Working with a consultant

OK, so you’ve followed my advice and selected a consultant, and now you are wondering how this relationship might evolve.  How are you going to work together?  What are the rules of engagement? Here are some of my”do’s” and “don’t’s”.


  • Be as open as you can up front in initial meetings (all interactions, really). Trying to keep that proverbial closet door closed won’t help scope the work.
  • Outline and agree to the work – figure out what is billable, what isn’t.
  • Realize that you’ll have to participate.  Hiring a consultant doesn’t mean that they do everything in a vacuum – they need your time to find out about your organization.  Ask for a time estimate for your involvement as well.
  • Think long term.  For example in the world of training – you can buy (or customize) a program/course, where you will pay ongoing usage fees or you can contract for a work-for-hire where you own the materials outright and control what’s in them, how they are delivered, etc.  Back-test your thinking with some scenarios to see if this is a good call for today and tomorrow. 


  • Go fishing.  If you don’t really think you are going to hire this person for the work, then say so up front.  It is a waste of time and will lead to an awkward conversation and a strained relationship.  If you have no budget to do the work, then just say so.
  • Assume the consultant is at your beck-and-call, be respectful of their time and recognize they have other clients.
  • Pay for a proposal or initial meeting.
  • Buy solely on price.  Be up front with your budget and if you’ve picked a consultant that you trust, they should tell you where they’ll add value and where you can cut costs.  If not, then they aren’t really on your team and are more interested in selling you something.   If you are provided a proposal with a breakdown of costs (based on assumptions), don’t try to eliminate steps because you want to save money.  The steps are not put in to gouge you, but because that’s the logical way of doing the work.  Tell the consultant what you can afford and ask for them to give you a proposal that fits with your budget.

What would you add to my list?  Anything you disagree with?

Holly MacDonald is an independent consultant with well over 15 years of experience in the learning & development field.  Holly is a bit of a techno-geek and can often be found playing online.  When she steps away from her computer, she spends time outside: hiking, kayaking, gardening and of course walking the dog.  She lives on Saltspring Island and is a leader in the live/work revolution.


4 Responses

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Gautam Ghosh, NinethSense [MVP], NinethSense [MVP], Gautam's Blog Posts, Holly MacDonald and others. Holly MacDonald said: My latest post on Fireside HR: Working with a consultant – […]

  2. I think some of the fear of using consultants is that once they get started, it will be hard to “get rid” of them. We’ve all seen the scenario where a consultant comes on board for a project and ends up staying for years.

    How do organizations overcome these qualms about using consultants?


    • Helen – I think organizations could do a few things:
      1. define the work. This sounds pretty obvious, but we are not all great at project-based work and it can be that the client is naive and just says “help me” without specifics or the consultant just starts the work without a workplan. If they’ve come on for a project, then the Project Manager should really have a clue.
      2. Assess their consultants on an annual basis (they should do this as they would other vendors).
      3. Make sure you have a clause in your contract that outlines the ending of a contract – there is usually a notice period that is agreed upon (30 or 60 days written notice for example) for cancellation of services.

      Having a consultant around for years might not be a bad thing, unless they are working on the same project forever and never seem to get anywhere – that would be a worst case scenario. I can think of situations where it would be good to have a consultant on retainer instead of on the books as an employee.

      Why would an organization not be able to “get rid” of a consultant?

      • I think the qualms of using consultants is just as you said – “having a consultant around for years might not be a bad thing, unless then are working on the same project forever and never seem to get anywhere.”

        I think you issued some good advice there, in particular the need to define the work and assess on an annual basis.

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