Three things are constant and unavoidable in the IT world: death, taxes, and consultants. You’ve undoubtedly had to come to terms with the reality that consultants are a fact of life. You may even see the expenses linked to consultant services as the biggest drawback to hiring a consultant. But hiring a consultant could produce a more subtle problem: disharmony with your in-house staff. The consultant, when entering your environment with superior training, knowledge, and experience, often inspires resentment, and this can affect productivity and morale.
If you haven’t actually seen this problem taking a bite out of your resources, it could be because it happened below the surface and never got to your level. But it’s still possible you’ve been bitten by it all the same. Competition with the consultant can take many forms, depending on the personalities of the staff members who object to the consultant being on board.
Stop the fire before it starts
The best strategy is to smooth the path for the incoming consultant (thereby protecting your investment in the person's services) by taking the consultant aside early on. Put the consultant at ease regarding working with your staff by explaining that you are ready to address any problems that might arise. Make the consultant feel totally welcome, despite the reality that the person is only a visitor.
Next, look for certain telling behaviors in the competitive staffer who isn’t keen on your hired help. When you see one of these behaviors, take immediate, low-key action. And, when possible, take some preemptive measures with your staff.
In-house risks for outside consultants
Some veterans on your staff may feel as if their accumulated experience and knowledge has been sidestepped by a quick-fixer, and that the hiring of the consultant is a slight.
This individual’s response to the consultant will be one-upmanship that will emerge at inopportune moments—during meetings, in project reports, etc. It’s a case of wounded ego. Chances are, you sometimes deal with this problem in the resentful staffer in other situations, so it’s no surprise that it emerges so strongly in the face of the consultant, who is new, unfamiliar, and not well equipped to defend against it.
You can handle this situation simply and sensitively. Make a point of casually letting the consultant know that you see what’s going on, and treat it with a friendly smile. Go out of your way to reassure your threatened staffer of your appreciation. A sentence in a project-oriented e-mail or a brief mention in a team meeting alluding to some positive contribution of the staffer will help offset that individual’s need to assert knowledge and experience in a challenge to the consultant. In effect, you are doing what the staffer is trying to do—but when you do it, it meets the staffer’s need for affirmation and doesn’t offend the consultant. It’s a simple but effective fix.
Dealing with resentment
Sometimes a staffer will resent a consultant because the staffer is very territorial by nature, and the specifics of the project that require the consultant’s expertise places the consultant and the staffer in uncomfortable proximity. This individual’s resentment will take the form of being obstructive when he or she delays offering needed input or creates barriers to the consultant’s access.
Trying to change this behavior by force will work in the short run but will leave you with consequences after the consultant is gone: You will have resentment and resistance from this staffer down the road if you try to isolate vague negative behaviors (easily denied) and enforce consequences. A better approach is to soften the interface between the consultant and the staffer.
Take the consultant aside and say that you prefer the consultant give this staffer plenty of space. Let the consultant know that you have found e-mails to be a more effective means of getting complete information from that person than face-to-face dialogue (e-mail restores, to some degree, the territorial staffer’s sense of lost control). The consultant has surely dealt with such individuals before and will understand. Also explain that you have found the staffer to be the type who tends to be flustered when interrupted, which will discourage the consultant from “dropping by” the staffer’s desk and increasing the resentment. Again, simple solutions, but they are effective.
Politics and envy
Occasionally, your consultant will face the worst form of in-house resentment from a staffer who is bitter because he or she doesn't have the skills, experience, and income (and, in some cases, the prestige) of the consultant. This person is a real danger to productivity and morale because of the willingness to play politics in order to vent hostility.
This person will spread gossip, watch for mistakes, and call attention to a consultant’s errors in an effort to diminish confidence in the consultant's performance. This person may even resort to personal attacks.
If this gets out of hand, you have a responsibility to call all parties together and undertake the unpleasant duty of direct confrontation. However, there’s a better way.
Handle it on two fronts. Realize that the staffer can make only one attack that will have a tangible impact, and that is the undermining of the consultant’s performance. You can easily offset this one up front by telling the consultant: “Listen, I want you to feel completely free to come to me at any time with any trouble you might have on this project—if a mistake needs fixing, or you’re uncertain about a decision you’ve made, whatever. I want you to let me know and not feel any pressure from my side. We all sometimes miss a pass, and I’m here to help.”
This done, your staffer’s primary weapon is eliminated. However, don’t kid yourself that the problem is solved. Passive-aggressive behaviors may still be lurking. You can’t really deal with the staffer preemptively; you must wait until some sign of resentment emerges. At that point, call the staffer in and inquire about any problem. Offer to assist in its solution, without taking sides, i.e., “I’m sure we can get this all cleared up in no time.” The staffer will certainly offer up something minor. When it is clear that you will intervene, and that further incidents will lead to more interventions that will not be biased in the staffer’s favor, it will be clear to the staffer that passive-aggressive attacks simply aren’t worth the trouble. If the consultant were a permanent hire, the staffer might take it up a notch—but for a short-timer, odds are that ongoing conflict just won’t be worth it.
Don’t let it go
Often consultants are seasoned enough that they will be able to handle even the most difficult in-house staffer. If so, you’ll probably never even hear about any problems.
But in cases when a newcomer is given a rough time, or you know you have valuable team members who sometimes don’t know the best way to act, you’re obliged to take measures to minimize friction. You’ll have a happier environment if you make this effort; more importantly, you’ll be safeguarding your most significant function: keeping your people productive.
Scott Robinson is a 20-year IT veteran with extensive experience in business intelligence and systems integration. An enterprise architect with a background in social psychology, he frequently consults and lectures on analytics, business intelligence and social informatics, primarily in the health care and HR industries.