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Stranger in a Strange Land

Not every IP works out of his home, or has a cute little space in a new high-tech office park. Believe it or not, Ripley, many freelancers operate out of their client's offices -- often alongside the client's employees -- for days, weeks, or months at a time.

As any freelancer who has ever worked on site will tell you, there can be a lot of friction between an invading IP and the natives. Not only may the IP find himself ignored or shunned by pissed-off employees ("Who the hell is this guy?"), but in a worst-case scenario, the IP's work may even be actively sabotaged.

What causes all the corporate commotion? It's usually a combination of three things:

  1. Fear. Sure, few employees are going to worry about that gal who comes in every once in a while to help write press releases for the communications department (except, perhaps, for the kid whose job that is!), but the hairy-knuckled management consultant -- the one who recommended the big downsizing last year -- is going to make a lot of employees very nervous. "The last time he did a staffing survey, Fredo and Bertha lost their jobs."

  2. Envy. Many employees have to follow strict work schedules -- at their desks at 8:00 a.m., two 15-minute breaks, an hour for lunch, and off at 5:00 p.m. -- and they don't like seeing an IP who is, as Lynryd Skynyrd might put it, free as a bird. He may seemingly drop in whenever he likes, hang around for a few meetings, and then disappear for lunches that are far longer than any break these poor, malnourished wage slaves would ever dare take. An IP's freedom can be a real threat, and it can generate tons of good-old-fashioned envy in employees. "Why does he get to leave at 3:00 when we've got to stay until 5:00?"

  3. Hurt. Sometimes IPs are brought into an organization because employee efforts at solving a problem have failed, or because management is concerned that employees don't have the necessary skills to deal with it. This can cause a lot of hurt for the employees who have been "passed over," and this hurt can blossom into resentment. "My boss listens to that jackass, but he doesn't listen to me?"

The net result of this trio of negative vibes? A situation that can make it difficult for an IP to do his job. And if a project is made more difficult, it's bound to cost more to do it, and that's sure to annoy the client.

Can you do something to avoid such on-site discord? You can. In fact, there are numerous ways to minimize the problems that come with being a stranger in a strange land. Based on my experience working both sides of the IP fence, here are a few that I've found work best:

  • Negotiate terms of engagement in advance.Which employees will you need to work with? What information will you need to dig up? How will you be given access to these coworkers and data, and how does your client plan to inform his people of your upcoming visit? Before you start your project, be sure to clarify the terms of engagement and make them a part of your agreement. And make sure that your client gets the word out about your visit (not just when, but why you're coming) before you show up -- not belatedly, weeks after the fact.

  • Build bridges, don't burn them. It's a helluva lot easier to get a job done when you have the cooperation of client employees rather than their animosity. From the first minute you walk in the door, focus on reaching out to your (potentially anxious) "coworkers." Be friendly, be helpful, cultivate relationships, and avoid doing things that will piss them off or cause them to actively work against you. (Of course, if it's your job to trim the personnel list, making pals on site is always going to be a challenge.)

  • Stay alert for negative employee vibes and cut them off at the pass. No matter what a great person you are, and no matter how hard you try to work with your client's employees, there are always going to be some individuals who hate your guts anyway, just as a matter of principle. Keep your own personal IP radar screen up at all times. Be alert for emotions that can lead client employees to do their very best to screw up your gig. If your client's employees decide to work against you or your project, don't give in to the temptation to just let it slide. If you've got a minor disturbance, you might be able to handle it yourself; if it's something more serious, then get your client involved.

As an IP, you'll probably always be different in the eyes of your client's employees and, in fact, that's probably just fine. If you can still do your job, then it really doesn't matter one way or the other. But when the fact that you're an IP gets in the way, then it's time to take action. Remember: the project you save may be your own.

We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Peter Economy if you like. You may also like to see his biography.

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