Project Management

Working with clients you dislike

Chip Camden presents five options for dealing with the problem of working with clients whom you dislike. Let us know how you handle these delicate situations.

Have you ever had a client with whom you couldn't stand to interact? Something about their personality always ticks you off, and you find yourself harboring ugly fantasies of retribution. Even though you know yourself to be civilized enough to never act out those fantasies, if you let the problem fester, your resentment will likely lead to some minor incarnation of them that could still get you into trouble. You need to deal with the problem in some deliberate fashion, rather than having it deal with you. What are your options?

Get rid of them. Life is too short to work with difficult people. If you can afford to let them go, do it. If you think you can't afford it, make sure you're placing an appropriate value on your own happiness. When you allow yourself to work with people you can't stand just for the money, you're an IT prostitute. But as they say, everyone has their price — the question is how much is enough. In tough economic times, you might find yourself welcoming work from someone about whom you previously vowed "never again!" Stay businesslike. If you must work with the client, then you must be even more vigilant about your behavior. It's easy in these circumstances to care less about your quality of work, because you may feel under-appreciated, or you simply don't care to impress a person whom you don't respect. Visualize your tasks as if that person were not involved and address them accordingly. As the old saying goes, "this too shall pass," but what comes afterward may depend on how well you handle the situation today. Look within. As Confucius said, "When the archer misses the center of the target, he turns round and seeks for the cause of his failure in himself." He doesn't blame the bow, the arrow, or the wind. These may all exert an influence, but it's up to the archer to account for them and use them appropriately. When someone bothers us greatly, it pays to ask ourselves why we find the person so objectionable. Do they exhibit some characteristic that we hate within ourselves? Do they stand for some principle with which we strongly disagree? Do they merely repeat some behavior that we find distasteful? In all of those cases, the perturbance comes from within ourselves. If we are capable of supreme serenity, this person will not be able to disturb it. I personally have not reached the level of inner peace at which nothing upsets me, but it helps to realize that allowing myself to be bothered by someone else is my own decision to grant them power over me. Address it openly. Perhaps you can fix your problem with this person. If you bring it up to them, do so in a way that doesn't make it into a big deal — unless you really want that to be a decisive moment in your relationship. A bit of tasteful humor can help, but you have to be careful. If it's taken as ridicule, then it will certainly make the situation worse. Ideally, you want your client to perceive you as a friend who is trying to help them get on better with their own situation, rather than as a plaintiff who is seeking redress of grievances. Another approach that sometimes works is to ask for their help with the situation, thus granting them ostensible power while separating their personality from the problem. Get someone else to fix it. I'm only listing this alternative because you will inevitably consider it. You could try to get the offending person fired, or have things rearranged so you don't have to deal with them, but this approach always comes with a high price tag. The person in charge whom you have pushed into the inconvenient role of arbiter or peacemaker will resent that imposition. Expect your own dismissal at their next convenient opportunity.

The idea for this topic came, like so many recent articles, from Bob Eisenhardt (reisen55). I didn't relate Bob's associated story, for fear of having his client stumble across it and recognize themselves.


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...

Editor's Picks