Monday, July 31, 2006

Mr Angry's rules for permanent employees working with contractors

This post in my series on contracting focuses on suggestions for non-management permanent employees working with contractors. The driver for this is that over the years I've worked on both sides of the fence and I've seen the sorts of preconceptions and misconceptions that can strain working relationships between permanent and contract staff. The sources for the suggestions in this post are a combination of things I have seen myself and the questions I am most commonly asked about contracting by permanent staff.

Let's get the touchy one out of the way first: money. Don't ask a contractor how much they are getting. Ever. It's unprofessional and rude and, honestly, no good is going to come out of asking. If you want an idea of how much contractors can earn, look up some job ads. I've covered this topic in detail in previous posts so, if you need to, go back and re-read the sections comparing contract rates to permanent rates.

Contractors are not, by definition, any better than permanent employees at what they do. The reason for employing a contractor can vary from case to case and it's worth finding out the reason a contractor has been hired if you find yourself working with one. If there's any sort of decent management in your workplace (a big "if", I know) then the contractor will have skills and/or experience that nobody else has. In the case of specialists, it's easy to see why a contractor has been brought on but this is not always the case. Sometimes a contractor will have the same skill set as permanent staff (or even less skills) and they have been employed to provide "an extra set of hands". This can lead to the unfortunate circumstance where someone appears to be getting more money while offering less return but this premium is the return for giving up the security of perment employment.

It's worth getting clarification (preferably written) of how you, as a permanent, are expected to relate to a contractor. Are they a peer? Are you expected to report to them or pass any of your work through them? Will they have no impact at all on your work or who you report to? Once you have the word from management, introduce yourself to the contractor in this context:

"Hi, I'm... we're going to be... I'm looking forward to..."

All those nice platitudes. This is good practice for two reasons. First, it gets you both off on a positive footing. Second, it can reduce miscommunication. It is not unheard of for management to tell a contractor one thing and permanent staff something else (shocking, I know).

I can't recommend strongly enough that, where appropriate, permanent staff have a lot of interaction with contractors. There's all those airy-fairy "team building" concepts of course (and I strongly believe the contractor should be treated as part of the team - for everyone's benefit) but there are also some excellent selfish reasons for doing this. I'm going to approach this from a positive perspective and assume that you, as a permanent employee, want to improve your position/career/pay rate. If you happen to be the bump on a log type who is happy to sit the same desk and do the same job for as long as a regular paycheck keeps coming, feel free to ignore this advice.

A contractor, by definition, is doing something that a permanent employee isn't and they are a much better source of information than any agency, article or guidebook when it comes to discovering what life as a contractor is really like. You may have no interest in becoming a contractor as such but a contractor is likely to have had more diversity in their roles and can provide some valuable insight into how to develop new skills, how to adapt to changing environments and what skills and/or experience are most valued in the job market. Whether you are looking for advancement in your current workplace or wondering what roles might be available elsewhere, someone with active experience in the job market (e.g. a contractor) can help you make a decision.

What it all comes down to is don't build walls between yourself and contractors. Honestly, some contractors are jerks, gloating about their exciting life and sky-high pay rates and they can make you feel resentful towards contractors in general. If you're going to dislike someone, do it because they're a jerk, not because they're a contractor. In my experience, the vast majority of contractors want to get on with their permanent co-workers so give them the benefit of the doubt.

Pretty much the only platitude I subscribe to is "if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." Bitching about contractors having too many advantages doesn't help your situation. Besides, if you were so sure they had things so good, surely you go out and do some contracting yourself? Permanent staff can gain a lot of benefits from working with contractors so don't be shy. Treat them as part of the team and you never know what you might gain.

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