Working With HR Clients From Hell? Here Are Two Quick Tips For Dealing With Them.

by Alan Collins

On a few occasions, I’ve had the delightful privilege of working with the client from hell.

You know the type…

The client that doesn’t think HR can do anything right.

The client you dread getting telephone calls from.

The client, who when their name pops up on your phone, you feel like throwing up before answering the call.

The client that you lay awake at night trying to figure out how to avoid meeting with the next day.

The client that no matter what you do, no matter what HR heroics you pull off, will find something to beat you up for.

You feelin’ me?

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As an HR professional, you’ll work with a lot of clients. Obviously, 90% of them will be fine and won’t have horns or carry a pitchfork.

One such client is the late Tony Hsieh who is featured in the video below.

I had an opportunity to work briefly with Tony a few years ago as an HR consultant on a three week project involving culture and developing talent.

Sadly, he died in last November after sustaining injuries in a house fire at his Connecticut home.

Even though I knew him for just a short time, that tragic news emotionally rocked me. I couldn’t believe someone so young and brilliant had passed away so suddenly.

And, this article is in many ways a tribute to him.

Here’s what you should know about Tony.

He was the HR client from heaven.  The gold standard. If you ever have an opportunity to work with someone like him – run, don’t walk.

He was CEO of Zappos, a $1 billion online shoe company with 1000 brands, 90,000 styles and 1500 employees.

He was the one CEO that all of his retail competitors looked up to with awe and respect. Refreshingly, he did not look like or sound like a typical CEO.

At Zappos, Tony fostered a culture based on an extraordinary vision, values and HR engagement.

I know that sounds like motherhood and apple pie, and that’s why listening to Tony is important.

He was the real deal.

In this rare, vintage video, Tony is giving opening remarks at SXSW, the famous interactive, film, and music conference that takes place every spring in Austin, Texas.

Even though this 8-minute video is a decade old, every word he says in it is PURE GOLDand he never changed his philosophy one iota while he lived.  So you’ll want to watch it from start to finish.

As you listen, imagine what your HR life would be like with Tony as your client…

Here’s the point: One of the best things you’ll ever do for your HR career is to seek out and work with the Tonys of the world.

There are lots of them out there, in all organizations at all levels — from Warehouse Leaders to CEOs.

These clients are looking for great HR folks also.

They want to partner with those who share and can help them realize their own visions for their organizations. That was what my short-term involvement with Tony was all about — helping him in some small way achieve his vision for his organization.

But make no mistake about it, clients like Tony are very demanding and won’t hesitate to kick you in the butt too.  But in the process will also challenge, inspire and grow your expertise along the way. And that’s what you want.

Now, having seen Tony, let’s get back to the original point of this article: What do you do to address clients from hell?

Here are two quick tips.

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1. If you’re already in a bad client relationship, start your exit strategy.

You want to pull the plug on this assignment ASAP. Your options:

Either way, whatever you do, do NOT fall in the trap of staying in place and trying to fix this person.

It’s tempting, but it rarely works.

In fact, research conducted by the Center For Creative Leadership reveals that trying to change a major client is a waste of time – especially if they’ve been around awhile and their behavior has been tolerated and rewarded.  So stop wishing they’ll change and put your own needs first.

This means taking itty-bitty steps forward to identify a new opportunity, while being patient. 

It also means continuing to give this jerk client the same responsive, professional, value-added HR support that you always have.

Just because you’re getting crapped on, is no excuse to return the favor.

However, don’t plan to stay in this role long. In volatile times with pandemic-driven downsizing still occurring in many organizations, you never can tell how much weight this maniac’s input will be given in HR layoff decisions.

One other thing: the “personal development,” “character building” and the 5% compensation bribe pay increase you might get as a bonus to work with bad clients is overrated.

It may sound great at the time.  But, whatever you gain developmentally is offset by the hit you’ll take to your HR reputation, your personal self-esteem and your mental sanity.

Just sayin’.

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2. Be selective in choosing your next opportunity.

When you’re interviewing for your next HR job, you don’t want to swap one bad client for another.  So probe the organization as hard as they are probing you.

Ask insightful and tough questions to the business leader of the client group you’ll be supporting or working directly with.

If they are too busy to meet with you, that’s a big red flag.

And, again, a poor match will make your HR life a living hell.

If you don’t know what to look for when interviewing with your clients, it’s easy. You want to try and get as close to a Tony as you can.

‘Nuff said.

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Here’s the bottom line.  

Avoid toxic and hellish clients at all costs.

Sure, you can learn from them. But if the relationship affects your emotional well-being, divorce them as soon as you can.

You deserve better.

Life’s precious and much too short.


P.S. If you’re interested in more information and getting an up-to-date copy of the Zappos Culture Book that Tony referred to in his video go HERE.

P.S.S. I’d welcome your feedback on this article. CLICK HERE to add your thoughts, pushbacks or any additional suggestions you’d recommend.

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For more in-depth HR career strategies for dealing with tough workplace situations and excelling in the HR role you’re current in,  check out: WINNING BIG IN HR: 100+ Powerful Strategies For Accomplishing Great Results Faster & Getting Your Clients To Rave About You As A Human Resources Professional!

About the author: Alan Collins is Founder of Success in HR, Inc. and the author of a variety of best selling books for HR professionals including WINNING BIG IN HR.  He was formerly Vice President – Human Resources at PepsiCo where he led HR initiatives and teams for their Quaker Oats, Gatorade and Tropicana businesses.

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5 Responses to “Working With HR Clients From Hell? Here Are Two Quick Tips For Dealing With Them.”

  1. Sharon Sturrup Says:

    Thank you, once again for the terrific article.
    I watched the video of Tony Hsieh and I respect the culture that he created at Zappo’s. I am a Zappo’s customer for 3 years but was unaware that the employees’ are engaged to the degree that was mentioned in the video. As a customer, I would rate the service,from the call center,as excellent .The delivery of outstanding service is obviously due in part to a culture where everyone is committed to leading by example.

    Thank you, for sharing!

  2. Manish Says:

    Alan;; thanks for sharing this perspective..very apt and meaningful write up..Njoyed it…

  3. Lynn Hounsley Says:

    Alan: Thanks for reminding me to create that exit strategy. I had the unfortunate client experience in knowing that I should have “pulled the plug” and did not. The client beat me to it and now they owe me for 2 months of services. That was back in October and they have not paid yet. I learned my lesson.

  4. Leona Says:

    Hi Alan,
    Terrific advice. Always best to work with people who are interested in what you have to contribute and are respectful by nature. I have learned the hard way that winning over toxic people with my best effort isn’t possible – nothing is with such characters.
    This is valuable advice!

  5. Tim Graham Says:

    Great information. Thanks for sharing.