1.1 Traditional Studies of Ethical Transgressions in Business

1.1.1 Journalists Reporting on Unethical Business Practices That Include Consultants

From journalists, we learn most about ethical transgressions in business. For long, they are the main informants of scholars in business ethics. What they do report are extreme examples of unethical behaviour, like environmental pollution due to mining, fracking, unsafe oil transport or ecological damage due to bio engineering. Other examples relate to health effects like lung cancer (tobacco industry), DNA damage (nuclear power plants) and lower life expectancy caused by air and water pollution (many industries). On the societal level, reported scandals relate to child labour, new forms of slavery (sweatshops), outsourcing illegal ways of working (mostly by using subcontractors from other countries), gender inequality and various forms of discrimination (everywhere). Journalists also report on money laundering scandals in the financial sector, and about the abundant use of fat, salt, sugar and other additives in the food process industry that encourage overconsumption leading to obesity, indicating companies raise sales at the cost of health. In many service industries, we find pressuring management aiming at increasing profitability, turning burnout into a common job-related illness in a growing number of countries. We learn from journalists it is the most reported job-related illness in the Netherlands for several years now.

Management consultants are partners in crime in many of these scandals. Big 4 (Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC) and big 3 (Bain, BCG, McKinsey) consultancies figure prominently in the news on these scandals. They help their clients, for instance, with finding loopholes in the law. Journalists of ICIJ (2014: https://www.icij.org/investigations/luxembourg-leaks/big-4-audit-firms-play-big-role-offshore-murk/) report tax avoidance practices based on the Lux Leaks. Tax advisors of all big four consultancies were involved. A second reported practice is overcharging, sometimes resulting in multi-million settlements as with KPMG and BearingPoint (New York Times, Apr. 5, 2004: https://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/05/business/kpmg-and-ex-unit-settle-overbilling-case.html). A third example relates to working for corrupt government officials like Isabel dos Santos in Angola (BCG, McKinsey and PwC) or restructuring the South African Revenue Service (SARS) in South Africa under President Zuma, where Bain was complicit in the resulting scandal, and had to settle (Financial Times, Oct. 9, 2018: https://www.ft.com/content/f6de62e6-cbb7-11e8-9fe5-24ad351828ab).

Consultants take actively part in the unethical decisions of their clients. The Purdue Pharma case with McKinsey’s highest ever settlement is such an example. McKinsey was held responsible for the many overdose deaths (estimated are 450.000 deaths between 1999 and 2018 in the US) of the very addictive OxyContin painkiller, as McKinsey had helped boosting sales of the drug (BBC News, Feb. 4, 2021: https://www.bbc.com/news/business-55939224). A related example is the tobacco tactics scandal in Australia, where a Deloitte report commissioned by the tobacco industry was heavily criticized by TobaccoTactics (2020: https://tobaccotactics.org/wiki/deloitte/).

Consultants have also been criticized for giving unfounded or flawed advice to the detriment of their clients, like BCG in the Swedish Karolinska Hospital Scandal, discussed in a blog of Åsa Cajander (2019: https://www.asacajander.se/2019/06/17/kampen-on-karolinska-konsulterna-by-anna-gustafsson-and-lisa-rostlund/). Much discussed is also McKinsey’s hunter strategy for Swissair, leading to their collapse, because Swissair started to invest in the wrong airlines (Economist, July 19, 2001: https://www.economist.com/business/2001/07/19/a-scary-swiss-meltdown). Next to this, many consultants were involved in insider trading, with journalists reporting several convictions.

Such examples are the top of an iceberg. By studying newspapers, business ethicists learn from journalists about these very extreme cases. The focus is here on what went extremely wrong. Therefore this overview based on what journalists report is not representative for the full spectrum of moral transgressions in the corporate world. What about the more daily forms of unethical behaviour in the business world? How could we study them? Are journalists and their accounts our only sources to study ethical transgressions in business, or do we have more options?

As business ethics is a rather theoretical field dominated by philosophers, the ways to study ethical transgressions in business are limited. In addition, common empirical methods of social scientists have not been developed to study the research questions of business ethicists. That makes business ethics a field of study that is very dependent on non-academic sources. Scholars in business ethics could take more responsibility for developing the methods they need, to study ethics cases in business more accurately, covering individual business behaviours as well as how business life is organized. However, philosophers trained in ethics might feel they are not well prepared for this. Therefore, the current book seeks to answer the question how business ethics can develop new tailored research methods to study ethical transgressions in professional contexts.

I will explore the raised method question by taking criticized consultant practices as a research context for this book. If we can find new ways to let consultants share their experiences, instead of only relying on what journalists report, we might be able to learn a lot more about business ethical transgressions, also in other business fields. Consultants know about their own unethical practices, and they have designed codes of conduct to prevent them. Moreover, management consultants are very knowledgeable as partners in crime. As illustrated above, they are involved in many scandals co-created with their clients.

What makes the ethics question difficult to study, is that confidentiality agreements hinder consultants to share experiences. Opening up might even hurt their clients’ and consultants’ own reputations. That means, in spite of their rich knowledge, it will be a challenge to motivate consultants to share their insights. Research in business ethics will also be subject to social desirability bias. One journalist reported this very same experience when talking to investment bankers about their unethical behaviours related to the banking crisis (cf. Luyendijk, 2015). Therefore, many journalistic accounts have been based on court cases, on “leaks” documents, and on what whistle-blowers report. It really is a challenge, to study real-life cases of unethical business behaviours.

Social scientists may have encountered unethical business behaviours in their research as well, and they must have faced the same obstacles. Therefore, it is good to first see how past academic studies exploring aspects of consultant ethics did arrive at their results. Before introducing new methods to study ethical transgressions in business, we should know what kind of research has been done in the example case of consultants, as one of the key players in the business field. What methods have been practiced up till now, and what ethical issues have been reported?

1.1.2 Academic Studies on Consultants’ Ethics and Their Methods

Some recent reviews and an Oxford Handbook of Management Consulting indicate studies on consultants have increased over the years (Bouwmeester et al., 2022; Cerruti et al., 2019; Kipping & Clark, 2012; Mosonyi et al., 2020). While ethics is addressed in the Oxford Handbook of Management Consulting as an area of interest (Kipping & Clark, 2012; Krehmeyer & Freeman, 2012), the literature on ethics in consulting is still very nascent. Only ten consultant studies could be found with ethics as the main focus. Other studies are touching on the topic, but it is not the key theme studied.

All consultant studies touching on ethics will be reviewed for the critical themes addressed, and the ten key studies also for the research methods used, which are mostly traditional such as interviews, surveys and case studies. Regarding themes, consultant literature pictures clients as the victims of consultants mainly. The issue of consultants and clients as partners in crime that we can learn from journalists is not addressed yet in academic literature on consultants’ ethics. This might indicate that used methods are not so well able to pass beyond the barriers of social desirability bias yet, and maybe researcher bias plays a role as well.

The first theme discussed in the literature on consultant ethics relates to expertise. When recommendations have been given with damaging effects on the client, the reason can be consultants’ incompetence (e.g. Alvesson & Johansson, 2002; Bouwmeester & Stiekema, 2015; Exton, 1982; Sturdy, 2009). McKenna (2006, p. 142) illustrates, for instance, how incompetence has harmed a client. Consultants working for a non-profit organization assume that non-profits are always inefficiently managed. Such an assumption is clearly based on overgeneralization and indicates a superficial judgement. Likewise, a case study by McKay (2000, p. 295) mentions a group of consultants who did everything wrong in their assignment, and as a consequence, were dismissed. Such examples happen often enough to be noticed. However, clients can be part of the problem when things go wrong. The German philosopher Sloterdijk argues that consultants very well know that their expertise is limited (Sloterdijk, 2006, p. 107). However, such self-knowledge does not always apply to incompetent clients, by him referred to as “Inkompetenzträger”. Poulfelt (1997, p. 69) likewise acknowledges consultants’ superficiality, but adds like Sloterdijk that clients “can also add (unnecessary) fuel to the fire to protect self-esteem and their own image”.

A second criticism points at unethical forms of dishonesty and one-sidedness. While consultants consider honesty, authenticity and reliability very important for a good consultant-client relationship (Block, 2000, p. 37; Shaw, 2020, p. 37), the consultant role often requires more flexibility in this respect than commonly assumed as being ethical. Bluffing seems common practice, and overconfidence part of the job (Angner, 2006; Boussebaa, 2008; Bouwmeester, 2013). In addition, in their role as an advocate—or devil’s advocate—consultants may draw on selective truth and one-sided perspectives (Mason, 1969; Saxton, 1995). Jackall (1988, p. 142) mentions a tendency of consultants using euphemistic language and trying to focus on the bright side of difficult situations. In contrast, de Caluwé and Witteveen (2001, p. 11) report that consultants, in trying to arouse certain emotions in clients, may also use exaggeration and distortion techniques to mercilessly address clients’ limitations. Apart from this Redekop and Heath (2007, p. 42) argue that consultants can get away with dishonest behaviour quite easily. The authors back this up by quoting consultants who claim that it is highly unlikely they will get caught using fallacious figures or manipulating some numbers in a regression analysis (Redekop & Heath, 2007, p. 45).

The third issue implies dishonesty as well. Overcharging means consultants do not sufficiently live up to the conditions as stated in the contract (Shaw, 2020, p. 33) which makes them unreliable. Redekop and Heath (2007, p. 44) explain as with dishonesty: “It is not that consultants are necessarily greedier than anyone else, it is only that they are in a unique position to capitalize on it”. As clients can hardly control the time consultants spend on their assignments, they can write hours they do not work, as long as the client is satisfied with the end result. Kakabadse et al. (2006, p. 458) cite some consultants who feel uncomfortable with this practice, a sentiment found in Alvesson and Johansson (2002) as well. Overcharging or double-billing is more common when consultant services are in high demand. Still, Bergh and Gibbons (2011) argue that research does not support the criticism that consultants overcharge systematically and in general. When the demand for consultant services goes down, prices go down as well. Consultants’ strong commercial focus is also visible in the practice known as “sell on” which is extending or renewing contracts as long as you can, no matter if it benefits the client. It is an unethical practice discussed by many authors (see O’Mahoney, 2011, pp. 107–108; Jones, 2003, p. 275; Rassam & Oates, 1991, p. 25; Sturdy, 1997, p. 401).

Fourth, when consultants work with clients, they do not always take the whole client system into account. Although serving the client’s interest is considered very important (Shaw, 2020, p. 36), interests of the primary client are not necessarily aligned with the interests of all employees, or other relevant external stakeholders (see Bouwmeester & Stiekema, 2015; Poulfelt, 1997; Schein, 1997; Sturdy, 2009). For instance, IT assignments have the potential of increasing efficiency but do not always benefit employees. Sometimes they lose their jobs, in other cases, the work changes. An example is remote working and flex office designs invented by consultants. They can decrease short-term sick leave, but often increase long-term sick leave, feelings of anonymity and concentration problems (Bouwmeester, 2017, pp. 113–121).

Finally, some criticisms relate to internal stakeholder interests at consultancies themselves. Managing partners are not so ethical when relating to client employees, and they seem as commercially focused when it comes to their own employees (Heller, 2002; Krehmeyer & Freeman, 2012; O’Mahoney, 2011; Sturdy, 2009). This criticism aligns with studies reporting high levels of stress and work-life conflict, suggesting that consultants have very demanding managers (Alvesson & Einola, 2018; Bouwmeester & Kok, 2018; Meriläinen et al., 2004; Mühlhaus & Bouwmeester, 2016; Noury et al., 2017). Scholars have also pointed at the metaphor of prostitution (Alvesson & Johansson, 2002, p. 230; Jackall, 1988, p. 143), also suggesting their management is asking too much.

From a methods perspective, some of the criticisms discussed in ten academic articles with a main focus on consultant ethics are inspired by popular press such as newspaper articles, or references to journalistic books (i.e. Ashford, 1998; Micklethwaite & Wooldridge, 1996), autobiographical work (i.e. Pinault, 2000) or other more popular accounts like novels (i.e. Kihn, 2012). Still, more common is to use references to other academic studies, and sometimes own primary data is generated. Table 1.1 gives an overview of the main methods relied on in the ten articles where the focus on consultant ethics is central.

Table 1.1 Methods used in earlier studies on ethics in management consulting

References to other theoretical or empirical work are the dominant source in all ten articles. Studies also use own interview data or survey results. The two studies that refer explicitly to popular press, cite articles from newspapers or magazines and various non-fiction books as illustration of a theoretical argument. Probably we could learn more from these sources. For instance, as indicated before, from the Purdue Pharma case we could learn that McKinsey and their client acted as partners in crime. The TV series House of Lies illustrates similar cases. It is based on a novel inspired by the experiences of Kihn (2012), an ex-consultant at Booz Allan Hamilton. Still, this partner-in-crime perspective is missing in academic literature, whereas it seems a credible observation. In addition, Allen and Davis (1993) are left with many unanswered questions after their survey. Redekop and Heath (2007) try to follow up on these questions with an interview study, but their results stay very tentative. Currently, we seem to miss out on some relevant issues. The question is how to better engage in empirical research on all ethical issues and how to invite more honest responses, given the challenges of social desirability bias, moral disengagement or sheer denial. What research methods could help scholars in ethics to generate better results on ethical transgressions and ethical dilemmas in business?

1.2 Unethical Business Practices and Public Jokes

1.2.1 Literature Studies and Ethics

As demonstrated in the context of consulting, academic studies that explore examples of ethical transgressions empirically are comparatively rare. Business ethics has a rather limited tradition in studying ethical transgressions empirically, mainly due to a lack of tailored empirical research methods. The field of ethics is mainly philosophical and prefers to reflect on theoretical cases and thought experiments, next to business cases provided by journalists.

Most empirical work on ethics is done by moral psychologists, often in experimental settings, and by organization theorists in CSR studies. Empirical research in business ethics remains a challenge, as reflecting in interviews on ethical transgressions experienced in the business context is not easy, and the same applies to giving honest personal answers in a survey. Feelings of shame or fear for lack of control over interpretations by researchers create social desirability bias. Many respondents stay silent when asked about their own unethical business behaviours. They even feel constrained to talk about ethical transgression they have witnessed (cf. Luyendijk, 2015). It is not easy to start a reflection on ethical challenges in business, on behaviour that is far from heroic, or when you failed to face a moral challenge (cf. Hermanowicz, 2002).

While in ethics there is not much of an empirical research tradition, Nussbaum (1995, 2001) could be considered an exception. She has studied novels and tragedies as a way to learn more about ethical traditions in the past and learn how ethical dilemmas were experienced at that time and place. Novels, tragedies or comedies can illustrate how their main characters experience moral struggles that mirror real life. Likewise, we could study novels, comedies or tragedies situated in a current business context, to learn more about current moral challenges. For older professions like lawyers, policemen or professors there have been written such novels and plays that could be used. However, related to the new profession of management consultants there are not so many novels, and novels are not very up to date usually. They span longer time periods in their historical accounts.

Inspired by literature analysis, an alternative source are critical business jokes and cartoons as published on websites, or in newspapers and business magazines. Some studies have hinted at their usefulness for research. For example, Parker (2007, p. 88) suggests that critical representations of popular culture might have the potential to support an ethical agenda. Especially critical cartoons make a moral appeal. Sturdy et al. (2008, p. 142) suggest that there might be a link between humour and ethics, “perhaps”. Galanter argues that jokes may “reveal something about our society and ourselves that may otherwise elude us” (Galanter, 2005, p. 19). Therefore, this book seeks to explore how critical business jokes can be part of research methods in the field of business ethics, as there are many critical business jokes on consultants and their ethics.

Similar to tragedy and comedy, jokes and cartoons illustrate what deserves critical attention, including transgressive behaviour of an unethical kind. In the field of consulting such jokes are prominent, next to jokes on lack of work-life balance or an overly strong interest in technological gadgets. Especially the jokes on ethics can be a source for study. Promising is, that jokes are only perceived as funny, if audiences can recognize the ridiculed behaviour. Moreover, jokes play with what is right or wrong, normal or absurd, and timely or outdated. They activate common norms and standards, including ethical ones, by showing norm violation. For that reason, jokes might be able to enrich traditional research methods like interview and survey studies in a way that they become more useful for business ethics research. It is these kinds of methods we want to discuss further. The question is how such jokes-based methods can be used for studying business ethical transgressions.

1.2.2 Humour Theories and Joking About Unethical Practices

Why is it, that jokes or cartoons are used to articulate unethical practices in business? Or to criticize behaviour of politicians? Unethical behaviour has a big share in business jokes, next to illustrations of absurdity, stupidity, ugliness and violations of particular social standards. Indeed, the three most discussed humour theories, incongruity theory, relief theory and superiority theory all indicate the links between humour and moral standards (Watson, 2015).

First, incongruity theory claims that something is funny because it is unexpected, unusual or surprising (Meyer, 2000; Mulder & Nijholt, 2002; Veatch, 1998). The usual serves as the norm, which is unsettled by a surprising punch line. In consultant jokes, the usual can be that consultants are expected to behave as experts and that they can give direction. An incongruity is that they demonstrate an apparent lack of ability. Incongruity theory claims that the surprise creates the fun. The next joke illustrates such an incongruity:

A client with one consultant knows what to do. A client with two consultants is never sure.

(http://www.ronspace.org/consult.htm)

Veatch (1998) criticizes incongruity theory while also building on it. He argues like Bergson (2008, p. 25) that not all incongruities are funny. He adds two necessary conditions that have to be fulfilled simultaneously. First, jokes need to tell something that is emotionally absurd, which implies an offense of what you think is proper, acceptable or just. If an incongruity is only strange, it does not cause enough energy for laughter. However, if the emotional absurdity is too harsh, people can get offended. Veatch’s humour theory therefore requires a mild offence of the shared moral, social or aesthetic norms and values of an audience, which is the absurdity condition: “the perceiver has in mind a view of the situation as constituting a violation of a “subjective moral principle”” (Veatch, 1998, p. 163). Second condition is that jokes have to characterize a situation that can be seen as normal, something that happens more often, something people can recognize: “the perceiver has in mind a predominating view of the situation as being normal” (Veatch, 1998, p. 164). These two conditions remind of Aristotle’s view in the Poetic (1988, p. 1449a), Nichomachean Ethics (1985, p. 1128a) and Rhetoric (1991, p. 1419b), where he argues that real humour should not hurt. Humour has to be entertaining by finding a middle way between being boring and being insulting. It is playing with right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, or normal and absurd. That makes humour a perfect vehicle to express moral criticisms mildly, in a way that is not too painful.

Second is the relief theory that adds a psychological dimension to explaining what humour does, which is coping with a difficult situation. While humour can very well serve this purpose, it may serve other purposes as well, which makes it a less general humour theory. The theory also claims that laughter can release the psychic energy that is needed to suppress feelings in taboo areas, like sex or death, and unethical activities belong here too. When taboo thoughts are triggered by humour, the theory explains that the release of energy results in laughter (Billig, 2005, p. 155; see also Downe, 1999; Meyer, 2000; Mulder & Nijholt, 2002). The relief theory explains coping humour, which is very personal and can also be self-derogative. By doing so, it can liberate feelings of pain, shame or embarrassment as illustrated in the joke:

Did you hear about the Partner

… that was so egotistical that even the other Partners noticed?

(http://www.weitzenegger.de/en/to/jokes.html)

The joke is written in the second person and invites a reading of workplace humour shared between consultants who feel unhappy about their manager’s behaviour. When coping jokes criticize such questionable partner behaviour, they enter into a taboo sphere. Consultants are supposed to respect these managing partners, and partners are expected to not only care for themselves. Laughter can help to make such a stressful situation more manageable and less overwhelming. Jokes can also make such partner behaviour more discussable than it would normally be. Coping humour has been studied in other challenging work contexts. Tracy et al. (2006, p. 291) have observed firefighters who “raise their position by laughing at themselves”. Coping humour has also been found by Downe (1999), as it appeared in the work life of Costa Rican prostitutes. It is the humour of insiders that work on the edge of what they can handle. One of these edges can be what we consider morally problematic in our professional field. While the mentioned studies observe workplace humour in context, coping humour is also visible in Internet jokes, then illustrating more general patterns like working for selfish partners as in the presented consulting joke, which is not a unique experience. Many consultants will recognize the feeling.

Third is the superiority theory, claiming that people predominantly laugh at the misfortunes of others, and so create insider and outsider groups. Outsiders are put down as not being up to relevant standards in terms of fashion, status, or ethics. Early illustrations of this form of humour can be found in classic philosophy (cf. Aristotle, 1988, p. 1449a), and more pronounced in Hobbes (1991, p. 43). Humiliation of others is seen as an important trigger for laughter (Bergson, 2008, p. 93). Superiority theory assumes that laughter creates a distance between those who laugh, and the subjects of their laughter (Lennox Terrion & Ashforth, 2002). By laughing, the in-group marks certain behaviours or beliefs of outsiders as undesirable or unworthy. Deviant behaviour of outsiders is censored by laughter (Ferguson & Ford, 2008; Meyer, 2000). The next joke illustrates how consultants are made an inferior outsider group:

Q. Why is a consultant so called?

A. Because he first cons and then insults you.

(http://allthingsconsulting.blogspot.com/)

Censoring outsiders involves creating norms and values to support humorous judgments about others’ inferior behaviours. Doing so, can help excluding outsiders, and strengthening insider group identities and own value systems (Cooper, 2008; Greatbatch & Clark, 2003; Romero & Pescosolido, 2008; Sturdy et al., 2010). By setting insider norms and excluding those that do not meet these norms, superiority jokes have great potential to express ethical criticism, and to correct behaviour that is seen as socially unacceptable (Bergson, 2008, p. 17).

The three humour theories can all explain how not meeting standards or expectations leads to incongruities of different kinds. The superiority and relief theory add specific psychological motives to the incongruity construction, while Veatch (1998) chooses a more general criterion by speaking of emotional absurdities, with the mild violation of norms as a condition for humour. In addition, the normality condition is quite essential for understanding humour as well. It implies that jokes need to signal something familiar, something we can recognize, even though it might be unexpected, inferior or somewhat taboo.

In an empirical study the condition of mild norm violation as assumed by Veatch (1998) is tested, based on a “benign-violation hypothesis” (McGraw & Warren, 2010, p. 1142). The authors find that benign moral violations indeed generate laughter more often than violations that are not benign, or when norm violation is absent. The study also finds that humour allows for mixed emotions like being both disgusted and amused by the norm violation, in which amusement serves a communicative function: “Laughter and amusement signal to the world that a violation is indeed okay” (McGraw & Warren, 2010, p. 1148).

Figure 1.1 shows how the three forms of humour share that they can signal ethical criticisms. Articulating mild ethical norm violation creates an incongruity. Doing so can be based on different motives: a coping motive in relief theory or a put-down motive in superiority theory, while still meeting the two conditions of emotional absurdity and normality as stated by Veatch (1998).

Fig. 1.1
figure 1

Humour perspectives in jokes stating ethical critique

As superiority humour creates an insider–outsider division, it is in Fig. 1.1 characterized as outsider humour. It can be the humour of clients or their employees about consultants. Coping humour is more self-critical, and here depicted as insider humour. It can be the humour of consultants about consultants. Both forms of humour demand normality and emotional absurdity due to mild norm violation.

By accepting the normality condition as an essential feature of humour, we must also agree that critical business jokes have the ability to address real ethical concerns that people experience in their work life as argued by Galanter (2005). They illustrate norm violations and activate the violated norms at the same time. One may object that jokes do not tell literal truths, as they often exaggerate, distort, stereotype or use irony, which makes it difficult to see through them. Indeed, you cannot take a joke at face value. Jokes need interpretation, just like metaphors (cf. Cornelissen & Kafouros, 2008). Or as Wilk (2021, p. 68) argues, jokes: “kinda-sorta” tell us truths. “The truths they tell, then, are second order.” But when we get the joke, “the “aha!” moment of the joke gives us knowledge about ourselves, our communities, and our shared believes.”

The meaning of the word joke usually includes text jokes, cartoons, memes, short video jokes and other funny expressions. Sometimes I want to emphasize subcategories, like cartoons, which are visually supported jokes, or text-only jokes, which I will characterize then as text jokes in these cases. Usually, I refer to the broader category of jokes in the book.

1.2.3 Jokes-Based Research Methods and Research Ethics

Jokes have the potential of being used in unethical ways. There is humour that discriminates, stereotypes, stigmatizes, or punches down, this way intentionally harming the targets of such jokes (Billig, 2005; De Sousa, 1987; Julin, 2021; Zaldivar, 2021). When using critical jokes as part of research, this could negatively affect jokes-based research methods. For instance, when identifying as a researcher with the critical joke, and thus voicing the ethical criticism to the member of the profession you study, you may become judgemental yourself. It is important to be reflective here. By using jokes, you run a risk that you start stigmatizing or stereotyping yourself, just as when being judgmental in normal language. That is not what should happen when integrating jokes in your research methods. You may be critical towards unethical business behaviours yourself, but the method you use should not be judgemental, stereotyping, discriminating, stigmatizing or leading in any way. That would spoil the results of your research completely.

To keep your own ethical standards high as researcher, it is important to be clear during research and in writing that it is not the researcher that makes the joke with the intent to criticize the practice of the business professional joked about. The jokes presented are anonymous Internet jokes. They need to be presented as such. They have been made by outsiders or insiders or both—the jokes do not tell. They are just used to be interpreted in light of the experiences of the interviewee, or the respondent in a survey. When using the joke for illustration in a theoretical or empirical argument, or in content analysis, the researcher should be careful to let the joke speak for itself. It should be clear where the researchers’ interpretations begin, where the joke ends, or where the interviewee or respondent speaks and interprets. Therefore, in the remainder of the book, distinctions between illustrative jokes, interpretations and voice will be made transparent. As reader you are invited to feel how that works.

The positive effect jokes are allowed to have on research participants in interview or survey studies, or on readers interpreting research findings and theoretical explorations, is that they frame unethical practice as a benign or mild norm violation, the ones many of us could laugh about. That may help to reduce social desirability bias, while at the same time the jokes introduce the topic, being the kind of transgression or practice to be discussed. The jokes lighten up the topic. Therefore, the amusement invoked by the humorous form of expression may help to create a play frame, and an emotional state in which moral transgressions can be better shared, discussed and explored (cf. McGraw & Warren, 2010; Sturdy et al., 2008; Veatch, 1998).

1.3 Outline and Contributions

This book aims to develop new research methods in business ethics by making use of the close relationship between critical business jokes and moral critique. First, critical business jokes can enrich our research methods by illustrating what is unethical in consultants’ business practices, second, they can be used as prompts for reflection in open interviews, third they can serve as statements to reflect on in rating questions in a survey, and fourth they can be a source for content analysis. While these methods are applied to consultant ethics, all business contexts where critical business jokes abound could fit, such as with unethical bankers, lawyers, the unethical impact of some technological innovations, etc.

When jokes become part of these research methods, the methods undergo a change. In that sense, they become different methods. For instance, when illustrating empirical or theoretical arguments with jokes, the illustration is not a normal mirror image as it commonly is. Instead, the illustration makes fun of ethical norm violation, which activates our values and guides our interpretation. Sampling, selection and the ease of interpretation become key for success, as you better should not have to explain a joke too much. Second, when jokes guide an interview, the selected jokes partly replace the topic list. They introduce the topics. Jokes change the dynamic during the conversation. Giving the interviewee room for interpretation becomes important. How to ask follow-up questions to make connections with related interviewee experiences is important as well, as the jokes are only a first trigger to move to these experiences. Third, when adding jokes to a survey, joke selection deserves careful attention (which topics, visual or text form, etc.), and the formulation of interpretative options (can you sufficiently cover relevant interpretations up front)? Finally, when using jokes as data for content analysis, implications for the method relate to searching (does your strategy yield enough results), how to set boundaries to the sample and how to interpret, as the researcher should be sufficiently able to distinguish fact from fiction. Adding jokes to these four methods makes a methodological difference to all of them.

Chapter 2 discusses the first method of using jokes as illustrations in theoretical or empirical arguments. In order to be useful as illustration in research, it needs to be clear first how well business jokes are able to illustrate relevant ethical transgressions in business. To find out, the strength of the illustration method is demonstrated for a top ten of ethical transgressions in consulting that builds on Bouwmeester (2020). The top ten is based on over 100 interviews. The chapter shows what level of coverage business jokes can provide in illustrating these ethical transgressions that are all in conflict with various parts of the code of conduct for consultants. Benefits of a jokes-as-illustration method are that the method helps to add emphasis, urgency and visibility to relevant aspects of well-known business ethical transgressions. With a sample of almost 100 public text jokes on consultants, covering various topics including ethics, the topical coverage was very good. Limitations were that new issues linked to digitalization and privacy were less well covered, as public jokes seem to lag behind a bit. Secondly, the amount of detail provided in text jokes is more limited than what interviews can offer. Jokes emphasize details that illustrate essential aspects of ethical transgressions, leaving out other details that do not help to make the point. The jokes-based illustration method is close to what is common practice in philosophy, where theoretical arguments can be accompanied by fictional illustrations and thought experiments. In addition, the jokes-based illustration method can be relevant to social science researchers, as jokes can add a normative interpretation to illustrated research findings. With these characteristics, the jokes-based illustration method can help with answering descriptive and evaluative research questions. Still, as jokes are no mirror image, interpretations are needed.

Chapter 3 discusses the second method of using jokes as prompts for reflection in open interviews. The jokes-based open interview method helps to answer explorative research questions. The method has been applied to the topic of overly pressuring leadership in consulting (cf. Bouwmeester & Kok, 2018). During the interviews, consultants were invited to reflect on leadership experiences in consulting based on two cartoons and one text joke, illustrating pressuring leadership. After this, they were asked to compare their joke interpretations with their own experiences and to elaborate on these. The jokes give structure to the interview like a topic list, but invite more association, elaboration and qualification of statements in the jokes. Jokes require interpretation much like metaphors, suggesting some elements might be different or less extreme in reality. As jokes show themselves as being jokes, people know very well how to relate to the genre. Benefits of the method are that rapport improves, that interviewees get more talkative, and that they get better access to their relevant memories, thus better crossing the boundaries of social desirability bias and taboo as compared to traditional interview methods. A method limitation is that jokes could be seen as leading by reviewers, because jokes also activate judgements of what we should see as normal or absurd from a moral point of view. This makes it key to clearly describe how the jokes have been used, where the responses of the interviewees start and where the influence of the jokes end. The chapter concludes with some reviewer concerns, and possible responses.

Chapter 4 presents a jokes-based survey method. This third method uses cartoons and their statements as material to be rated, next to traditional rating questions on the same topic. The jokes-based survey method helps to answer descriptive research questions. This type of mixed method has been applied to the critique that consultants lack expertise (cf. Bouwmeester & Stiekema, 2015). Stakeholder opinions on consultants’ expertise are compared, including clients, client employees, consultants, academics and outsiders. Triangulation of the results gives similar results when it comes to stakeholder opinions, with client employees as the most critical stakeholder, apparently suffering the most from consultants’ perceived lack of expertise. Benefits of the method compared to traditional survey methods are that it offers a new kind of control question, it helps to increase response and completion rates and triggers memories differently with humour and visualizations. These benefits work especially when reflecting on ethical issues, where people might be reluctant to open up. The chapter concludes with possible reviewer concerns and responses.

Chapter 5 explores the possibilities of content analysis of jokes as the fourth method as applied in Bouwmeester (2013) on the topic of uncertainties in the consultant-client relation. Jokes-based content analysis helps to answer explorative research questions. Text jokes and cartoons have been sampled related to the topic, analysing how both sides relate to the uncertainties. The method not only replicates several insights from the literature on consultants but also adds more detail on topics like bluffing, and on client uses of consultant uncertainties. Validity of the method is very dependent on the sample size, as more jokes allow for more data triangulation, which can help to sort out facts from fiction. Benefits of using jokes for content analysis are the accessibility of this new data source, and the new insights it can offer on business ethical questions. The chapter concludes with discussing how to relate to possible reviewer concerns.

Chapter 6 starts with a comparative discussion of each of the four methods, their strengths, and validity issues that relate to the use of jokes in the various methods. The chapter concludes with a philosophical reflection on the question of why jokes are such a helpful genre when studying business ethical transgressions, which relates to both the normative and positive qualities of jokes. The book contributes to the development of new empirical research methods suitable to the field of business ethics, where social desirability bias, taboo and shame experiences are serious obstacles to the effective use of more common empirical research methods. The methods also fit other areas of norm transgression, such as those related to traditions, fashions, cultures, art, technology, etc., thus aiming at scholars and researchers in business ethics, corporate social responsibility, and the social sciences more broadly. As a secondary contribution the book adds to the consultant literature by mapping the more common ethical transgressions in this field. Especially in Chap. 2 consultants, future consultants and their clients may learn about the various ethical issues they could encounter when working together.