HR Consultants Learn to Avoid Becoming Scapegoats

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR Dec 27, 2010

HR consultants often find themselves in the perfect scapegoat position. As outsiders they can be easy targets for the assignment of all types of blame. How they respond to these attempts to place them in the hot seat can frame the outcome of situations and can serve to establish—or derail—their overall reputations.

Most seasoned consultants have become adept at spotting the potential to be placed in a scapegoat role, and they’ve learned how to minimize these issues in a variety of ways. In fact, said Ben Dattner of Dattner Consulting, LLC in New York City and the author of The Blame Game (Free Press, 2011): “Consultants have to beware of being selected in the first place in order to be blamed.”

“Scapegoating is alive and well within organizations, and sometimes fingers will conveniently point to the external consultant,” said Helen Cooke, managing director of Cooke Consulting Group, LLC in Haddon Heights, N.J.

Cooke and Dattner recommended heading off the blame game from the beginning.

Define ‘Success’ Up Front

Dattner suggested that HR consultants ask prospective clients to define success at the outset by asking questions like: “What does success look like to you?” “What do you think a successful outcome might be?” “How are you going to measure my success as a consultant?”

“If they have sort of a cynical, covert agenda, it’s going to be more difficult for them to communicate their true goals,” said Dattner. “Particularly in a tough economy, where resources are scarce to bring in outside consultants, if they haven’t given thought to what kind of return on investment they want, that could be a warning sign,” he said.

“An alert consultant will pick up on the cues and clues early to be able to speak to the potential ways that the project may play out,” noted Cooke. “When I encounter significant skepticism from key players in the data gathering phase, then there is a good likelihood that there will be resistance and naysaying as we progress,” said Cooke.

Identifying and documenting potential issues is an important best practice, said Jim Morgan, a team coach with TeamTrainers Consulting in Raleigh, N.C. Morgan suggested the use of a “statement of work” that outlines clearly the situation, the schedule of tasks, the things that could go wrong and how you will respond. “Get the client’s input on this ‘risk register’ and refer to it in the statement of work,” he suggested. “Formal planning won’t prevent problems from occurring, but it reduces the impact on your engagement and thus the level of blame to be thrown around.”

Cooke agreed. Identifying potential issues at the outset, she said, allows her to “remind my client about that as we go along to reinforce that any acting out is simply part of the process.” And that brings up another important best practice—keeping the lines of communication open.

Keep Communication Channels Wide Open

Dattner recommended keeping clients and client contacts apprised fully at all times and making sure that they’re signing off on decisions and actions along the way. If a consultant is going to err, err on the side of checking in too often, he said. “You can take small blame in the present to avoid larger blame in the future,” he said. “Sometimes in order to prevent being scapegoated and blamed down the road it might be better in the short term to say, ‘I’m going to be persistent.’ ”

In addition, he noted: “Gentle reminders along the way about whatever was agreed upon is a good way to avoid surprises.”

It is also critical for consultants to be clear about their role and what they are there to do—and not do. Dattner pointed to Edgar Schein’s work as a good resource for consultants. “His whole process-consulting philosophy is exactly intended to help avoid this kind of issue,” Dattner said. “Consultants get into trouble to the extent that they bring answers rather than process to an issue,” he said.

“The more you try to sell some sort of shrink-wrapped, off-the-shelf solution, the less likely it’s going to be successful,” said Dattner. “Even if you’re right in theory, if you haven’t engaged the client in joint dialogue, planning and feedback, they can say: ‘Hey, that isn’t what we wanted’ ”

Gregg Bedol, managing director of Red Zone Consulting in Atlanta, agreed. “As a consultant, I stay crystal clear that my job is to advise, to support, to help execute. I never try to make policy, but advise only. Any action taken is always management’s decision.

“We insist that all decisions are documented and communicated by management—not the consultant.” Then, he said, when a decision is made and communicated by management “it is clearly their decision that they stand behind.”

But, despite the best efforts on the part of even the most seasoned consultants, sometimes “blame happens.”

Don’t Take the Bait

Sometimes, said Dattner, HR consultants are going to be the target of blame. “They’re entering into a social system during tough times. People are stressed. They have unrealistic expectations about how much you can help and how soon you can help and how quickly, cheaply and effectively you can help them.” Don’t flinch the first time you’re being blamed, he advised. And don’t reciprocate. “Don’t focus on blame; focus on problem-solving. Don’t challenge their reality.

“We don’t want to answer blame with blame—we want to model constructive problem-solving and a pure, constructive response to blame.”

Cooke recalled a situation that required her to call upon her tools of nondefensiveness. “I had a recent situation where my intervention surfaced significant internal dysfunction,” she said. “There was a turning point when I could have allowed them to paint me into a corner. Had I become defensive, that would have sealed my fate and they might have swept their internal challenges back under the proverbial carpet. Instead, I stepped back to regroup and came back with a well-reasoned approach for next steps in consideration of various perspectives—remembering that perception is reality. By not pointing the finger myself, I believe, it diffused their urge to be pointing a finger.”

The key for consultants is to not get “hooked” when blame is being doled out, she said. “If the consultant takes it personally, he or she will make it easy for management to conclude that ‘we hired an incompetent consultant—that’s our only problem.’ ”

Ultimately, these situations can represent important learning experiences.

Debriefing and Learning

“It’s good for independent consultants to always take a learning approach,” said Dattner. “Each time you find yourself in a situation like this, step back and ask: ‘What did I do wrong?’ ‘What could I have clarified or reclarified?’ ‘How could I have made those boundaries clearer?’ ”

Even the most challenging situations represent learning opportunities, emphasized Dattner. “No matter how unreasonable they may be, there’s still something you could have done differently,” he said. And that something represents an opportunity to learn and grow.

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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