How Do You Handle Working For A Client Whose Politics Are Not Aligned With Your Own? Part 1

I had the pleasure of presenting a workshop this past weekend at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy. As we walked through a case that focused on helping a client develop a recruitment and retention strategy for border patrol agents (based on a Government Accountability Office report), many people cringed as we discussed the client’s mission in the context of today’s political landscape. A very valid question was raised: “How do you work for a client when you do not agree with how they are carrying out their mission?”

This is a robust topic and one that you could face in many industries. Marketing firms do not always choose their clients (someone is helping “vice industries” with their marketing), and consulting companies may rationalize serving a controversial client in the name of impact, revenue, service expansion, or various other reasons. Your approach to controversial projects may impact your career choices – which firms to target, which relationships to make, which projects to take.

Consider A Range of Responses

In consulting you do not always get to choose your clients. Many companies may place you on whichever project is readily available and other projects may be dependent on whether there is a match between your skills and the project’s needs (independent of the client or industry). There are a lot of factors that you will need to weigh as you navigate your early consulting engagements and position yourself for adding value to the client and company. You may factor in the relationships you have built with senior leaders in the firm, the opportunity for career advancement, the growth opportunity that comes with working with a controversial client, or the ability to have an impact. If you are concerned with being placed on a project that does not align with your values, here are six potential responses that you could receive from your firm:

  • Preference Considered: The company recognizes that you have experience, preferences, or clients that are better aligned with your passions and work with you to try to make sure you are placed on a project that is aligned with your values.
  • Seat at the Table: The company shares that working for a controversial client gives you a seat at the table to engage, open dialogue, and potentially affect change. Clients hire consultants for an “outside perspective” and you may provide an alternative and independent perspective that enables the client to shift their approach. The company would prefer that you to stay with the controversial client.
  • Career Advancement: The company shares that the client is operating in a challenging industry and challenging political environment. This provides you with the opportunity to grow, advance, and contribute to a client in need. The relationships you build, knowledge you gain, and experience you develop working with a controversial client will help you advance with the firm. The company would prefer that you to stay with the controversial client.
  • Career Opportunity: While this may not be an attractive client to you, it is one that the firm is providing services for. The company leadership may feel that all clients are entitled to services. Just as lawyers provide services to clients that they may not agree with, the company is a professional services firm that provide a service to a client in need. Taking on a controversial client can help you build relationships and deliver work that can add more value to the firm. The company would prefer that you to stay with the controversial client.
  • Try It Out: The company and client could use your insights on this project and the client could benefit from your perspective. This will enable you to be billable and gain valuable experience. The company would like you to test it out for a designated period of time and then re-evaluate with an advisor.
  • In or Out: The company has set billable targets expectations and this project is readily available. In consulting, you do not always get to select your clients. If you want to meet company expectations, working with this client is the way to do that. The company wants you to work with that client and meet your targets.

These responses range from the more collaborative (let’s work with you on this) to the more draconian (are you part of the team of not?). Being aware of these potential responses can help you evaluate firms’ culture and prospective engagements.

Research Before You Commit

Before joining a company, conducting your due diligence is an obvious step. Research how the company segments their industries, which clients they support, and what projects they work on. A lot of information on government contracts is publicly available (or use this resource: https://iq.govwin.com/login/loginPage.cfm?) and you can filter to determine a company’s major clients and projects. Walk into your interview educated on clients that the company serves.

During your interview, you want to get a sense for the company’s culture. Many companies will tout “people first,” “integrity,” “exceptional client value,” and you will want to clarify what these values mean in practice. Does “people first” mean allowing consultants to grow with clients whose missions address areas that they are passionate about? Does the company show its “integrity” by dropping clients when their values do not align with the company’s values or if a client does not respect the consulting team? Is revenue the predominant factor for “exceptional client value?” Here are a few ways you can probe this during your interview:

  • “Your company has a broad portfolio of projects and clients which provides a number of great opportunities for gaining experience across disciplines and industries. What factors do you consider when placing someone on a project?”
  • “As someone with a strong background in X, I’ve noticed that you provide service to the Department of X. Would I be more likely to be placed on a Department of X project given my background and interest in X?”
  • “While ‘exceptional client service’ is one of your core values, have you ever dropped a client because you felt that your values were mis-aligned or that you were unable to provide the service that the client demanded?”

The company’s presence in an industry and factors that they consider in placing someone on a project can help you make a more informed decision on your likelihood for being placed on an engagement and the response that the company may give you if you are placed on a controversial client. While consulting firms value diverse backgrounds and industry experience, they may not always factor your prior industry experience into client placement. Keep this in mind if you want to focus on a particular industry.
Consulting companies have a profit incentive. Some companies may be willing to take a stand and drop clients whose missions and values mis-align with their employees’ values. If a company can provide examples of when they dropped a client and provide the rationale, that may help you make a better informed decision on how they address controversial clients.
In the interview, your goal is to build relationships, learn whether you and the company are a cultural fit, and to receive an offer. It is important to listen with an open mind, be politically agnostic, and ask questions that show that you have done your research and that will help you gain information to better evaluate your fit with the firm. Once you receive an offer, you will better be able to compromise, negotiate, and position yourself for a project. Look for more on this topic next week.
Thank you to the students at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy for the thoughtful questions, insights, and for taking a holistic approach to managing your careers.
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Evan Piekara

With over twelve years of experience consulting and working in the government and nonprofit sectors. Evan started his nonprofit career as a member of Teach For America (TFA), where he served as a teacher, volunteer, and in operational support and training roles for the organization. He has supported BDO Public Sector in the launch of their management consulting practice and has provided strategy and operations, human capital, and information technology support to government and nonprofit clients. At BDO Public Sector, Evan led efforts building internal practice recruiting processes including interview questions, cases, and candidate evaluation criteria and developed their Graduate Advisor internship program.