Relationships? We have to talk about relationships again? For most geeks, whenever someone wants to talk about a relationship, we want to hide behind a monitor. But the business of consulting involves just as much (or more) skill in dealing with people as it does in dealing with technology.

I’ve discussed the consultant-client relationship before, but now I want to explore the other relationship you have with your client: the personal relationship that exists outside your working relationship. In many cases, there isn’t much of a personal relationship. My clients whom I’ve never met or spoken to except by e-mail only have my written communication by which to form an idea of my personality (some might say that’s more than enough). But when you work closely with a client for many years, you can’t help sharing some degree of personal intimacy.

Nor should you avoid it completely. People like to work with friends. In fact, attempting to keep a relationship purely professional may only increase mutual admiration and the desire for something more. It often starts with a shared insight or a harmless joke that whets one person’s interest in how the other person thinks. The next thing you know, someone’s wearing a halo.

But that’s when you may have gone too far. When someone supposedly can do no wrong, disappointment is sure to follow. If your client views you as the object of admiration, you need to defuse that bomb before it explodes by being humble and self-deprecating. If you’re the one with stars in your eyes, then you need to shake yourself by the collar and remind yourself that everyone is human.

A romance presents the same problem, squared. Desire augments admiration to the point where it goes beyond where reason can recover it, and the ensuing disappointment can be correspondingly devastating — it’s usually enough to completely disable the relationship from then on. When that happens in the workplace, one person or the other often feels compelled to leave. You don’t want to create that problem between you and your client or anyone who works for them. I know — I’ve done it twice thrice four times (oh, who’s counting?). I regret something about all of those relationships except one — my wife.

Friendships, and especially romantic relationships with people who work for your client, can also introduce the potential ethical problem of a conflict of interest. What if the best thing for your client is to show your special someone the door? Less extreme but much more common is the tendency for you to favor policies that would advance that person’s career. You’re no longer an uninterested observer — your recommendations become biased.

But suppose you keep relationships with your client clear of all crushes, obsessions, and romantic entanglements, where do you draw the line between being a friend and acting unprofessionally? Most consultants don’t mind dining with their client or going out for a beer, but would you shoot pool with them or play poker? Would you visit their home, or invite them to yours? Would you sing karaoke at their company party or dance with their CEO? Naturally, it depends a lot on the client and the culture they foster within their organization. It’s a gross generalization, but in my experience companies on the West Coast of the United States often seem to be more tolerant of certain behaviors than those on the East Coast or in the United Kingdom.

I confess that I have often erred on the side of the outrageous. Perhaps I’m a narcissistic attention seeker (that would also explain my need to blog), but I like to tell myself that it has more to do with being honest and with letting my clients get to know the real me.

How friendly do you let yourself get with clients? Do you have any horror stories of times when you or clients crossed the line? Share your experiences in the discussion.

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