Who's responsible for a contractor's career development?

A good business leader develops employees' careers. Does this apply to contractors and consultants too?

Dear Bob ...

As a leader, I understand the importance of developing talent and helping my staff achieve their career goals and ambitions. Doing so benefits the company and the individual.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Bob offers a reminder that the contractor-client is a two-way street | Get sage advice on IT careers and management from Bob Lewis in InfoWorld's Advice Line newsletter. ]

But do I owe the same commitment to consultants who I bring in for project work? For example, should I spend as much time mentoring consultants as I do my full-time staff, or should I expect that they already have the skill sets I need? If I find that consultants are lacking some skills or not fitting in with the team, should I have a shorter leash with them?

- Contracting

Dear Contracting ...

You made an interesting transition in your question. You started by describing the business benefit of staff development, as well as the benefit to the individual. Then, when asking about consultants, you couched your question in terms of your obligations -- whether you "owe" consultants equivalent attention.

The way I'd advise looking at the subject is this: Employment constitutes something of a social contract. While the terms aren't all in one place and many are implied, in any given company, both managers and employees end up with similar expectations regarding their obligations to each other. Staff development fits into this framework -- which doesn't change the importance of the stipulations in the "contract" also making business sense for both parties.

Staff development makes business sense for all the obvious reasons, but because it is embedded in how both managers and employees define their relationship, a layer of ethical obligation is added to the thought process. My opinion is that we'd all be better off without that layer. "I'm working with you to improve your skills because it will make us more profitable, and isn't it nice that you benefit too?" seems less open to employee cynicism than, "I'm working with you to improve your skills because that's one of our core values."

Still, when it comes to employees, it's worth taking into account that the implied social contract does establish expectations for development. Managers can't ignore those expectations because doing so has an impact on staff morale and on their relationships with the employees who report to them -- all of which is preamble to the question of how you should handle personal development when dealing with consultants.

Once again, the two perspectives are the implied social contract and direct business benefit. The implied social contract with consultants does not include your spending any time, attention, or budget for their development. You have no expectations to manage, which greatly simplifies your situation. All that's involved is business benefit.

I'd say you should spend whatever time you think is appropriate to gain the maximum benefit. If you have a consultant who is (for example) doing a great job with respect to tasks and hard skills but whose soft skills need development, you'll benefit by providing some coaching. As you'll be the beneficiary, spend the time.

For that matter, I've known of situations in which clients have spent education budget dollars to bring consultants up to speed on some technical or methodological skills that were uncommon enough that it was unreasonable to expect outsiders to come in with the knowledge. It's unusual, but not unheard of.

The shorter-leash question has pretty much the same answer, although the starting point for employees and consultants is different. For the most part, you expect to work with employees to keep their skills current, which means you expect that on occasion they'll turn back into novices as you bring in new technologies and methodologies. You give them a long leash because that's the nature of learning new skills.

To qualify for an assignment, consultants need to come on board with all the skills you've defined as necessary. If it turns out a consultant lacks a claimed hard skill, that would appear to be a breach of contract.

When the question is soft skills, the consultant leash should be a bit shorter. The point of hiring employees instead of engaging consultants and contractors is the value of the enduring relationship. As that relationship has value, investing more "leash" in it generally makes sense.

The point of engaging consultants and contractors is, in addition to gaining access to scarce skills and abilities, the impermanence of the relationship. You engage them because you only need what they do for a limited period of time. Under those circumstances, investing in the relationship makes some sense early in the contract, but it decreases as time goes on and the contract's expiration date draws closer.

None of this is to say you should treat consultants and contractors poorly or as second-class citizens. Ignoring all business considerations entirely, treating people as persons is always a good idea, although you wouldn't think so, considering how some companies treat outside contractors.

Beyond any ethical considerations, as they are people, they'll do better work for you if you treat them well.

- Bob

This story, "Who's responsible for a contractor's career development?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis's Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com.

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