Five tips for handling hostile clients

It's an occupational hazard: IT consultants often find themselves mired in ugly office politics and dealing with resentful staff. These survival tips may help.

As a consultant, you're often looked upon as an outsider. Your client's staff may be predisposed to finding fault with you, and personality conflicts will arise from those feelings. So how can you turn such a no-win situation into a productive one for both you and the company? Here are some tips you can use to protect yourself when you find you're labeled as "the enemy" at the client site.

Note: These tips are based on an entry in our IT Consultant blog.

1: Document your work with email

All correspondences should include email to avoid any "he-said, she-said" arguments. Whether you have a telephone conversation, a quick hallway chat, or a meeting, follow up with an email that summarizes what was discussed. For particularly heated issues, I recommend avoiding telephone conversations because email provides better documentation of exactly how the other person interacted with you. Make sure that you Cc those who may be an ally in the chain of command on all email correspondence. And of course, you should not delete anything, as you may need it later.

2: Send email to shed light on people who are missing deadlines

You may find that certain employees involved in the project at the client site are missing deadlines, which in turn, affects your ability to complete the project on time. To address these issues, it's best to confront the employee through email correspondence -- once again, for the benefit of keeping records. Your correspondence should be diplomatic and politically correct, but you should also use it to force your adversaries to address specific job-related issues even though this may not cast them in a favorable light.

This method is not always effective. Some people will see through this tactic and will respond to your emails with dissemblance, giving the appearance of their desire for teamwork while maintaining their adverse behavior toward you. But there are situations in which this method works well. I chose this course of action recently during a stint as a program manager with a communications conglomerate. I deliberately continued to ask a difficult employee for the status on due dates that had been missed, I questioned issues that were addressed late in the project, and I asked about items that I knew were in this person's area of responsibility. It worked like a charm. Oftentimes, if you give them enough rope, they will hang themselves.

3: Maintain your professional composure

The advice that sounds the most obvious is sometimes the most difficult to follow in real life. But you should try to avoid any animosity or anger toward people who are deliberately working against you. Don't let their errant behavior influence yours. It will only serve to be your downfall and put you at their level. A reaction from you is what they are usually after. Maintain a professional approach, especially around coworkers who may be friends of your adversaries.

4: Allow actions to speak louder than words

Perform only what is within your job responsibilities but be willing to go that extra mile. It will help solidify your position with the company and make it more difficult for the troublemakers to usurp you. Here again, you run the risk of coming across as an overachiever. This won't score you any points with the "in" crowd, but you weren't hired to be popular. You were hired because your record showed a clear propensity for accomplishing goals and for getting things done.

5: If you can't beat them, try to befriend them

If the situation doesn't appear to be getting any better, but you feel the job is worth salvaging, try a new approach. Make an effort to ingratiate yourself with the troublesome individuals and reason with them. Ask them specifically what it is you may have done to draw their disfavor and how you can make your relationship better for the sake of the company. Don't discuss their rude and unprofessional behavior, because this can be counterproductive. It may be a hard pill to swallow, but you need to ask yourself if sacrificing a little dignity might be worth what you may gain in the long run.

I don't advise going directly to the employee's supervisor. Remember that the people you have a complaint against are permanent employees. It's infinitely easier for the company to select the fast-and-easy way to eliminate complaints by getting rid of you. Don't shoot yourself in the foot.

If you must resign, leave with a good attitude

If all else fails and you still find yourself on the slippery slope out the door, be confident in the knowledge that you did the best job you could under difficult circumstances. Regroup and learn from the experience. Using those lessons to your advantage down the line ensures that you will come away from every job with something useful.

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