Image: A white hands fills out a paper entitled “employment application” with a pen. Image via pixabay, pixabay license.

Gig workers, such as Uber drivers or Instacart deliverers, face challenges when attempting to transition to full-time work. But the category of “nonstandard” work is complex and includes individuals like freelancers, self-employed workers who operate on a project-to-project basis. Freelancers often have a high level of skills, autonomy, and pay, but they also experience low job security and meager benefits. In a recent paper, Quan Mai set out to examine how employers assess a history of freelancing in job candidates. 

The study had two parts. First, a field experiment tested the effect of a history of freelancing on the likelihood of getting called for an interview. The experiment sent out approximately 12,000 applications to 6,000 real marketing, sales, or administrative assistant job postings in 50 urban areas. Each job posting received a set of applicants who were matched on qualifications but varied in terms of whether the last job held was full-time employment, freelance employment, or unemployment. Mai also interviewed 42 hiring managers to probe for why they might be less likely to hire freelancers than other applicants. 

Mai found that employers were 30% less likely to call back applicants currently freelancing than those who were currently employed full-time. In interviews, hiring managers indicated two reasons why they may be less likely to hire individuals with a history of freelancing. The first reason is that job skills can be harder to verify. A history of freelancing might indicate high or low skills, and that uncertainty makes it less likely for hiring managers to advance freelancers to the next round of a job search. The second, and likely more consequential, reason is that freelancing sends a negative signal about devotion, stability, and loyalty. Hiring managers, simply put, are concerned that freelancers won’t be committed to the job long term. 

Employers are looking for signals about competence and commitment when they are evaluating resumes. A history of freelancing sends uncertain signals of competence and strong negative signals of commitment, leading to a disadvantage in the search for full-time work. This study adds to our understanding of nonstandard work, especially with respect to what temporarily taking on nonstandard work might mean for long-term employment prospects.