Office Politics for Contractors 101

Stabbed in the back

When I made the decision to go freelance it was a lifestyle choice, made attractive by the ability to play by my own rules, enjoy the flexibility and have plenty of variety of experience and challenge. Colleagues wished me well and said it must be great to get away from office politics. Strange thing to say: there is no way to avoid office politics and as a contractor you are expected to take them in your stride. How else are you going to get things done, get your ideas accepted, require a deliverable or get two users to agree?

It is difficult to come into an organisation and get respect straight away. There will be people who feel that you are treading on their toes, that they could do a better job, who cannot see why an over-priced contractor had to be brought in from outside. The trick is to be subtle about your  approach when stepping into a new role. Organisationally you are at the bottom of the ladder. You are an unknown quantity and probably a danger to someone’s job.

An extreme example: a few years ago I was engaged to carry out system synchronisation projects after company takeovers. Walking through the office on the first day you feel the fear, resentment and even hate radiating off the staff. It is importance to keep your distance. You are there to do a job and when it is over you will move off elsewhere. Be polite, watch what you say and change the topic of conversation if it is getting awkward. Of course there is a human element to freelance work, but stick to the facts and the tasks at hand rather than the emotions of somebody else.

There are some guidelines that I have found useful:

  • Never talk negatively about someone else in the organisation. The person you are talking to will wonder what you are saying to others about them and views always get back to the target.
  • Avoid getting involved with personal grudges and other people’s personal problems and frustrations. There will be people who relish the opportunity to offload their problems onto an outsider. There will be others who will be happy to fill you in on the gossip. If you get involved it could end up being embarrassing for you and even cast doubt on your professionalism. You do not need a reputation for being a troublemaker or a gossip.
  • Follow the chain of command. You cannot achieve a great deal without the trust of the people you are working with, or for, so never bypass a layer of management and when you go up the chain of command tell the people at the lower levels that you are doing so.
  • Do not keep secrets from anybody. You have to communicate openly. In particular do not try to hide bad news. There are well-tried techniques for delivering bad news (e.g. accompany it with an assessment of the situation, three alternative fixes and a recommendation). They key is never to surprise your client. So, if your plan is not going to work out as you thought it would say so and avoid spinning the result to suit yourself. Use your skills and experience to make things right. That is why they are paying your fees.
  • As a contractor it is important to be honest in everything you do. Your future roles depend on your reputation. People respond better to honesty; being up front will help you to gain the respect of your client’s employees.
  • Do not get into the habit of deal-making. If you stray into horse-trading be ready to be criticised by all parties and to accept sub-standard solutions.
  • If you offend somebody apologise immediately. There is no need for sackcloth and ashes; make a public apology (you may use an email message at a pinch) but do it honestly and at once.

A good deal of my work these days takes place in my office at home, with the occasional meeting, workshop, project meeting or information-gathering session on site.  Even so I have always enjoyed dealing with the politics, bickering, gossip and hostility. Which either means that I am a good contractor or a very strange man …