when does advice become consulting?

A reader writes:

I work in the field of Community Development with an expertise in sustainable agriculture. In the past few years as the organic movement has increased, I have been contacted by nonprofit and government organizations who were referred to me by casual colleagues to answer questions and give advice to people and organizations with regard to their new agriculture programs. I always speak with these people, free of charge, and have been told on occasion that my advice was helpful or that I was the inspiration for their new project. The conversations last maybe an hour by phone or visit, or consist of a few emails.

Can my service to these organizations at any time on a resume be listed as consulting? I ask because I don’t want to mislead anyone about the extent of my participation in these programs; but I have noticed that some people who gave me advice on a start up project I did two years ago are claiming that they were my consultant on their resumes and websites with the same amount of advice (only less helpful) that I gave to others, and I felt a little irritated by it because they made it seem as though they were instrumental in the start up and have received industry recognition (such as speaking engagements) on a project that they really didn’t participate in other than a brief conversation. I don’t want anyone to feel that way about me, but I would like to break into consulting at some time in the future.

Is there some middle ground here to listing this on a resume without being presumptuous and sounding like I am taking too much credit for somebody else’s hard work?

Great question. There’s no hard and fast rule, like “after two hours, it becomes consulting.” But I think a good rule of thumb is to base it on the amount of effort you put in.

For instance, I just sent another organization some advice on laws relating to employee handbooks. I just wrote up a quick email, and it took me 10 minutes, so I wouldn’t call that consulting. But if I reviewed their handbook, or if I took the time to meet with them in person, then I would.

Perhaps a good litmus test is: Could you have relayed this same information at a cocktail party? If so, it’s probably too light to count. If not, definitely call it consulting.

Anyone have a better way to make the call?

{ 4 comments… read them below }

  1. Rebecca*

    Not in HR, but I would think for the non-profit stuff, you could certainly list it as volunteer work, which is looked on favorably in many industries and by many employers. In regards to for-profit situations, why not talk with some of these people and mention that you'd like to include it on your resume, much like you would a reference, then do it. And maybe do it anyway.

  2. Kerry*

    I think the key indicator is: if the person who received the advice would characterize it as consulting, then it counts (and if you're not sure, ask).

    You don't want a situation where you list it on your resume, and the interviewer knows the organization and says to someone there, "Hey, so this Chris did some consulting for you?" and they're like, "What? No!" Then you look bad. That's…bad.

    But if you ask, they'll almost always say, "Sure, you can list this on your resume." Getting advice for the price of giving a reference is a great bargain for them.

  3. Karen*

    "Consulting" means paid services, typically for a project whose scope is identified and contracted for in advance. Free advice over the phone to casual contacts does not qualify as consulting.

    If others have given you advice and called it consulting when you didn't consider it to be consulting, tell them you were surprised at how they referred to your interaction and ask them to stop. Why let someone associate themselves with you or your organization in a non-truthful way? I encourage you to be more proactive in protecting your work and your reputation.

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