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Some Consultants Mistakenly ‘Soldier’ Jobs When Retreat Is Needed

By J.J. Smith  12/9/2007
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There are situations in which consultants undertake jobs that are beyond the consultancy’s abilities to deliver—usually by accident, rarely by malfeasance—yet the consultant tries to complete the terms of the agreement, Kenneth Somers, a former HR consultant who is now a vice president for the insurance company Hartford Life, tells SHRM Online.

Situations occur where HR consultants find out after accepting a contract that the work is beyond their abilities but they mistakenly try to “soldier on” through the job, Somers said. Usually, consultants who will try to complete the contract are young, less experienced consultants who have made an error in judgment, he said.

In those situations, the consultant usually will enter into an agreement before realizing it is more complex than anticipated, he said. In an effort to see the contract through, those consultants will continue to work on the project, but they will tend to spend much of the workday listening to what the client has to say, he said.

The consultant takes what the client has said and will “digest it in the context of the consulting practice of that particular vendor” and “regurgitate” back to the client what the consultant believes the client wants to hear, he said. In such a situation, a consultant will learn more from the client than the consultant provides in return, he said.

Bait and Switch

While clients should be wary of consultants who want to spend a lot of time talking to those who contracted the consultancy, another indicator that clients should watch is called “the bait and switch,” Somers said. In this case, the bait and switch is not a scam, but a more efficient way for the consultant to do business, he adds.

When the bait and switch occurs, it involves the disappearance of the senior consultant—who very likely pitched the deal—from the day-to-day operation of the consulting work, he said. Because the senior consultant is probably the consultancy member who is most experienced at making job pitches, that is likely that individual’s role with the consultancy, he said.

What happens under the bait-and-switch scenario is once the work begins on the contracted job—or within a few weeks of starting—the senior consultant leaves the junior staff in charge of “running the show on a day-to-day basis,” he said. To prevent the bait and switch from occurring, it is up to the client to take responsibility for managing the consultant, he adds.

However, if a client does realize a consultant is not providing the services negotiated in the contract or engagement letter, the client needs to schedule a meeting with the consultant, Somers said. “Shame on you [clients]” for not speaking up and saying, “something is not right here,” and that means the terms and conditions of the agreement have to be revisited, he said.

Once the document is reopened for negotiation, it is up to the client to ensure that all concerns are made clear and to inform the consultant that the current contract or engagement letter is not meeting expectations, he said. Clients who want to avoid an aggressive or hard-line approach can say that as the project has moved forward, it has been realized that the company’s needs are different than what is listed in the engagement agreement, he said.

Those consultants who realize—before a client does—that the requirements of a job are beyond the consultancy’s abilities should approach the client and say, “we have a problem, let’s talk about it,” Somers said. A reputable consultant will say that a client’s relationship is more important than a particular engagement, he added. Therefore, if a consultancy is faithful to that principle, a consultant will approach a client not only with the news of the problem, but also with solutions at the ready, he said.

Unless it is a very small practice, more often than not any problem can be addressed by reassigning an existing consultant, by beefing up the team or by renegotiating the terms and conditions of the engagement, he said. “There’s a lot of different ways to deal with the situation constructively,” he said.


If the client chooses to renegotiate the engagement agreement, both sides should focus on including detailed information that specifies deliverables and dates for those deliverables, Somers said. If a new agreement is reached, both sides should be happier because they will have mutually reduced the “gray zone” from the agreement, which can be both a source of friction and the cause the problems, he said.

In addition, clients can—depending on the circumstances, scope and size of the contract—use the opportunity to negotiate performance factors into the agreement, he said. To get consultants to agree to performance factors, and make them fair, clients should include rewards and penalties in the agreement, he said. For example, it could offer to pay a consultant a premium for meeting a deadline early while still producing quality material, he said.

Conversely, a penalty could be imposed if certain deliverable deadlines are not met, or if the quality is not up to specified standards, he said. Such performance factors cannot be part of every engagement agreement because “it’s not economical for either consultant or client,” he said. But for a major project, a client should include those types of provisions, he added.

Nonetheless, there are situations where the right thing for a consultant to do is to say, “we can’t deliver on this project, we’re sorry, let’s talk about how we break the contract.”

J.J. Smith is manager of SHRM’s Consultants Focus Area.

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