Enterprise Software

Handling office politics from the outside


One of the reasons I became an independent consultant was to get away from the various interpersonal conflicts that recur in an office setting. Simply by putting my stakes down off the org chart, I avoid all manner of intrigue over power plays, office gossip, discontent with policies and procedures, and a whole host of other miscellaneous useless discussion that my regularly employed colleagues have to deal with on a regular basis. Even if I have an opinion on one of these topics, I think it prudent to remain silent unless asked to contribute -- and even then to try to maintain as neutral a tone as possible.

But sometimes it's not quite so easy to divide between "office politics" and the portion of my clients' business strategies for which I bear some responsibility. The very fact that humans are involved means that many business problems cannot be separated from social problems. No matter how emotional the discussions, if the decisions that come out of them could impact the quality of the solution I'm attempting to help my client achieve, then I'm duty-bound to participate.

Some things to remember when jumping into the fray:

  1. Business first. My client is in business to make money, not to run a social club, a forum, or a charity for its employees. My suggestions need to focus on what promotes business success. Employee satisfaction can be a big component of that, but it's secondary.
  2. Who's your Daddy/Momma? Maybe most of the time my client's company is one big happy family, but if it comes down to conflicts between various powerful people in the organization, then I must remain loyal to the person who controls my contract. If I disagree with them on an issue that has become inflammatory, then I'll try to reason with them privately instead of adding fuel to the fire.
  3. Be friendly to all sides of the argument. Don't make things worse by acting in a partisan manner. Try to reconcile the different viewpoints, without belittling the importance of any argument. Being an outsider may help with the perception of disinterested objectivity.
  4. Just add humor. Many times strong emotions can be diffused by revealing that the topic shouldn't be taken too seriously. But sometimes that can backfire, so I have to choose my lines well. Best not to joke on the main source of contention, but rather on some aspect of it that everyone can find absurd.

I'd like to be more specific about the incident that sparked this post, but then I'd be violating rule #5:

5. Don't blog about it. In fact, don't discuss it with anyone outside the organization. I signed an NDA with my client, which means that they let me in on internal affairs that they don't expect me to share. It's not a matter of freedom of speech, it's a matter of trust.

About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

21 comments
alphawiz
alphawiz

Rule #6: Send it to Scott Adams. It's probably excellent Dilbert fodder. :)

jeezmah
jeezmah

A client may have a tough time separating its own interests with their contractors causing great conflicts of interests with all parties.

kbugiell
kbugiell

This is an excellent reminder for consultants *and* the people who hire us. When I am meeting with a new client, I pretty much touch on all these points when I am telling them about who I am and what they can expect from me. I find it really puts me on their team before I've even started, because they see that I am looking out for them from day one.

joestuffsda
joestuffsda

Those who advocate the 9th commandment (i.e don't gossip) and follow it will meet with success.

rscholz
rscholz

Excellent post! I can totally identify, much like yourself i made the jump to independent contractor/consultant a few years ago, its a great feeling to not be bound by company contraintes. i and agree with all of your points, especially when it comes to defusing the situations with humor, and never losing sight of who hired you. one thing your readers should also remember is be true to your morals, if the client who hired you exhibits not morally sound behaviors, you need to discuss them, keeping quiet erodes the foundation of respect held by the client and yourself.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

It's really not up to the client to look out for the contractors' rights -- it's up to the contractor to establish and demand those rights. The client has to stay focused on their business, and it's not unreasonable to assume that they will take every advantage offered to them. It's our job not to offer anything that we don't want them to take.

Big Ole Jack
Big Ole Jack

I once got into a very heated and anger fueled argument with a former client of mine because they published my private cell phone number in a corporate directory for everyone when I made it loud and clear to them that is was my "personal" cell phone and that I DO NOT provide any support outside of the normal hours stipulated in my contract. Yes, it's nice to feel important and such, but I do not need or want to be called after hours or on weekends by other IT staff if I cannot bill them for the consulting time. Also, I've been in situations where they tried to subject me to their stupid corporate surveys and disclosures of financial assets and such, being that they were a financial institution. Sorry, but I downright refused to let them know how much money I have in my accounts and was quick to remind them that I was not on their payroll and was being paid on a 1099 basis through an agency. Also, they tried to dictate my hours and again, I reminded them that they cannot tell me when and how I work because I was not an employee. They pissed me off so much that I threated to go to the IRS and have them investigated because they were classifying me as an independent contractor, yet were trying to treat me like an employee. Is this a common trend among companies, or did I just end up working for a bunch of morons who didn't know any better?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

You're right, one of the most important things to do is to set expectations appropriately up front: hours worked, payment terms, delivery schedules, etc.

IMFerret
IMFerret

Those of us employeed and dealing with these very things can greatly benefit as well. For myself, operating as a Security professional in an organization largely disinterested in security, I have found myself acting simply as a consultant. As such, I offer the recommendation, document it, engage any discussions, but let the organization make the ultimate decision. So step 1: recommend whats right for the business. Step 2: Unfortunately, when 'daddy' doesn't get it, you've got to try to make your case as delicately but effectively as possible. Which flows into 3 & 4: Can't take it personally when your opinion isn't agreed with. Step 5 is simply good ethics. Overall: Very good, succinct, post! Thanks!

jmk
jmk

Having recently come across this dilemma I may have some insight. The Company a (S.V.) we will call it company X. Well company X hired a young consultant-(ME) that exceeded all goals set forth while beating most revenue records in the history of the company. I increased Software Sales by opening new market niches by working with vendors and other third parties to create interfaces such as: the ability to export from QuickBooks to larger Accounting Software like S.B.J. or Great Plains. Excelling and exceeding expectations is only good when there are the proper internal incentives in place. If no internal incentives are in place it provides for a horrible inner office dynamic. Working as software apps. Consultant for a S.V dot.com your tech support is like your rope if you were rock climbing. If the support team has no internal incentives to work harder when client load is increased then the idea of the company increasing revenue and clientele, while losing quality of support and making one young consultants life hell just because he worked to hard. Example: The only people to show up to our company Halloween party were; my O.P.S manager, The owner/CEO, CFO and my secretary whom was new and kept asking where is everyone else ...this made the scene even more uncomfortable. My CEO and CFO should have taken care of their star player by setting internal incentives for the support department so that all consultants? clients are serviced and treated the equally. All I can say is in the end I got screwed, I was an asset to the company and when your not an asset your a liability......now 28 tried to start my own consulting company but I guess I do not have enough grey hairs, it does not matter that I handled all of the software consulting for the TPC-PGA------Namaste

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

You're absolutely right about that, rscholz. If you give in on your principles once, it's a whole lot easier for them to expect you to compromise in the future. Besides that, if you show yourself to be guided by ethical principles, they'll trust you not to stab them in the back.

Big Ole Jack
Big Ole Jack

such as what I had to do because an arrogant Canadian based banking institution I was contracting for kept treating me like an employee and not like an independent contractor. They tried to subject me to all sorts of idiotic policies and other financial disclosure crap, which I dismissed and didn't give them squat. The final straw was when the idiot IT director passed on my personal cell phone number to his secretary and then I saw my personal cell phone number published in the corporate directory for everyone to see. Mind you, my contract stipulated a 40 hour work week with no overtime or off hour/weekend support, yet everyone now had my cell phone number and would start annoying me on the weekends and evening for every outage and such. If I couldn't bill them for it, I didn't want to hear about it. I had no choice but to give them the old middle finger salute and take my business elsewhere because they were insistent on controlling me like an employee, yet they knew I was an independent contractor.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I certainly hope that isn't the norm, Jack. It hasn't been my experience generally. For a few years I was billing a client a flat fee per month and that often involved extra hours, but as soon as I switched them to hourly I made it clear that they would be billed for every extra hour. The IRS does have rules about Common-Law Employee status.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I've often maintained that employees should treat their employers as clients rather than as parents. You're providing a service for which they are paying, and when you think of them as your customer you'll not only assume more power over your own work, but you'll provide better service, too.

mike_patburgess
mike_patburgess

Sorry, I read your post and for the most part I found it disjointed and full of grammatical errors. No-one attended the company Halowe'en party. Did you ever stop to think, "star performer", that maybe they were family people and wanted to spend that time with their family. This has nothing to do with performance or incentives. A couple of things that I have learned from this business (about 40 years) that you can take to the bank. 1) You need to understand that you should be part of the team. It is always not about me, me, me. Make sure that you give credit where credit is due. Compliment the team members and let someone else compliment you in front of your superiors. 2) Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Starting a new consulting firm is not the answer. It appears that you will need more experience to understand business and business processes.

janderso
janderso

I think this is sound advice, especially if you are on the INSIDE, as I am. It's easy for me though, I have an excellent manager who is willing to stick her neck out for me. It just so happens I am currently facing an issue of an internal customer asking for ways to skirt the "high road." I will take Chip's advice, too, and try to represent my customer's concerns in a fair manner. Wish me well!

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Thanks, jdorsey -- I used to get all worked up over things like that. Maybe I've finally been in this business long enough not to take it too personally.

janderso
janderso

Pardon the pun, Chip, but sounds like there's no chip on your shoulder; sound advice, too. You're the kind of contractor business people love!

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

There are "sick" organizations where office politics can spoil even the best efforts, but usually there's a way to mitigate that before it gets out of hand. Sounds like the typical geek ignorance of sociology to me. Not that I haven't done exactly the same thing at one time or another.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Sticking to ethical principles isn't just taking a moral stand -- in the end it makes good business sense, because it fosters trust and honesty in the organization. But nobody said it's always easy, especially when someone in power wants to stretch the rules. Good luck, jdorsey!

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