Obviously unethical consulting … but why?

A few years ago I did some research into CMS applications and it occurred to me, that an unscrupulous web design company could easily sell a website and deliver nothing more than an installed, free, open source CMS app with a simple custom skin. They could basically; install the CMS app, create, buy, or even steal a skin, then cut & paste the clients copy into it. A fairly sophisticated (aka expensive) site could be launched in one evening, and the client would never even know the difference. Heck, many clients wouldn’t even care if they knew the difference and a carefully worded contract would protect the web design company if the client did care.

It’s easy to speculate that others may be doing this right now, been doing it for years, and some may have even made fortunes doing this.

… wait … what? … fortunes? …

… and with this, my rational mind kicked in and argued that as an ‘Entrepreneur’, isn’t this exactly what I was supposed to be doing? Trying to make as much money as quickly as possible, while minimizing my costs? Isn’t that what business is all about? Isn’t this providing the customer more value faster? Maybe this is the way to go!

Think about it; StarBucks is praised for quadrupling the price of a cup of coffee by adding foam … foam! … Air with a thin milk film separating the $5.00 air from the free air. How is it StarBucks is praised for selling foam, while what I described above is clearly wrong?

To be honest, I had a very tough struggle with this … not IF I should do it, but why is it wrong? I mean you could probably do this ‘legally’, while the ethical question was very difficult to quantify and easy to argue against with simple business logic.

It really comes down to the question; what exactly is unethical about this?

After wrestling with this question for weeks, I finally realized the answer.

As a consultant, there is an implied promise to use ALL my knowledge and skill to advance the clients interests.*

The ethical issue in this specific situation arises when information about an easily implemented solution is withheld from the client. This is the problem … this is why the above scenario would make anybody with a conscience uneasy.

This situation can be made ethical by a disclosure of the advantages of using the particular open source package and what exact you will bring to the arrangement. By selling the installation, customization, and configuration of open source software, not burying the term in the contract while implying a custom solution, and you are being ethical.

You can still make a lot of money doing this and it’s ok to charge a high rate. Charge $50/hr, or $80, or $100, or $150, or $200, or $2000, or more if you want … that’s totally fine, as long as information is not hidden from the client. After all, everybody likes money right? 😉

Now as far as I know, there is nothing illegal about the above scenario, but just because something is legal doesn’t make it moral.

Agree? Disagree? Can you add a clearer distinction? Add a comment.

* With exception to confidential information acquired outside of this client.

Copyright © John MacIntyre 2009, All rights reserved

One Response to “Obviously unethical consulting … but why?”

  1. I really don’t see a problem with the scenario you described. The consultant probably should disclose the nature of the solution, and certainly should not mislead the client, however, very often the client does not care. From their point of view they just want the best solution for the least cost. The unethical approach would be to do things the hard way when there is a simpler solution available.

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