Some contractors mistakenly think that the only person they need to get along with is the manager in charge of their project. But more often than not, client employees are critical to your project’s success. While it’s important to cultivate your relationship with them, it’s vital that you also keep it professional.

While one of the perks of contracting is being largely immune to the interoffice politics that come with working in the same place every day, remember that the people you work with—your client’s employees—do have to deal with these issues.

In this article, I’ll offer suggestions that will help you steer clear of office politics and foster your relationship with your client’s employees.

Why does it matter?
Few projects require no input or assistance from current employees. Additionally, the employees you work with are likely to submit critiques of your work to their manager. Ultimately, their assessment can affect your final evaluation and can have a bearing on potential contract renewals and calls for additional projects.

Unfortunately, many employees feel threatened by a contractor’s presence. They’re often suspicious about why you’re there and how you’ll affect their jobs. They may also be jealous, assuming that their company is paying you an astronomical sum to do work that they believe they could do better.

Never assume that you’ll be welcomed. Plan on working hard to accumulate employee goodwill. Many contractors use the term “natives” for employees of the companies they work for. Don’t adopt this kind of mentality or assume that you’re superior in any way. People pick up on these kinds of opinions, even if you don’t think they would notice.

Make sure management does their part
Before your first day in the office, meet with the manager of the department you’ll be working in. Find out how closely you’ll be working with these people and what kind of assistance or information you should expect from them. Write down their names and job titles.

Tell the manager that you expect him or her to inform everyone you’ll be working with about your role at the company and why they’ve brought you in instead of having an employee do the job. Ask if this has already occurred and, if not, ask when that information will be shared with employees.

Get your story straight
Find out what you should say if employees ask you why you’re there and what you’re doing. I’ve had suspicious employees—in an effort to find out the “real” reason I was there—try to ambush me by asking questions for which they already knew the answers. They were also hoping I’d say something that conflicted with management’s version, confirming their suspicions that management wasn’t being completely forthcoming.

Meet key people ahead of time
Ask the appropriate manager or managers to introduce you to key people. As a technical writer, I almost always need information from several people. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve phoned an employee or dropped by his or her office to schedule an interview only to find out that he or she has no idea who I am, what project I’m working on, or why I’m there.

This inattention on the part of management makes the initial meeting awkward and uncomfortable for both of us. The employee is often clearly distracted by the concerns I mentioned earlier, and I have to work harder to establish my legitimacy.

Know what you’re getting into
Ask management if there are any special conditions that should be brought to your attention. For example, have there been recent layoffs or other events that would make people distrustful? Don’t limit this information gathering to your main contact—ask everyone else who might have an answer.

Fit in, but don’t try to be one of the gang
Once you arrive at the office, try to fit in. But do so by being inconspicuous, not by imitating. You’re a short-timer there, lacking an employee’s long-term interest and insecurities. You know it and they know it, so hanging around the water cooler is going to backfire. Be cognizant of the fact that your role is very different from that of an employee.

Dress appropriately
Deciding what to wear to work depends on the work environment. Your goal should be to fit in.

For example, once you finish the interview process, ditch the coat and tie if it’s a casual environment. Although some contractors think dressing up helps maintain a professional look, I think it identifies them as outsiders and makes contractors look like they’re exaggerating their importance.

The converse, however, doesn’t hold true: Never dress more casually than your client’s employees. If you’re working in a coat-and-tie environment, wear a coat and tie. Doing otherwise makes it look as though you’re flaunting your independence by dressing down.

However, don’t fit in too well. In the IT world of casual clothing, I still prefer not to dress down completely. For example, I almost never wear jeans and T-shirts even if many employees do. Instead, I opt for khakis or other casual pants and for shirts free of logos or other lettering.

Remember your place
Respect your client’s employees, even the ones who can be difficult. If you remember that your time with this client is limited, you can deal with almost any personality.

Keep a low profile and be respectful. For example, don’t lug around an enormous briefcase unless absolutely necessary, and don’t wear your pager and cell phone as badges of your importance. Let your performance and behavior create a professional image.

You can do lots of things to let employees know that you respect them and understand your place as an outsider. For example, when I schedule interviews, I ask people about their schedules instead of trying to impose mine.

Last, don’t go overboard. Remember that your goal with employees is not to be liked but to complete your project. The most important thing you can do is simply to do your job in a professional manner—that’s what will garner you the most acceptance and cooperation.

How do you fit in?

As a consultant, what’s the best way to deal with clients’ employees? Have you had managers who have gone out of their way to introduce you to employees? Have there been times when you’ve felt like the office pariah? Tell us about it.