CMM4J3 Langenhagen, Germany. 31st Oct, 2013. 'West' cigarettes lie in a machine in the Reemtsma cigarette factory in Langenhagen, Germany, 31 October 2013. About 700 employees in the factory produce more than 30 billion cigarettes annually, which are exported to over 100 countries. The Reemtsma cigarette factories are a wholly owned subsidiary of the Imperial Tobacco Group PLC. Photo: JULIAN STRATENSCHULTE/dpa/Alamy Live News
Some refuse tobacco work © Alamy

Laurie’s first inkling that consultancy was not for him came when he was sent to one of the biggest meat producers in the UK to help improve efficiency.

Like many people in their mid 20s, he had been cutting back on meat and had flirted with the idea of vegetarianism.

“I’m not excited about making more money for people who produce meat, so the feeling of lack of purpose was huge,” he says. “The senior people in the business . . . are motivated by selling work, but they’re detached from what I as a young consultant care about.”

“Laurie” — who like other consultants interviewed for this article asked that the FT not use his real name — graduated with a first-class Oxbridge degree and joined a midsized consulting firm in 2017. He was excited about enacting real change, but three years later feels unfulfilled and wants to switch career.

He says three-quarters of his cohort at the consultancy feel unsatisfied and hope to leave within six months. The firm specialises in defence, which some recruits are unhappy about working on, he says.

His experience is echoed by other young consultants doing work where they feel they add little value to the world and lack a sense of personal growth, community and purpose.

“People are increasingly saying that they think businesses are too focused on their own agenda, not the interests of society at large,” says Anne-Marie Malley, Deloitte’s new managing partner for consulting, who looks after the company’s 5,500 UK consultants. “Five or 10 years ago people weren’t so demanding or deliberate about the experience they wanted to build.”

These ethical tensions can be even starker in other countries. “Megan”, an Australian consultant in her late 20s, bristled when her small firm tasked her with helping gun lobbyists collect membership fees. This was one of several jobs she describes as “ethically dubious garbage”, but she felt unable to discuss openly with her superiors.

“Most managers . . . have reacted to any ethical dilemmas like I was calling in sick to work while tweeting photos from a music festival,” she says. “I think there’s definitely an impulse to treat [raising concerns] as an act of laziness, or one of insubordination.”

Some consultancies, large and small, have tried to foster an environment where employees can say no without fear of repercussions.

At Baringa, a 750-employee firm that specialises in energy resources, the environment and government work, managing partner Adrian Bettridge has developed a new permission-based model where people almost always get the choice over where they work. “At the big firms you get moved around like a chess piece on a board,” he says. “I ask people what they’re most passionate about — what topics, countries and projects — and we build our business around the interests of each of them.”

He says the firm is organised in a “collective” way, not a top-down business, which means young consultants are happier because they have a hand in shaping projects.

For some consultants, however, the often-siloed nature of their work, and long hours, can leave them unfulfilled.

“Tommy”, who worked at a 140-person firm in London for 18 months before leaving the profession, struggled with a lack of continuity between projects.

“It’s just discrete piece of work after discrete piece of work and you don’t know whether it’s followed through. I didn’t feel like I was making a difference,” he says.

Tommy recalls a six-month project consulting for a soap compound company, on which he worked until 10pm every day, including most weekends.

He said that he did not want to work on tobacco, which was accepted. “You can probably do that once or twice, but any more and you might become a bit of a problem,” he says.

At Deloitte, Ms Malley says young staff are deployed on jobs they feel comfortable with and are encouraged to focus on the industries and type of work they want to do. Managers meet new recruits every six months and are accommodating when someone says they don’t want to work with a particular industry or client, she says.

Ms Malley believes new recruits should keep an open mind, however. “There are challenges and values that you might not realise from the outset,” she says. “It gets a bit tricky — what meaningful action might mean for one person is different to what it might mean for others.”

To Megan and Laurie, the profession would be a better fit for young people if firms listened more to what employees are driven by and care about.

Too often, Megan says: “Like a vegan at a barbecue, the consultant who doesn’t believe in [their work] is treated like a pariah and a buzzkill.”

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