Moral or Dirty Leadership: A Qualitative Study on How Juniors Are Managed in Dutch Consultancies

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018 Nov 9;15(11):2506. doi: 10.3390/ijerph15112506.


Professional service firms in Western Europe have a reputation for putting huge pressures on their junior employees, resulting in very long work hours, and as a consequence health risks. This study explores moral leadership as a possible response to the stigma of such dirty leadership. We conducted semi-structured interviews with 12 consultant managers and with each one of their juniors, and found that managers put several pressures on their juniors; these pressures bring high levels of stress, lowered wellbeing and burnout. Society considers such a pressuring leadership style morally dirty. To counteract the experience of being seen as morally dirty, we found that consultant managers were normalizing such criticisms as commonly assumed in dirty work literature. However, they also employed several moral leadership tactics to counteract the negative consequences criticized in society. However, in addition to the well-known individual-level tactics, consultant managers and their juniors also reported moral leadership support at the organizational level, like institutionalized performance talks after every project, trainings, specific criteria for hiring juniors, and policies to recognize and compliment high performance. Still, we cannot conclude these moral leadership approaches are moral by definition. They can be used in an instrumental way as well, to further push performance.

Keywords: dirty work; management consulting; moral leadership; taint normalization; work organization.

MeSH terms

  • Burnout, Professional / psychology*
  • Consultants / psychology*
  • Consultants / statistics & numerical data
  • Leadership*
  • Morals*
  • Netherlands