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Passion, People and Principles

Consultant Seeks Advice

post # 457 — October 26, 2007 — a Client Relations post

A consultant sent me this emaial, soliciting advice:

Last week I spent a couple of days with group within my client’s organization. The group was all male with one female. I was appalled by the pre-pubescent behavior of the males towards the female. I’m a former Marine, played football in college, I’m not unfamiliar with male environments. Their behavior towards their own female staff made me uncomfortable. My test is that I don’t want to put our employees in an environment in whichI would be uncomfortable putting my wife or daughter.

But, it’s a really big client. And, my desire to back away from this client is being challenged by others.

Our first, agreed-upon principle is that our employees come first. Great employees, who are truly experts in their area, are harder to come by I think than clients. This is an interesting test of our application of our principles.

Any suggestions about how best to handle this would be appreciated.


Ian M said:

Perhaps the consultant in question is demonstrating his own prejudice towards women, one that assumes that women need protection?

Firstly, this situation is only a compromise if the client’s staff behave inappropriately towards his employees. He can’t assume that this will happen, after all, the client’s staff may treat his employees differently. Secondly, he shouldn’t second guess what his employees find acceptable or not acceptable, if they’re as great as he says they are, then his staff can work out for themselves what is offensive and intrusive.

I would encourage the consultant to speak with his staff, mentioning that he found the client environment difficult, and stating that he would be prepared to back any consultant that found the situation in any way discomforting professionally or emotionally.

If the client does prove to be a problem with his staff, then your consultant’s only option is either to a) walk away, or b) to find a consultant who can meet the client needs and who is less likely to be offended by their purile attitude.

Lecturing the client on their behaviour is not an option, it won’t change their behaviour and it won’t generate a positive view of the consultant’s company. If the consultant is really smart, he might find a way to do some research into the purile team’s customers and what they think. If the team’s customers think that their attitude is a problem then he might be able to introduce some form of professional workplace training into the project.

posted on October 26, 2007

Prem Rao said:

We can’t change the client’s culture to start with. We can certainly prepare our staff for what they could be in for.

I would brief the staff I am deputing to this client site about the situation. I would also, to the extent possible, choose some one who can deal with such a situation in a mature way.

The two steps should be adequate. If they don’t work, I’ll speak to my contact in the client firm about our problem – if it comes to that.

posted on October 26, 2007

Jennifer said:

I’ve been a woman in a firm in a similar position (I blogged about it here – http://penguinunearthed.wordpress.com/2007/07/18/letting-clients-discriminate/

I think that if the behaviour of the client towards your own consultants is really unsatisfactory, then you need to value your consultants enough to sack the client. But as others have said, you do need to be sure that they would treat your consultants the same way as their own staff.

But our experience was easier – the clients involved weren’t enormous, and we could get by without them.

But I agree that the investment in your skilled staff is what you should be weighing up against the value of this client – if this is a big client and they end up spending a lot of unhappy time on the assignment, you may be looking for new staff at the end of it.

posted on October 26, 2007

Carl Singer said:

I would second Jennifer’s statements — you don’t want to put your staff / colleagues in situations where they are uncomfortable (or for that matter where they may “fail” — however we define failure.)

That said a few caveats (to give some wiggle room) — Is this group representative of the client as a whole? Is this group key to the project? Where they posturing trying to impress a marine / football player (not that this is an excuse.) In many companies I hide “colonel” from my title as I don’t want to get into war stories, or “roger that sir” speak.

If there is no choice but to service this client then selection of who to send (and how to prepare them) is key. I worked with an engineering firm that consulted in warehouses and mills and other “macho” environments — right or wrong there were consultants who were comfortable in those environments.

Lastly, and I’m totally ignorant here — what legal issues might your firm face in this kind of situation?

posted on October 26, 2007

David (maister) said:

This additional comment came in from Georgina Noakes BHum MSc FRSA:


This consultant has a duty of care to feed back his observations on the group behaviour to the sponsor of his work in this client organisation.

He needs to check out what are the patterns of behaviour between genders in this organisation as a whole?

Is sexism endemic throughout, or simply an isolated example?

What are the attitudes of the CEO/board/leaders in this organisation towards diversity and respect between men women?

What are the expected norms behaviours in this area, internally as well as externally with their own customers/clients/influncers in the market place?

What is the reputation of this organisation in its own market place?

Can this consultant his team play a role in educating this client on gender issues?

Do the values beliefs of the consultants’ organisation match those of this particular client?

If not, he is right, outstanding employees are difficult to replace. Clients are not. We need to understand that clients need us more than we need them. This position always offers us the manoueverability to walk away if we see ahead of us a collision between our stated values and those practised by a client organisation.

However, it could just be that the client organisation has a blind spot in this one area but performs well in others. The consultant could do some inspiring creative work with this particular group thus trigger some real change in the organisation as a whole.

Good luck!

posted on October 26, 2007

Johanna Rothman said:

I would gather a bit more data. It’s possible that something was off that day. Maybe have another meeting. Maybe ask one of the people in the room if that’s how people are all the time. “Gee, I noticed some behavior I found puzzling (name it). Is that how things work here?”

But I have refused to work for clients whose values didn’t match mine at a fundamental level. You still have to look in the mirror every morning. And, as you said, it’s a lot harder to find great employees than it is to find new clients.

posted on October 26, 2007

Wally Bock said:

You say “Our first, agreed-upon principle is that our employees come first.” Either it is or it isn’t. If it is your discussion will revolve around whether serving this particular client violates that value. If you decide it does, you should resign the client. You may decide that it doesn’t for a variety of good reason. But those values are only valuable when they force us to think through hard choices.

posted on October 28, 2007

Sean Campbell said:

This one is clear cut. Walk away from the client. Your investment in your people is more important than any one deal over the lifetime of your business.

posted on October 28, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Another comment that came in indirectly:

Go in there with your eyes open, spend max 1 year trying to get the client to see that a change in their behaviours in this regard is in their best interest, economically as well as morally (actually they are ultimately the same thing in business). Do this as part of your work, not as the main mission, but make it a priority, a necessary condition, and leave after at most a year if the client won’t change. You will learn much from this challenge.

Sebastian Nokes


Aldersgate Partners LLP


posted on October 28, 2007

Scott McArthur said:


Film them in action and then play it back asking them to describe what is happening


Ask them how they like to be treated in a group…I bet you will get words like respect, trust, fun etc. Then ask them to look at each others “likes” and discuss. Start small and you will get them to think about what they are doing.


Tell them about the typo in the bible – it is not “treat others as you would like to be treated yourself” – rather – “treat others as they would like to be treated”. Obvious really, but very few people ever think this way in my experience.

Hope this helps


posted on October 29, 2007

Kami Huyse said:

I read this post last Friday and have been thinking about it ever since. “What would I do?”

However, I realized that this is the wrong question, the question is what will this consultant needs to do. I lean toward him quitting the client, or at least quit working with this group, and his own words are my reason:

“Our first, agreed-upon principle is that our employees come first. Great employees, who are truly experts in their area, are harder to come by I think than clients. This is an interesting test of our application of our principles.”

If your principles don’t stand up under the crucible of a test, what then are they worth?

posted on October 30, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Another comment that came in via email:

Your Consultant seeking advice should call one of his clients — someone he trusts and respects and/or with whom he has a strong working relationship — and explain his discomfort at the meetings he attended. By stating his own business principles and code of behavior, including actively respecting all employees and treating them at all times the way he would want himself or his loved ones (in this case his wife or daughter) treated, he is letting his client know how he and his company work, and that he applies his own and his company’s stated principles to everyone, including his clients, no matter what their level or gender. He’s also showing that he lives by his principles and is not afraid to speak up when they are compromised in some way. The client may not like hearing that some people within his/her organization are noticeably behaving in a rude or politically insensitive manner, but should appreciate the honesty and business ethics of this Consultant and the fact that he has the courage of his convictions. The ‘trusted’ client may pass on the message to colleagues in a way they can hear it — from one of their own and not their outside consultant. It seems worth a try and a good calculated risk; the most he can lose is a client (who is replaceable) and not his self-respect (which is not).

Marjorie Vincent

Harrison and Star

lease enter your comment

posted on October 30, 2007

Michael Netzley said:

Honestly, I am in the same camp as people saying they would like a bit more information. Maybe there was something unusual about this day.

More generally, I do think there is perhaps a great opportunity here to do something good for several different parties. Talk to your own employees (both male and female) and see how they feel about this. Your discomfort may not be shared. Some might find it uncomfortable, some may think nothing of it, and others may relish the opportunity to spare with boys (word choice intended).

You can also watch for an opportunity to raise the issue with the client. If you are being brought in to help, and you see the opportunity, then why walk away from that? I don’t think you can force an issue like this all that easily, but keep an open eye for the ripe opportunity to have the issue raised. Be smart so that you can be helpful.

Finally, I would handle this like any good negotiation. Decide in advance what your limits are. Discuss these limits with your team and coach them so they are prepared for potentially awkward situations. In other words, don’t sit back and wait for something bad to happen, and then drop the client out of anger or frustration (or employee revolt). Be proactive, decide your limits in advance, and manage this proactively so that you hopefully don’t lose the client. Back to negotiations, what exactly is your walk away price? You and your team need a very good answer to this question.

Maybe you have an opportunity to help the client in more ways than one and continue being of service. Maybe you cannot change the client’s culture. But either way, handling this wisely and proactively on your end may mean you don’t have to lose the client immediately and possibly buy yourself some time to find the kind of company you do want to work with.

posted on October 31, 2007

free quote structured settlemen said:

I feel a balance should be mantained between a client and an employee as both are important part of our professional life. We should always try to find a midway out so that none of them has to suffer.

posted on April 17, 2008