Caught in the Middle
As a consultant, you interface with many sources of people - your firm, your clients, vendors, subcontractors, industry associations, to name a few. You spend most of your career building credentials, hoping that the quality of your work speaks loudly enough for itself. But because the consulting world is small, you come across the same people in multiple platforms.
I believe you need to be more politically savvy than in other industries in order to succeed. But when you are caught at the crossroad of each circle of people you know, you have more at stake. Making the "right" decision is almost impossible. Someone is bound to lose, and it may be you.
A little over a year ago, I found myself in an uncomfortable position - I witnessed senior management from my firm conduct unethical business practices that impacted three of my clients in two cities. None of the clients knew about the firm's actions. None made the connections between their results and the partners' wrongdoing.
My tenure at the firm was relatively long, considering the average turnover rate there was about a year, and I had found great success with this company and learned a lot. Understandably, I felt obligated to be loyal to the firm. However, I found my values in conflict, and it took months before I was able to extricate myself from the situation.
In the consulting world, our personal and professional values are challenged every day. Each action, decision, or speech we output receives scrutiny and produces consequences in the consulting world. Herein lies the crux of office politics - allying yourself with who you think are powerful is not always enough.
In my case, I confided in someone I considered a mentor figure. He advised me to keep quiet about what I saw. He told me he compromised on every situation, as long as it did not threaten his life or his family's. He said his life had improved considerably since enacting this personal policy, and pointed out he got along better with everyone in his personal and business lives as a result. Being 20 years older, as well as a high- ranking officer in my department, he felt his advice was sage.
But I felt strongly disconcerted by his advice. While I saw the evidence in his life, I faced difficulty reconciling my personal values with his approach. If I took his advice, I would negate my very identity, because my values significantly contributed to my character. Try as I might, my soul refused to take that route.
I struggled for almost two months before deciding how to proceed with my knowledge. I held documented proof of what had taken place among senior management. I read the documents over and over, hoping to disprove what was so obviously indisputable. I reviewed the situation from every conceivable angle - from the partners', clients', vendors', and other employees' perspectives. I conjured up every imaginable scenario of "what ifs" - what if I kept silent, what if I confronted the guilty, what if I found someone else willing to mediate, etc. I considered every ramification for each of these scenarios. I failed to find one variation where the outcome would be beneficial to all involved.
For the first time in my career, I failed to find a perfect solution. No matter what, I was going to be scarred - be it publicly or privately. Finally, I chose to confront the managing partner in my home office. I felt like I was walking straight to the guillotine - it would have been politically wiser to keep my knowledge self-contained. After all, the clients were oblivious, and the firm lost nothing from the partners' transactions. Yet, my blood pressure continued to rise, and sound sleep was impossible.
I invited the partner to lunch. I brought my evidence with me, knowing he was cognizant of the situation. I posed hypothetical circumstances paralleling mine to scope out his natural response. Thankfully, he seemed to be in agreement with me. Unfortunately, my sigh of relief lived only temporarily. When I presented the real-world scenario to him, he contradicted his initial indications.
Instead of offering me with the support and encouragement I expected, he coldly gave me two options: continue working successfully at the firm under his wing, or leave with an acceptable severance package. Either way, he had no intention of taking responsibility for himself or the firm. My esteem for him and the firm plunged even farther. I decided to resign, sign the nondisclosure, and take the severance package. I wanted complete disassociation from the firm.
In looking for employment after this situation, I sought a consulting position diametrically opposed to my experience. Now I work for a small company, reporting to one CEO, and in a corporate culture that supposedly reaffirms my values. (I say supposedly, because I thought this was also true of my former employer.)
In retrospect, I accept my decision as more than just acceptable - I see my decision as respectable. For a while, I lamented my agreement to stay silent. I will never be able to tell my former clients the truth. I will never be able to confront the other managers and partners involved. I signed away my rights to do so in exchange for a severance package. While I wish things could have turned out differently, I know I would have been powerless to affect positive change, even without the agreement. My former company is one of the largest and most powerful in the world. Had I tried to play the hero, I would have failed - but at least now, I can live with myself.
Some might question the extent of my ethical values for having signed the nondisclosure. To them, I ask they withhold judgement until they fill my shoes under the same circumstances. If you are unfortunate enough to face similar challenges, know your threshold of acceptability and choose accordingly. In the end, you can only account for