Strategies & Tactics

Setting Boundaries During Client Outings

June 3, 2019

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[shutterstock]

If you work in the agency business or as a consultant, then chances are you have had plenty of opportunities to bond with clients over drinks or other social activities. This comes with the territory.

At the same time, we often hear stories of the consultant who went a little overboard.

In my experience, I’ve also had instances where I happened to be around clients who weren’t always at their best.

So, what do you do when alcohol is involved? Or what do you do when you find yourself in a certain client culture that exudes an informality that may permit, if not encourage, profanity, locker-room humor or other less-than-professional conversation.

“I never want to participate in anything that demeans or harms another human being, and that includes participating in conversations or jokes that devalue someone else,” said Karen Swim, the Founder of Words for Hire in Detroit. “I allow clients to be themselves, and will not make them uncomfortable. If, however, something crosses the line for me, I would politely decline.”

Of course, this isn’t to say having drinks with a client isn’t a good thing to do, or that getting away from the office to an off-site, a ballgame, a charity dinner or a music festival aren’t all excellent ways to build stronger client relationships. When handled the right way, all of these things and more can be highly valuable.

But before you order your first drink, it’s a good idea to have a personal policy in place for client entertainment.

“I might have a drink with a client — I limit myself to one or two at most — but I don’t smoke and don’t gamble,” said Patrick McSweeney, APR, Fellow PRSA, managing director at McSweeney Public Relations in Milwaukee. “I’ve found that always acting professionally and steering conversations toward ethical behavior keep the situation safe — and the client and others around me remain on their best behavior.”

Added Swim, “I have a policy to not engage in activities that are dangerous or contrary to my personal and/or brand values. I believe it is important to be true to who you are as well as your brand identity. I believe that we can do this without shaming a client or compromising the relationship.”

Keeping it professional

Interestingly enough, I’ve talked to a few independents about memorable client entertainment experiences over the years, and it’s not uncommon to hear a story or two involving adult clubs.

In my case, there have been a few times when I’ve politely declined client invitations to join such excursions.

Karen Swim had her own such story and sums it up quite well.

“I was working with a group of clients on an advocacy project and they enjoyed the food at [an adult club],” she said. “I declined to join in. Every client does not have to be a friend or someone you hang out with in your free time. You can have good, cordial working relationships during working hours and leave them to their vices after hours.”

In the end, the best practice when it comes to client entertainment is not to practice a double standard. When in the company of clients and business colleagues, be the same professional at 10 p.m. that you were at a lunch meeting. This doesn’t mean not to have fun, but it’s good to know your boundaries.

Tim O'Brien, APR

Tim O’Brien, APR, owns O’Brien Communications, an independent corporate communications practice in Pittsburgh, and hosts the “Shaping Opinion” podcast.
 

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