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The Truth About Temps

In this opinion column, the writer says that the uneven performance of contingent employees isn't always the fault of the worker.

August 9, 2005
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While working to break into freelance writing, I served as a temp off and on for five years. At nearly every job I worked, my employers expressed surprise when they found me to be competent, reliable and intelligent.

    The fact that I was also able to do what the staffing agency claimed I could was an even greater shock.

    After this scenario repeated many times, I began to wonder exactly who else was working at temp jobs (or how they were working) to provoke such a reaction when I showed up.

    The fact that employers are astonished that a temp could be competent is of particular concern given how commonplace temporary employment has become. Jennifer Bender of Community Trust Bank and Investment in Lexington, Kentucky, says that many firms are using temps in order to become as "lean" as possible.

    If employers' goal is save money, but they aren't getting quality work, in the long run they may be shooting themselves in the foot.

    The problem might lie with employers rather than the staffing agencies or even the temps themselves.

    Staffing agencies ultimately must rely on the company to provide accurate details of the position and the larger company atmosphere to ensure a good match. "Giving the employees a good look at how they’re going to fit into the organization has a major (impact) on how productive somebody is," says Steve Armstrong, vice president of operations for Kelly Services’ metro markets division.

    When agencies don’t get enough information about the job, he says, temps "can’t perform to their capacity because there have been inherent barriers to their success." If a temp goes to a job with the expectation of using a certain skill set and then is confronted with the expectation to do more or less, the mismatch can negatively affect even basic levels of productivity.

    Deborahann Smith, author of Temp: How to Survive and Thrive in the World of Temporary Employment, says that "employers should be very specific about their needs to ensure they get temporary employees with the desired qualifications."

    While a great many temps will perform at minimal or even subpar levels regardless of how they are supervised or managed, Smith says that a majority welcome regular feedback and interaction with their employers. "Attitude often starts at the top," she says. "Employers can do themselves a huge favor by viewing temps as valuable employees--even if short-term--and by making them feel their contributions are important."

    Of course, there are circumstances in which usually appropriate employer-employee interaction is not the norm for employer-temp scenarios. Armstrong points out that a common complaint from companies that use temps is that employees bring to the company concerns that should be directed to the agency.

    Pay rate increases are an example, he says, since "the customer has no idea what the pay rate is because that’s set by us." There may situations in which serious problems require communication between the employer and the staffing service rather than the temp. On the whole, however, a sense of professional interaction will go a long way toward getting the most out of a temporary employee.

    Ultimately, fixing the problem means employers must devote more effort to providing staffing services with accurate and detailed job descriptions and taking the time to provide feedback to temps--even for single-day or single-task assignments.

    Once a temp is on the job, basic supervision will prevent most problems with sluggish execution of tasks. A company, however, can get even more for its money if approaches the temp with an attitude of professional expectation and interaction. After all, as Smith points out, "temps are generally interesting people who want to make a decent living, contribute positively and be treated with respect like anyone else."

    When an employer considers a temp a professional peer, that temp can and will rise to the occasion, making the use of the temp well worth the time and cost to the company.

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