There was an online Twitter kerfuffle the other week involving media company Condé Nast, a bunch of freelancers, and the New York State Department of Labor, all about whether a company can have a "full-time freelance" position. Meaning an employee with no benefits or much upside.

The results were better than might often be expected, as publishing as an industry has become known over the years for its use of non-staff people to work and be discarded. (It can get worse in high tech. About half of Google's workforce are contractors with worse benefits as the full-timers. Like many not having health insurance.)

David Tamarkin, site director for the company's Epicurious food site, posted that they were seeking a "food writer who is at the beginning of her/his career" for an "amazing job."

Full-time freelance is an offensive term to many because it means someone has all the obligations that go along with being an employee but few-to-none of the benefits. If you're out sick, tough. If you need medical insurance, tough. If you want a vacation, tough.

The comments came, like the food at the Abuse Me Café, hot and plentiful.

There's so much more, but why go on ... except for one. As Condé Nast is high profile--and has a reputation for spending lavishly (think Vogue and Vanity Fair as examples), it only seems a matter of time before some irritated freelancer dropped a dime with state regulators.

Yeah, really a bad look for a company and its management. Within a day or two, there was a new tweet:

Here's a statement from the company:

Condé Nast is proud of how we treat our employees. The position that was the subject of the tweet is in fact a full-time employee with benefits. While we do use some temporary workers, like many businesses, we ensure that such individuals are properly categorized as employees and eligible for benefits when appropriate.

I've heard from someone on the inside that this entire thing was a giant screw-up. It seems that there may have been a big misunderstanding on Tamarkin's part because, as more than one person pointed out, this wouldn't be legal and no HR person in her/his right mind would have signed off on the description.

And yet, the question goes deeper. How does a manager post about a hiring in a way that seems a cry for intervention from a regulator armed with a subpoena? Because no one at any point in the chain seemed to have ensured that everything was clear.

Anyone in a managerial position needs training about basic aspects of employee relationships (among other things). Part of this is understanding the difference between a contract or freelance worker and a full-time employee. When you cross the line, you not only catch the attention of labor regulators, but also the IRS and state revenue authorities who surely will want you to have been collecting and paying taxes. Plus, there's the chance of the odd massive lawsuit, like the one Microsoft settled in 2000.

Someone has to ensure that managers know what they can and cannot legally do or say. And if a situation like this happens, the problem is on the company. Why wasn't there a formal job description with the relationship all spelled out? Why didn't someone in the HR and legal departments vet such an announcement on Twitter? Why wouldn't a supervisor or manager know to get such clearance?

Failures like this are systemic. You don't point to the worker who posted the wrong thing and vent your wrath. You take yourself out back and find a way to self-inflict a quick kick in the rear, because, ultimately, you're the one who screwed up. Take the time to provide the training.

Published on: Mar 29, 2019
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