Nightmare clients as an IT contractor: when line managers go bad

Even though the vast majority of client-staff are decent and ethical individuals who communicate well and treat their fellow professionals with respect, any IT recruitment consultant who has been in the market for just a few years will have some strange, scary and possibly soul-destroying accounts about end-users.

So with my 24-plus years in the space, you can imagine I’ve had my fill of bizarre, baffling and unfortunately in some cases, even repulsive situations. Let me share them here exclusively with ContractorUK – if only to make contractors feel less alone, or less insane that it’s not them being nightmare-ish, writes Matt Collingwood, managing director of IT recruitment agency VIQU.

1. The ‘David Brent’ Manager

Would you work with a manager who holds a book of rules over you on a daily basis? And not just a book figuratively, but an actual book!

Well, I remember working with a hiring manager who expected his employees to follow such a bizarre ‘Rule Book.’ To enforce his questionable management style, the manager gave his rule book to his staff (including contractors) on day one. The book was called the ‘Epic of Graham’, apparently an homage to the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh,’ a book about a mythological hero-king.

The rule book came to light when a contractor we placed on site referred to him as ‘David’, when his name was Graham. When I corrected the contractor, he told me David referred to ‘David Brent,’ the inept, toe-curling manager of BBC hit sit-com The Office. So the contractor, and everyone else except me apparently, called Graham ‘David,’ albeit behind his back when he wasn’t listening.

Some of Graham’s rules included:

  • ALWAYS ANSWERING

“My time is precious; if I need to call you out of working hours, you must answer my calls.”

Indeed, there were accounts of him testing his staff by calling them gone 10pm. He’d say: “Health and Safety run fire drills to protect our safety, so I need to make sure you answer if there’s an emergency.”

  • DRESSING TO THE DAYS OF THE WEEK

Dress codes in the workplace have changed, but back in the mid-2000s most if not all of Graham’s colleagues would wear formal business attire to work.

But Graham liked to coordinate the teams’ dress and colour codes – so think blue neck ties only on Mondays, red stripes or spots on Tuesdays and so on. On Fridays, staff were encouraged to wear novelty ties or shirts. He ran a competition each Friday to award the most novel novelty garment.

My contractor explained it was excruciating, because each Friday, staff stood around for 45 minutes, totally disinterested, as David ‘scored’ them. 

  • KNOWING YOUR POSITION, LIKE YOU WERE INFANTRY

To prevent conflict over where people would sit, the desks and workspaces were in alphabetical order -- based on your surname. But that meant each time there was a new joiner, people had to move. Some of Graham’s colleagues ended up moving over 20 times in 12 months. In contrast, Graham himself never left his office, which housed his 45-year-old collection of vintage lead soldiers.

His book also spoke about his need for “quality time to plan meetings.” But actually, for him, he’d just sit and paint his soldiers. One Monday when everyone seemed to be very busy, he pulled his staff, contractors and lead soldiers into a meeting room and spent three hours explaining The Battle of Castillon (1453).

  • GOING BY YOUR NICKNAME

Graham’s rule book encouraged colleagues to stick to the nicknames he’d given them. This was “fun” and apparently “made people feel welcome.”

Given he was labelled ‘David Brent,’ perhaps this is the most forgivable of all his rules. But most of the nicknames were given based on a person’s physical features which – he had decided – made them distinguishable from others.

So his team had a ‘Mr Sheen Slap Head’, a ‘Mr Drunken Eyes’, ‘Three Chins Steve’ and, ‘Ms Coffee Breath’.

Due to our contractor’s background in rugby, he was given the nickname ‘Hooker.’ These names became so embedded that I later learnt that the client – the organisation which David/Graham reported to -- once referred to me, the agent, as ‘The Hooker’s Pimp.’

When I found out the full extent of this hiring manager’s behaviour, I asked the contractor why he never reported this to me, or raised it within the client’s business. He said that, despite a few hurt feelings for some, he personally saw it  as ‘Comedy Gold.’

Shortly after all this came to light, the rule book was withdrawn from the office and with it its author too, as Graham went into early retirement. His soldiers were sent packing with him too!

What can contractors learn from this?

Although my contractor generally found this manager to be comical, some people probably didn’t share his attempt at humour, or his ways to make new staff feel welcome. In my view, his actions clearly made people feel uncomfortable.

If a contractor doesn’t like how their line manager or client representative is behaving, it’s imperative they raise the conduct with their recruitment agency, and ideally raise it pretty early on. Any recruitment consultant worth their salt will take tactful action to come to a resolution all parties are happy with.

2. The IR35 Fraudster Manager

In a previous article, I mentioned a public sector client who acted unethically when it came to a contractor’s IR35 determination.

Let’s elaborate. A hiring manager from a public sector organisation on the south coast of England instructed us to introduce a Microsoft Teams Subject Matter expert to them. We then agreed a Statement of Work and the contracts were signed. The hiring manager used CEST and determined the assignment was outside IR35. Happy days, right?

Unfortunately not. When the client HR team discovered our successful contractor was providing services outside IR35, they contacted us to state that the organisation’s “policy” was not to accept contractors outside IR35. And we, the agency, were instructed that we needed to provide inside IR35 contractors only.

But the contractor had already been engaged, and a contract was signed. So we asked for their determination via CEST and it came back ‘inside.’

In a surprise to both us and the contractor, the CEST ‘inside’ determination listed a number of false answers, including:

  • Claims by the client that it had the right to move the contractor from one project to another project, despite the Statement of Work stating that the contractor would be working solely on one project – the project the contractor was engaged for.
  • Claims by the client that they could decide where the services were provided despite, at the time, it being at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. This locational control was at odds with the contract stating that the contractor was free to decide whether to work on-site or remotely.
  • Inputting wrong details into the CEST tool, despite evidence to the contrary, especially when completing the HMRC tool’s question ‘How would the Worker Introduce themselves?’

To recap, the determination provided by the client HR team found the worker to be inside IR35. We challenged the verdict with evidence pertaining to the true provision of services, including the original contract and client brief/spec.

Unfortunately, the HR department’s response was outright refusal. Suspecting that we were going to lose the client anyway; we raised the matter with the client’s CFO directly who, refreshingly, agreed with our position!

As a compromise, the client requested to instruct the contractor directly (not via us as the agency). Although we lost the client as a result, we did what was right by the contractor --standing up against an unethical and fraudulent practice.

It’s not lost on us that this client is a public sector organisation. It is departmental colleague, if you will, of HMRC-- the creator and enforcer of the very IR35 rules which this manager and HR team were disregarding, even flouting to ‘fit’ their policy.

What can contractors learn from this?

As long as they are worth their salt, trust that your IT recruitment agency will have your back when it comes to getting the correct IR35 determination. If you don’t feel that your agency is doing its utmost to ensure your IR35 status is accurately reflected, it’s time to start working with a different recruiter!

3. The Know-It-All, Narcissist Manager

We were introduced to our manufacturing client’s IT Programme Manager in Coventry. From our first meeting, he seemed incredibly sure of himself. He told me he’d worked in recruitment for six months some 15 years ago and went on to tell me how I should get on with finding the contractors he needed. He even gave me tips on the process I should go through to recruit more efficiently, and closer to what he wanted! Apparently, he was his agency’s most successful consultant. Strange he worked for only six months, and never ventured into recruitment again!

Unfortunately, a contractor we put forward also found the manager overbearing and cocksure. The manager – the interviewer -- spent the entire hour expressing how amazing HE was, how HE was an expert in Amazon Web Services (despite having no formal training), and how HE could be a contractor on a rate of twice that of our contractor.

Assuming the manager knew about AWS, as he insisted, our contractor asked a few technical questions during the interview about the environment. But then the astonishing truth oted – the manger was clueless.

As it was only for two months, and local to him, our contractor set aside his reservations and subsequently accepted the contract offer.

But on day one, the contractor telephoned me during his lunch break day with an update. Forced to attend a three-hour induction meeting with this IT Programme Manager, the manager spent the first hour sharing stories of his black belt in karate and fights he’d had in the local pub; that he’d had an interview for MI5 but turned it down, and that he liked it when his team called him the ‘Oracle’ as he “knew a lot about a lot.” He went on to tell our contractor he would be the IT Director soon, or he’d go and work at one of the big banks, possibly as a CTO if he could be bothered.

Once at work, our contractor was bombarded with requests from the manager to explain  

what he was doing and why, with disapproval and insistence from the manager, contrary to manuals from Amazon supporting the contractor’s approach. At every turn, the manager’s method was best.

On day five of the assignment, the contractor was even blamed for projects hold-ups because “some people want to go in the wrong direction.” Against all odds, our contractor held out and a few weeks later, ‘Oracle’ was unceremoniously put on ‘long-term leave.’ Another contractor was parachuted into the manager’s place and the program was turned around for the better.

Oh, and looking at the manager’s LinkedIn profile today, it looks like he’s yet to secure that CTO role at a major bank! Obviously he couldn’t be bothered.

What can contractors learn from this?

The main takeaway from this nightmare for our contractor is to trust your gut instinct as a professional freelancer; your first impressions but also your follow-up impressions too!

But then also trust your abilities as a contractor and rely on your professionalism, including standing up for yourself if needed. If the business you’re contracting for has any guts, and the project any chance of success, then they and its personnel will take the time to listen to your professional concerns and will act accordingly.

Profile picture for user Matt Collingwood

Written by Matt Collingwood

Matt Collingwood is the Managing Director of VIQU Ltd. an IT recruitment and project-based consultancy company with offices in Birmingham and Southampton. Matt is also the co-founder of the Recruitment Canaries, a network of West Midlands based recruitment agencies who encourage collaboration, best practice and upholding the standards and ethics of the recruitment industry.

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