Opinion: We Need to Have a Conversation About Consulting

Opinion: We Need to Have a Conversation About Consulting

by Blake Rosser

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Sanford Journal of Public Policy.

On February 1st, The New York Times reported that multinational consulting firm McKinsey & Co. helped Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, develop strategies on how to “turbocharge” sales of the drug, even after the scope of the nation’s opioid crisis had become clear. McKinsey’s advice included how to counter mothers whose teenagers had overdosed, how to pressure reluctant doctors and vendors, and how to characterize the opioids as stress relievers and anti-depressants in order to broaden their audience.

While McKinsey representatives do not appear to have commented on the report, NYTobtained access to one of their internal message boards, on which employees appeared to be discussing the issue with mixed feelings. 

This news comes shortly on the heels of an investigation from last fall revealing an unfortunate relationship between McKinsey and Saudi Arabia.  McKinsey created a report with a list of three social media users driving negative reactions to Saudi Arabia’s 2016 austerity measures. After the Saudi government somehow obtained the report, it arrested one of the dissidents, hacked the phone of another before arresting two of their siblings, and shut down the anonymous account of the third.  

In a comment to Business Insideron the Saudi issue, a McKinsey spokesperson said they had no idea their report would be used this way, and that it was only meant to be used internally.  I take it for granted that consulting firms, especially the largest ones, will inevitably support – however indirectly – nefarious actors. McKinsey has not yet taken responsibility for any wrongdoing or impropriety.  

But this isn’t about just McKinsey. My point is this: We need to have a conversation about consulting. On a framed poster that lists McKinsey’s values and mission in their New York City headquarters, the 2nd bullet point states that the firm will “observe high ethical standards.” Yet the first bullet says, “Put client interests above the Firm’s.” This is an ethos that is probably not unique to McKinsey, and it represents an obvious ethical dilemma that needs to be examined head-on.

In a reality where one-third of Sanford’s graduates will likely enter the world of consulting, we as a policy community would benefit from an open discussion about the ethical ramifications of working for such firms.

In addition to McKinsey & Co., firms like Booz Allen Hamilton, Deloitte, and Bain consult for the U.S. government and the military. And our government and military occasionally do some really problematic things – like supplying weapons for a bomb campaign that resulted in the death of 40 Yemenese children or facilitating the internment of undocumented children, resulting in the death of two.

We also know, for example, that these firms consult for the energy/oil industry, and that those industries also do things like cover up their responsibility for climate change, spill oil, and disrupt communities with fracking. Deloitte, in addition to its own #MeToo problem, has faced three auditing scandals in the last several months, and two just this year.  Booz Allen Hamilton, which earns about 75% of its profit from defense and intelligence contracting, has been called “the world’s most profitable spy agency.”

As professionals in the policy field, it is likely that we will all occasionally face ethical dilemmas.  Most policy programs have a course in Ethics required as part of the core curriculum, and Sanford is no different.  How well we ultimately incorporate this ethics training into our professional portfolio is difficult to measure.  You cannot shadow alumni at their post-graduate positions to grade them on how ethically they act in the workplace.  And of course the determination of “the ethical” is mostly subjective in the first place.  

Our program’s priorities are laid bare when you contrast the above reality with the amount of time we spend analyzing decisions from an economic standpoint.  The economics of a decision is usually the primary and often the sole consideration, while the ethical implications are often ignored. This may be useful for producing technically skilled workers, but we must ask if it falls short of creating people of character – the types of individuals who would make Terry Sanford proud.     

What we need to do is to open a broader conversation – at Sanford, at Duke, and in the broader policy community – about what types of ethical and moral sacrifices we are willing to make to further our careers.  To begin this conversation, we need a fundamental discussion on what even constitutes an ethical or moral sacrifice.

These discussions are not generally happening in our current courses, except tangentially.  In our introductory Policy Analysis course, for example, we may come across one or two cases that require a more rigorous discussion about moral choices.  In the Ethics courses, we have broader ethical discussions, but these do not generally touch upon what an individual should do in specific circumstances.

When it comes to major consulting firms, however, some of the ethics are less nebulous.  We need to talk about our own individual responses to knowing for whom consulting firms inevitably work.  We need to initiate a general conversation about the ethical standards we as individuals are going to hold when entering the policy workforce.

McKinsey & Co. is a firm with around 27,000 employees in 127 offices worldwide. It is more than likely that only a small handful of those employees are responsible for this recent Saudi report that may have harmed civilians.  Does simply being associated with such an act via your employer’s name constitute ethical malpractice?  Regardless of your answer, you probably agree that an open discussion about the question could be helpful.

Another factor – that of course must be part of the conversation – is the financial reality of most graduate students upon leaving academia.  Student debt is burdensome. The large consulting firms, more often than not, offer the highest-paying jobs. Graduating professionals may thus feel coerced into working for these firms.  This tension is part of a broader systemic issue – we must be careful not to place the entire burden on individual practitioners to avoid “problematic” jobs.

As it is now, we are left alone as individuals to answer each of these questions for ourselves. Many of us will never reflect on them, while others will feel the constraints of their specific circumstances and act accordingly.  Virtually all of us will proceed as if we are not in fact a community of colleagues and professionals with the skills, intellect, and compassion to help each other grapple with these difficult decisions.  

But first we must talk about it.  In addition, the current student effort to incorporate more training in systemic inequality would indirectly foster increased discussion of “the ethical” writ large.  But at the very least we must talk about it more formally, openly, and honestly.

Blake Rosser is a 2nd-year MPP student studying local government, inequality, and affordable housing.

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