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Are Your Temps Doing Their Best

November 1, 1995
Related Topics: Contingent Staffing, Motivating Employees, Featured Article
When Bill Hardgrove, 45, started his tenure as a temporary worker about a year ago, his first assignment was in the accounting office of a large moving company. His job? To decide whether to extend credit to clients, to follow up on overdue accounts and to reconcile account balances. Problem was, he was given all this responsibility but had no authority to act on his own recommendations. "I had to ask the Controller for everything," he says, "including gaining computer access to do account entry and adjustment."

With more than 23 years of experience in the financial-services industry, including managing a credit union and owning a collections firm, Hardgrove considered this a slap in the face. "I felt like I was shrinking professionally," he says. When the moving company offered him a regular job after four months, he declined.

His next two temporary assignments were no better. His supervisors never asked about his skills and expertise, even though he gave each of them a resume on his first day. They didn't give him challenging or creative work. They never asked him to lunch. Feeling ignored and unimportant, Hardgrove did just what he was told-and not a bit more. "I wasn't about to leave an extra nickel on the table when I left," he says.

Hardgrove's experience is pretty typical of today's temporary worker. Most temps, forced into the temporary employment market by necessity, are eager to perform well-because what they really want is a full-time job offer or, at the very least, a good reference. More than three-fourths of temps on the market today became temporary employees with the hope of finding full-time jobs, according to the National Association of Temporary and Staffing Services (NATSS) located in Alexandria, Virginia. Many also seek temporary work to widen their breadth of skills.

Yet, according to Helen Axel, author of a 1995 Conference Board report on contingent employment, managers tend to overlook the need to motivate temporary employees because their view of temps is stuck in the old school-that is, when temps were used primarily as replacements for sick and vacationing clerical workers. "In those days, temps were warm bodies you bought for a short amount of time," she says. "You hoped you got someone good."

But that attitude no longer will work. In the last 10 years, the temporary work force has increased from 400,000 people to more than 2 million workers, or 1.5% of the work force. Furthermore, they're staying on the job longer. A recent study by the NATSS shows that 56% of all temporary assignments last more than 11 weeks, and 11% last longer than a year. Not only that, companies are using temps in more highly skilled positions and in more strategic ways, such as helping with work overload and completing special projects. All of these changes point to a greater need for developing motivational techniques.

If you've invested money to train temporary workers for special assignments, for example, you want them to be motivated to remain on the job long enough for you to recoup the cost of that training. But even if you haven't invested valuable training dollars, the mere fact that temps are on the job longer means that any lack of motivation-and thus, productivity-is more easily noticed.

Unfortunately, too many employers behave in ways that sap the motivation right out of temps. They still treat temps like second-class citizens, even though they're using more of them, for longer periods of time and in increasingly responsible positions.

If you want to get the best work from your temporary employees, you must get over the notion that temps are somehow different or difficult to motivate. In reality, it's not that hard to get good work out of them. Give temps adequate training and orientation, provide meaningful work, pay them what they're worth, push them to use their talents and stand back.

Recruit and welcome temps as you would any other worker.
The first rule of thumb in motivating workers is to hire those who appear to have a good degree of self-motivation. How? Instead of accepting whomever the staffing agency sends you-if you use an agency-ask the company to send its best candidates for an onsite interview so you can provide some input on the selection.

At Harris Bank in Chicago, temporary employees are used in the credit-services operation for data entry. The bank would like these employees to stay for about a year-until technology that's now being developed has been completed and installed, making those positions obsolete. Unfortunately, extensive turnover has been a problem. That is, it was a problem until hiring managers got involved in the recruitment process.

"Our leasing company now arranges interviews with three candidates for each position," says Kassie Matos, assistant vice president. "It sends them to us and we have a chance to assess how prepared they are and how eager they are to work for the bank on a long-term temporary basis." Because of stringent laws regarding employer status, the bank can't directly extend a job offer to an agency employee. But, after interviewing candidates, it does provide input that's usually followed by the agency.

Taking time to interview the temps not only helps the bank spot motivated employees, it also indicates to the temps that the bank is concerned about finding the right people for the job. Once candidates realize the bank cares about hiring individuals who will give a little extra, they subconsciously try harder to become that individual. And temps who buy in to the job through this process tend to remain on assignments longer. In fact, Matos says being able to spot motivated employees in the interview process has helped the bank avoid hiring the kind of temp who only stays for a couple of days or a week. "It's very time consuming and costly to terminate an employee lease and start over again," she explains.

But even self-motivated people can quickly sour to the situation if they're not integrated into the workplace. Thomas Kohn, president of Reflex Services, a staffing agency based in Pittsburgh, believes the biggest mistake companies make when it comes to managing temporary workers is failing to provide an adequate orientation. "It's very demotivating not to know even basic things, such as where the cafeteria and restrooms are, when breaks are scheduled and what the general policies and procedures are," he says.

Matos agrees and says all temporary employees brought in to Harris Bank are given such an orientation. They're handed an employee manual, the policies are reviewed, they're walked through the department, and then another employee takes them to lunch to answer any questions they might have. It gives new employees a great sense of security to meet a co-worker right away and have a contact to go to with questions, she says.

Finally, during the orientation, take time to learn about temps' specific goals and talk about how the company might help meet them. If the possibility of regular employment exists, for example, tell them. If not, tell them you'd be willing to provide a good reference assuming that they adequately perform the duties asked of them. Individuals who see longer-term personal gain are among the most motivated temporaries on the market.

Money motivates.
It's a fact. Temps who feel adequately compensated will spend less mental energy thinking about their compensation and more on the tasks at hand. For this reason, the first step in offering financial motivators to temporaries is to make sure they're compensated at competitive market rates. While there's no blanket pay rate for all temps in all industries, the Bureau of Labor Statistics recently published a useful report: the average hourly earnings of temporary workers in 50 occupational categories, broken down by 2,100 metropolitan areas. The report, titled "Occupational Compensation Survey-Temporary Help Services," is available at no cost by calling 202/606-6220.

Once you've determined the appropriate market rate for your group of temps, consider offering merit pay or bonuses to outstanding temporary workers or to those who have been on the job a certain amount of time. (If you don't have an internal means of hiring temporary employees, you can negotiate for wage incentives through your staffing agency.) The idea is to encourage temps to stick around as long as possible because experienced employees are more productive.

At Olin Corporation in Detroit, a maker of swimming-pool chemicals, seasonal temps are hired each year to help with the pre-summer upswings in production and shipping. The company encourages temps to come back year after year by paying returning temps higher wages than new temps.

The financial incentives at Harris Bank are a little different. After two months, agency temps who show great potential are invited to take the skills-assessment test offered by HR to all potential new hires. If they pass, they have the opportunity to become a bank employee and join the other 118 members of the Reserve Force, the bank's internal temporary pool. Upon receiving membership into the Reserve Force, temps get an automatic wage increase of 80 cents an hour, and they have the opportunity to apply for any open position at the bank after being a Reserve Force member for six months.

Share information, increase challenges, elicit input.
To keep temps motivated, you've got to keep them in the loop. Communicating with temporaries about their jobs and how their jobs fit into the overall goals of the department, division or company not only helps them understand their roles, it helps them feel valued, necessary and part of the team.

At Ford Motor Co. in Detroit, temporary engineering employees worked for two and a half years to complete an automotive oil study at the company's certification testing laboratory. The project-analyzing exhaust gases produced by differing blends of oil-met its goals and was completed on schedule. "There was absolutely no difference in the level of productivity between the temporary workers and the regular employees of the testing lab," says Joe O'Hagan, principal engineer.

He believes it was because the company gave temporary workers the same memos, newsletters and bulletins about the company and the testing lab as it gave regular employees, even though their project had very little to do with the rest of the lab. "We treated them as if they were an integral part of our team," he says. "And to be part of our team, they had to know what everybody else knows. We worked to make sure they understood the big picture."

It's also important to keep temps interested. For starters, give them challenging work commensurate with their skill levels. Let them show you what they can do. As Max Messmer, chairman and CEO of Robert Half International, a staffing firm based in Menlo Park, California, says: "The single most demotivating thing for temporaries is when companies don't realize and/or take advantage of their full range of experience." Barbara A. Poindexter, employee representative and personnel officer for Pittsburgh-based PNC Bank, N.A., couldn't agree more.

"If the temporary is a professional worker being required to do professional work, give him or her work that is compatible with and takes advantage of his or her skills and experience," she says. "It's very demotivating to work beneath your capabilities."

At PNC Bank, Poindexter recently brought in four temporary HR recruiters to hire 325 employees within four months for a new loan center. She interviewed all the candidates recommended by the staffing agency, looking for the professionals who were uniquely qualified to take on this challenge. Once they were hired, she explained the parameters of the job and told the recruiters exactly what they'd be required to achieve. Then, she let them have at it.

"Regardless of whether they're temporaries, professionals want to be challenged," she says, adding that the first step in matching a skilled temporary worker with a job is knowing exactly what you're hiring for. "Don't build the job around the person's skills. Match the person to the job. A mismatch can be very demotivating."

Another key point in motivating temps is asking for their input. Along with being recognized for their skills and experience, temporaries also want to be recognized for their opinions and good ideas. But many companies overlook temps as a valuable source of information, Messmer says. They're missing an excellent opportunity. "Temps are objective, they don't have an ax to grind and most of them don't understand the politics of an organization," he says. "Most of them are dying to give you their opinion, and they feel flattered when you ask."

Nancy Camarata, director of WRAP accounts at Lord, Abbett & Company, an investment-management firm in New York City, uses accounting temps to reconcile monthly balance statements. Her receptiveness to their comments pays off. For example, it was the temps who recently pinpointed a bug in the software program that incorrectly recorded information on recent transactions. "I rely heavily on temps to spot patterns in the accounts and for input on technology being developed that will eventually reconcile accounts automatically," she says. "It makes temps feel valued to contribute their opinions."

In the end, perhaps the best advice about how to manage temps comes from the workers themselves who've experienced all the insecurity, isolation and ostracism that the word "temporary" can carry with it. Bill Hardgrove, who survived three demotivating temporary assignments before landing a very rewarding long-term assignment with Pepsi-Cola Co. in Denver, suggests all companies treat their temps like Pepsi treats him.

"I was hired to monitor accounts receivable and manage collections on accounts worth several million dollars of business," he says. "From the beginning, the company knew what I was capable of. Managers read my resume, asked good questions, and they've given me increasing levels of responsibility. I have my own phone number and voicemail. I can take advantage of flexible scheduling if I have to go to an interview or doctor's appointment. I track my own time. And I go to meetings just like any other employee. In fact, the second day I was here I was invited to attend a companywide celebration that lasted all afternoon."

What does Hardgrove have to say to other companies struggling to motivate their cadre of temporary workers? "A temp isn't a chimpanzee," he says. "Many arrive with specialized skills they're eager to use." The trick is in learning what those skills are and how to create an environment in which temps want to put them to work for you.

Personnel Journal, November 1995, Vol. 74, No. 11, pp. 32-38.

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