Feds accused of 'poaching' contractor employees

Government contractors are fertile ground for agencies looking to hire experienced IT professionals

Government contractors have become fertile ground for federal agencies looking to hire experienced information technology professionals. To some, such recruiting is simply a way of finding badly needed talent; to others, it’s government poaching and needs to be controlled.

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“It’s becoming a common practice because nobody can sue the government,” said an industry expert who asked not to be identified. “It’s happening especially in IT.”

“In the 20 years that I have been around this business, both in government and industry, I have never heard so much concern about it as I hear today,” said Stan Soloway, president and chief executive of the Professional Services Council.

“It’s not just the recruiting and poaching of employees,” Soloway said. “It’s the targeting of individual employees in what would appear to be violations of the Merit System’s hiring and other procedures.”  He said he is bothered by “the often heavy-handed tactics that are being used.”

Soloway said he knows of at least one major military command, which he declined to name, that “has a list of 750 contractor employees that they are one-by-one recruiting specifically.”

That is raising hackles with the people being recruited, “some of whom do not want to go into government,” he said. He cited one case of a federal agency hiring a contract employee by starting him at the high GS-15 pay grade.

"It raises some ethical questions for us where you have a direct business relationship, where you’re actually soliciting employees of your supplier," Soloway said. "In the commercial world it is very common to have no-solicitation clauses" in contracts.

“Companies are feeling like they’ve become a recruiting training ground for the government’s personnel system,” he said.

Moreover, the affected companies receive no compensation for the loss of their employees, he added.

Anne Reed, president and CEO of government contractor Acquisition Solutions Inc., said there have always been efforts to recruit contractor workers, but “what we’ve seen more recently is more aggressiveness” toward the practice.

“On a one-by-one basis that’s sort of the ordinary course of business,” she said. “But when it starts to get on a larger scale, then it becomes more of a challenge to manage. We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t been affected by that larger scale.”

But Reed said several of her employees have been offered government jobs at much higher positions of authority and pay grades than they have at Acquisition Solutions, and that if they remained her employees, she would not be able to bill the government for their work at those high rates.

Reed and Soloway agree that the Obama administration’s determination to bring more contracting work into the federal agencies is one factor stoking the aggressive recruiting campaign.

Reed said one of her government clients admitted getting pressure to bring work in-house even though the project was to last only 18 months. “This is exactly the kind of work that you do want to hire contractors for,” she said, adding that the agency project manager was resisting the call to insource the work.

“This is someone who is exercising good judgment in my estimation, who’s being thoughtful about it,” she said. “And that’s what I would hope, is that more often than not, people will be thoughtful about it.”

But then Reed added, “From the stories I am hearing, it’s pretty much the Wild West.”

In some cases agencies are giving prospective hires false information to suggest that their contract might be canceled, leaving them without a job, she said. “There’s an intimidation kind of thing that kicks in that I find a little distasteful. Some of our employees have been annoyed by it, quite frankly.”

The industry expert said the current recession has altered young technology professionals’ traditional view of the government as inefficient and not a good place to work. Federal agencies can offer better pay, excellent benefits including health insurance and, above all, job security, he said.

“At the same time it’s a revolving door,” he added, “because they can hire those people, but if the people don’t see the changes that were promised they [can] go back to government contracting. And they will be accepted back.”

Soloway said the situation has not reached epidemic proportions, but the contracting industry is concerned. “The numbers are not huge yet, but the early signs are very discouraging,” he said, because “It’s happening faster and more aggressively than we’ve ever seen.”

PSC and other interested organizations, including Congress, are considering ways to rein in the hiring excesses, Soloway said. “We’ve proposed there ought to be a mutual nonsolicitation agreement between industry and the government.”

Reed said other solutions might include a government agreement to pay a finder’s fee for each worker recruited from a contractor, as is commonly done in some other industries.

She said it is in government's and industry’s interest to resolve the problem as transparently as possible. “Where I see the greatest problems are when everything seems to be done in a sub rosa kind of way.”

About the Author

David Hubler is the former print managing editor for GCN and senior editor for Washington Technology. He is freelance writer living in Annandale, Va.


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