“Contractors Need Not Apply!”

Well, that’s not exactly how the employment listing read, but words to that effect nonetheless. I would be understating my reaction if I said I was a “little disconcerted” by any employment opportunity closed to any person for any reason other than that person’s qualifications to “do the job” based on an individual skills analysis, and not an arbitrary or prejudicial analysis based on the candidate’s tax code (1099 vs. W2). But to me, the most disturbing aspect of this occurrence was that this position was for an HR/staffing role, and so there could be no doubt as to the authorship of the position description. No last hope that some senior hiring manager with “beaucoup clout” had overridden a powerless HR/Staffing organization to add a prejudicial caveat to the job description. This was one of us doing it, rejecting candidates based on what we “perceived to be true,” not what we “discovered to be true.” But first, to the beginning of this tale: I was contacted by a search recruiter who wanted to know if I knew of anyone in my network who might be interested in an opportunity to work for, “an exciting industry leader looking for a person to contribute to their growth through the development of 21st century innovative recruiting policies and practices. Those candidates with contract experience will not be considered.” (Save your time searching ads for this exact phrasing — I have altered the description slightly to shield the reputation of the company in question.) I felt compelled to develop additional information before volunteering any of my friends of quality and high ethical industry standards. “So, they are not interested in recruiting professionals with extensive contracting experience?” “Contracting or consulting, same thing.” “Oh really, is it?” “Well, it is to them and they are the client!” “That’s what you say. So anyway, will they consider women applicants?” “Well, yeah, of course!” “Oh good, glad to hear it. How about non-Caucasians?” “What do you mean, of course they will!” “Candidates over 40 years old?” “Hey, there are no issues here; this is a well known employer with excellent AA/EEO marks. Do you think I would work with them if they were not?” “No, not intentionally. Now, do they have a particular preference for left- or right-handed recruiters? Red hair or brown hair? What is their height preference?” “Ah Ken, where are we going here?” Well, here is where I was going then, and am headed now! HR/Staffing is supposed to be in the fairness business. Not just because it is the right thing to do, but of equal importance, because it is the smart thing to do. Fairness is like death. You are, or you are not, there is no “gray area.” Yeas ago (decades, actually) I read “In Search of Excellence.” (If you haven’t, make it your next professional required reading!) The author, amongst other issues, discussed the differences in companies that try and “sell themselves” as industry leaders, as opposed to those who truly become industry leaders and then let the nature of business take its course (it is far more effective to be “pointed out by others” as a leader than to have to “point to yourself” all the time). The single greatest message I received from the book was that true excellence is a “top-down” commitment. It is not a device turned on and turned off with the frequency of a light switch. As an example of true commitment to quality the author warns that a loose fold down tray in an airplane seat is a strong indication of faulty engine maintenance. His rationale? The same department responsible for the training, management, and enforcement of the quality maintenance of the aircrafts engines, is also responsible for the quality maintenance of the fold down trays. Is it possible for a department to pick and choose when to be professional, when to be fair, when to be the defenders of their professional responsibility and when not? Can you proclaim a quality or standard as a constant value, only to periodically ignore it as it suits your purposes? Are you truly committed to excellence, or are you merely a 60-second commercial? (“Remember, when buying your next pacemaker here at XYZ-Alphabet Medical Supplies Inc, we are all about quality, sort of, usually, most of the time, a good 80% anyway. Well, at least 75% of the time! So buy our product with conditional confidence of our above average commitment!”) It is the obligation of the human resources department to encourage and enforce fair hiring practices. The motivation should not only include those instances in which inappropriate practices may incur legal sanctions and fines. Fair hiring is not just limited to those instances that have been declared newsworthy or commonly accepted as inappropriate. If you are seen as fair 99% of the time and unfair 1% of the time, you will be seen as unfair to anyone who knows about the 1%, and anyone they know and talk to, and anyone they know and talk to… Fair is a constant value, or it does not exist. Period. (After all, the Titanic only sank once and that’s all we ever remember about it!) Over the years, in my consulting efforts with clients and hiring managers, I have found that one of the tendencies of many hiring managers and some human resources/staffing groups is a vision weakness I call “Arbitrary Short Sightedness.” Corporate recruiters, agency recruiters, contractors and consultants, we have all heard the symptoms before:

  1. We do not hire people from that company! They are all losers!
  2. I would rather hire an Ivy League student with a 2.2 than someone with a 4.0 from anywhere else.
  3. If they served in the military, I am not interested
  4. If they did not serve in the military, I am not interested
  5. If they owned a G.I. Joe doll…
  6. No degree, no interview; I do not care how long they have been doing the job.
  7. I am concerned about anybody who would leave a company that is doing as well as where they currently work.
  8. Good candidates do not go to job fairs, read newspapers, attend open houses, submit their own resumes, use agencies, use THAT job board, do not have a computer, have a computer, listen to THAT radio station…

I usually read a book, or listen to a CD, before I decide if it was worth the effort and judge its quality, a simple rule I apply to all candidate resumes and phone calls. Yet often many company practices I know of create the unshakeable visual in my mind of the old Johnny Carson “Karnack the Magnificent” routine, where he would hold an envelope to his head and discern it’s contents without opening or reading the contents. This Practice made a funny late night comedy routine, but it is a sad way to run a staffing organization. In one instance in particular, a hiring manager returned the resume of a candidate that I felt was 90% of goal. I asked what the issue was with the candidate. His response was, “I am looking for a Product Manager, this guy’s current job is a Product Lifecycle Manager.” I asked if the manager had actually “read” the job description provided by the candidate, currently working at a competitor, working on a related product in a role we called a “Product Manager” and his current employer called a “Product Life Cycle Manager.” It sounds obvious, but this manager’s favorite tool to “whittle down the resume pile” was job title screening. Like many of the comments listed above, “Arbitrary Short Sightedness” may speed up sorting resumes, but it does nothing to assure quality will float to the top. But we should already know that, we are HR/staffing, this is one of the principles we are supposed to defend. You see, my objection goes beyond moral outrage; I am equally disturbed by a bad business practice. To establish any guideline in this labor-starved market that denies you the opportunity to consider any candidate with the prerequisite skills a position requires is to doom your mission. During this period of economic shakeout there are a few staffing guidelines to consider:

  1. Only the number of unemployed increased, marginally, not the number of quality candidates, and the top 10% remains a constant. You cannot afford to glean over even one good resume due to your own “Arbitrary Short Sightedness” or as others would call it, profiling.
  2. When this downcycle ends, your organization’s reputation developed during this period will be the reputation that “supports” or “hinders” your renewed efforts to meet headcount. Arbitrary is rarely a “good thing” to be labeled.
  3. Only retreating armies with no hope of ever advancing should burn bridges. A simple rule of common sense that all employers should remember: If you make yourself appear “contractor unfriendly,” expect trouble staffing up with needed contractors and consultant professionals in the future.
  4. If you are turning a “blind eye” to the unfairness in hiring of “fold down trays,” can you be truly certain that you are not allowing similar practices to exists in “engine maintenance” hiring. Would you bet a deposition with an attorney on it?

Now, I am aware that for every point, there is a counter point. An ancient philosopher once said that, “In all things certain, there still exists at least one more possibility.” Or my favorite contemporary version of the same thought, “The only certainty in life is that there is no certainty.” Let us consider the possible points of view, or views, of the above company requirement to preclude contractors from consideration and see if we can discern a professional rational:

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  1. During the last five years a lot of people/contractors came into staffing from outside the industry with little or no experience and yet charged top dollar to “read resumes” ($75-$150 dollars per hour).
  2. Many contractors never invested the time to “learn” the internal operations of a modern corporate HR/staffing organization and merely existed on the outside “shoving” resumes into the system.
  3. Many lacked knowledge of legal staffing issues and often even less about their client’s policy and procedures, consequently, routinely causing issues for HR departments and making “brinkmanship” management a way of life.
  4. Let us not overlook the “envy factor.” It is not easy to dedicate your professional career to develop a skill and have “some kid” with half your talent make 50% more than you doing the same job.
  5. Some contractors managed to avoid the issues of integrity and common honesty and would “sell” resumes they searched from Web sites, job boards, and resume sites of their current client. Not as a “quid quo pro” intended for their client’s advantage, but for their own profit.
  6. Contractors are meant to be used in time of accelerated need; they currently do not have accelerated need.

There is merit in all the above comments. I am certain that a review of 100 contractor resumes, and subsequent reference checks would reveal many candidates who reflect one or two of the above comments, and several whose backgrounds may contain all of the above notions. But I cannot help but point out that the same could be said of similar pile of resumes submitted by full time corporate HR/Staffing professionals (W2s) Including #6, it is not just contractors and consultants having difficulty in finding opportunities. In a related issue, I think the time has also come to use the correct titles for the correct skills. Contractors, consultants, and temporaries are not “six of one, half dozen of the other.” Although there can sometimes be shadings of similarities, there are also distinct and common differences. Just as an architect does not like being called a draftsperson, or a surgeon resents being considered a GP, those in the non-fulltime world like to be sorted appropriately as well:

  • Temporary. Usually the W2 employee of an agency that supplies short-term labor for specified assignments for specified time periods. Usually, but not exclusively, administrative, accounting, medical support and manual labor focused positions. Often brought in for a special project or to support planned labor shortages due to vacations, illness or a surge in person hours required due to temporary or artificial circumstances (i.e. inventory, audit, sale)
  • Contractor. May be a W2 employee of an agency, but a significant number are self-employed (1099/sole proprietors or incorporated). The skills they offer are usually considered professional. (i.e. engineers, higher-level business skills, human resources/staffing) Although they are temporary in nature, the timeline is usually longer and/or less certain of a defined “end date” than with temporaries. They usually bring a skill that the company has already in place, but not in sufficient strength to meet current commitments. A common method for a company to meet fluctuating person power needs that are not consistent in the business cycle. Either assigned to a team, or functioning as an individual contributor. Rarely has managerial authority or project direction. Only in recent years has the use of contractors been considered in lieu of filling existing fulltime positions as a solution to full-time staffing shortcomings. Often pricing potential candidates out of the full-time marketplace due to lucrative billable hours as a contractor.
  • Consultant. More often than not, an independent business person, and if associated with a consulting agency, the relationship is usually a combination of retainer/salary and shared revenue based on value of consulting services as opposed to a percentage of billable hours. Other compensation schemes also exist. Usually, not always, works with clients on issues involving process, procedures, training, implementation, or supporting a new business effort or product offering with specialized technical or strategic input. Can be in influential roles in deciding product or business direction. Often maintained as a “needed resource” or on a retainer, or guaranteed annual “billable” hours, or at the very least on “stand by” as a most favored resource. Usually has long experience in a particular area of a professional field. Often can be a specialist in a new and highly sought-after area of business or technical expertise. Not a junior or entry-level person.

You see, a lot of contractors referred to themselves as consultants, or consultants referred to by others as contractors, and both sometimes called “temps.” As no industry standard set of definitions is accepted by all members of the temporary/contract/consulting community and as companies seem to often apply definitions and titles randomly based on the knowledge, experience or temperament of their fulltime staffs, I am certain that all of you may find one or more key points that you would add or delete from the above profiles. But that also goes to prove a point and explains my efforts to attempt to define these roles. How can you preclude a person for being a contractor, as you feel contractors lack a specified family of skills, if the definition of contractor is not clearly defined or accepted by all persons in the industry? It is conceivable that the “contractor” resume of a person with 15 years experience is being “deleted” from the pile of resumes being sorted for you, while the fulltime resume of a person is being forwarded. The delightful irony is that the “contractor” may well have been the “consultant” who pioneered in the early introduction of the business skill or practice you seek to support. (But hey, contractor, consultant or temporary, it’s all the same, right?) We are the guardians of the standards of employment for our respective employers and clients. Our managers and clients should feel comfortable turning to us to assist them in supporting their staffing requirements and thereby support them in meeting their business goals. We are the manufacturing team that develops and maintains the resume stream, and we are the quality assurance team that insures that process complies with the industry standards within which we must and should exist. Your motivation to practice fair hiring practices should be based on both moral and business priorities. But here is a third reason; less eloquently stated than others: “What goes around comes around!” Companies are investing more money than ever in efforts to “brand” their environments as part of their recruiting strategy. Often we forget that we are more effectively “branded” from “without” than from “within.” What current and past employees have to say about you, as an employer, will always carry more weight than a clever banner on your website and a “sixty second spot” on the Super Bowl. What past and potential candidates and recruiters have to say about you in conversations amongst themselves will carry a lot more weight than handing out mouse pads with your recruiting/branding “slogan due jour” inscribed under your cute corporate mascot. But more to the point, your potential fairness as an employer is always “out there” every time you post a position, speak to a recruiter, or screen a candidate. Maybe I am not as current as I think I am, but I doubt a “Contractors need not apply” reputation is going to go a long way in supporting your “Employer of Choice” branding efforts. If you can be unfair with one “class of candidate,” do others have cause for concern as well? After all, if you claim to be an “earth friendly” company, you better not get caught on 60 Minutes dumping benzene into a pastoral country stream. If you claim to be an “employer of choice” who supports individual accomplishments, refrains from arbitrary policies, and considers people for their true potential, “one at a time,” perhaps your recruiting message should support, and not refute that claim. How can you engage in efforts to training and teach your hiring mangers to avoid “Arbitrary Short Sightedness” when your 20/20 is in question.? If someone is unqualified, based on their actual prior experience and intelligence, they should not be considered. But how do you determine that based on someone’s tax code? Besides, some of my best friends are contractors, they have feelings too. Have a great day recruiting! <*SPONSORMESSAGE*>

Ken Gaffey (kengaffey@comcast.net) is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services (www.cps.ca.gov) and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE, Monster.com, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.


1 Comment on ““Contractors Need Not Apply!”

  1. I am an avid fan of Ken Gaffey’s writings, and even though I may not agree with all of his perspectives and views, he is right on the mark with this article.

    Being a Human Resources and Staffing Consultant for over 10 years now, I have seen this syndrome time and time again. Not just in the areas of HR or Recruiting, but also in other areas such as engineering, sales, administration. I’ve even been told by one Exec VP “that he didn’t want any prostitutes at his company”, refering to candidates with past consulting and contracting experiences. It’s a mindset that leads to failure in a trickle down process. Maybe not in the short term. But over the course of time, the problems will start to arise.

    Thank you Ken for bringing this sometimes hidden subject into the forefront.

    Paul A. Cevolani
    Strategic Search & Staffing (Team S3)
    A Human Capital Management Services Company

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