Misclassification of Independent Contractors: A High-Risk Game

an independent contractor shaking hands with hiring manager in the background of a singed contract and pen on table

Andrew Lindquist
By Andrew Lindquist, GoGlobal Partner

In a rapidly shifting global employment landscape, the allure of independent contractors (ICs) has become undeniable. Their niche skills, adaptability, and the perceived “ease” of their engagements offer businesses the tempting promise of agility without commitment. But this seductive proposition, as recent headlines have highlighted, is rife with pitfalls, especially when the boundaries blur between contractual freedom and statutory obligation.

The stakes are high and the fallout vast

Consider the staggering blow Nike recently faced, with potential tax fines soaring past the $530 million mark, stemming from allegations of misclassifying office workers. Close to home in California, another employer of record (EOR) is under scrutiny for allegedly failing to notify employees that they were, in fact, classified as independent contractors. 

For small businesses and startups, the urgency to scale and demonstrate rapid growth often takes center stage. This laser focus on the immediate horizon can inadvertently overshadow the equally critical area of compliance. Unlike giants like Nike, a fledgling enterprise’s perspective is frequently rooted in short-term gains, driven by the imperatives of fast growth, investor presentations, or the next funding round. However, the risks of misclassification can be profound.

Red flags raised during due diligence can delay or even derail funding rounds, impact valuations, and complicate potential exits, whether it’s through a sale or an IPO. Founders and early-stage investors must recognize that the ripples of misclassification aren’t just limited to immediate financial penalties or reputational damage. In the race to scale, ensuring proper worker classification isn’t merely a compliance checkbox – it’s a strategic imperative that can dictate the pace and trajectory of a company’s journey.

Regardless of the company size, the lesson is loud and clear: every IC engagement warrants a meticulously drafted contract, explicitly outlining the nature of the relationship. Anything less risks being interpreted as a default employee-employer association.

Governments, from local to federal levels, are intensely focused on ensuring workers are classified appropriately. Countries worldwide have mechanisms in place allowing misclassified workers to claim benefits they would have received as employees. The fallout from such claims isn’t just financial; the reputational damage can be long-lasting. 

There’s an undeniable appeal in the immediate benefits an IC engagement offers. There are no strings attached. Companies can swiftly acquire specialized skills for short-term projects, pay an invoice upon completion and part ways. No payroll withholdings to manage, no employee benefits to navigate and no mandatory training or performance reviews. 

Walking the thin line of speed and due diligence

When handled correctly, there’s no need for any of these procedural undertakings. But herein lies the crux: the line between ICs and traditional employees is not just blurred; it’s perilously thin. When businesses, driven by cost or convenience, intentionally or inadvertently straddle this line, the repercussions are severe. Any short-term savings swiftly evaporate, replaced by back taxes (often for both parties), steep penalties, accruing interests and a tarnished public image. As if financial and reputational damages aren’t daunting enough, there’s the looming specter of litigation.

A troubling trend in the market boasts of “onboarding contractors in under five minutes.” While technological advancements ought to be embraced, I urge businesses to approach such claims with a healthy dose of skepticism. It’s prudent to take a pause, even if it means an additional day or two, to ensure that legal guidelines specific to the jurisdiction are being diligently followed. A brief evaluative delay at the outset can prevent prolonged legal entanglements down the road.

As we navigate this era of flexible work arrangements, companies must resist the siren song of immediate benefits without due diligence. Let’s champion the incredible opportunities that independent contractors bring to the table. Let’s also ensure our engagements with them are anchored in clarity, legality and mutual respect.

Check out the details for GoGlobal IC Solutions or contact us to learn more about how our services can help you safeguard your talent strategy and onboard ICs quickly, compliantly and cost-effectively.