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The Temp Industry's Dark Side

Hiring temps has a sketchy history, but contingent labor relations today can turn the page.

January 29, 2013

For a fascinating and disturbing history of the temporary staffing industry, check out this essay by sociologist Erin Hatton in The New York Times. Hatton's tale shows that staffing companies such as Kelly Services and Manpower have roots in a sexist culture and a callous approach to workers. But I'm not sure the chapter being written today has to be as dark.
Hatton notes that the beginnings of the temp industry in the late 1940s and 1950s were deeply tied to chauvinist notions that women should not compete with male breadwinners. A Kelly executive told The New York Times in 1958, "The typical Kelly Girl… doesn't want full-time work, but she's bored with strictly keeping house. Or maybe she just wants to take a job until she pays for a davenport or a new fur coat."
Later, temp industry leaders cast their services as a way to strip down labor costs. And in doing so, they implied traditional employees were burdens to be avoided. Hatton quotes from this 1971 Kelly ad about the "Never-Never Girl" who "Never takes a vacation or holiday. Never asks for a raise. Never costs you a dime for slack time. (When the workload drops, you drop her.) Never has a cold, slipped disc or loose tooth. (Not on your time anyway!)"
This take on employees ran counter to management and HR thinking of the post-World War II period that viewed employees as assets and focused on satisfying them as a route to stronger business results. But it also fit in with and fueled an emerging hard-hearted approach to workers.
Later in the 1970s and in the next three decades, corporations increasingly came to view employees as disposable as they sought to maximize shareholder value above all else.
To me, it's a stain on the staffing industry that it helped shepherd in an era of icy employee relations.
But those relations have begun to thaw in recent years. (In some companies they never grew cold in the first place.) The "employment deal" is starting to balance '50s-style worker appreciation with '80s-style performance demands. CEOs are coming to recognize the business benefits of being a good employer, of training, of caring-yet-exacting talent management.
Temp labor providers and their clients can contribute to this more enlightened approach. Hatton suggests that the staffing industry remains a villain by serving up jobs that are insecure and often low-paying. No doubt that is true for many of today's temp jobs. And it also is true that 75 percent of temps would rather have permanent work, according to research firm Staffing Industry Analysts.
But the staffing industry as whole has moved past heartless rhetoric and recognizes the need for a more humane approach to temp workers. Staffing Industry Analysts, for example, now surveys temps on what would make them happier and more productive—finding that better communication about job prospects and skills training top the list. And it has championed the term "Contingent Worker Relationship Management" to argue that staffing firms should treat workers as people rather than products.
If we think beyond temps to include independent contractors and other contingent labor, there are still more promising signs. Partly because many highly skilled workers are choosing to work in non-traditional arrangements, companies are starting to see the need to give their contingents an "arms-length embrace" to attract the best talent and inspire their best work.
So yes, as Hatton reveals, the temp industry has a sketchy history. But contingent labor relations today can turn the page.
Ed Frauenheim is senior editor at Workforce. Comment below or email efrauenheim@workforce.com.