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I (external contractor) was invited to an on-site meeting with our project customer and discussed with a senior colleague about their participation, learning they haven't yet been invited. When I asked+ the project lead whether my senior colleague shouldn't also participate, they confided the customer specifically asked for said colleague to not be included (reason not given) but asked me to keep this for myself. To make things probably more complicated, the project lead is an external contractor (as am I but via a different company) while my senior colleague and line manager are internal staff. Apparently I got dragged into some politics against my will or better judgement, so now I'm seeking advice how to proceed with this information. I seem to have the following possibilities:

  • Keep this to myself, leaving my senior colleague probably confused about his omission - after all, the project lead should know what they are doing and why. This does however somehow feel wrong.
  • Breach the project leads trust by informing my line manager. They're my boss after all, but obviously that will most likely be the last time the project lead was that honest with me.

Maybe there's a third, better way as well. So, how can I properly handle this?

edit The relationships seem to be a bit complicated, so let me try and clarify matters a bit: Company (or agency?) A contracted me to work for company B in a project for customer C. Company B is also supported by company/agency D's contractors. The project lead P is one of D's contractors, while my line manager L and senior colleague S work directly for "the" company B. The meeting is planned and held by the customer C, whom according to P specifically stated they don't want S to participate - I can only guess about their reasons, though from my work with S I doubt it's due to incompetency but rather due to S's firm stance on B not doing additional work for free for C; there seems to be quite some feature creep going on here.


+ I asked in order to make booking common traveling easier etc. though that's probably irrelevant.

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    @Isaiah3015 I'm not sure if it is relevant to the question, but due the different hiring status there seems to be a certain distrust, even suspicions of favoritism. And the colleague's non-invitation probably will contribute to that, despite (at least in this case) the customer being responsible... – DontDragMeIntoPolitics Aug 27 '18 at 16:04
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    Did the project lead explicitly say not to tell your line manager, or just not to tell your senior colleague? – DJClayworth Aug 27 '18 at 17:11
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    As a contractor, who pays your invoices? That's the person you tell because that's part of what they pay for. – John Eisbrener Aug 28 '18 at 2:01
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    @DJClayworth They said "between the two of us", which doesn't sound like there are any exceptions. Then again maybe I could just ask the project lead whether it might be a good idea to at least inform the manager, after all who knows whether the customer's reasons for exclusion are purely personal or actually critical... which is basically your answer :) – DontDragMeIntoPolitics Aug 28 '18 at 6:05
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    @Evorlor (un?)Fortunately doing "the right thing" is no popularity vote 😉 I got two very interesting answers which I'll probably let sink in for today and then make a decision. – DontDragMeIntoPolitics Aug 28 '18 at 6:09
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While your desire to stay out of politics is admirable, it is not feasible. You are involved now whether you like it or not.

It is absolutely right that you should tell your line manager about this. Your project lead is not your boss; they cannot and should not restrict what you tell to your real bosses. Your line manager (who I assume also has some oversight role in the project) deserves to know what is going on. It is not unheard of for external contractors to conspire against the company that hired them. For example, and I am not accusing your colleagues of anything, sometimes subcontractor A wants to exclude as many workers from main contractor B as possible so they can go to the client and say "look, all work is being done by subcontractor A - you don't need main contractor B at all". It's particularly attractive to exclude a knowledgeable, experienced person in these circumstances. However don't make accusations. Just make sure your boss knows what is going on.

As a general rule if anyone says "don't tell your boss about this" you should immediately tell your boss about it. You are more likely to get in trouble for not saying something than saying something. This is not 'going over someone's head'. Your line manager is your line manager, and that's what he's there for.

In the interests of good relations with the project lead, you can ask him if your line manager knows about this, and if he says no, say you think he should and you are going to tell him. Unless project lead can come up with a really good reason for not telling him, go ahead. But a contractor who keeps secrets from the company they are hired by isn't a good bet for building long term relationships with.

It's just possible that the project lead only meant "don't tell the senior colleague", not "don't tell anyone". You could ask about this specifically. But remember your project lead has no right to tell you what to say to your line manager.

Secondarily, what exactly are you going to say to your senior colleague when they ask you about the project? Lying is a bad move, so you are left with "I was told not to tell you why you haven't been included in the project", which at least will alert him to the fact that something shady is going on.

People will advise you to keep your head down and do your job, but when something shady is going on (and it looks like it is) doing nothing puts you on the side of the shady people. And that gives you no increased likelihood of coming through this unscathed.

Yes, I've been involved in a situation like this and no, at no point would staying silent have made things better.

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    I like this answer the best. The big difference is hiding things from your current boss/manager makes 'staying silent' a problem. – Robert Dundon Aug 27 '18 at 17:09
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    You don't have to call it a "secret." You can probably mention it to your boss as a point and let him figure it out on his own. Something like, "So I was in a meeting with bob discussing the points with the project customer." Then your boss will obviously ask why he wasn't invited and simply say, "I'm not sure but anyways here are the points from that meeting." – Dan Aug 27 '18 at 19:14
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    "if anyone says "don't tell your boss about this" you should immediately tell your boss about it" - unless it's your boss's boss (which happened to me in a previous company) – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Aug 27 '18 at 22:28
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    Agreed. Also if it's about your boss's surprise party. – DJClayworth Aug 28 '18 at 2:26
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    @DontDragMeIntoPolitics Have you verified with your line manager that they do indeed know, just in case? – JAB Aug 29 '18 at 5:56
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Keep this to myself, leaving my senior colleague probably confused about his omission - after all, the project lead should know what they are doing and why.

So, how can I properly handle this?

Do as you were told and keep it to yourself. You innocently asked about travel arrangements and learned about some office politics going on. You aren't yet dragged into the politics. And you won't be if you just stop now.

This is a matter between the customer, the senior colleague and the project lead. The customer doesn't want this senior colleague invited for whatever reason. That's almost certainly the customer's call to make.

You do your job. Let others do their job.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Snow Aug 29 '18 at 16:39
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I'll be honest, I don't particularly agree with any of these answers, as most (to me) look to be providing information as if you were an employee and not a contractor. Kilisi's answer alludes to what I think is most important here, but only hints at it. Quite simply, because you're a contractor, your initial response should be to raise this issue with your direct manager (within the contracting firm) first. That individual will hopefully be the best equipped to tell you how to proceed.

There are too many unknowns here, such as is the other external contracting company a direct competitor to your company, who brought your company in (e.g. the person being singled out, someone within their chain of management, or someone else entirely), how will your actions potentially affect your company's relationship with the client, etc. Unless you're the account manager for the client as well, don't feel you need to be the one to make that decision. Bring this issue up internally (soon if you haven't already), and leave the decision about which way to approach this up to your appropriate management hierarchy.

I would hope they are invested in this client enough to provide you with what they feel is the best answer from their (an by association your) perspective.

  • Thank you, good points as well. Yeah, had the project lead not meanwhile told me my line manager also knows checking with my contracting firm would have a been a sensible approach. – DontDragMeIntoPolitics Aug 29 '18 at 5:35
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    Excellent answer. Not only should you let your company's management decide how to handle inter-company relationships and customer decisions, that's who you'd need to talk to if you're uncomfortable with the actions being taken and would like to be reassigned. Always talk to the people who pay you first when multiple organizations are involved. – BloodGain Aug 29 '18 at 23:52
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I suppose this is a little bit of a restatement of DJClayWorth's answer, but sometimes practical experience helps.

I have accidentally walked into office shenanigans before in almost the exact circumstances as you. I asked an innocent question and was met with and answer followed by "Whatever you do, don't tell X about this". Of course in my case X was both my boss and the company owner. My immediate response was to be fairly irritated that someone would try to put me in that position in the first place. In retrospect, I think that response of mine was very reasonable. If someone has decided to embark upon secret keeping, I don't consider it reasonable for them to share that secret with others and immediately demand that they also keep the secret. These things are rarely good for a company, and transparency is usually better in the long run.

In my case I was initially torn and didn't want to seem like the "office snitch". However, my job was (in part) to manage employees, and (as DJClayWorth says) if someone ever tells you not to tell something to your boss, the best bet is to immediately tell your boss. After some brief indecision I told my boss. I then discovered that it really was just all shenanigans, that the secret being protected was already completely known by the boss, and that it all tracked back to some blatant dishonesty on the part of the employee who originally shared the "secret" (the boss was already aware of all the details and had already dealt with said employee).

Therefore what it all boils down to, from my perspective, is that: Secrets are rarely good for any of the involved parties. It may be one thing to ignore a "secret" that doesn't involve you in the slightest, but especially if your own manager is involved, it is best to clear the air. If someone has a secret they don't want shared around, then they need to figure out how to not share secrets with you in the first place. I would not have any sympathy for someone who tried to put me in that position again.

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    Thank you for sharing your experience. I probably would have gone to my line manager as well, had the project lead not responded to my inquiry that they (meanwhile?) told it themselves. – DontDragMeIntoPolitics Aug 29 '18 at 5:32
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    @DontDragMeIntoPolitics Sounds like that very effectively removed you from the politics of the situation - always good to hear! My biggest complaint with the situation I was put in was the conflicted-ness of the situation I was unwillingly put into. Either I risk making a coworker angry by talking to my boss, or I risk making my boss angry by not speaking up and they later find out. In both cases I think it goes to show that secrets rarely stay secret for very long, so you're best off just clearing the air. – Conor Mancone Aug 29 '18 at 18:20
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Your concern is you and your company. Do not get involved except for noting this as interesting information. It may eventuate in your company getting more work or maybe not. Never forget that you are representing your company.

Prepare thoroughly for the meeting (you should be anyway). It may present an opportunity for personal or company advancement.

There is nothing positive in pushing back in any way against a decision that has already been made by authorised people and has nothing to do with your company.

  • The last paragraph seems true in general, but disconnected from this question. 1) Nothing indicates that the external project manager might be authorized by internal management to act like this. 2) Telling one's boss about events that may impact the project does not constitute pushing back. (Making accusations or asking the boss to intervene would.) 3) My company's customer has something to do with my company. – Jirka Hanika Aug 28 '18 at 6:27
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    It might be though that the exclusion was done on some other base and the story about client asking for that was just a cover up. Or that the contractor used this opportunity to get some additional advantage (e.g. it was not as directly stated by the client but exaggerated by the project lead to exclude specific person from the project). How can you be sure the same won't happen in the future against you or colleagues from your company? – Ister Aug 28 '18 at 8:07
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    There is something positive: Standing up against unwanted behaviour. Example: If you see someone getting bullied, and you do nothing, you're part of the problem :) i.imgur.com/XOe7rYc.jpg – Martijn Aug 28 '18 at 9:43
  • Thank you for your suggestion. I think depending on the circumstances this is also sound advice, but in my case it didn't feel right. – DontDragMeIntoPolitics Aug 29 '18 at 5:34
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As I see it, you only have the Project lead's word for it that your senior colleague wasn't to be invited. Since it's possibly unlikely that you can verify whether the customer actually didn't want your senior colleague to be present, you have no basis to decide on the truthfulness of the project lead's claim other than "the project lead said...." Accordingly, you should disregard it, along with the claim that others know.

I'd suggest keeping your line manager informed of the content of the meeting and any other meetings about the project - it's good practice to keep them in-the-know about what you are up to. If your involvement in the meetings is to provide input, then you could seek the advice of your line manager as to whether the senior colleague should be consulted on [insert-subject-matter], as they were not present at the meeting. This is simply a statement of fact (their absence could be for many reasons) and seeking input is appropriate, especially where they presumably have greater experience.

Your line manager may then advise against further consultation (possibly giving a reason or not), or may agree with this idea, or express surprise that the senior colleague wasn't present (assuming your line manager isn't the senior colleague).

In any event, if it is the case that your senior colleague should be involved in the project (which isn't your decision), then it is for them or the line manager to escalate any concerns up their chain of command (as appropriate) and to remedy the situation. This is presumably not your job.

And if it's not the case, then this will become apparent, however the underlying reason may not, but that's irrelevant if you're not interested in politics.

Hope this helps.

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You should tell your boss:

  • Who is the one who decides what you do?
    • The customer, who asked you do do something.
    • Your company, who you have a contract with to be loyal.

Both are a valid moral obligations, and you need to choose one. But there is another obligation: A legal obligation, your contract, on paper and signed.

So you should be loyal to your boss, except you value both company obligations together less than the one customer obligation.

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