What are business ethics in self-employed consultancy?

Having been in business for some time now, I’ve encountered lots of people in the course of doing business. Clients, obviously, but also suppliers/potential suppliers and other business contacts.  Most have been or still are a pleasure to encounter or do business with, but naturally there have been some I’ve come across who are less so.

My experiences have highlighted to me how important integrity is in business and have helped clarify the principles I like to stick to. Here are seven things I think demonstrate good business ethics in self-employed consultancy:

Do what you say you are going to do

Whether it’s a piece of research or a letter for a client, an email or an introduction for a business contact or supplying information to a supplier, if you’ve said you’ll do it, do it. You shouldn’t need to be chased.

Stick to deadlines

Part of sticking to deadlines is agreeing realistic ones in the first place of course, but assuming you’ve done that, stick to it. If someone wants something in a very tight deadline, only agree to it if you’re sure you can achieve it.

Pay on time, or even early

Maybe it’s a bit old-fashioned but I like paying my bills on time, or even early if I can. Sometimes I pay straightaway when the bill comes in, that way I know it’s been done and I don’t need to add it to a to do list at all. If you have a regular monthly payment, set up a standing order to make sure it gets paid.

Problems with payment are a key reason business relationships deteriorate, so keep a good relationship with your suppliers by ensuring they get paid the right amount, and on time.

Communicate difficulties

Sometimes an unavoidable emergency can crop up meaning a previously-agreed deadline is now not achievable. If this happens, most people are perfectly fine about it as long as you communicate. Don’t just leave it and hope they don’t notice, talk to the person, explain, and give them a new, realistic deadline.

The same applies to payment. If for whatever reason you are going to struggle to pay a bill on time, most suppliers will be a bit flexible if you communicate those difficulties to them. But if you just ignore it and hope they don’t notice, they have to spend time chasing you, and the relationship may deteriorate.

Remember where your business is likely to come from

As a self-employed consultant, much of your business is likely to come from existing/previous clients, either as repeat business from them or in the form of recommendations from them.  So don’t take them for granted and only worry about good service with new or prospective clients. If you don’t continue to give good service to existing clients not only may you lose their business, but you may not have new clients to worry about…

Charge fairly

This includes not recommending work that isn’t actually needed. I’m conscious that as an HR consultant, I am in a position of a certain amount of power in respect of the fact that I have a greater understanding of employers’ legal requirements than perhaps they do. Otherwise of course they would not be seeking my expertise in the first place.

It would be easy, therefore, to bump up fees by recommending lots and lots of documents on the basis of them either being legally required or essential in some way, or by recommending new documents when actually the old ones just need a little updating. I’ve heard of consultants doing that on many occasions, not just in HR, but I think it is ethically wrong to take advantage of one’s position and knowledge in that way.

Similarly, although many of our clients are on a retainer service, some work is project work with fixed fees, and again it would be easy to play up all the things that might go wrong and over estimate. Instead I prefer to assess all the possible scenarios, balance that against the likelihood of various things happening in those circumstances and come up with a fee that takes those things into account.

Transparent terms of business

Having decent, clear terms of business is a must for me, although I’m constantly surprised by how many people don’t have these. Clients need to be clear what they can expect from you and what you expect from them, and what happens in the event of a problem. If terms are clear, then of course problems are less likely anyway…

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