Candidate to Contractor – Avoiding Epic Fails

My first contractor hiring experience was not great. I remember vividly interviewing the candidate over the phone. They seemed like a perfect fit. I scheduled time for a couple of other team members to interview the candidate, and that went well too. I remember thinking, this candidate appears to be from India, but there was barely an accent. While it occurred to me briefly, I didn’t realize how significant that thought was until two weeks later.

My first face-to-face meeting with the new contractor was difficult. It took him 3-4 times to repeat himself clearly enough for me to understand his first sentence. That last time I had to stretch my thinking to account for all possibilities of what he was saying, and I finally understood. Mental note, I don’t recall such a thick accent during the interview.

He worked with our teams for 3-4 days, and I remember talking to my team member that helped interview. I said, “I have a strange question to ask about the new contractor.” She said, “I think I know what you are going to ask.”. I responded, “do you think this is the same person we interviewed?”. She smiled and said, “I knew that’s what you were going to ask, and no I don’t think it is”.

The contractor came from a reputable supplier (agency, vendor, firm), and I knew they had practices to vet their candidates. I’d even heard stories from other managers of that sort of thing. Fast forward 5 years and I’ve probably successfully onboarded 20-30 contractors, and many have become full time employees.

I want to share with you, what I wish someone would have shared with me before I ever started bringing in external talent. It would have saved time, dollars, and precious energy that as a manager, you can’t afford to lose. I’m going to share my thoughts on the Pace of Onboarding, the Goal of Interviewing, the Process of Selecting, and the Signs of Keeping external talent.

The Pace of Onboarding

As a manager, whenever you are hiring, you need to move fast. If you are looking for an employee, it’s a bit of a longer process, because you want to make sure there is a healthy fit for both the organization and the employee. For a contractor though, your focus is on getting someone in quickly that can do the job with the least amount of coaching and effort at an affordable rate.

While I’m emphasizing the need to move fast, I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that contractors are people too. Good people, that deserve to be treated respectfully, and in my opinion, should be treated as much like an employee as possible. That said, there are differences in funding, and differences in the amount of effort a manager should put into contractors as opposed to full time team members.

Why move fast? Who is doing the work while you are interviewing or delaying on bringing in a contractor? Your current team or no-one at all. The former is not people-first, and the latter doesn’t align well to delivering value the business is paying you for. And putting it off because you are too busy is backwards thinking.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to make a decision. At the end of the day, making no decision is worse than making one in which you don’t have 100% confidence.

The Goal of Interviewing

Seems like a no-brainer. The goal of interviewing is to hire a good candidate. With contractors, that’s true, but there are some specific mechanics to it that I think are worth noting.

Is the person the right person?

First, the goal of your interview with a candidate is to make sure the person you are interviewing is the same person who’s resume you have in front of you. Use video-conferencing to see the person face-to-face and take a mental note of what they look like. In your interview notes, write down some personal characteristics like accents or distinguishing features. By the way, don’t discriminate based on these characteristics. That’s not the point. Once the person is on-site for their first day, if those characteristics don’t match the person you interviewed, it’s a simpler conversation.

I’ve had a couple of cases where the person I was interviewing wasn’t the person that showed up two weeks later – even with a video-conference interview. You really want to make sure during the interview you are talking to the right person.

Does the person match the resume?

Second, the goal of your interview is to make sure the resume is accurate. That’s more difficult to do, but typically the resume will have fairly specific items on it, that as a hiring manager, you should be able to pull out of the candidate and discern whether or not they really did that type of work.

I recall one interview where I was asking the candidate what work they did last. They summarized their resume. I quickly looked up the prior organization they had listed, and viewed the “about” page online. When I asked the candidate about the organization, they essentially summarized the page I was looking at. They couldn’t go any deeper.

That was a big red flag. When I continued to ask technical questions, they kept restating a line on their resume. So I thanked them for their time and ended the interview early.

Does the person have the right chemistry?

Lastly, look for chemistry and enthusiasm. For me it feels pretty natural to identify someone who I think has the chemistry to fit into our team. I usually notice in the first 5-10 minutes. For me, I trust my gut, but even then I sometimes get it wrong. If it doesn’t feel natural for you, the next section will help you narrow down a list of candidates.

By the way, if you have chemistry during the interview, and not when they show up, that could be a good sign for a bait and switch. If something feels, “off”, investigate it. You owe it to your teams, to your organization, and to the contractor themselves.

The Process of Selecting

Few things are more daunting to a hiring manager than seeing 20 resumes for an open position, and having all of them look relatively the same. Breathe… Breathe again..

Short-list the candidates

Step 1. Short list the 20 resumes down to 5. If you have a great HR/talent acquisition team they can do this for you. If you work a lot with them, they’ll do a great job because they know what you are looking for. I typically look for unique formatting/presentation, then I look for experience, and then I zero in on skills. There are few things more frustrating than picking up 10 resumes that look identical in format. Pick 5 or 6, not 15. You can’t afford a 30 minute interview with 15-20 candidates, nor can your interviewing team.

There is a lot to keep in mind when it comes to finding the right candidate. Perhaps in a future blog post I’ll share my thoughts, but I liked John Spence’s post on How to Hire Right. Take a few minutes to read his blog if you need help on what to look for in a candidate.

Schedule interviews

Step 2. Schedule the interviews and create a roster spreadsheet with a row for each candidate, their name, their previous/current role and organization. You’ll use this roster in the next step. I was always busy and didn’t have a lot of time, so my interviews were always 30 minutes. If I had someone doing the first interview with me, I’d make it an hour, but that was pretty rare.

I’ve created a ranking spreadsheet for you to use, or you can create your own using the header and specifications below. To use mine, just click the download button.

Name | Supplier/vendor | Rank | Pros | Cons | Additional Notes

Name – The candidate’s name
Supplier/Vendor – Which vendor or supplier do they come from? TEK Systems, Deloitte, Accenture…etc
Rank – You’ll relative rank each candidate after each interview.
Pros – Anything over and above the qualifications – if you shortlisted well, you’ve already checked off the boxes for meeting your skill requirements based on their resume. So this column is for the icing on the cake skills – examples of innovation, chemistry comments, etc…
Cons – thinks you think make this candidate less desirable. Maybe they lack creativity in their examples, or give very short, one-word answers. Or maybe they don’t have as much experience as their resume suggests.
Additional Notes – This kind of goes without saying, but put anything else noteworthy. Could be a prior organization, or something you want your onboarding team to know about.

Meet the candidates

Step 3. Conduct the interviews. During the interview, note any specific additional value or pros/cons of the candidate in your roster spreadsheet. Take note of chemistry, anything additional they’ve done, innovation, teamwork, examples, etc…

Rank the candidate

Step 4. Rank the candidates. After your first interview, mentally rank that candidate on a scale of 1-10, 10 being a supreme candidate with glorious skills that are invaluable to you and your team. 1 being you probably shouldn’t have wasted your time on an interview.

After each interview rank the candidate and adjust your list. It becomes very relative after the first interview. For example, your first interview, you may have ranked the candidate as a 7. Your second interviewee will seem better or worse than the first. Your third will sit relative to the first two, and so forth. After your 5th interview, you’ll have a clear top 1 or 2.

Doublecheck your work

If you have an interview team, or a couple of people that can also interview the candidates, go ahead and get interviews scheduled for your top few picks. As a manager, you may feel your team is too busy to spend a lot of time in interviews and choose to make the decision yourself. As a manager, that’s your call, but in hind-sight, I wish I would have included my team more in the contractor interviews. At they time I felt they were too busy, but we probably could have avoided some hardships/conflict early on when I was still learning the ropes.

Make a choice

If you have three candidates or more that are equally high in rating, pick one and go forward. They may decline, because if they are good, they won’t be available long. If that’s the case, pick the next one, but move quickly. If you have a single top 1, you may move forward with them, unless they are rated a 6 or less. Then you might want to go back through the other 15 resumes and pick 3-5 more.

Some leaders might say spend a lot of time on interviews, follow-up interviews, and spend too much time and effort making sure they select the right candidate no matter how long it takes. Absolutely do that when hiring full-time employees. With contractors, you probably don’t have the time. One summer several years ago I onboarded about 20 contractors in 6 months. The majority of them are great contractors or are now full-time with us.

The Signs of Keeping

Be okay with hard decisions

First, if there are significant signs that the candidate isn’t working out in the first 2 weeks, make the hard decision and go look for a better candidate. Sometimes allowing a poor candidate to stay on is demoralizing to the team and potentially an energy drain as team members work to compensate for the contractor. As an organization you are paying for existing competencies, not potential competencies that needs to be further cultivated.

Exemplary technical skills

Second, look for contractors that will lean into the unfamiliar with courage and competence. They should be bringing prior skillsets and potentially a broader knowledge-base than your FTE’s who have been acutely focused on work that is specific to your organization. Look for demonstration of that in your contractors.

Rad People skills

Third, look for people skills. Depending on how your organization treats contractors, this may not be important. I like to think I’m a people first leader with a demonstrated reputation, so I want contractors that are friendly, collaborative, clear communicators, transparent about their limitations, and open with their ideas. Those are good indicators of great team-members whether they are full time or contractors.

Other Helpful Tips

1. Be kind to people regardless of their role. Good contractors are hard workers. Many of the ones I work with come from India or other countries, and they’ve gone through great lengths to make opportunity for themselves. That’s commendable and inspiring.

2. Don’t build a dependency on contractors, or better said, don’t keep them for more than 2 years. I’ve had to say goodbye to some really good contractors in the past because of this. Ideally, they know the end of their engagement is coming, and they can land another gig before the one with your organization ends. Building dependencies on, and keeping contractors long-term, in my opinion, is not wise for a couple of reasons.

1. It doesn’t seem fair to full time team members who are loyal and committed.

2. a strong dependency on a contractor is a band-aid for a larger problem, which is a lack of organizational recognition and commitment to appropriately staff the work the team is being asked to do. That said, I think Gartner recommends 75/25 FTE/Contractor staffing ratios for Information Services (IS) teams. There is often a lot of seasonal ebb and flow of capital work throughout the year. Fluctuating your contractor footprint to meet demands is much easier than trying to fluctuate the footprint of full time staff.

3. Include your contractors in as much of the normal employee activities as possible. The unity that comes from togetherness and the consistency and transparency in communication goes a long way toward individual effectiveness on the team.

4. Be ready for hard days. Some of my hardest days at work have been the days I’ve had to let go of a contractor. That may seem foreign to some organizations who churn through them like spare parts, but to me they are people with families who, like the rest of us, need jobs to put food on the table.

My wife would tell you, she knows when I’ve had to do it. It’s a heavy burden, and in all sincerity I hope it continues to be that way. When you stop caring about your people, you stop leading. That first contractor hire lasted about a week. Having to walk someone out is not what most people think about when they aspire to be in a management position. It wasn’t on my mind when I moved into the role, but it’s part of the job.

I hope what I’ve shared here is helpful to you as you look to augment your team with temporary staffing. If you have experiences you think would be helpful to other managers, please share them in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “Candidate to Contractor – Avoiding Epic Fails

  • These are good tips but one line threw me off.
    When you mentioned thinking about the candidate who “appears” to be from India and doesn’t have an accent; I hope you know that not everyone who “appears” to be from India has thick accents.

  • Thanks so much for commenting. I should have clarified. When I said “appears” I was referring to the experience on their resume, not to what they looked like. In many of my early interviews I didn’t use video conferencing, which was the case in this instance.

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