Making Consultant Relationships Work

The unemployment rate for IT workers was 2% in July 2007, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Thats great news for the IT industry, and bad news for employers. Clearly, demand is outweighing supply when it comes to high-quality IT professionals, requiring employers to shell out higher wages and competitive benefits to snag top performers.

Yet many companies dont need these workers full time or cant afford to hire them. This leaves one other option: employing the experts as consultants instead.

With consultant relationships, some managers anticipate confusion and miscommunication and have the perception that consultants arent as high-quality as full-time staffers. But without the extra help, employers can find themselves critically shorthanded and lacking depth.

To resolve this catch-22, three things have to happen:

• Employers need to understand what defines quality.

• They need to learn where to turn for help in finding and managing contract talent.

• Consultants must demonstrate their value to the organization.

Heres how to achieve this trifecta and bring greater harmony and productivity to the workplace without extra work.

The quality disconnect

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has nine definitions for quality, ranging from inherent feature to vividness of hue. So imagine how difficult it is for businesses to pin down one definition for quality, much less apply it to staff.

That said, perhaps the most appropriate definition for quality in a workplace context is a degree of excellence. Workers are expected to perform at certain levels. They can miss the mark, hit it or exceed it. And where they fall in the spectrum determines their overall quality in employers eyes.

Criteria for quality range from simple attributes such as punctuality to more nuanced ones like interpersonal skills. Consistent work effort, effective teamwork and benchmarking also help calculate employees value.

So any employee who performs to a companys standards must be immediately perceived as quality talent, right? Not necessarily. A 2007 study by Yoh found that nearly three times as many IT hiring managers rate permanent staffers excellent compared with high-tech consultants.

The survey asked randomly selected hiring managers to grade the quality of their permanent and contract staffs on a five-letter scale, from A for excellent to F for failure.

Of the 513 hiring managers with consultants that were surveyed, only 15% of employers gave their consultants an excellent rating, the highest available. Meanwhile, of the 899 hiring mangers surveyed, more than double that percentage 33% of respondents rated their permanent staff excellent.

In addition, nearly 58% of respondents rated their consultants as above average, grading them with an A or B. This compares with 83% grading permanent workers as above average.

When taking a quick glance at the results, it may appear as though consultant IT workers are not worth the investment. However, several forces are at work that could be negatively affecting companies perceptions about consultants true worth.

For example, many employers dont commit full resources to hiring and managing consultant staffers or focus enough on integrating consultants with full-time employees. This lack of attention and cohesion can lead to less-than-ideal hires, inefficient teams, a divided workforce and mediocre output.

Companies also sometimes keep contract workers on the payroll through responsibility changes, even though the employees might not be qualified to take on different positions or tasks. As a result, the workers fail in the roles, feeding the belief that consultants are subpar.

Restoring the balance

To reverse this trend, employers need to handle on-site consultant relationships with the same care and thoroughness they apply to permanent staff. Here, partnering with a specialized third-party hiring firm to find and maintain high-quality consultants can help navigate co-employment issues.

Talent providers with a strong tech focus, for example, already have the resources and hiring practices in place to uncover the strongest talent. Many also offer a wide range of services, including assessment, requisition management, networking, recruitment, interviewing and program management.

The right talent providers will completely manage the consulting relationship and facilitate the review process. This includes regular, consistent performance evaluations for consultants that mirror the evaluations received by full-time staff.

In addition, talent providers hiring managers can be an engaged asset in the war for talent. As the point people between the hiring firm and client company, they are in constant communication about employee performance and responsibilities, and they can help ensure ongoing quality.

Consultants can also take steps on their end to demonstrate their value to their new employers. One approach is to be the consummate team player. This means completely engaging with other team members, and keeping all interactions visible and positive.

The social aspect is also important. Many companies have policies in place about which events or activities contract workers can attend. Consultants should join in where they can, whether at lunches, happy hours or holiday parties, to foster personal relationships.

Lastly, consultants work must pass muster and exhibit a high level of specialization and expertise. Hitting deadlines, accepting and incorporating feedback, and meeting new challenges all attest to a consultants overall quality.

At the end of the day, companies must realize that the talent of their consultant staffers is not a commodity and that they shouldnt treat it as expendable. Rather, organizations should define their business needs and clearly communicate them to staffing partners to raise the bar for their consultants.

Indeed, it can be challenging, time-consuming and costly to find talented employees with the appropriate qualifications in the technology market. But with the proper process and partner, organizations can find the right people and achieve optimal quality.

Jim Lanzalotto is vice president of strategy and marketing at Yoh Services LLC, a unit of Day & Zimmermann. For more information, visit


Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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