Harassed for attempting to transition from employee to consultant

When a TechRepublic member told his employer that he planned to resign and work for a small consulting firm (which had been a vendor), his boss threatened to sue the new firm. Find out what lessons you can learn from this sweet consulting opportunity that turned sour.


The transition from full-time employee to independent consultant isn't always as easy as it was for me. My employer encouraged me to take a job with one of our vendors, with whom I had been working closely for years. Soon after, my new employer and I agreed that an independent contracting arrangement would work better. I had full-time work all cut out for me, along with the freedom to take on other clients as needed. The arrangement really couldn't have been much better. Unfortunately, other IT pros have found the road to freedom a little rockier.

One member's transition tale of woe

TechRepublic member Mac_IT_Guy saw what looked like a great opportunity to move into a consulting role. His employer hired a small consulting firm for an earlier project. The consulting firm's owner mentioned his need for additional consultants, and Mac_IT_Guy pursued this chance to leave a job where he felt underpaid and boxed into a dead-end career.

His employer was not amused. His boss threatened to sue the consulting firm for "plucking the organization's valuable assets," and he bullied Mac_IT_Guy with remonstrations that his move was unethical because he left the company in a bind to pursue his best interests. His boss even suggested that Mac_IT_Guy (who was an IT Supervisor) brought in the consulting firm with the intent to create an escape route for himself. Since the consulting firm is small, it couldn't afford the expense of defending against a lawsuit even if they won.

Like most (but not all) participants in the discussion, I feel that there's nothing unethical about Mac_IT_Guy's move. He was an "at will" employee who could have been dismissed just as easily as he left. He even gave four weeks' notice and offered to stay on longer to train his replacement. If Mac_IT_Guy's employer considered him so valuable, he should have paid him enough and created the work environment that would make him want to stay. The old days of loyalty to the company above all else are long past (at least in the United States). Since Mac_IT_Guy didn't sign a non-compete agreement, there isn't any legal reason why he couldn't work for a competitor — much less a vendor. There are no trade secrets at risk — only the loss of what his employer treated as a "resource" in the past. I think the employer is just upset about having to find a replacement and is looking for a way to lash out.

Mac_IT_Guy is currently without a job because the new firm didn't want to risk getting sued by his previous employer. If I were in his position, there is no way I would go back to work for the former employer.

Lessons to learn about transitioning to consulting

We can all learn from Mac_IT_Guy's nightmare of an experience. When leaving an employer, don't give them any ammo with which to shoot you in the back on your way out. In short, say as little as you need to get your feet out the door. A jilted employer can be as wrathful as a jilted lover, and they'll be looking to catch any word from you that they might use for revenge. What would the employer have been able to do if Mac_IT_Guy was merely striking out on his own or hiring on with an unknown consulting firm rather than going to work for a previous vendor? In practical terms, how is this any different?

I don't think you need to tell your employer about your new gig. I would simply say, "I've decided to go into consulting" and leave it at that. If the employer presses you about your prospects, say, "That's privileged information." If they ask, "But you're not going to work for our competition, are you?" you can assuage their fears (if it helps to smooth your exit), but it isn't required if you didn't sign a non-compete agreement. You could also leave the option open that you might work for your employer again as an independent consultant if they should require your services.

I've known many companies that applaud employees who leave for better opportunities, wishing them luck and telling them to keep in touch. Those companies usually have no trouble retaining employees because they value them enough to make it worth their while to stick around. It's strange but often true that the companies that get the most bent out of shape when employees leave are the very ones that treat them poorly while they're in their employ.

Share your experiences

If you transitioned from being an employee to a consultant, how was your experience? What's your relationship like now with your previous employer? What pitfalls would you advise other IT pros to watch out for if they're considering transitioning to an IT consultant? Share your thoughts and advice in the discussion.


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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...

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