How to manage a contractor-turned-employee

The transition requires careful management, says Paul Glen

With the economy making a bit of progress over the past few months, many IT organisations have been adding contractors as a way of getting things done without the commitment of hiring permanent employees. And they're probably thinking that if things continue to improve, some of those contractors could become permanent hires.

It's a smart tactic. If the economy stalls again, separating from a contractor is much easier than laying off an employee. It's also easier to make a break should the contractor prove to have been a poor choice for the job. But hiring a contractor on a "rent-to-own" basis requires some careful planning. Bringing in a hired gun for a one-time project that's beyond the scope of your shop's usual activities is a very different matter from hiring a contractor to fill in on routine tasks with an eye towards possibly making the relationship permanent.

If your interest in hiring contractors is to find someone you would want make a long-term member of the group, you will need to think carefully about your hiring criteria. Here are some things to consider:

Skills. Obviously, the first thing to look for is ability. If you want a contractor rather than a potential employee, then your assessment may stop here.

Mind-set. Some people become contractors because they find it fun and lucrative. They can work on many different things and maximise the rewards for their talents. They tend to have wanderlust and will grow restless if a contract outlasts their interest. Many of these sorts of contractors were already working on a contract basis before the recession hit. But today, the ranks of contractors include a lot of talented people who were thrown out of work by the recession. For them, contracting is a way to make a living until the next job offer comes along. You need to know which sort of contractor is sitting across from you.

Attitude toward work. In today's job market, pretty much anyone will tell you they're happy to do any job. Paying the rent and feeding the children are powerful incentives. But you need to gauge the veracity of that claim. If the work you are offering doesn't really challenge the contractor, there is a chance that he will end up feeling that the job is beneath him, despite earlier protestations that any job was welcome. There really are people who will gladly go to work on your helpdesk even though they used to manage 100 people. There are a lot more who feel good about themselves only if they believe that their most valuable skills are engaged. You need to know which is which.

Engagement. While most contractors are able to work well with others, participation and cooperation are not the same as emotional commitment. We want more than collaboration from employees; we want them fully engaged in the organisation, with a sense of connection to their fellow employees and the organisation as a whole.

Cultural fit. This is perhaps the most subtle aspect of hiring. There's more to it than thinking about how the new contractor will fit in; every new hire has the potential to broadcast a powerful message to others about what the organisation values and what it aspires to. The people you bring in are a way of reinforcing the current culture or beginning the process of change.

This is a great time to hire people. The pool of available technical and managerial talent is probably larger and of higher quality than at any time in recent memory, perhaps ever. By all means, take advantage of the opportunity, but consider your choices with great care.

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