Responding to unethical client behavior
Working in a creative services position involves interpersonal communication with your clients. Naturally, this can lead to awkward situations where you might be unsure how to respond.
For example, it is normal for your clients to offer feedback on your work–but it might not always be conveyed to you politely and collegially. In fact, some clients may react quite intensely to your work. What is the difference between intense but constructive client feedback and abusive feedback?
Another aspect of your work typically includes maintaining a sense of goodwill between you, your organization, and your clients. You want them to enjoy doing business with you, and sometimes it takes more than just doing good work to keep them coming back. Sending them movie or game tickets, taking them out to nice lunches, and offering other perks can keep you at the top of the list against your competitors. But what if this arrangement goes a bit further to the point where your clients exploit your goodwill as an invitation to ask you for uncomfortable favors?
Finally, clients are well-aware that, as the sponsors of each project, they get to “call the shots.” That is part of their executive privilege as the stakeholder. If a client is paying for everything in the production, are there any limits to the tactics employed to carry out the production? Sometimes, a client may ask you to participate in something that seems unethical, which may put you in a bind.
You may encounter situations where a client sees the configuration of their business relationship with you as an opportunity to take advantage of their leverage. Here are some examples.
Heated interplay: When you are working with a client, it is not unusual for the interplay between yourself and your client to become passionate, or even heated, with an understanding that this engagement is an expression of creative energy. The tone of the dialogue should not to be taken personally. But what does it mean when the creative passion starts to become embellished with foul language and abusive tonality? Is this still “creative energy” or is it something else?
Exploiting the cost of working meals: There is a professional understanding that when you and your client are working together on a project, you will pay for the cost of any meals for your client while you are working. There should be a line item in the budget to pay for all of this, so ordering in meal deliveries would be accounted for in advance. What would you do, however, if your client asks you to order extra meals so that they can take them home for themselves or have them sent to other people who are not part of the production?
Unethical use of the project budget: When a project is first proposed and your client asks you for an estimate, you may be asked to add more money in certain categories and less money in other categories based on the unique needs of a given project. But what do you do if your client tells you that they want you to increase the budget by a substantial amount so that they can include enough to pay a monthly installment for a personal loan that has nothing to do with the production?
Putting up with it, or standing your ground
Abusive engagement: Some people have more or less tolerance for being spoken to in a tone bordering on abusive depending on the personality of the person they are working with, how well the person is known, and (unfortunately) how important this client is for your business’s profitability. Your response to this kind of situation should take into consideration the balance between your dignity as a professional and the viability of your business. Some work cultures are more contentious than others. Military boot camp culture is quite different from non-profit human services culture.
Does this mean you should allow yourself to be subjected to this kind of treatment simply because that is the nature of your client’s culture? That is a decision only you can make: Is it intended to be personal, or is it just part of a culture you find unsavory? Can you grin and bear it for the time being, or is the irritation causing a substantially negative effect on you?
If you feel that your client is receptive to feedback on your working relationship, you have the option to propose that you prefer a certain type of dialogue instead of another. Your skills in interpersonal communication with business clients is a form of professional wisdom you will cultivate over a long period of time, often in partnership with a mentor to help you approach each situation on its own terms. That is why it is important to participate in a community of professional practice so that you have peers to share your experiences with and seek their advice.
Exploitation of goodwill: Every situation has variables that determine whether the breach of goodwill is a misdemeanor or something that you feel you must bring up as a factor in continuing to do business.
You may be better off just letting it go if the cost of your client’s indiscretion is relatively minor. If you were to do business with this client again, you might take this factor into consideration as you put together your next estimate or bid.
There may be other situations where you really don’t have much of a choice. If you work in an organization as a staff member and have been assigned to serve a specific client, your only recourse may be to escalate the issue with your supervisor. But if you are working on your own, then the decision must be on your own terms.
Unethical requests: Again, every situation has variables that determine what your course of action should be. If you are in a position where you have no one else to whom you can escalate a situation, you will have to think quickly.
Your challenge will be: How do you communicate to your client about how you feel without accusing them of something that might be construed as an unwillingness to do any business with them (yes, these things can get complicated)? There are two options to consider if they ask you to participate in something that is unethical.
- In a conversation with your client, identify what you believe appears to be a questionable situation. The key word in this strategy is the word “appears,” since you could be completely incorrect about the situation. If your interpretation is, in fact, correct, you have not directly accused anybody of wrongdoing. In either case, your client has the option to correct the situation without much further conflict.
- Explain to your client that there appears to be a situation that might bring attention from someone else to whom you are accountable. Your goal in bringing up the situation is to seek clarification in case you need explain the situation internally.
The outcome of these encounters may move the situation into a better place, or it might not. You have, at least, brought the situation to light.
Client Relations Scenario
You are working on two jobs simultaneously with the same client. The first job is just about to be completed and the entire budget has been used.
However your client asks you to send a shipment of production elements to another location using an overnight courier at a cost of over $100. There aren’t any more funds in the budget for this shipment. So your client advises you to ship the elements and put it on the budget of the of the second job.
How should you respond to this situation?
In your response, consider the following:
Is the dollar amount in this situation even worth being concerned about, given the overall scope of the project? Should you just let this go? Or are there other risks that could emerge by agreeing to it?
Is it possible that this maneuver isn’t even considered unethical? How would you know?