect of modern life—from public health to big tech—is touched by consulting firms, but their work and influence usually stay under wraps. Unlike the brands they work for, so, too, do their missteps.

A recent, rare exception saw McKinsey face fines for its role in the US opioid crisis, which included both working for the US Food and Drug Administration while providing guidance to pharmaceutical companies like Purdue Pharma. And yet the public narrative of blame is mostly fixated on the Sackler family, rather than the consultancy that played a big role in crafting the family’s OxyContin strategy at Purdue.

Why aren’t consultancies regularly held to the same ethical and social standards and scrutiny that their clients often are? It only makes sense that those in advisory roles should be held as accountable as those who are public-facing. After all, many of the decisions enacted by companies were recommended by their consultants.

Finding a path to accountability on social and environmental impact

For much of the corporate world, the path to accountability is growing clearer. The past 10 years have brought standardized frameworks that encourage transparency and responsibility, most commonly in the form of environmental, social, and governance (ESG); corporate social responsibility (CSR); and diversity, equality, and inclusion (DEI) practices. Consultancies are well-versed in guiding their clients on these journeys, talking the talk of social progress in pursuit of accelerated growth. 

While this influence may contribute to real social and environmental progress, it is profoundly out of proportion to the influence the consulting industry wields over the ills that plague our culture and our environment. Social justice, sustainability, racial and gender equality—these goals must inform all the work consultancies do, not just serve to fuel additional revenue streams.

This only becomes more critical as time goes on and the urgency behind social and environmental causes increases. Given the distance we have to travel to arrive at real progress, and the rapidly dwindling time we have to get there, it no longer should be morally acceptable for the consulting industry to remain mere bystanders to the clients we serve.

What professional services firms can do

Consulting firms can, and must, do better. But there’s little guidance on how to start. This is largely because the industry lacks a standardized measurement tool that fits its unique circumstances and challenges. A lot of the impact-related certifications that exist in the world today, such as the B Corp certification, simply aren’t geared toward consultancies. 

My firm, SYLVAIN, learned this first-hand when we applied to be a B Corp in 2017 (and today, B Lab, which oversees these certifications, is a client of ours). B Corp certification is primarily focused on brands that manufacture physical products and need to be particularly mindful of their environmental impact, and the application process reflects this. But for a consultancy like ourselves, where our people are our product, this goalpost is less relevant. 

Certifications like B Corp need to dimensionalize the idea of impact to go beyond the basics and to include different types of companies. For professional services organizations, like consultancies and agencies, there is an opportunity, for example, to further prioritize employee wellbeing.

Beyond the expansion of established certifications, consultancies must take the initiative to hold themselves to an ethical, measurable standard. And, most importantly, they ought to remain open about their progress, with their employees, clients and society at large. We’ve taken this step this year, with the launch of our very first impact report. Even in the absence of a formal industry code, there is no excuse for an absence of accountability.

Consulting firms need to confront the hard things

Although consultancies make millions writing roadmaps for others, they typically haven’t written an accountability roadmap for themselves. But how can you consult with authority when you haven’t done the work internally?

It’s time for an overdue reckoning and a new approach to consulting. Consultancies must no longer act as bystanders—and even, at times, enablers—to their clients’ unethical decisions. 

We all have an obligation to be stewards of a better society. Consulting firms actually have the power to do so. And stewardship starts within the walls of our own organizations. 

Alain Sylvain is the founder and CEO of SYLVAIN, a strategy and design consultancy.