Approach after-hours consulting offers with caution

The money may be great, but accepting a consulting project for your company may be more trouble than it's worth. Juggling two jobs for one company can be more complicated than it seems. Here are a few things to consider before taking on a consulting role.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to undertake an “after-hours” programming project and assume the role of consultant for your employer. The project is challenging and enticing. The money’s great. But if you’re not careful, you may wish you’d never stepped into this pair of consulting shoes.

In our recent article “Consulting for your employer: Anatomy of a catastrophe,” a guest contributor who asked to remain anonymous told the story of an inside consulting job that went terribly wrong. The author’s tale prompted a great deal of both criticism and support from TechRepublic members for the ways that he handled the awkward situations he encountered while trying to balance the dual roles of employee and consultant. Despite conflicting opinions about how the author’s situation unfolded, one thing is certain: Assuming the roles of employee and consultant should be approached with caution.

Is that a consultant’s hat you’re wearing?
One of the most difficult situations that can come from assuming the role of a consultant is maintaining a distinction between the contract work and your normal duties as an employee. In his article, the author confessed that he was able to work some of the additional project work into the late hours of his normal workday. Although this may be efficient for the employee, it could lead to a lot of resentment from coworkers if they catch on. Brad Barton recommended actually leaving the building at the end of the normal workday to avoid any misunderstandings.

“Even if it’s only for five minutes or to get a snack, it puts forth a better appearance to your fellow employees, your boss, and more importantly, to your own mindset. Even better, change clothes.”

Bob Van Wagner likened this kind of personal policy to building a fence between the two roles in the company. In addition to leaving at the end of the day, Van Wagner suggested stricter measures to ensure that the day consists of the employee’s usual duties.

“Keep all contract job materials in a separate, locked drawer and under a different user name and folder set in the computers. Do not talk of the contract work during the day job. If the boss asks, suggest that you’ll get back to him and do so after hours,” Van Wagner said.

Inherent conflicts with combining the two roles
Even with some of these tactics to keep the consultant work separate from the daily routine, can an employee really handle both roles effectively? When he had to balance the two roles, the author had problems with the company president in collecting overdue payment for completed work.

According to Philip Griffiths, a consultant in New Zealand, the working relationships between consultants, superiors, and employees all complicate the ability to balance an employee/consultant workload. Consultants are often hired to work across many levels of the corporate structure, while employees report to a supervisor. But if the employee assumes the role of consultant, how can he or she tell a daytime superior what to do about certain aspects of a project?

“This means that the employee cannot make the same recommendations or work with the same freedom as a consultant,” Griffiths said.
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Pulling regular overtime
Considering some of the complexities of assuming both roles, many members believe that it makes much more sense to just assign after-hours projects to an employee for overtime pay. The employee avoids the dilemmas associated with juggling two roles, and there’s no additional tax-related paperwork.

Member pibcak often takes on special projects with great success. About five years ago, a former employer invited this member to do some consulting work for the company. Instead of agreeing to this arrangement, pibcak named an hourly rate and insisted that the company process all compensation through its regular payroll system.

“They wanted my services so badly that they agreed to my terms. Everybody was happy—I didn’t have to deal with any ‘business stuff,’ and they got the job done right by someone they could trust. Since then, I’ve done a dozen or so more jobs for them,” pibcak said.
Can someone really assume the role of consultant and employee? Do you have any tips for undertaking a successful after-hours project? Join the discussion and share your thoughts.

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