Q: A colleague at my private-sector employer recently let a contractor go for poor work. I was not surprised, nor were most other members of my team.
One of my direct reports, who became good friends with the contractor while she worked here, is telling others in our department that the contractor was never given an opportunity to receive feedback and improve. She is saying the contractor felt disposable and not treated fairly because of her contractor status.
I have two concerns about this. One is her accusation that the contractor was let go without notice, which I believe is an HR issue and no one else's business. Also, I want to let her know that by gossiping about the manager's decision, she's only making herself look bad. What action, if any, should I take?
A: From a business's perspective, one major benefit of hiring independent contractors over employees is that they're essentially a plug-and-pay resource. Unlike employees (especially union employees), contractors who are not a good fit can be easier to dismiss at a moment's notice. Even without union protection, employees who have performance issues are more likely to receive counseling and an opportunity to improve first, because the employer wants to preserve its investment of time and money in bringing them on board.
It's not clear whether your direct report understands that distinction. Also, while it sounds from your letter as if she's just grousing on behalf of her contractor friend, if she's actually making broader complaints about policies or working conditions that affect multiple employees, that might be considered protected activity under the National Labor Relations Act. If that's a possibility, you want to avoid looking as if you're trying to muzzle her.
And maybe you should examine your own motives: Do you, as a manager, feel the need to stick up for your peer? Or are you concerned about how having a direct report taking potshots at other managers reflects on you?
You may be able to help defuse this situation with a short talk -- not to issue a gag order, but to let her vent and clarify what her beef is. "I know you're friends with Contractor, and you're upset she was let go. I don't know the details of the situation, so I'm not able to discuss Manager's decision. But I wanted to make sure you understand that contractors just don't get the same professional development support and feedback as full employees." If the direct report is acting out of naive loyalty, the truth may open her eyes. But if she continues to press for reasons why contractors don't receive the same benefits -- or if she seems to be arguing that her friend and other contractors should actually be classified as employees -- then you should encourage her to continue the conversation with the HR professionals who are trained to handle those topics.
• Thanks to Declan Leonard of business law firm Berenzweig Leonard.
PRO TIP: Misclassification of employees as independent contractors is a common labor and tax enforcement issue. Workers and employers can learn more from Labor Department Fact Sheet 13 or IRS Publication 1779.