BBC Capital

Work Ethic

Should you charge for work that went nowhere?

About the author

Chana is a journalist based in New York City, writing about business, finance, and workplace life. She has written for The Wall Street Journal and spent more than a decade at Forbes, including three years as a Tokyo-based foreign correspondent.

Should you pay for work that leads to a dead end? (Thinkstock)

Should you pay for work that leads to a dead end? (Thinkstock)

Q. We bill by the hour for our consulting work. When we go down the wrong path, for instance by pursuing a mistaken strategy for a client and then changing tack when we get more information, is it ethical to bill the client for the time we spent?

There are two ways to look at this. You can pull out your contract with this client and point to the section where it says you will bill for the time your team spent working on the account. That entitles you to bill for any work you do, regardless of how useful the work product is to the client.

Ethically, you’re covered. After all, if you both signed the contract, you are both bound by it.

Of course, following it to the letter might not be the smartest strategy for your business.

Think about the issue holistically. If your clients realise that the bill reflects work that wasn’t needed, they could fire you or think twice about hiring you again. They might wonder why you did so much work in the first place, before you had all the information you needed to do the job right. And you could be in for, at the least, a confrontation with a client who doesn’t want to part with money that wasn’t well spent.

This situation probably could have been avoided with better and tighter communications between the consultant and the client, said Nancy Liss, a human resources consultant who runs New York City-based consulting firm NEL Associates LLC. As the consultant, it’s your job to make sure you have all the information you need to move forward. If that data isn’t in the project brief, ask the client for it before you get started.

“I suggest regular check-ins as the consultant’s work is developing so that course corrections can be built into the process. This will help to avoid any unpleasant surprises at the end,” Liss said.

While some consultants would be fine with charging a client strictly by the hours worked, even if the client’s needs hadn’t been met, Liss doesn’t recommend this strategy. That’s an easy way to damage your reputation, she said.

People talk — especially about negative or less-than-satisfactory experiences — and potential clients call references. One dissatisfied customer could mean you don’t get invited to pitch for others’ business.

There's an alternative: you could tell the client that you're only billing for half the hours you spent doing work that turned out not to be needed. If you choose to go this route, explain that you do have administrative costs for your team's time, but that you don't want to bill the agreed-upon rate because the work won't go into your final report. 

Consider calling your client and explaining why you’re not billing for the extra hours your team worked. Stress that you have ethical concerns about charging for work you did when you were pursuing the wrong path. That should make your client feel better about your results — and more likely to engage you in the future. It’s an investment in your business.

“Better to have a happy client and restart your hourly billing at zero and deliver what the client needs,” she said.

Work Ethic is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that workers face around the world. We welcome knotty questions from readers at workethic@bbc.com.

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One dissatisfied customer could mean you don’t get invited to pitch for others’ business.