Workplace Navigator: Long-Time Client Is Getting a Little Clingy
Question: I am having an uncomfortable boundary issue with a longtime client who recently has insisted on becoming a close friend. This client and I worked together successfully for years as long-distance business colleagues. The occasional dinner on business trips was the extent of our in-person socialization. Often we would not communicate for a year or two, but when work brought us together, we always enjoyed our time. Recently, my client had to move to my city for work. We’ve gone out with my family a few times. Now I’m informed we are among this client’s only local friends, and the client insists on spending social time with us, actually going into an extended pout when we decline invitations. I want to say, “Look, we have a friendly, collegial business relationship, which I treasure. But we were never friends outside of our business relationship.” However, I’m afraid of damaging both the business and the personal relationship.
Answer: If only client contracts included personal relationship clauses, with price-adjusted tiers based on degree of closeness. Then you could negotiate whether to stay in the “occasional dinner out” tier or upgrade to “best buds” status. I understand why you blended your business and personal spheres to give your valued client a warm welcome. And I can see how a lonely newcomer might cling to your hospitable gestures as a social lifeline. But that doesn’t mean you have to cave to over-the-top petulance.
Try transitioning back to business with the “no, but yes” strategy. Start countering or pre-empting your client’s social requests with invitations to, say, a trade show or a local networking event. It will take planning and effort, but actively managing your interactions is how you send the message that this is at heart a business relationship.
If the client forces a conversation on the topic, your response should likewise be business, not personal: “Of course I enjoy your company, and I’ve been happy to help you settle in. But if you recall, when you were living out of state, we were really only able to get together once a year, if that. Even though we’re geographically closer now, my schedule here hasn’t changed, and I’m not able to socialize as much as I’d like.” Tweak that script to your liking, and then kindly, warmly stand firm.
If things deteriorate to the point where you can no longer work together, you may have to hand off your client’s business to a colleague on the grounds that you’re no longer able to fill the client’s need(ines)s.
Crushing the Peanut Gallery
Q: I am a supervisor at a government agency. We often conduct training for groups of 20 to 35 employees, featuring outside speakers. My problem is that there are always several employees who crack (generally unfunny) jokes, ask snarky questions or questions that are relevant only to them, or questions that do not contribute to the group experience, or keep asking questions past the allotted time. This makes it difficult to get through our agenda. It’s also not fair to the other employees. How do I get these class clowns to cool it while still encouraging legitimate questions?
A: Speaking as a (mostly) reformed back-pew spitballer, I suspect many workplace hecklers act out because they resent being forced to attend training they consider unnecessary, or because they’re intimidated by the subject matter. Or they’re just jerks with tenure, which is a condition no one to my knowledge has figured out how to resolve.
First, try to limit training to topics you know will interest and benefit employees, and make attendance optional if possible. When the training is mandatory, be transparent. Lay out clear objectives and show trainees what’s in it for them. If it’s just one of those administrative checklists everyone — public and private sector — has to slog through, “staying employed” is a perfectly legitimate objective, and the speaker still deserves respect.
Find out each trainer’s preferred audience interaction style in advance. Some can manage off-the-cuff questions; others prefer to have set Q&A sessions. At the start of each event, tell participants the format and schedule, and advise them that they’ll get the most out of the session by keeping questions and comments brief and relevant.
Finally, be an active moderator. When off-topic or complex questions threaten to derail the session, corral them on a flip chart or whiteboard to revisit later. Provide index cards for participants to write their questions on, and let the speaker select the ones to address. This tends to discourage snark while providing cover for anyone afraid to ask a “dumb” question — which often turns out to be the question everyone wants to ask.