In the United States of America, when you get a full time job, your employer typically has you sign a declaration that you will abide by the organization's rules and regulations. Typically a line in that agreement will state that you serve at the organization's pleasure. Your employer can terminate your employment at will. There is usually a probationary period, typically 3 months, sometimes 6 months, in rare cases, a year. Unless you come into work drunk or in some other fashion exhibiting some sort of anti-social behavior, your employer will give you the benefit of doubt and make every effort to give you a chance to be a success at your new job. You will typically be embraced over time as part of the family.
Consulting is a whole different ball game. Consultants are hired for very specific reasons. In a lot of cases they are brought in to accomplish tasks that regular employees either do not have the time and / or the skills to accomplish. In other cases a consultant is brought in to take the place of a full time worker who for some reason or the other is departing the firm, sometimes temporarily...maternity leave is an example. Consultants are also brought in as a way of getting around head count. A consultant is not a full time employee (FTE). In most firms, the budget for the consultant does not come out of the same bucket as the FTE. Managers therefore utilize consultants as a way sometimes for getting around mandates to cut head count. A consultant may be let go at a moment's notice.
An independent consultant sits in an even more precarious spot. The independent consultant has a contract with his or her pimp (consulting slang for job agent). The pimp has a contract with the client (ultimate employer). In some cases there may be as many as 5 agents between the consultant and the client.
Unless you have a signed contract with your pimp, you have no business reporting to a job site. Recent experience has informed me that even a signed contract with my pimp is not enough. A consultant must do his or her due diligence to ensure that all the layers in between them and the client have been duly accounted for. About the only way to accomplish this task is to communicate directly with the client. Note that there are two different scenarios. In the first scenario, the consultant is being brought in directly to be supervised or report to the client. In the second scenario, the client is a consulting company hired under a statement of work (SOW) to accomplish specific deliverables.
When my engagement in Hartford, Connecticut came to an end in late January, I had two seemingly strong offers in hand. My offer for an engagement in Los Angeles was one in which I would be reporting directly to the client's enterprise architecture director. My second offer was an engagement in Springfield, Missouri for a consulting company that had a contract to build a data warehouse for an insurance company.
In this business it is usually feast or famine. It always seems to be the case that you struggle with multiple offers or none. Both offers were tantalizing. My travel expenses back and forth to the client's site would be taken care of. In addition my hotel and daily feeding expenses would equally be taken care of. My hourly rate of $125 was acceptable to both engagements. For an independent consultant, it does not get any better. Except of course a higher rate!
I pondered both opportunities and ultimately chose the Los Angeles gig for several reasons. First and foremost, I]d have a non stop flight weekly between New York and Los Angeles. Springfield, Missouri meant two flights, one of which was on a small aircraft. Even though Los Angeles is further than Springfield, Missouri, actual travel time from my home to job site was less. Moreover, I would build more airline miles. In addition of course to the glamour of Los Angeles, the gig was one in which there was an opportunity for me to learn new stuff and be engaged at a higher mental level. Nothing hurts more than taking a high paying consulting gig only to be assigned tasks that will dull your brain cells. In the course of my interview with the project manager for the Springfield engagement it was made quite clear to me that the architectural blue print had been compromised in a manner that was sure to cause multiple headaches of the worst kind. Springfield was not going to be fun on many levels. Black folks constituted just about 3% of Springfield's population. The chances of my finding any restaurants with pounded yam and egusi soup were practically zero.
When my Los Angeles pimp called to renegotiate my hourly rate, an alarm bell should have triggered. He told me that unfortunately his sales people had sold me to the client at exactly the same rate they would be paying me. There was no margin in the gig for them. Could I accept a lower rate? Suckered by the promise of a mentally stimulating role, I agreed to a revised rate of $118 an hour (the client would still take care of my expenses).
I called up the consulting company for the Springfield gig and politely declined their offer. Without further ado, I signed the contract for the Los Angeles engagement. It was the standard boiler plate contract. I made a few tweaks to it and faxed it out. The following morning I received the countersigned contract. All was well!
One issue remained! How was I going to get to Los Angeles? After a round of phone calls to my pimp, he informed me that the client would reimburse me. Once I got into Los Angeles, I would be put into their travel system and given further instructions on how the client would henceforth take care of my travel and lodging expenses. This first go around, I would have to put out the dollars. The client sent me a list of approved hotels…places the client had negotiated special rates. Los Angeles is not cheap!
That Friday was the last day of my engagement in Hartford, Connecticut. I had been given a send off breakfast by my manager and his group, as well as had been treated to lunch by several Indian colleagues. I filled in my last time sheet and drove back to New York. I was looking forward to new experiences in Los Angeles. My plane ticket to Los Angeles was purchased. Hotel accommodations had been reserved. I was set for my trip that Sunday.
That evening before I went to bed, I checked my email. A two line email from my pimp punctured my tranquility. The client had decided not to take care of my expenses anymore. The pimp was now only offering me an all inclusive rate of $115 an hour.
Total confusion enveloped my soul. Going to Los Angeles for $115 an hour without expenses was no longer attractive. Besides, how did I know if that was real or not? I had not talked directly to the client since I had the technical interview several weeks earlier. I cancelled my flight to Los Angeles as well as my hotel reservation. My spirit was battered. Friends and family suggested I call back the folks in Missouri to inquire if the opportunity was still available. I resisted that notion. If I could get two solid offers in less than 2 weeks, I sure as hell could get new offers. Besides, calling the folks in Missouri would swing power into their hands. They would certainly attempt to renegotiate.
I went to work the following week, updating my resume on several job boards and responded to several job postings. Later that week, I got an email from the folks in Missouri. They noticed my resume was still out there. Was I still available?
Faster than you could say Jack Rabbit, I responded to the Missouri recruiter. A mutual friend had introduced us several weeks earlier. Yes, I was still interested. My other opportunity had broken down. I would accept their offer and could be in Missouri the following week.
I felt quite fortunate. I had dodged a bullet. My period on the bench or beach (period a consultant is unemployed) would be a short two weeks. I suspended my active job search and prepared myself for Springfield, Missouri.
Next blog: Negotiating consulting contracts