How to gracefully renege on a business commitment?
January 1, 2021 3:38 AM   Subscribe

Around 2 months ago, I agreed to teach a weeklong virtual seminar (scheduled for approximately 2 weeks from now). Circumstances have changed, and I think it would be a bad idea for me to proceed. How do I gracefully bow out?

I'm a freelance education consultant, and one of my clients provides educational consulting for a country's education department. Last year, I travelled to this country several times, and I had fun teaching in-person week-long seminars there. Although the pay for the seminars isn't spectacular, they have been a good way for me and my client to get exposure, which has led to some additional work.

This year, I agreed to teach the same seminar, but online, and now I deeply regret it.

Although there will be 3 times as many students (300 in total), I just learned that the pay has remained the same. Last year, the students had a week off school so that they could attend the seminar. This year, they will be doing their full school day, and then attending the seminars. This also means that I will need to be conducting the seminars between 7pm and 1am my time (again, something I was just made fully aware of).

I hate the idea of staring at a screen for 6 hours a day, 6 days in a row. I also think this is a horrible idea from an educational standpoint; I know from experience that the students will end up hating me and the material.

I'm trying to decide how to gracefully and graciously bow out of this. I want to remain on good terms with the client, but the truth of the matter is, I also have other, higher-paying clients.
posted by matkline to Work & Money (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Would you be willing to do the work if some of those factors change (more pay, or fewer students, or better hours, or all of those)? Or won't you want to do it even then? Any chance you can negotiate? Seems very reasonable to ask for changes in those conditions, and if they can't accommodate you, "so sorry, but I won't be able to help you this time"
posted by Zumbador at 4:01 AM on January 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

I would lean into the 7pm-1am thing as the problem. Start with, “Hi, I thought when we agreed that I would do the same seminar as last time that that meant during the day, like I did before. I can’t conduct this seminar in what would be the middle of the night for me (and I’m not sure learning outcomes would be good either, since the attendees will be pretty tired after a full day of school work). Does it make more sense to reschedule this for a time when the seminar can happen during the day, or would you rather just cancel?”
posted by mskyle at 4:01 AM on January 1, 2021 [37 favorites]

Like mskyle, I would focus on the timing of the seminar, emphasizing the negative impact on the students. Not sure how old they are, but if traditional school age, they are not going to be able to manage 6 hr virtual class especially after a full day of regular online school; if they are adult learners (teach the teachers) they likely have adult responsibilities after work as well (getting dinner on the table, dealing with their own kids) and won't be paying attention -- this is doubly true in a 300 person webinar as opposed to a 10 person Zoom seminar.

I don't know if there is a way to salvage your relationship with client if there's just 2 weeks to go, but conversely if they only notified you of these issues, 2 weeks before go - live, that strikes me as educationally irresponsible.
posted by basalganglia at 4:25 AM on January 1, 2021 [11 favorites]

Unless it is actually more work for you to teach more students, I wouldn’t push too hard on that point. COVID has been costly for schools in a lot of ways - if they are seeing it as a way to recoup some $ on their end that doesn’t seem unreasonable unless it is a greater burden for you.

The new schedule, especially for an online course, seems ridiculous and a legitimate reason to bow out.
posted by Kriesa at 4:26 AM on January 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

Cancelling a week long seminar series with 2 weeks notice isn't great from the POV of students who might need this seminar to get a grade, but I definitely agree this doesn't sound like a good situation.

Asking students to do a 6~ hour school day and then (presumably?) a full 6 hour seminar as well is pretty nuts from an educational standpoint, especially when it's online. I've been learning online since March and it's getting to the point where paying attention for more than an hour is difficult, even as an adult who knows how to manage my time/energy. The burnout is real.

I would definitely voice your concerns on this and lean on it as a reason that you can't do the seminars, as well as it being untenable for your own schedule. But do remember to remain firm -- don't let them try to persuade you to back down if they offer you, for instance, fewer hours or a different schedule.

I do think you might need to accept that this bridge may be burned, though. Educational institutions are scrambling pretty hard right now with situations that are changing week to week, which might be why they've only just notified you of the schedule. I don't know how sympathetic they will be, though I think you should stick to your guns if you don't feel like you can deliver the material.
posted by fight or flight at 5:53 AM on January 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

Just to clarify - had the organization previously specified different hours and conditions, or did you just not inquire?
posted by trig at 6:44 AM on January 1, 2021

Response by poster: Thanks for all the helpful responses so far. @Trig, I was originally told that the timing would be from 7pm to 1am my time (2 months ago). As I was planning out the course a few days ago, I realized that timing wouldn't make much sense, so I asked for verification, and I was told it would actually be 1pm to 7pm my time. However, as of yesterday I was told that the original schedule was correct.
posted by matkline at 6:56 AM on January 1, 2021

I think you're better off just citing personal reasons and apologizing. 2020 has been very strange and people have all kinds of shit coming up. But it does sound like from these people's point of view you would be dropping the ball and if you want this relationship to continue, best not to suggest it's their fault.
posted by BibiRose at 7:06 AM on January 1, 2021 [4 favorites]

Maybe also, you could offer to do it later on in the semester at a better time of day. It is going to be inconvenient for them but again, lots of that going around and if you try to salvage something they may appreciate it.
posted by BibiRose at 7:09 AM on January 1, 2021

Two weeks out, I don't think there is a graceful way to renege. You knew when you accepted that it would be 6 hours of screen time a day.

If there's a way to cut down the content (with the client's permission, probably meaning even less money for you) and/or make some of it self-study, that could mitigate the unpleasantness.
posted by lakeroon at 7:12 AM on January 1, 2021 [7 favorites]

I think you should do the seminar. You knew months in advance what you were signing up for. Next time, don’t sign up for things like this.
posted by oceanjesse at 7:26 AM on January 1, 2021 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Given your update, I think you need to follow through and deliver. It seems like you had the relevant information in the original communication and that you’re now building a case for not doing it, by finding other reasons why it won’t work. Being dependable is part of what you bring as a professional. Having been a consultant, I totally get the deep regret. But that regret is what informs future engagements and choices.

However, what does your contract/letter of agreement describe as your scope of services and grounds for cancellation? If you don't have one, this is a good opportunity to think about the options you'd like available to you and your clients in the future for handling changes or disagreements.

If you have no shared agreement and you want, as you said, to maintain the relationship, I'd suggest delivering a modified shit sandwich: some positives about the current setup/your working relationship; facts that have led to a conflict; and proposals for how to solve this, either now for this instance or on the future so it doesn't occur again.

“Hey client, I’m amazed at the turnout for this seminar. The material really strikes chord with people but I know you’ve also put a lot of work into getting the word out and I appreciate it. Since we first ran the seminar, a lot has changed. Aside from the sheer number of students, one thing I’m concerned about is the time of day we’re running the course. I’d like to change that to X-Xam ET. And I have some ideas about how to make the course more engaging, given that the students are also encountering a very different situation, taking the course after a full day of school, having it be fully remote, and with it being so large. My suggestions are: [Flipped classroom? Shorter class? Putting the engaging content from 7-9pm your time, a 30 minute break, then group work from 9:30-11:30pm your time, then watch a 30 pre-recorded lecture of you for the last 30? Pre-recording the whole thing and using a group slack for deeper work? Assigning 30 groups of 10 to facilitate student collaboration and take some heat off of you? Etc.]

I’m open to other ideas, because I want the students to love learning this material, and to do more than just attend “another zoom course.” This year has been hard, but it’s a great opportunity to rethink how I deliver the course, and these changes would improve the student experience and my ability to attend to their learning needs.

Our work partnership has been very satisfying and I hope that after the stresses of 2020 that we can return to in-person delivery of the seminar!”

Positives : conflict : proposed solutions.
One of the benefits of being a consultant is that you get to speak fairly directly from a position of “external authority,” so as long as you can genuinely provide some improvements and benefits for all, you should speak up.

If you simply don’t want to do the course because of the time of day and you’re fine with losing the client, I think you should be direct and immediate with your message:
“Client, I’m apologize, but I’m unable to lead the X course at this time. I know this puts you in a tight position at a late date. In my place I can suggest X person or Y person as a good substitute, should you decide to continue the seminar. If you’d like, I’d be happy to connect you with them and give them my materials to get them up to speed.”
posted by cocoagirl at 7:31 AM on January 1, 2021 [19 favorites]

Lean on the timing of the course. You've already raised a concern about it and been told two different things; the *new information* that the course will indeed be at a truly unreasonable hour gives you an opening to pull out. You can propose that the course be rescheduled for a later date when the participants will be able to take the week off work/school and do the course at the reasonable time that you were (temporarily) told that this run would be at.
posted by heatherlogan at 7:48 AM on January 1, 2021

Can you record your lectures, and agree to answer questions via email during time convenient for you?
posted by kschang at 10:47 AM on January 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

With that number enrolled, there isn't really any way to do a "seminar". It might make more sense to deliver content in two segments: a pre recorded lecture, then invite email questions, then a pre recorded Q&A format. Take a look a Sean Carroll's "Biggest Ideas in the Universe" format on YouTube. He's super informal, approachable, covering very difficult topics in a really enjoyable way. All of it is on his terms, so he doesn't waste his time. He's such a gifted lecturer. So far, for example, about five hundred thousand people have listened to his lecture on Gravity, and they just rave about how much they learned, the clarity of the instruction and how fun the lecture content was.

Then suggest to the school that they have teaching assistants handle the discussion sections and develop useful questions.

That way you can maximize the amount of content delivery for the students and not exhaust yourself. Good luck.
posted by effluvia at 11:14 AM on January 1, 2021 [4 favorites]

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