HR Consultants Share Their Pet Peeves

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR Apr 23, 2012

Slow pay and no pay. Clients who know it all. Staff who try to stall or divert a process. Nonresponsive clients. HR consultants face any number of challenging issues in their day-to-day work, but those who are most successful have learned to address the most common pet peeves—effectively, and often proactively.

Dennis Kravetz runs Kravetz Associates, an HR consulting firm in Scottsdale, Ariz. Issues related to the loss of intellectual capital represent his greatest pet peeves, he said. The top two: “HR people who try to steal your copyrighted work” and “HR people who pump you for information but have no intention of hiring a consultant.”

Kravetz does customized training courses and says that it is not uncommon for him to show samples of his work to others. “Many want you to leave them with the entire training course that you designed for someone else so they can ‘show it to others.’ ” Some, he said, “Will shamelessly use the material edited or unedited for training their employees” even, he said, if a copyright statement is featured clearly on the materials. To combat this problem, Kravetz said, he never leaves an entire course or questionnaire with people, only excerpts. “While many people are honest … I have been burned by this more than once,” he said. “You simply have to protect your copyrighted material.”

Dealing with people who are basically looking for free advice can be even more challenging, but Kravetz said that he has learned to ask clients if they have a budget for hiring a consultant. “If none is available, most consultants will not provide much information until a budget is created,” he said.

Expect Change

Change—environmental or client-imposed—can be a constant in the HR realm and Corliss McGinty, principal of SoftSolutionsConsulting.com in Greensboro, N.C., a company that focuses on helping people improve their soft skills, has definitely found that to be the case. She recalled a group of about 40 people with whom she had embarked upon a leadership process. After four sessions the new senior director asked her to stop because there were “big changes going on.”

These changes included a potential reduction in force. So she did and waited for more than six months. Then she found herself dealing with the nonresponsiveness of the senior director. “She wasn’t being responsive to e-mails. I found out her phone number and left voicemails. I even went over there to no avail.” The solution? Getting senior HR management involved, something she now does regularly. “I always work in tandem with them,” she said. “Going forward, we will have expectations and consequences in advance.”

Nonresponsive clients are a common pet peeve. Penny Miller, SPHR, with Venture HRO LLC in Wichita Falls, Texas, noted that, oddly enough, nonresponsive clients are “often those that called with their hair on fire that something has to be done right away; I clear my calendar and jump on their request and then we stall because they are just tied up with other alligators.”

To address this, she said, “If they say they want the project as a priority, then I ask about how often I should follow up if they don’t respond. They say they appreciate the follow-up on my part, and I don’t take the heat when the project bogs down.” If she finds that things do start to bog down, she said: “I go ahead and start booking some smaller projects in between and let the other client know that they are now competing for my time.” This can be done in a very professional way, she added.

Bruce Clarke is president and CEO of CAI, an HR management firm with locations in Raleigh and Greensboro, N.C. Lack of alignment between an organization’s HR leader and the management team is a pet peeve of Clarke’s. “More often than not you’ll find that the two of them—the team, in general, and the HR lead in particular—are still negotiating between themselves on what the goals are with the project, where the project should focus and what the project is about. If you can’t answer those questions as a team, then you’re likely to be dissatisfied with the result of the project,” he said. Closely related to this is the client who simply can’t articulate what exactly it is that the organization wants.

“I don’t know that it’s unique to HR, but it’s a significant reason for problems in the project.” In HR, he added, because much of the work tends to be on the gray side, it can be more of an issue if the project is not scoped adequately from the outset. A closely related pet peeve surrounds clients who don’t understand the often-gray nature of HR, he said. “If you have a client who is much more black and white, they tend to bring that black-and-white viewpoint,” he noted.

In these situations, he said, having a strong relationship with the client can help. The consultant can be very up-front, very early, about any concerns. “At least agree that the hurdle is there,” he said, even if it can’t be resolved immediately. If there isn’t an established relationship, he said: “It’s my personal belief that it’s too early to have that conversation. You don’t yet have their trust; you don’t yet have their ear; you don’t yet have the freedom to be blunt; and it may end the engagement,” he said. In these cases, he advised working toward an “early win—a way to help them resolve or see a resolution to something that is known. Get some early success and create some early level of trust. Then, as soon as you reasonably can, have a conversation about the bigger issue.”

Focus on Relationships

Relationships are important, agreed Karla Leavelle. Leavelle is president of Human Capital Advisors, a Northern Virginia company that works with C-level executives to build better organizations. She focuses on clients that want to build relationships. Clients “who want consultants to come in and just be the hired gun” represent one of her pet peeves. There are clients she has walked away from, she said, because it was clear that they were not interested in building a long-term relationship. Leavelle said she assesses the potential relationship at the outset, often asking questions about how the potential client has worked with other consultants.

Another pet peeve: clients that don’t really want to hear the advice consultants have to offer. “If you find particular issues in their organizations [for which] they don’t want the honest feedback, they don’t want you to say ‘I found the wart.’ ” One of the ways she has learned to address this problem is by talking with the potential client about some scenarios up front. She might say, for instance: “Suppose I come back to you and say … what would your reaction be?”

“That can be really telling in terms of how they’re going to respond,” she said, even though it might be hypothetical.

Pet peeves abound in any business environment. HR consultants, though, have a decided advantage—they can, and many do, vet their clients carefully to increase the odds that the relationship will be solid and long term.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.

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