There comes a time in every IT consultant’s career when an uncomfortable situation occurs: An employee at the client site wants to share some office gossip, asks you what you’re being paid, or engages in an activity you’d object to if you were the boss.

There’s not always a smooth way out of these situations, and there’s rarely an easy one. In this article, I’ll offer advice on how to address inappropriate questions from employees and other tips on handling yourself when you’re working at your clients’ offices.
Last week, Meredith Little addressed the role of discretion in consulting and offered strategies to help consultants avoid being pulled into awkward situations.
Addressing money questions
Discussing money is a very tricky trap you don’t want to fall into. You’d be surprised how often a client’s employee will obliquely hint at or outright ask you about your compensation. Although you should always rely on your own best judgment, only in very rare circumstances should you disclose even the barest of information.

If you’re being probed about your finances rather subtly, you can often play dumb—simply pretend that you didn’t get the hint or understand the question. Then, quickly leave the room or change the subject—and your questioner might get your hint. For outright questions that you can’t ignore, the best method I’ve found is to say something like, “You know, I’ve found that it isn’t a good idea to discuss that kind of information.” This implies that you’ve learned it from experience, which is difficult for the questioner to refute.

Questions from wanna-be contractors
A tougher situation is one in which an employee tells you that he or she is thinking about getting started in consulting and would like to know what to expect financially. Or, you encounter another contractor who believes he or she is being paid too little for the project and wants to know what you’re making. Before throwing out a figure, think about what will happen if that person is shocked by how much you’re making—or how you’ll feel if you discover that they’re making more than you.

The best response is to say something like: “What anyone gets paid is really a combination of that person’s skills and experience, the value of the project to the consultant, and the client’s perception of the value offered by that person. It’s hard to say what would be a reasonable pay rate for any job, even this one, because my skills and experience are different from yours.”

If you do feel compelled to help the person out with some facts-and-figures advice, at least pad your figure by giving a range: “On a project like this, depending on the length of the project and what my involvement is, I’d generally expect to be paid anywhere between X and Y.”

If the questioner is genuine, also remember that you can offer good, solid advice without ever talking about money. If someone wants to go into contracting only for the money, they’re probably looking in the wrong place.

Should you tell a client the ship is sinking?
What about discretion with your clients themselves? For example, should you tell your client that the manager who’s most vocal about being overworked regularly arrives at 9:30, plays Quake all day, and takes two-hour lunches? Should you announce your opinion that the Gestapo was nicer than your client’s managers? How about voicing your firm conviction that the company will sink under the financial waters in less than a year?

Well, it depends. Were you brought in to improve employee productivity, offer management sensitivity training, or bring the company back into the black? If not, then hold your tongue. The bottom line is, if you aren’t supposed to fix the problem and it doesn’t affect your ability to perform your work, then don’t talk to the client about it.

In the case of egregious problems, this may seem difficult to do. You may think, “If it were my company, I’d want someone to tell me about this.” The flaw in this line of reasoning is that in most cases, on some level, the company already knows about its problems, but either can’t do anything about them or won’t admit there’s a problem at all. If you take on the role of company savior, more likely than not, you’ll quickly find yourself without a project and gathering a reputation as a meddler.

Don’t think you can save it all up for when you leave, either. Consultants rarely get exit interviews. Just collect your last check and thank the client for the opportunity to work with them.

Even after the project, the word is mum
Of course, discretion doesn’t cease when your project does. No matter how awful a client was to work for, don’t talk about it to the wrong person. Period. If you kvetch about past clients to present or future clients, what are they to assume you’ll say about them?

In addition to whatever skills and problem-solving acumen you may possess, you also want your reputation to include trustworthiness and discretion. Clients like contractors who will come in, keep their head down, do their job, and not gossip about the company after leaving. This should be the professional image you want to cultivate as well.

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

Has an employee at the client site asked you what you’re earning? How did you address the question? Post a comment below or send us a note.