HR Consultants Struggle with Bad Client Behavior

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR Dec 4, 2009

Barbara Farfan, a management consultant with Authentic Communications, LLC in Orlando, Fla., was hired by a large corporation to work with a group of middle managers on a project to change customer service policies and procedures. One of the middle managers expressed resistance at every step. “He was the devil’s advocate to everything, argumentative, uncooperative and disagreeable,” recalled Farfan. “He could find serious objections to anything and everything, and if anyone dared disagree with him he would start yelling or storm out of the room.”

Farfan said she had countless conversations with the bad-behaving manager, but to no avail. She used several workarounds that were effective for a while, but they were exhausting. “When the bad-behavior manager started spreading rumors about me, it caused people to question my professional integrity. I finally had a revelation,” she said. “This manager didn’t have a problem with me or with the project. This manager was a control addict, and his rage was the way he kept everyone around him in control.”

Following this revelation, Farfan approached the situation differently. “I scheduled a meeting with the rage-manager’s boss and shared my conclusions with the senior manager. I expressed my concern about the mental health of this manager, gave very specific examples of how the work environment had become toxic and offered some solutions.” Nothing changed immediately, she said, but a few months later the manager was moved out of his position and was working on his rage issues through an EAP program.

Pushing Back

In a tough economy with increasing competition, the idea of confronting bad behavior head on and potentially losing a client—or, in some cases, actually terminating a client relationship—might seem like the last thing an HR consultant would want to do. Yet, say some with experience in the field, that is exactly what they have done and what they advise to others who find themselves dealing with bad client behavior.

The first and possibly most important piece of advice they offer: You do not have to put up with bad client behavior. The angst and effort are simply not worth the potential reward.

Simma Lieberman of Simma Lieberman Associates in Albany, Calif., has been an organizational development consultant for more than 20 years and has had many experiences with bad client and client employee behavior.

“It took me a while before I had the self-confidence to push back on clients,” said Lieberman. “At first I would try to appease them or react in a passive aggressive, indirect manner, which only hurt my ability to be a great consultant. Once I was willing to not take their actions personally and was willing to walk away I became more successful and my self-esteem grew dramatically,” she said.

Lieberman related a situation in which a client employee was resentful that an outside consultant was doing what the employee thought should be their work. The employee then “forgot” to relay information and spoke negatively about Lieberman.

Her solution: “I spoke to the client about behaviors that were potential obstacles in the context of project success. Rather than complain about the employee as a person, I broached the subject as a behavioral issue. I also set up a meeting with the three of us to discuss how to move forward. At the meeting, I asked the employee if she had any issues she needed to discuss. I also told the employee how valuable her input was and gave her an important role. She was neutralized and never caused any more trouble.”

Strategies to Deal with Bad Behavior

Jim Griffin of Pangea Consulting in San Diego said that he has observed some key trends in situations involving bad client behavior:

  • Usually the person that causes the relationship to be strained is insecure in their situation.
  • Often the boss does not know about how the person feels or the way they act toward the consultant.
  • Other people that work with this person—peers—usually know that they are difficult to work with.

Consultants who have found themselves in these types of situations have found ways to deal with them—proactively, before the relationship begins, and reactively when necessary.

Dealing Proactively

Jonathan Ross is managing director of Black Rock Consulting in Los Angeles. Clarifying expectations up front, he said, is a good way to avoid problems down the road. “Even during the courtship phase, a service provider must be forthright and honest about what the client can expect in terms of resources, deliverables and energy expended in service of the project,” said Ross. “Attention to detail is extremely important at every stage of the process,” he said. “It’s essential that you are very clear about what it is you, or your representatives, are selling and what you intend to deliver.”

He recommended providing the client with frequent updates about progress, any roadblocks and next steps. “Problems generally don’t solve themselves or otherwise go away. Deal with them and move on,” he suggested.

Dianne Crampton of TIGERS Success Series, a team-building and leadership coaching firm in Bend, Ore., said: “Since my initial exposure to poor client behavior I have included in my consulting agreements a clause that states if client actions make it impossible for me to complete my work in an ethical, quality-focused and timely fashion, I reserve the right to terminate the consulting contract.” There would be discussions, she said, before she would activate this clause.

Establishing clear expectations and ground rules up front is an important way to minimize bad behavior and manage expectations. Still, despite these efforts sometimes problems arise.

Dealing Reactively

Lisa Anderson is a senior business executive and founder and president of LMA Consulting Group, Inc., in Claremont, Calif. “In my 20 years of experience both as a VP of operations and as a business consultant across multiple industries and globally, I’ve seen many examples of poor client behavior and I’ve developed a few tactics to deal with it successfully,” said Anderson. A few of those tactics include:

  • Addressing the facts up front in a respectful manner. “It is amazing how not being afraid to address poor behavior can lead to results,” said Anderson.
  • Focusing the client conversation on a positive path forward and not leaving room for the client to veer off the path. “I’ve found that if you address the topic with a positive path forward and curb the conversation as such, it can eliminate bad behavior—at least related to the specific client project,” she said.
  • Demonstrating and modeling positive, productive behavior.

Dr. Joseph Cilona, a New York City psychologist who specializes in counseling executives, says that it is “important to respond quickly, clearly and specifically to bad behavior.” He advised: “It is important that we refrain from raising our voices and speaking out of turn no matter how frustrated we may become. These kinds of behaviors can seriously undermine achievement of our goals.”

If the behavior persists, enforce clear consequences, he said. “Be clear about what the consequence will be and enforce it promptly at the next occurrence. Be succinct and specific with your words and neutral in your tone.”

And, ultimately, be willing to end the relationship. Those with experience in this area are united in their advice that HR consultants need to be willing to cut their losses and terminate a bad situation promptly. While at times it might be hard to believe, there is, they said, always another client.

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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