Editor’s note: This article was originally published July 18, 2003. 

As a consultant, one of the skills that you develop over the years is how to get along with the client employees who become your coworkers for the duration of the assignment. Always remember that you are in their house. They realize that their house is on fire. You can either help them put out the fires and fix the problems, thereby gaining their trust, or you can draw attention to their burning house and push them all away.

I’ve seen many consultants walk through the client’s door and immediately start pointing out everything that’s being done wrong. They may do this to prove their worth to the company, believing that managers will beg them to make it all better. In most cases, though, the opposite happens: Since the consultant is embarrassing employees in front of management, they begin to shun him. The manager wants the consultant gone because he’s embarrassing the department rather than solving the problem. Pretty soon, management and employees start talking, and the consultant is voted off the island.

What the employees want

Employees want you to come in, solve the problem, teach them new skills, and then leave. No matter how skilled or pleasant you are, the employees want you gone. You’re seen as their competition and a threat. Here are some ideas that employees may have of you:

  • You earn double the money they do.
  • You’re more skilled than they are, and you’re going to make them look bad.
  • You’re going to force change that they fear they may not be able to keep up with.
  • You might decide to go “full time” and steal their job.

How to deal with these issues

Money issues

Never, ever discuss money. Employees believe that you make a six-figure salary. If they find out that you make less than they do, they’ll worry that you will want to join their company to make more money. If they find out that you earn more than they do, they’ll resent you and scrutinize every piece of work that you do.

Trust issues

Employees don’t like you to make them look incompetent in front of management. I have three techniques for winning the trust of employees and assuring them that my intention is to make everyone look good:

Praise the employees in front of their manager. Find something they have done that impresses you and praise it out loud in front of their manager. This will help them realize that you recognize their skills and talents and that you’re not going to make them look bad to get more work.
When a client’s employee brings you a problem, help the employee solve it. This will increase the flow of challenges you’re brought, which will increase your understanding of the company. Always share the credit in solving the problem. The employee’s manager will view you as a team player. Remember that the manager will always side with the employee. If you try to make the employee look stupid or use the solution to pump yourself up, you’ll lose face with the employee and the manager. When a client’s employee misleads management into thinking that it was his or her idea, suck it up. Management knows better. You’ll be respected more for being professional.
Teach the client’s employees something they could never do. I once had to teach a developer how to use Oracle’s Intermedia so that we could develop a content management solution. Up until that point, the employee had been a real stick in the mud and would not go near me. Suddenly, he was my best friend. His manager also developed a lot of respect for me because I helped this person gain a new skill and gave him the confidence to learn new technologies.

We all want to guard our knowledge, but we should always guide a manager’s people toward developing new skills, thereby ensuring the project’s success. When you guard your knowledge too much, people will draw three conclusions about you:

  • You’re trying to build job security. In this case, you’ll receive less work and you’ll have even more reason to guard your knowledge.
  • You don’t really know anything.
  • You don’t work well with other people.

Sharing knowledge turns you into a leader. Hoarding knowledge turns you into a troll.

Employees’ job security

Always remind people how much you love consulting and that while you enjoy working with them, you could never be a full-time employee. If you talk too much about how wonderful the company is, two things may happen:

  • Management will approach you about full-time employment, which you might not be interested in.
  • Employees will stay away from you, fearing that if you solve too many of their problems, management will want to replace them with you.

What management wants

The reason you’re at the client site is because the company needs your skills to solve the problem at hand. Management knows there are problems. The employees know there are problems. You know there are problems. You’ve been brought in to solve these problems, not highlight them. The more quietly you make these problems go away, the better you will be treated by the company.

I was once sent to evaluate a company’s data problems. They were enormous. The employees had applications springing up like mushrooms all over the company, and everyone in the company seemed to be an Access programmer. The employees had Excel spreadsheets that were their only source of critical data. They had several applications that all did the same thing. It became clear to me that they were going to need a very robust data integration suite. I was given five people who were power users turned programmers.

I sat down with the employees and trained them patiently for two weeks on the suite. Employees reported back to management about their new skills and abilities to do the job. I discussed solutions with management and employees together in private. I reported results in public. The project was given a very big green light, and my five integration gurus and I were able to consolidate all the data sources into one operational data store.

The results:

  • Employees were confident that they could do the project.
  • Management saw that I was not building myself into the company.
  • I remained low key about the problems and focused on the solutions.
  • Everyone was praised for a job well done.

The bottom line

Remember that you are not there to stay at the client site. If you start to believe that this is where you’ll finish your career, you may be frustrated by the outcome. However, if you remember that your sole mission at the client site is to quietly put out the fires and teach the employees fire prevention, you may one day be called back as fire chief expert.


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