Despite the fact that the contract he signed with a financial organization stated that all software or documentation would “remain the exclusive property of Consultant,” most TechRepublic members thought that Antonio Green’s decision to delete documentation from a client’s computer after a dispute was wrong. Green’s company, Verde Network Consulting, had created the documentation during a two-year contract that came to an abrupt end when, instead of renewing Verde’s contract, the new CEO hired a firm he’d worked with in the past.

We asked members to let us know what they thought about Green’s decision to delete the documentation and they did, through a host of e-mails and discussion posts. It’s true that hindsight is 20/20, but TechRepublic members came up with some advice for handling future disputes.

The short version
Green described his dilemma and the action he took in a recent article. In short, Green learned that the client would not be renewing its contract and that the client expected his company to provide training to the incoming consulting firm.

Knowing that the contract—which was drawn up by the client’s legal department—provided that all documentation would remain the property of the consultant, Green deleted some documentation that had been moved to one of the client’s computers. He then left the site. The client no longer trusted Verde employees on its premises so they locked them out of the building and all computer systems. To avoid legal action, Green suggested that he support the company by phone for the remainder of the contract period, and the financial institution agreed to continue to pay.

Consultant was right
Although they were the minority, some members felt that Green had done the right thing in deleting the documentation. David Ogali said he believes Mr. Green handled the “explosive situation” properly by following what the contract stipulated. Member Markh agreed, titling his response, “feeling like Rodney Dangerfield.” (Dangerfield is an actor/comedian whose catchphrase is “I get no respect.”)

“All too often we in the IT field are treated with disrespect by the client and must behave in a legal and ethical manner,” he said. “If you allow a client to break a contract then why have one in the first place? Too many clients feel that they can ignore the terms of a contract and do as they feel.”

Advice from members
Member GPC, a systems administrator, said that regardless of the contract’s wording, the documentation should not have been deleted. “After all,” he said, “the client obviously paid for the contracted work so they should also own the documentation for the contracted product.” GPC went on to say that Green’s actions damaged Verde’s and his personal reputation, a sentiment often repeated by other members.

Colin McNamara, a senior systems engineer with ExtraTeam in Pleasanton, CA, said he believes Green’s actions were shortsighted and “to some point, downright wrong.”

“This is a case of a consultant acting in retribution instead of making a business decision,” McNamara said. “In my experience, if a new CIO wants to bring in his cronies, and bump you out of a gig, then offering to make that change as clean as possible will have multiple benefits.”

McNamara listed four benefits that Green might have reaped had he offered to stay beyond the contract’s end date—at an additional charge—for cross training and project handoff to the new teams:

  1. The customer would have had the best experience possible.
  2. The consulting firm would retain or gain the reputation of “team player.”
  3. The firm replacing you might bring you into other accounts. (“Don’t laugh,” said McNamara, as it’s happened for his firm quite often.)
  4. Customers always talk to other customers. Other customers will know about your reputation as a team player, and will be encouraged to bring you into their accounts for specialized work.

In short, deleting the documentation was the wrong move because it alienated the client and damaged Verde’s reputation, McNamara said. “The reason we [consultants] are there is to help the client. If you stop helping the client, then in short time, you will not be consulting, and out of business.”

Another plan of action
TechRepublic member Glen Ford is president of Can Da Software in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, and has over 25 years of IT experience. He provided a plan of action that he might have taken in Green’s position. He said the goal is to manage the CIO’s expectations and bring them into line with what the contract necessitates.

He recommended the following procedures:

  1. Lay out an “exit plan” of actions that need to take place on the termination of the client/consultant relationship, including references to the contract and explanations for items such as “deleting documentation.”
  2. “Take a breather” before making any decisions. “As someone else pointed out, chill so that you don’t react emotionally,” Ford said.
  3. Arrange a meeting with the CIO to go over the exit plan and identify specific items on which you anticipate conflict.
  4. Find out how long each task on the exit plan will take. In the meeting with the CIO, find out if the client would like to add any additional tasks.
  5. During the meeting, assign a specific time schedule to the exit plan.
  6. Realize that lawyers “have a legitimate job to do,” and though you may not like it, you can’t let it “get to you, otherwise you might find yourself threatening the client with legal action.”

In the end, Ford said consultants should remember that a contract’s end is “a normal phase” of every engagement and “not something to get emotional about.”

An ounce of prevention
Some members offered advice for making it very clear to whom the documentation belongs. For example, Frits suggested that Green mark all documents that he lays claim to with a company name and copyright notice. Additionally, he recommended that all files you do not want transferred to the client when the contract is terminated be password-protected. Green, who joined the discussion on TechRepublic, responded by saying that his company has begun labeling and applying legal notices to all new documentation.

Member Joe Fetters recommended that Green change any future contracts to state that if a client wants to retain the documentation, they can purchase it at a set rate per page.

“All in all, I’m against keeping anything produced at the client site after my departure if they provided the environment to produce that product,” Fetters said. “They paid for my time so they are entitled to whatever I produced.”

Who writes the contract?

In this case, the client’s legal department wrote the contract and Verde signed. For most of your engagements, does your firm present the contracts or do you generally sign those drawn up by your clients? Send us an e-mail or discuss your practices below.