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Contractor Doctor: How do I handle hostility from my client’s permanent employees?

Dear Contractor Doctor

I recently started work on a new IT contract for a financial sector client. The team was assembled from staff throughout the client’s organisation, and I was the only contractor on the team.

The first couple of days seemed to go well, but soon afterwards I began to notice that I was being excluded from key team communications and only being told about meetings when they were about to begin. It’s got to the point now when most of the team won’t even talk to me and try to avoid any interaction, even when I’m asking them directly.

How do I handle hostility from my client’s permanent employees?



Contractor Doctor says:

Firstly, although not unheard of, it is very unusual for a client’s permanent employees to be overtly hostile to contractors in the workplace when working together on a project. This is especially true in large organisations, where a large number of any project team are contractors.

However, it does happen, and there are a number of strategies contractors can use to get their client’s permanent employees onside to ensure the successful resolution of a project. What contractors should avoid doing is to whinge to the project manager or HR, unless the hostility crosses a line and becomes harassment.

But if a contractor is finding every workplace hostile on every contract, they ought to ask themselves whether the issue is closer to home. Perhaps it is not in fact the client’s employees who are the problem.

Apply soft skills and communicate well

Contractors typically have a different mindset to employees. They tend to be very project focused and goal oriented, because they are only as good as their last contract. As a result, they may appear more productive and generate more output than employees over the short term of a project.

For an employee who has their eye on the long game, and is perhaps seeking a promotion or pay rise from the project, then a contractor’s focused approach can appear threatening. The result can be hostility and attempts to derail the contractor’s progress.

The challenge for the contractor is to communicate that they are not a threat. This may mean diplomatically asking the employee what issues they may have, and what the contractor can to do address them, and then showing the employee that the issues are being addressed.

The benefits of being up-front and speaking to employees directly are that a potentially difficult situation caused by a simple misunderstanding can be resolved. It also opens the door for the contractor to implement other strategies to bring permies onside.

Be generous with training/mentoring

One of the reasons that employee hostility is rarely an issue is because the vast majority of contractors are generous with their time, offering quasi-training and mentoring. Often, contractors do this without realising it, which is one reason why so many clients like hiring them.

What contractors should avoid doing is to whinge to the project manager or HR, unless the hostility crosses a line and becomes harassment

Contractors can often be closer to the ‘bleeding edge’ of technology, usually as a result of being able to pick and choose how they develop their skills. If an employed individual or individuals are being hostile, demonstrating that they can benefit from a contractor’s skills and experience is a sure way of defusing the situation.

The trick here is to offer the help without being patronising or showing the employees to be in any way inadequate. Contractors also need to be careful not to fall into the trap of feeding employees so much great new technology and ideas that they run off to the project manager saying, “I’ve got all the skills, we don’t need contractors any more”.

The other trick is to avoid exposing and humiliating employees who are underperforming. Although their underperformance may not make the contractor look great, an effective strategy is to train/mentor the permie to help them improve.

They realise what is in it for them to be working with a contractor, and their attitude can shift 180 degrees as a result. Making the employee look good and putting trust in them will hopefully get them on the contractor’s side.

When the question of pay comes up

When employee hostility arises, it is often as a result of perceived pay differences. The solution is again one of communication. Employees usually only see a single gross figure – the contractor’s hourly or daily rate – do some sums, and compare it to their salary. The result is often the source of tension.

Contractors who believe that perceived pay differences are the root of the hostility have two options. They can just put up with it and keep invoicing. Alternatively, they can instigate a conversation with the main protagonists and explain to them the difference between being employed and being a contractor.

Highlight how employees enjoy a range of benefits and protection that contractors don’t get, and that contractors have to fund all the social security and business expenses that employees don’t. That’s why their gross salary can’t be directly compared with the contractor’s gross fees.

Don’t be flash

Also, if a contractor is highly paid, perhaps significantly more than employees, then they should avoid looking flash and overtly demonstrating wealth. Demonstrating wealth – or going on about four-week holidays to glamorous locations – can appear showy to those who are struggling financially or simply driven by the envy.

Instead, contractors can demonstrate their expert skills and knowledge by sharing it with their co-workers and helping them to better themselves. Everyone wants to grow, rather than shrivel and die in a dead-end repetitive job.

Market demand and capabilities increase rates

Another strategy to apply when the pay issue rears its head is to talk about market demand and capabilities. Quite often, during an economic downturn, a contractor’s pay is much less than during a recovery or boom time.

During the downturn the contractor’s gross fees may have been well below the employee’s gross salary, and so during the economic recovery and growth years, it may be greater than the employee’s salary because of market forces. It’s worth noting that the employee’s value may also increase as a result, as well.

A contractor is often brought into a team because they have unique skills, experience and capabilities gained working across many clients, industries and project types. That fact often escapes permanent employees, particularly those who have only worked for one or two employers during their career.

This can also be the reason that the contractor enjoys higher remuneration. Just because the contractor and an employee share the same label on the project team does not mean they are worth the same to the client and to the project.

You can’t please all of the people all of the time

There are some workplaces where the team is so close knit, or the culture is such that no matter what a contractor does, they will never experience anything other than hostility.

In that situation, contractors can may simply choose to put up with it and keep billing until the contract is done. Or, assuming their contract allows it, they can just walk away and find a contract with a more professional team.

Published: 24 October 2013

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