As more former full-time employees find themselves a member of the new "gig culture," they're learning a lot about professional contract work, called contingency working. They're still professionals, still doing the work they've always done, but they're working in a new, even less secure model. It can work well for people, especially if they can get health insurance elsewhere.
Contracting is a good way to gain a lot of experience quickly, make connections, get some great names on your resume, and find work more quickly. However, it is very different from working for a company as an employee. Often, neither the company nor the contractor understands its intricacies.Here are six types of contracts you'll likely encounter as you venture into "gig culture" and how to handle them. All contracts fall into one of these categories:
The Micromanager: We are paying for you by the hour, so we want to get the most from our money. We're going to watch you every minute to ensure that we do
The Clueless: Wait, what's the difference between a contractor and a regular employee? Why do we have to pay them for every hour again?
The Cleaning Lady: You are not one of us. You're just like the lady who comes in and silently cleans the office, and nobody talks to her, but boy, we expect that bathroom to be cleaned
The Toy Box: We rushed to hire you and now you're here, and we aren't sure what to do with you
The Rush Job: We wrote a job description, found you, hired you, and now it turns out we don't need what you do at all
The Holy Grail: We have our act together. We know what we need you to do, as far as we're concerned, you're on our team.
Ideally, you want #6. Most likely, you're going to get 1-5. Let me tell you what happens with each.
The Micromanager: You're most likely going to find this behavior in a startup environment. These companies have limited funds. So when they need to hire a contractor, they want to make sure he or she is efficient. As a result, the company spends so much time managing you that they could have just as easily done the job themselves. There are daily scrum calls, endless emails asking for status, constant questioning about whether you took a half-hour lunch or left early to go to the doctor. They'll end your contract the first day you call in sick, or if you need to leave early, or if they find someone's cousin who will do the job for fifty cents less per hour.
Prognosis: Keep your resume polished--it's going to be a short, bumpy ride, but you'll get a lot done and gain experience--and maybe a LinkedIn recommendation!
The Clueless: These are managers who aren't familiar with the way contingent employees work. They think contractors are just like regular, salaried employees, and can be called upon to work as many hours as needed without any provision for overtime. Right now, most are non-exempt, hourly positions. Make sure your agency explains this to your new manager. Never assume your new manager understands this, and never bring it up with the manager. That's the agency's job. Make sure they get it all up front and get it in writing.
Prognosis: Can be good if your agency and the hiring manager are willing to put this information in writing. Too often it's verbal, and when there's an issue, the contractor will lose. Every time.
TIP: Remember, the agency's client is the company, not you. The company's the one the agency needs to please. You're the product they're selling. If they don't like the product for ANY reason, they can send it back. In contracting terms, that means you're out of the job.
The Cleaning Lady: You know that woman who comes into the office and cleans the bathrooms during office hours, refills the napkins in the kitchen, cleans up where the coffee spilled over a little bit? What's her name? You don't know? Never thought to ask or to talk to her? Well, that's what it's like to have a Cleaning Lady type contract. You're there to do a professional job, but don't be expected to be invited to team lunches. You're just there to do the job and go away when it's over. Don't take it personally.
Prognosis: Fine if you're into that sort of thing. Can be okay if you recognize the situation. Just do your job and be unobtrusive. Ask questions only when you need to. Operate under the radar, and look for work friends elsewhere. Besides, you aren't being micromanaged, so that's good.
The Toy Box: This type of contract will blow your mind no matter how often it happens. You get hired; you come in, and you sit there, waiting for anything to do. You're billing for the hours because that's the deal, but your managers are too busy to give you any work. In the meantime, you sit there, in the toy box, once a wanted, longed-for toy, now discarded and forgotten, hoping that one day they'll give you some attention.
Prognosis: So-so. This contract could eventually turn out all right if it's just a short-term lag, but if this is happening in a start-up company, you'll be out the door the minute anyone finds out. And it will be your fault. Even if it isn't. Spend your time researching the company, the competitors, anything you can so that when they do come around to you, you'll be well-informed. If they never do, they've paid you to become knowledgeable.
The Rush Job: It's happened to me more than once. I get an offer. I go in. When I get there, the job bears little to no resemblance to the position for which I interviewed. One of two things happened. Either the company's needs took a sharp turn somewhere between offer and start date, or, they didn't understand the actual requirement and hired someone they thought they needed instead.
Prognosis: Poor. If you don't happen also to be an expert in whatever random thing they actually need in addition to whatever expertise you were hired to do, you're going to lose that contract.
The Holy Grail: This is the company that has a need for a full-time team member, but doesn't have the headcount budget. They have an ongoing need for your skills, (and they know what they need) but they can't bring you on as a regular employee. They hired you because they liked you and liked your work, and want to make you feel welcome and productive. They treat you the same way they treat any other employee, except maybe you don't get the Christmas bonus or the company tchotchkes. You feel included, you're informed, you're busy, and you feel safe and happy, even in the face of quarterly renewals.
Prognosis: Great. I've only had this type of contract twice in ten years, though. When you get it, keep it as long as you can. Make friends, put up the picture of your dog or kid at your desk, put the granola bars in the drawer. But never forget it's still a contract. Don't let it break your heart when it ends.
Not enough has been written about contingent work, yet in the largest companies, up to 50 percent of the workforce are now contractors. Though this work style is not new, the sheer number of people who depend on it now demands that everyone knows and understands the experience and the rules. Gig culture is not necessarily a bad thing--as long as we're all on the same playing field.