Unfortunately, sometimes it takes more than good resolve for a consultant to avoid the office rumor mill. When working on-site, it’s easy to be drawn into gossip by your client’s employees. It can also be tempting to vent your frustrations about a client when that client’s employees feel the same way you do. In this article, I’ll take a look at the role of discretion in contracting and offer some strategies to help you avoid being pulled into awkward situations that may damage your reputation.
Next week, Meredith Little will continue her look at the importance of discretion in your consulting work. She’ll offer advice on how to address questions from employees about what you’re earning and whether to report poor employee performance to the client.
Avoid office gossip and chatter
When you’re actually spending some or all of your working hours in the client’s offices, it can be all too easy to start getting drawn into office gossip—especially if your personality is inclined to be chatty. The standard who-and-what gossip is easy to identify and almost as easy to avoid. If you’re in a group of people when the subject gets personal, simply excuse yourself as soon as it starts. If you’re one-on-one with the gossiper, you can interrupt at the first opportunity to say that you need to get back to work. A line such as, “Actually, I don’t even know who that person is—can you excuse me so I can finish this [task] today?” will ease you out of most situations.

But it isn’t only gossip that can get you in trouble. In practice, I consider anything more than a friendly greeting to be too much for anyone but the people I’m working with most closely, especially toward the beginning of a project. I don’t engage in extended conversations in the break room, at my desk, or anywhere else. My purpose at my client’s office is to deliver a result quickly and efficiently, not to make friends.

In general, the people I work with appreciate that I’m thorough but to the point. I don’t engage them in speculation about the company or anything else. Besides, it isn’t really any of my concern what’s happening at the company so long as my client remains solvent and capable of paying me. Instead, I stay focused on the work I’m doing and what I need from my client’s employees, and they like that I take up as little of their time as possible.

Remember, your reputation is on the line
You may be thinking that all this doesn’t sound very friendly. You may not have considered, however, all the ways in which engaging in either gossip or too many chats can make you look bad:

  • Gossip puts a mark on your professional image. If you’re interested in who’s doing what, it’s clear to everyone that you aren’t devoting your attention to the project at hand.
  • Chatter makes you appear as though you aren’t taking the project seriously. Whoever brought you on board at the client company won’t be impressed if he or she sees you in the halls chatting. This remains true even if you’re being paid a fixed fee instead of an hourly rate.
  • You run the risk of getting involved in office politics. Those politics can land you on the wrong side of your contact and subsequently out the door.
  • Such behavior can alienate your client’s employees. Even if you aren’t aware of it, there’s almost always some employee resentment when a contractor is brought in. Some employees feel threatened or insulted by a contractor’s presence because they interpret it to mean that they aren’t trusted to do the necessary work, and they assume you’re making more money than they are.

Like it or not, you can be assured that some of the office gossip is about you. Even when the person engaging you in the chatter is an employee, don’t add fuel to this fire by looking like a slacker. Consultants are held to a higher standard than employees, and for good reason. You’re rarely subjected to the thorough hiring process that employees pass through, and the level of risk for the client is higher because consultants are usually paid more and work on critical projects.

Meredith Little wears many hats as a self-employed documentation consultant, trainer, business analyst, photographer, and freelance travel and technical writer.

Have you ever witnessed a situation where engaging in office gossip ruined a consultant’s reputation? What do you do to avoid these situations? Post a comment below or send us a note.