Hendrik Kirsten, of SRK fame, interviewed me when I was a candidate for a job with Steffen, Robertson, and Kirsten, as it was called in the mid-1970s. Hendrik is a stern moralist, a man of outstanding rectitude and honesty. His integrity was legendary even then, when in the mid-1970s, I was seated in front of him for an interview.
Oskar and Andy had already decided I should be hired. But protocol demanded that all three partners agree on new hires. Thus I was seated nervously in front of him, not knowing what to expect.
He started with pleasantries: he knew of me; knew of my work; knew I had the support of the other two partners. Soon he segued into this question: “Jack, there is only one criterion I apply when agreeing to a new person joining us. What is their answer to this question: Do you realize that as a consultant you are like a prostitute—you get paid to get fucked? What do you say?”
I was taken aback. I had never thought of the question: what is a consultant? I had never considered prostitutes, that being the early 1970s of South Africa. I had barely read Lady Chatterley’s Lover when it was surreptitiously handed around in the university residence.
My answer was simple enough: “Never thought of that, but if I can be honest and moral, it matters not what I do.”
Then I recalled my legal training. I had learnt when doing my law degree that the lawyer is employed to represent the best interests of his client. The rule was never to lie, but to tell only those truths that promote the client’s best interest. It was part of the adversarial system that is at the heart of Anglo-Saxon law: opposing parties present the best case they can for their client. This is so different from the European system based on the Napoleonic Code: lawyers of both parties help the judge determine the truth.
I expanded my answer to Hendrik: “I have learnt the ethics of a lawyer. Tell only the truth in the best interests of the client. But tell no more than is needed to win the case. If that is what you mean by being a consultant, then I am a prostitute by training and instinct.”
I got the job and the rest is history.
I had occasion to recall this long-ago interview, when recently I learnt that a person whom I barely know had agreed to work with our company on a job. Said person works for a reputable consulting company and is reputed to be most capable. Thus our management sought them out to work with us when they decided to put in a proposal to an international mining company to do the job.
Then I learnt that said person is retained by the regulators to represent them against us on another mine in a similar project.
I protested that this was conflict of interest and un-professional. I could not immediately conceive how said person could work with us on one project while simultaneously working against us on another project. I was told: “That is the Canadian way. There are few enough experts in that topic. Sometimes we work together; sometimes we work in opposition.”
Then I recalled that lawyers sometimes oppose each other and sometimes work together. The best recent example is the two layers who persuaded the USA Supreme Court to find for gay marriage in California and to overturn the Defence of Marriage Act. Previously they had fought against each other over certifying Bush in the face of hanging cards in Florida. They had represented different interest in the Bush case, but joined their talents in a cause they both believe in.
Is the said person that I barely know similarly motivated and thus equally professional?
I have not consulted the BC Professional Ethics code or anything else relevant. As a person with a law degree, I know it will be vague and open to interpretation; I know you can argue both ways; I know said person can claim to be a professional who will put truth above venial considerations like increased billing and hence big salary and bonus.
But I remain uneasy. It just does not make my belly sit easy. I just Intuit that what said person is doing is wrong, regardless of precedent, of argument, of logic, of a shortage of professional in BC. I just do not like it. It is too much like being a prostitute to be fucked for money.
I know this posting will bring furious response. I will be exacerbated. I will be cautioned to be more discreet. The powers that be will gather to reject me and my opinion. But who cares—the worst they can do is turn me loose to ride my bike every day and watch opera by night. Or maybe I will be honored for raising a professional issue that once resolved is to the credit of BC professionals. Doubt it, but that is my hope.
As for the clients whose interests said person represents, let us hope they get the best that can be produced. In the case of the international mining company, said person will bring superb expertise to their issues. In the interests of the regulators and the public they represent, said person will bring insight and a demanding imperative to get the right answer to protect the environment and the people and fish involved. I look forward to both projects and seeing how they resolves what I believe is a fatal conflict of interest.
PS. While writing this posting. I watched the Marinsky Russian Theater perform of Verdi’s Attila. One of the leads is Ezio, the Roman ambassador to Attila. Ezio proposes to Attila that Attila take the universe but leave Italy to Ezio. He, Ezio, is a traitor, and even Attila cannot countenance his scheme. God triumphs as always in Verdi’s operas regarding the freedom of Italy. Here we see the conflict of interest that affects the great and noble: they always put self-interest ahead of general interest. Although Attila is true to his purpose: be the meglomatic ruler of the universe, but do not deal with the venial, selfish schemer.
This is the third DVD of this great opera I own. I thus know the words, the tunes, the story, which is not historically correct. But recall that Attila at one time received as tribute a large part of the GDP of Rome. He did this by fear rather than might. The Romans were weak for reasons we do not fully understand. A foreign threat was enough to dispirit them to pay for peace and continuance of their unsustainable way of life. And powerful women held sway by virtue of courage, persuasion, and love.
By the end of the opera, Odabella has stabbed Attila to death. She is ever the heroine of Rome. The reality is different: history tells us Attila died of a heart attack while deflowering his newest concubine. The difference between art and reality; between theory and practice; between professionalism as gut feeling and reason.