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When Things Go Wrong With Temps

August 1, 1996
When Kay was hired as a temporary data-entry clerk, she made it clear that she enjoyed data entry. That's what she wanted to do. The hiring manager was elated. Here was an employee who welcomed what, to some, seemed a very tedious task. The relationship appeared to be a perfect fit. For a few months it was. But Kay soon was handling more than just data-entry responsibilities. In fact, following an internal reorganization, she assumed responsibility for all aspects of one of the company's programs, including streamlining internal procedures and contact with contractors.

Clearly the job had changed. Kay's supervisor, alarmed at the extent of knowledge being developed by a worker who could leave at any minute, concerned about the relationship straying beyond acceptable boundaries, and anxious for Kay to receive well-deserved recognition for the value she had contributed to the company, pressed management to make the position permanent.

The old saying "be careful what you wish for" seemed particularly apt when management agreed to grant permanent status for the position. Under company rules, as a temporary employee, Kay didn't qualify to apply for the position.

When temporary employees and the companies they work with have different expectations, and don't clearly communicate those expectations, you get some serious friction. The result can be a very dissatisfying—and disenchanting—experience for all involved.

Temporary workers have assumed an important place in the ongoing personnel strategies of many companies, large and small, throughout the United States. Many of these relationships work quite well. Others don't. When they don't, the problem often boils down to three problem areas:

  • The supervisor didn't set clear expectations for the temporary employee—leading the employee to hope for or expect a permanent position.
  • The temporary worker's loyalty shifted from the agency to the contracting company—causing the worker to feel maligned when not treated as a regular employee.
  • The position's responsibilities increased over time while the company's recognition didn't—leaving the temporary worker feeling misused.

These are easy traps to fall into. And if they cause a long-term, well-trained temporary worker to leave, they can be expensive ones too. But they can be avoided. Three strategies will help you steer clear of such trouble—and get the best out of the relationship.

Strategy one: Set clear boundaries from the start.
Expectations can be developed in seemingly innocuous ways, as Ian Walsh recently learned. Walsh is an HR representative at Data General in Boston, where he's involved in a project to improve the company's management of the contingent workforce. He tells of a temporary HR assistant he recently hired. Walsh believes that he made a mistake at the outset by suggesting that the position "could" become permanent. Within the first few weeks, the relationship became problematic. The employee often asked questions like, "have you heard anything about if they're going to bring me on staff?"

"It really got in the way of getting the work done," Walsh says. And, because of the problems that Walsh traced back to the early stages of this relationship, the employee had to be terminated.

In this case, a sense of entitlement caused the expectations on both sides to be unmet. The HR assistant's feeling of being owed a position obviously stemmed from the casual mention that the job might work into a permanent position. Walsh admits that the relationship might not have soured without the allure of a permanent position looming in the background. "[If] the focus of the temporary employee is on wanting to be hired, it really hurts his or her job focus," he says.

Tom Stinson, president of Puget Sound, Washington-based General Employment, a division of Bradson Staffing of Ottawa, Canada, stresses that a proactive approach can help ward off potential misunderstandings: "When applicants come into our office for an interview, we try to be very specific with them about the relationship they have with us as the employer and how the relationship should work." The idea needs to be reinforced by the client company. "The messages the temporary worker receives should be the same message whether delivered by the agency or the company," says Stinson.

Most temporary-staffing agencies offer orientation booklets to both contract workers and client companies. These booklets outline the roles and responsibilities of all parties and help clarify issues and establish boundaries. Stinson points out that the best intentions can be ineffective when assumptions are made about whether the information has been effectively communicated. To avoid misunderstanding, "put it in writing," he suggests.

Finally, the HR department, in turn, plays a critical role in defining the relationship with the client company's workforce—and ensuring that supervising managers understand the policies and practices that need to be followed when dealing with temporary workers. Kay's situation might have been avoided if she (and her supervisor) had been fully aware of the company's hiring policies.

Strategy two: Remember the agency—not your company—should address temps' major needs.
Most employees—permanent or not—have two very basic demands of their employer. These can be traced to a familiar psychological model—Maslow's hierarchy of needs:

  1. The need for security:
    In the case of the temporary worker, this translates into the need to know whether a paycheck will be forthcoming and whether, if the current assignment ends, another is around the corner.
  2. The need for belonging:
    The assignment employee often is torn between two allegiances—an allegiance to the agency and an allegiance to the contracting company. Many temporaries feel alienated from both.

The second cause of temp friction comes from misplaced loyalties: When temporary workers start to look to a contracting company to satisfy their needs, they're going to feel dissatisfied. Your best bet? Ensure the temp agency you use meets both the need for security and the need for belonging of its workers.

On the first count, we all have dealt with temps' need for security—and the distractions it can cause. Many contract employees hope they'll enter as temps and remain as staffers. Says Bob Barranco, executive vice president of operations for Kelly Services in Troy, Michigan: "We know a little more than 50% of temporary employees would like to have permanent jobs. [But] we also know there's a large group of people who enjoy temporary work."

Luckily these days, temporary employees' need for security is being met on two fronts. First of all, as Barranco says, many people enjoy temping. But even if they don't, temps are more likely today to go from assignment to assignment with little or no employment dry spells. With more companies using temporary staffing, the issue of "will I have a job tomorrow?" may now be generating less concern on the part of temporary staffers. As Gayle Corders, senior vice president for New York City-based Olsten Staffing Services mid-America division, says, "We're beginning to see a confidence level and comfort level with our workforce that they can, indeed, be continuously employed if they so desire." Pat Pierson, vice president of Olsten's western division, adds, "Just knowing that we can keep them busy really relieves a lot of the pressure. If they know that, if this assignment ends, Olsten is going to have another position for them, that relieves a lot of pressure for them."

Dr. David S. Weiss, partner in Toronto-based Geller Shedletsky & Weiss (an organizational-psychology consulting firm) and the author of "Beyond the Walls of Conflict" (Irwin, 1996), suggests that while temporary status is growing in acceptance, you'll still have the second need to address. "While it may be in the interest of the person to stay temporary, it's probably not in the interest of the person to [feel like] an outsider of the working community."

The need to belong is universal, and the issue has a strong impact on the success of the relationship between temporary employee and contract company. Temporary workers who shift from one short-term position to another are most likely to retain a sense of commitment to their staffing agency. For long-term temporary workers, or those without close ties to their agency, however, allegiance can become clouded.

Once the contract worker is onsite, it's important that the company ensure the contact between the contract worker and the agency is maintained. Too often, particularly in long-term situations, those ties are severed and the employee's contact is almost exclusively with the contracting company. In such situations, it's not surprising that loyalties are shifted.

Michelle Fedie is a former long-term temp worker who now manages temporary employees as a data-management team leader for Northern States Power Co. in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. She knows firsthand how this shift can occur. "I walked into the agency one day, they placed me the next day and I never heard from them again unless I initiated the contact." She points to the agency's visibility (or lack of) as playing a key role in diverting her loyalty to the client company.

Pierson agrees. "They get to a company they're at every day and they start feeling like they're a part of Xerox, or AT&T or whatever. That's natural."

So how do you combat this natural tendency? First of all, partner with an agency that keeps close ties with its workers. "Sometimes it comes down to the real simple thing of showing appreciation," Corders says. "If they don't get that appreciation from our folks, it's always coming from the client supervisor. That's when the loyalties start to get a little confused, and they forget who their employer is, and who's really taking care of them." (That doesn't mean the contracting company must remain completely aloof, however. See "The 'Little Things' That Mean a Lot").

Second of all, ensure your temp's supervisor knows not to usurp the agency's connection with its workers. It's not uncommon, particularly in long-term relationships, for the hiring supervisor to begin to feel a sense of "ownership" of the employee. A clear understanding of the relationship, and its parameters, should be established at an early stage, and reinforced frequently. Avoid issues of co-employment altogether (see "Avoid Issues of Co-employment").

Corders suggests that by "looking to your staffing partner to help guide you and your supervisors through a potentially tricky kind of journey, you can ensure you're creating a work environment conducive to getting the job done—but not so much so that the employee forgets who the employer is. That's when you get into trouble, that's when issues arise and you develop a lose-lose situation for everyone."

Strategy three: Continually reassess the situation.
The three-way relationship between agency, client company and contract worker is a dynamic one that must be managed carefully—and continually—because in these days of reorganization, a temporary may be hired for a simple task and end up handling very complex, full-time responsibilities. And that—which is what happened in Kay's case—isn't fair. When characteristics of the job signal to the temporary employee, and those around him or her, that the position is really an ongoing, full-time company need, it's time for HR to reassess.

Dick Collier, manager of HR at Northern States Power Co., believes that it's this, more than anything, that can result in temps feeling they're being taken advantage of. "I don't think a sense of entitlement is driven by time," he says. "What happens is that the employee comes to view the position as a [permanent] need [because of the increase in responsibility]."

Just as it's crucial to set down clear expectations at the outset of the relationship, so is it crucial to continually assess those expectations.

Companies must communicate any changes in expectations as time goes by. In an era of downsizing, managing expectations is an ongoing activity, not something that can be done once, at the beginning of a relationship, and then ignored.

Fedie recalls, "When I was hired, I was told 'within four to six months you will definitely be hired.' Then the first reorganization happened and all of the rules changed." In addition to reorganization, the company also made a major shift from one computer system to another, which had a large impact on the projects Fedie was assigned. Her initial four- to six-month stint stretched out over two years.

"There needs to be a certain fairness in the length of time a position is staffed as temporary," Weiss says. "Manipulation of the system to keep someone temporary when, in fact, it's understood that they're [fulfilling permanent responsibilities] results in a natural response from the temporary employee that he or she should have the same entitlement as a staff person."

Collier admits that the cost savings of staffing with temporary employees can be attractive to many businesses, especially in an atmosphere of downsizing and cost cutting. But he believes strongly that companies have a commitment to treat all employees fairly—whether classified as company staff or part of the contingent workforce. It's important that company personnel are able to explain—for themselves, their managers and their own employees, as well as for the temporary employee—the basis behind the decision to make (and keep) the position a temporary one. "If you're hiring someone temporarily, without benefits, you should be able to explain to [that person] why this job is a temporary job," he says. "Anything you do as a company that you can't explain, and have good rational logic behind, isn't good for your organization."

What is good for your organization, all agree, is employing temporary workers in a manner that keeps all sides feeling positive. We've hit a new era of employment—and temps aren't going away. As Barranco says, "The human resources of the company have become so much more important to the successful competitive position of the company. I think HR professionals have a unique opportunity to help companies use those resources in the most effective way."

The relationship a company has with its contingent workforce is a crucial one. Losing good temporary workers due to unclear expectations, misplaced loyalties or unassessed changes reflects poorly on HR. Don't let that happen. The sooner you put those three strategies to use, the sooner you'll be adding real value to your company.

Personnel Journal, August 1996, Vol. 75, No. 8, pp. 44-51.