5.1 Introduction to a Jokes-Based Method of Content Analysis

When clients hire consultants, they may feel uncertain about the future of their company, the way their company is managed or if business opportunities are sufficiently spotted and acted on. Consultants may feel uncertain due to high client expectations. The challenge for both parties will be to manage these uncertainties. At the same time uncertainly creates opportunities for taking shortcuts, forms of misuse and manipulation. When such practices enter the grey zone of acceptability, they become joking material.

In critical management literature the position of managers is often presented as dependent on consultants. Business jokes however, paint a more balanced picture. This chapter seeks to find out how content analysis of business jokes can generate new and valid insights on ethical transgressions related to uncertainties in the consultantclient relation. As critical business jokes focus on key aspects in need of critique, they individually do not provide much detail. However, content analysis of a larger set of business jokes generates more differentiated understandings of the ethical challenges linked to uncertainties in the consultant–client relation. Method implications of using business jokes as a data source for content analysis relate to the often fictional, sometimes ironic and also one-sided character of the data source.

The relevance of jokes-based content analysis for business ethics is substantial, as it is a rich data source for studying ethical malpractice. Accounts are not so extreme as showing very criminal behaviour usually, but it is still unethical in various ways. That gives scholars in ethics access to more empirical materials to reflect on in business ethics. The method is very close to what philosophers are used to, as text interpretation is key to their profession. Social scientist also have a tradition in content and discourse analysis, including the analysis of metaphors and analogies, so the method is probably not too much of a stretch for most scholars interested in ethics.

The next sections will review critical consultant literature first, to see what we know about uncertainties in the consultant–client relation. Next the method of applying content analysis to jokes will be explained together with some results and their contributions to the field. The chapter concludes with possibilities and limitations of jokes-based content analysis in business ethics, including a discussion of possible reviewer concerns.

5.2 The Issue—Using Consultant and Client Uncertainties

Content analysis of business jokes to study professional ethics is a new research method, here applied to the ethical issue of use and misuse of uncertainty in the consultant–client relation. Uncertainty can have a double manifestation in this context. It first applies to the recommendations a consultant can give, because these can be given with more or less certainty. Secondly, uncertainty in the consultant–client relation concerns the person, as illustrated by Alvesson and Johansson (2002, p. 238) and Sturdy (1997). It is the personal experience of uncertainty or insecurity both on the side of the client and on the side of the consultant. The two forms of uncertainty interact with each other: ambiguous knowledge or uncertainty about the future impact of recommendations can induce a personal feeling of uncertainty.

As our rationality is bounded and our knowledge limited, clients can feel uncertain, but still want to act. Consultants may therefore emphasize the possible benefits of their recommendations and prefer not to articulate uncertainties, to avoid that these uncertainties may paralyse a client (Bouwmeester, 2010, p. 218). Consultants take pride in helping a client to move from a state of “uncertainty to a state of harmony and security” (Alvesson & Johansson, 2002, p. 239). To further reduce client uncertainty, consultants invest in building a good reputation (Poulfelt, 1997). Glückler and Armbrüster (2003) explain with institutional arguments that there are no accepted professional standards, and no contracts that can guarantee the quality of the consultancy service. A good reputation then helps to overcome these uncertainties.

However, pretending self-confidence and downplaying uncertainties is a risky tactic. Angner (2006, p. 18) argues that consulting economists are often “overconfident”. The quality of their advice would improve by stressing uncertainties, not by ignoring them. Stiglitz (1998, p. 39) argues likewise that economic policy advice could improve by explicit recognition of uncertainties, however: “too often, that has not been the case.” Such overconfidence of consultants can be criticized on ethical grounds as being reckless, or as bluff.

Even though consultants may often aim at uncertainty reduction, there are also situations in which they do the opposite and intentionally share their uncertainties (Fincham, 1999; 2002b) or actively create uncertainty. Fincham (1999, p. 339) explains how consultants can increase their clients’ sense of uncertainty by firmly addressing their problems, which is a well-known tactic to obtain better acceptance of solutions they propose. Furthermore, creating a sense of urgency is seen as an important early step during planned change (Kotter, 1995). Clegg et al. (2004) even compare consultants with parasites who destabilize an organisation and purposefully create chaos.

Feelings of certainty or uncertainty do not only belong to clients. Although consultants present themselves as confident, certain in their approach, and “in control”, Sturdy (1997, p. 405) questions such self-confidence. He argues that consultants must also experience feelings of uncertainty caused by the pressure to resolve uncertainties for their clients. He follows Jackall (1988, p. 141) who points at the dialectic between consultant services and client anxiety. Field research by Skovgaard-Smith (2008, p. 110) also shows how clients can purposefully create consultant uncertainties, to limit their impact.

A last dynamic can be characterized as making use of existing uncertainties. Such tactics are hardly discussed in the literature. They create opportunity for business bluffing (Boussebaa, 2008; Carr, 1968). If clients do not possess sufficient relevant knowledge, this tactic can work convincing, but from an ethics perspective this behaviour can be questioned. Furusten (2009) mentions improvisation as alternative tactic to make use of uncertainty. While referring to jazz improvisation, he argues that consultants also change roles and adapt activities in response to unexpected situations.

To show how uncertainties in the consultant–client relation are used and misused, this chapter uses a new method of content analysis that is applied to critical business jokes on the topic. The same approach is used in Bouwmeester (2013). Below I will discuss this new method of content analysis in more detail.

5.3 Application—Analysing a Sample of Critical Business Jokes

5.3.1 Method of Jokes-Based Content Analysis: Sampling and Open Coding

The example study to demonstrate the new method of content analysis uses a hermeneutic approach to interpret critical business jokes. Authors or audiences of jokes are unknown and have to be implied in the reading. Interpretations are based on content analysis, as used in grounded theory and document analysis (Altheide, 1987). The coding process during the analysis follows a number of iterative steps (Corbin and Strauss, 1990), and are made explicit as required in qualitative methods (Gioia et al., 2013; Suddaby, 2006).

The search for business jokes used in this study was conducted on the Internet in 2012, using Google. The keywords used in the search were: “consultant,” “consulting,” “consultancy,” “management consultant,” “management consulting,” and “management consultancy.” Each of these words was combined with the word “joke” to find text jokes, and with the word “cartoon” to find cartoons. Moreover, each search was conducted twice, once with and once without quotation marks. The jokes collection is mainly Anglo-Saxon and includes various common topics consultants and their stakeholders criticize.

The collected jokes and cartoons were coded in AtlasTI. First, all jokes and cartoons from the sample were analysed for clues that relate to uncertainty, such as modal qualifiers, or activities that relate to uncertainty, such as bluffing. This resulted in a subsample of 31 cartoons and 13 jokes with a link to consultant or client uncertainty. Tentative codes were assigned to these 13 jokes and 31 cartoons indicating how they relate to uncertainty and how they are relevant to the subsample. Second, these codes were refined and consolidated. Third, the codes were organised in three code families (axial coding), illustrating uncertainty creation tactics, tactics that make use of uncertainty and uncertainty reduction tactics. Fourth, the tactics within each family were labelled as being client tactics, consultant tactics, or both.

Coding was done in several rounds to ensure that the codes were consistently applied to all jokes and cartoons, going back and forth between the four stages. Since the number of jokes and cartoons is relatively small, some codes are only grounded in one joke or cartoon. However, as the joke or cartoon adds a new perspective and a richer description to a code family, also one-time codes have been included for their unique contribution. All cartoons only illustrate one tactic. Some jokes illustrate more than one tactic, as the narrative is sometimes more complicated or detailed than in cartoons. The three code families, indicating the three types of tactics, are all well-grounded. Given the relatively small sample, more specific tactics with the three types may exist.

Table 5.1 presents an overview of the coded tactics and code families, and reports their groundedness in the cartoons (C) and jokes (J), meaning that there are many illustrations of the first tactic (consultants purposefully creating client uncertainty, problems, chaos): 6 in cartoons and 3 in jokes.

Table 5.1 Tactics to create, use or reduce uncertainty found in jokes and cartoons

5.3.2 Results: Tactics Related to Client and Consultant Uncertainty

The study of uncertainty in the consultant-client-relation using jokes-based content analysis provides new insights in three areas. First there are tactics visible in the jokes that create uncertainty for the other side, second there are tactics that make use of uncertainties, and last there are tactics that aim at reducing uncertainty. Each of these tactics will be related to earlier discussions, to see what kind of detail or nuance is added to earlier knowledge based on this new method.

How clients and consultants create uncertainty The most dominant theme in uncertainty jokes is about consultants purposefully creating uncertainty by emphasizing client problems. Client uncertainty usually generates more work for consultants. One joke in this joke family has a classical form and discusses what is the oldest profession (physician, engineer or consultant):

A physician, a civil engineer and a consultant were arguing about what was the oldest profession in the world.

The physician remarked, ‘Well, in the Bible, it says that God created Eve from a rib taken out of Adam. This clearly required surgery, and so I can rightly claim that mine is the oldest profession in the world.’

The civil engineer interrupted, and said, ‘But even earlier in the book of Genesis, it states that God created the order of the heavens and the earth from out of the chaos. This was the first and certainly the most spectacular application of civil engineering. Therefore, fair doctor, you are wrong: mine is the oldest profession in the world.’

The consultant leaned back in her chair, smiled, and then said confidently, ‘Ah, but who do you think created the chaos?’


Such subversive jokes about uncertainty creation by consultants are in line with the argument by Clegg et al. (2004), Kotter (1995) and Fincham (1999) who suggest that consultants stress uncertainties to prepare their clients for new solutions, a sense of urgency, and learning. Next to that, when change consultants help unlearning and relearning routines, organisations can feel chaotic. The jokes under this category indicate an immoral aspect, by stressing how much chaos consultants can create, instead of really helping or adding value as clients may expect. This way the jokes point at what Veatch (1998) considers emotional absurdity.

However, clients also create uncertainty for consultants. Two cartoons picture the consultant as being shot into a client organisation with a catapult or canon. In a cartoon from Andrew Toos made in 2004 clients are doing the shooting (https://www.cartoonstock.com/cartoon?searchID=CS247894). In a Dilbert cartoon from Scott Adams with Ratbert as consultant (www.dilbert.com/strip/1998-09-09), partners in the consultancy are doing the shooting. They can be seen as an internal client for employed consultants. As an observer you can imagine the fears and uncertainties consultants suffer in such an insecure position, making them the victims. Consultant insecurities caused by very demanding clients are addressed in the literature by Fincham (1999; 2002a, b), Jackall (1988), Skovgaard-Smith (2008) and Sturdy (1997), but the internal client relation has gotten less attention. Overall, what jokes and cartoons emphasize about the creation of uncertainty by consultants and clients can be related back to the literature on consultants quite well.

Use of uncertainty A next theme in the jokes is what consultants and clients do with client uncertainty, once it is there. Four cartoons stress the esoteric kind of knowledge consultants provide. Consultants are pictured as clergyman, or as mediums who receive messages from God or Satan. Similar to such cartoons you also find a joke with a consultant giving nonsense recommendations, when a client really does not know what to do. Below follows the second suggestion in a joke about a farmer who needs help to solve the problem of his dying chickens. The second recommendation is as ridiculous as the first one:

[…] After a week the farmer came back to the consultant and said: ‘My chickens continue to die. What shall I do?’

‘Add strawberry juice to their drinking water, that will help for sure’.


Such characterizations of consultants resemble those of guru-consultants also pictured as “witch doctors” (Clark & Salaman, 1996; Micklethwait and Wooldridge, 1996) and “charlatans” (Bloomfield & Danieli, 1995, p. 39). Clients will suffer, being dependent on such consultants.

However, also consultants are portrayed as experiencing uncertainty and clients make use of this as well, as in the list joke: “Consulting revisited” two lines before the end:

If you consult enough experts, you can confirm any opinion.


The joke “Consultant commandments” reflects an even more critical client position, where the client deconstructs how consultants present their views. It says on the fifth line:

These jokes criticize strategic uses of consultant uncertainty, and how clients make use of the frequent bluffing of consultants (cf. Boussebaa, 2008). Both parties seem to engage in opportunistic use of each other’s uncertainty, when interpreting the jokes carefully. Moral standards seem rather low on both sides, illustrating the argument of low ethical standards in business as made in Carr (1968).

Reducing uncertainty Tactics used by consultants to alleviate uncertainty are demonstrated in jokes and cartoon in most detail, resulting in the richest code family, based on the variation in tactics observed. A first subgroup of tactics illustrates how consultants influence clients’ understanding of the question or task that creates uncertainty. A second group is directed at reducing client uncertainties, and a third group discusses how consultants usually manage their own feelings of uncertainty.

The techniques that target the task or question in the jokes are rhetorical, such as framing tactics. Consultants create certainty by their focus on the bigger picture while excluding ‘exceptions’ like Dogbert does in a Scott Adams cartoon from 2001:

every company that used my six sigma program increased profits, except for the ones that were in industry downturns … or flat growth industries … or industries that only upturned a little bit.


Dogbert frames as exceptions what can be considered the rule. In the cartoons consultants also soften the perception of uncertainty by being vague and by talking in obvious generalities. Jokes also illustrate guessing approaches. Some of these rhetorical tactics of consultants to reduce uncertainty have been discussed in Berglund and Werr (2000, p. 652) and Bouwmeester (2010, p. 231), but the jokes and cartoons do add much detail here.

Second subgroup of tactics aiming at reducing uncertainty do not focus on the subject of investigation, but on the client. Five cartoons illustrate consultants providing reckless encouragement, selling positive thoughts and feelings of security or optimism, as in the John Morris cartoon from 1998 on consultants with the text: “Miss Smith, send in an optimist”, while in the background a sales graph drops dramatically (www.cartoonstock.com/cartoonview.asp?catref=jmo0078). Alvesson and Johansson (2002) and also Sturdy (1997) have criticized this service of selling security and optimism without any substantial backing.

A third subgroup of tactics aims at reducing consultants’ own uncertainties. A first tactic made fun of is how consultants organise the process, instead of being able to provide a solution directly:

A priest, a rabbi and a consultant were traveling on an airplane. There was a crisis and it was clear that the plane was going to crash and they would all be killed. The priest began to pray and finger his rosary beads, the rabbi began to read the Torah and the consultant began to organise a committee on air traffic safety.


The strategy to organise a search process for finding a solution is well known as means to cope with bounded rationality (March & Simon, 1993, p. 161), but the joke clearly identifies the limits of this approach when time is short. Another issue is that many consultants are young and inexperienced: “Top ten things a consultant shouldn't tell a client.” On the sixth position: “Sure it'll work; I learned it in business school” and on the eighth: “Of course it's right; the spreadsheet says so.” This is how consultants manage their inexperience according to the jokes. Especially consultants working for the big four, big three and big IT consultancies are known to be young. The average employee age in these companies is around 30 years, as they mostly hire fresh graduates (cf. Alvesson & Einola, 2018; Bouwmeester et al., 2021).

Reducing uncertainty can be beneficial when it prevents paralysis, but more often it will do what the jokes suggest, which is hiding and clouding an adequate understanding of risks, threats and real opportunities. Lack of knowledge comes with a price. You better know your margin of error when you start guessing. The consequences of following such shaky advice while believing it is sound, can be detrimental for clients.

5.3.3 Jokes-Based Content Analysis and Contributions to Ethical Research Questions

Content analysis of business jokes gives us new insights in the various ways consultants and their clients create, use and reduce uncertainty, and such tactics become unethical easily. First, creating uncertainty as a sales tactic is a form of manipulation, and creating uncertainty as a client to limit the impact of consultants is manipulation too. Such tactics will serve particular interests only. Second, using client uncertainties leads to bluffing. Usually this is not helping a client. Third, consultant tactics to reduce uncertainty like being vague, general or overly optimistic or positive mask a lack of vision. Also framing problems away, and using spreadsheets or textbooks to compensate for lack of expertise are common enough. Still, they all are far from virtuous and tend to self-interest, dishonesty, recklessness and uselessness.

As it is quite embarrassing to admit a lack of knowledge as a consultant, bluffing is an easy way out. Bluffing meets the normality condition of humour as it happens enough to be recognized by audiences. At the same time, such superficiality and incompetence is also funny because there is emotional absurdity, meaning the mild violation of standards that can be expected of a consultant. And it is as embarrassing for clients to admit they continuously hire such bluffing and deceiving consultants. The consequences of covering up uncertainty and the lack of competence are more often than not harming a client. Still, the first perspective to be critical here is virtue ethics.

The various tactics found based on content analysis of critical business jokes contribute to our knowledge of business ethical transgressions. The analysis shows a great variety of unethical business practices, some of them not discussed before. They also illustrate unethical behaviour on the sides of both clients and consultants, adding a more inclusive perspective than the mere focus on one side, as common in consulting literature, or studies on professions more general due to an overly narrow research focus.

Based on the contributions realized in this example study, more contributions to business ethics can be expected when using jokes-based content analysis in other contexts, or related to other professions. Jokes chose a moral perspective that cuts across the lines of disciplines or professions. As content analysis is an explorative research method, it will help to answer open research questions like how business actors behave unethical in certain areas or contexts.

5.4 Possibilities and Limitations of Jokes-Based Content Analysis

5.4.1 Larger Samples of Jokes Provide Richer Accounts of Ethical Norm Violation

For generating broader qualitative overviews of common ethical transgressions in a business field or profession, content analysis of business jokes is a very promising new method. Compared to academic literature on professional ethics of consultants, together the jokes and cartoons can add much detail. This applies for instance to tactics that reduce or use uncertainty, and the same applies to client strategies that make use of consultant uncertainty.

When ethical challenges receive sufficient attention in jokes, content analysis can offer many relevant insights. However, content analysis of jokes is different from analysing newspaper articles, consultant reports, annual reports or other forms of grey literature. Content analysis usually uses literal accounts as data, while jokes are like metaphors only partly true. They carry fictional elements, irony, abstraction, exaggeration, distortion, etc. To best distinguish fact from fiction and to get the most detailed insights, a large sample of jokes is needed. In addition, as interpretation of the jokes is fully dependent on the researchers, they need to have sufficient context knowledge related to the profession or industry of study. Outsiders will not get the jokes.

How do I create a big enough sample? The larger the sample of jokes about the chosen topic, the richer the analysis can be, as each different joke can provide a new angle. Between jokes there is much variation possible. Many business jokes qualify as insider jokes, so they can give away much detail. That makes them funny for business professionals and their colleagues, but less so for outsiders to a profession. My sample had 13 jokes and 31 cartoons, and I would consider that a small sample, that is towards the lower end. While it is good to make the sample as big as possible, it should remain closely linked to the ethical challenge you want to explore, to guarantee the quality of your sample. Also, when jokes are very similar and only slightly modified, better only take the best one of the two, as it can be seen as the same joke. If you feel the sample size is too small for content analysis, the jokes you have can still be used in jokes-based interviews, the method discussed in Chap. 3. Even with small samples, a tentative content analysis of some relevant jokes is always a very good starting point to get a feel for the ethical issues, next to a first review of relevant literature.

How can I distinguish fact from fiction, when doing open coding on jokes? A larger sample size helps a lot here: fiction shows great variation, while the more relevant factual elements will repeat themselves, showing a pattern. That is a form of data triangulation, comparing what the different jokes share about a particular ethical transgression. Triangulation with own experiences related to the field of study, with literature about the field, or with grey sources like research reports can help as well. The smaller the sample, the more these additional forms of triangulation are needed. However, compared to the other jokes-based methods, triangulation options are more limited for pure content analysis, as it cannot rely on what respondents tell when interpreting a joke.

How can I improve the coding and the required interpretation? It will improve the coding process to do this together with other field experts, and compare interpretations and discuss the codes. It improves intercoder reliability. Coding in several rounds also helps, and will improve consistency in the way transgressions are coded.

5.4.2 Method Limitations of Jokes-Based Content Analysis

Compared to the more common practice of illustrating ethical transgressions based on what journalists write, insights from business jokes shed light on common everyday transgressions, whereas journalists report the more extreme cases. The latter are newsworthy but provide little fun and usually qualify for anger as emotion. Cartoons are also published in newspapers to add opinion, but it is a balancing act often, to determine what can be made fun of, and what not. Public jokes focus on more frequent ethical transgressions in the grey zone of acceptability, such as the ones that figure in the top ten (see Table 2.2 in Chap. 2). Therefore content analysis of business jokes can be seen as a complementary source to journalistic case representations when studying business ethical transgressions.

The main methodological concerns when analysing business jokes to learn more about common ethical transgressions, relate to representation bias. To begin with, jokes are not considered to be truthful representations of reality, much like metaphors. Jokes are characterized by abstraction, distortion, exaggeration, stereotyping, irony and imaginative story telling approaches. They also tend to critique, and will ignore virtuous behaviour, or beneficial consequences. Still, they are dependent on some degree of truthfulness to be seen as funny, due to the normality condition of humour (Veatch, 1998). Seeing what is true and what is not, is up to those who interpret jokes or cartoons. As we recognize jokes as such, we know we have to do this. The larger the sample is, the more jokes we can compare on a topic, and the easier it is to distinguish fact from fiction. Content analysis of jokes is thus far more challenging, than content analysis of literal sources. Representation bias needs to be recognized and neutralized during the analysis by interpretation.

Second, there is humour bias. Not all topics, and also not all ethical transgressions are good material for joking. What is good material are the common, recognizable ethical transgressions that are kind of human, and understandable. What will not be represented in jokes are exceptional transgressions hardly anyone knows about, and very extreme transgressions no one can laugh about. The interpreter should be aware what kind of transgressions can be covered in jokes, and which ones are out of scope. Nevertheless, these insider jokes make a very good addition to the outsider accounts of journalists, that have a limited scope too.

Third, when doing content analysis, we need to consider interpretation bias. Interpretation is up to the researcher, but a researcher may have somewhat limited context knowledge: not completely up to date, not going back in time sufficiently, oriented on the Western world, a particular country, a business segment etc. No one is always able to understand every joke, or is familiar with the context and situation they refer to. To mitigate interpretation bias it helps to have sufficient knowledge about the professional field and a good sense of humour. Interpretation bias can also be reduced by comparing and discussing interpretations of multiple knowledgeable researchers. The same problem can happen on the side of reviewers, and wider audiences.

5.4.3 Reviewer Perspectives on Jokes-Based Content Analysis and Possible Responses

Content analysis of jokes is vulnerable to reviewer criticism. Reviews I have got after my initial success with a publication in International Studies of Management and Organization often criticized the data source. This has pushed me to develop the jokes-based interview and jokes-based survey methods in order to mitigate the given critiques. These other jokes-based methods create new kinds of data to rely on, and draw on broader interpretations than only those of the researcher. Still, I believe these criticisms indicated reviewer bias, as the bias in the source can be mitigated both by interpretation and data triangulation.

I wrote the article on uncertainties in the consultant–client relationship for a special issue on this topic, which created favourable conditions. All editors, and probably also the reviewers had context knowledge about the consultant profession, and were able to interpret the jokes and see their value. Still, they were also critical and wanted more explanations. After the first review I got as comment: “you need to provide more details on your method” which I did.

My hunch now is that reviewers and editors in the first project where consultancy scholars, while in the second attempt reviewers have been general management and ethics scholars, without the context knowledge needed to interpret the consultant jokes. They judged the jokes too much as if it was a literal data source, and considered it invalid, distorted, biased etc. As remedies they suggested more on the spot types of conversational analysis, where more context is provided and rich descriptions can be given. Such management and social science scholars identified more with qualitative traditions of anthropologists, and less with content analysis and interpretation as more common in the humanities.

My advice would be that when applying jokes-based content analysis as method in business ethics, articles can best be submitted to field journals linked to specific professions or sectors, to have reviewers and editors with sufficient context knowledge. Special issues on a relevant topic might also work, as editors and reviewers will then also be familiar with the literature and context relevant for interpreting the jokes. Not everyone is able to get a joke and reviewers, as representing one audience, are no exception.