Neophyte consultant conundrums

I’m settling back to life in the Philippines. In fact, I have been at it for a little over a month now. This comes with reestablishing my career in the country. And as I do so, I thought of trying my hand at independent consulting work (I just rediscovered that we call it ‘freelance’, as in freelance work). By consulting work I mean short-term and possibly simultaneous engagements where I work with flexible hours and detached from a core team as a staff member, have the option to telecommute, and get paid for the outputs I deliver or parts thereof.

The first action that came to my mind was to reactivate my professional network back here in the Philippines. I sent a flurry of emails prior to my return, and started meeting people only days after I got home. I met former classmates, professors, and colleagues. I met some on the basis of getting together after not seeing each other for over six months or almost six years, a few I met coincidentally, and others I met on the premise of professional networking with the ultimate goal of finding work. Many of the meet ups, though, were for a combination of the reasons above.

I got an informal work offer about three weeks through this process. They wanted me to start working asap, with the terms of reference (ToR) and contract to follow. As a fledgling freelancer, I have many questions in mind, and one of which involves this practice. I deferred to the power of the internet and posted a question along these lines on a Linkedin Group which cater to consultants who offer services to international development organizations. Members with many years of experience already offered an outpour of opinions. To summarize the discussion, contributors to my question seem to agree that working without a contract and ToR is complicated, and would put my work and me at risk for several reasons. First, and perhaps the most obvious, is the lack of evidence and binding agreement that I am professionally engaged with another party. I have no recourse in the event that I don’t get paid for my work. Second, without a ToR, I will have no clear instructions in black and white of the task at hand and the deliverables expected of me. This creates situations for miscommunication and misunderstanding, and shifting goal posts that could be subject to abuse, which is disadvantageous to me. To illustrate this point, my employer could ask for more outputs than what was (verbally) agreed upon at the outset or major work revisions as the end of the contract nears in the absence of a clear terms of reference.

How could I have remedied the situation? I could have requested for an advance ToR and contract via email. Or simply give an outright ‘No!’ and stay away from the organization altogether. A few comments were bordering on patronizing, while many were indeed helpful and insightful.

In the end, there is no one right or wrong decision. Do you treasure personal relationships, and trust that people you know will honor their word? As a beginner trying to have a crack at a consulting career, others said I should just ‘suck it up’ and treat it as an internship (if I don’t get paid at all). I could have also gone ahead and started working before the ToR and contract were issued, and banked on previous work relationships, and have faith that the organization will deliver their end of the agreement. Or would you rather start your ‘new career’ adhering to rigid rules of professionalism? On the flip side, I could lose the contract, and perhaps even future opportunities. The decision one chooses in the end reflects one’s values.

How did I decide in the end? I encourage you to peruse the fertile discussion on the Linkedin Group. What would you have done in a similar situation?

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