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Labels Are Good for Food, Not Your Job

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Labels are a way to describe or classify something we might not otherwise know how to connect or correlate. They give people an easy way to compartmentalize various aspects of their lives. But easy isn't always best, and like anything, there are good and bad aspects to labeling. Think about a safety or nutrition label -- generally good things. But labels can also dehumanize and be used in ways that make a topic, item, place, even a person easy to dismiss (there's that word again, easy). Think politics, and high school.

Perception is reality. Often if one is typecast with a label, it is hard to overcome that classification. This can be particularly true in a professional environment. People can get too busy to see or learn something new about a colleague. How you enter a company usually stays with you. You started as the receptionist and 10 years later worked your way to a vice president ... but you started as "the receptionist."

Here's an example of what I'm talking about. What has long been a right of professional passage for college students has hit the media circuit again recently as a job search approach for the "formerly professional" looking to return to work. "Returnships" are a way people can re-enter the workforce after an extended absence, giving them an opportunity to recondition their skill sets, make new contacts, and revive their resume. It also allows companies to try out new talent before committing to a permanent position.

Returnships were recently the conversation in an NBC Today Show interview with Huffington
Post's Lisa Belkin and Carol Fishman Cohen in which they discussed the (mostly) pros and cons of the catch phrase-worthy trend. I think it's great. Anytime we can up the dialogue about different ways to get people to work is a win. But I see a notable downside to this particular approach.

While a "40-year-old intern" might play in the media as a memorable catchphrase, is it really benefitting the professionals out there trying to get a foot back in the workforce? Advising people to ask for an internship in an interview has the potential to pigeonhole them unnecessarily down the line. I say unnecessarily because being a "contractor" or "interim" professional is essentially the same arrangement.

Approaching a work opportunity as a contractor versus an intern labels professionals differently -- more high-level and experienced -- in terms of the hiring manager and potential peers. Contractors are professionals. Interns are learning to be one. So why start out at a new company with a label that automatically places you among the more junior rank and file?

I recognize there are the more evolved organizations and people within those organizations to which a position of "intern" would not sway their opinion one way or another, especially as that person proved themselves professionally. But can that be said for everyone? Not likely. If a company needs to fill an immediate stop-gap position, are they going to put a "return" in that position or a contractor? Does the hiring manager want to report the former or the latter into a supervisor?

The long-term success and sustainability of a business rests largely on its human element. Bravo to the organizations looking for creative ways to attract new talent -- especially from the largely untapped and highly-skilled formerly professional pool. Start those professionals off on solid footing with a title that gives them confidence and a better label that follows them the duration of their tenure.

For the professionals out there looking to get back in the workforce, don't let marketing speak take the wind out of your professional sails. Ask for a contract or temporary position if an interview is leading that way. Think twice before taking a job with a loaded title and less pay. Instead, consider volunteering your skills for a non-profit as an alternative. By volunteering with a goal in mind and choosing opportunities that align with career goals, you show prospective employers you are serious about your professional development even while you didn't have a job -- or one that labeled you correctly.

Allison O'Kelly is founder/CEO of Mom Corps, a national professional staffing firm with a focus on flexible work. Launched in 2005, Mom Corps has helped champion the view that flexibility is a benefit to not only professionals but to the companies that employ them. Follow us at @MomCorps and @AllisonOKelly.