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Retaining part-time help

Part-time and temporary workers could rise to 30% of America's workforce. Here's how management can help such hires produce.

Motivating full-time employees is hard enough. But part-time and temporary workers pose a special challenge. How can a fire be lit under people who are often saddled with low-level work, blocked from climbing the corporate ladder, and treated like "outsiders" by the full-time staff? Answering that question has become critical. Slimmer profit margins are forcing more businesses to maintain smaller payrolls, while hiring part-time employees for busy hours and temporary workers for peak seasons. Such "contingency workers" now account for 20% of America's workforce, according to the Chicago, IL, consulting firm of Towers Perrin. That number is expected to rise to 30% within a decade. "Part-time and temporary employees have become vital tools for keeping labor costs under control," says Carl Johnson, president of Princeton Employee Relations, Princeton, NJ. Unmotivated contingency workers are dangerous. Feeling demoralized, they perform in a listless manner and neglect customers. That threatens profits. Worse, disenchanted part-time workers are apt to quit for greener pastures. That saddles the business with the costly task of training replacements. The good news is that by avoiding the common errors that turn off part-time and temporary workers, management can motivate these employees. According to leading management consultants, giving these people the cold shoulder is a common mistake. Parking new contingency workers at a desk with a vague promise to "get back to them later" won't cut it. Instead, give them a warm welcome and introduce them to the staff. "It's easy for temporary workers to feel they are not wanted or needed or loved, so they don't fit in," says John Fanning, president of Uniforce Staffing, New Hyde Park, NY. "Treat them as human beings, not as commodities." Bonus tip: Avoid confusion and hurt feelings by clearly identifying the chain of command to the new employee. Who is authorized to give orders? Orientation is important Turning new part-time workers loose without orientation can easily make them feel lost. They need to be oriented to the workplace. "On arrival, take fifteen minutes to describe job duties exactly," says Bruce Steinberg, spokesman for the National Assn. of Temporary and Staffing Services, Alexandria, VA. "And cover basics: What are the policies in the firm? Can these workers use the phone for personal calls? What are the policies on overtime? Who should they call if the copy machine breaks down? Who is their relief if they have a position that needs to be covered at all times?" Even with a good orientation, the new worker will soon feel confused. Full-time staffers may be so busy that the new worker hesitates to approach them for advice. Result: the worker operates at less than peak. To solve that situation, assign a mentor to each contingency worker. Don't exert too much control Managers tend to exert too much control over contingency workers. A company can increase motivation substantially by allowing the employee to solve problems in creative ways. "When contingency workers believe they are making a difference in an organization, they feel better about being there," says Ian Jacobsen, president of Jacobsen Consulting Group, Sunnyvale, CA. Bonus tip: Encourage everyone to think creatively by recognizing new ideas publicly. Loading down the contingency employees with "grunt" tasks is another negative. "Lots of times, part-timers are assigned the worst tasks that no one else wants to do," says Ellen Wagner, president of Creative Solutions, Farmingdale, NJ. "That's demoralizing." Remember that everyone feels good about improving skills. What challenging tasks can be assigned to the new employees? To find out, ask them. What skills would they like to acquire? Perhaps they want to learn about a line of products, improve their sales approaches to customers or learn advertising techniques. Encouraging new skills that help match the employee's personal goals with that of the business can foster the mutual loyalty that is a hallmark of good relationships with permanent employees, but which is often lacking with contingency workers. There's nothing wrong with assigning low-level tasks, just make sure to also add some specialized skills to spark loyalty and enthusiasm. It can help to rotate the mundane tasks among all employees to keep boredom at a minimum. Worker assignments It's tempting to assign a part-time worker to a wide range of projects. For example, the same person may be assigned to ticket items in one department, check inventory in another department and stuff envelopes for a mailing another day. Just make sure that person occasionally gets to take a task all the way through to completion. "The employee will feel better about being able to bring a project to completion," says Kenneth Misa, president of HR Consulting Group, Glendale, CA. "The work will be far more meaningful." This doesn't mean that the worker cannot work on a series of unrelated projects. Just make sure that a project is also assigned that can be completed so that the worker has a feeling of achievement. Bonus tip: Invite the contingency worker to suggest a project that will help the business, then allow that employee to complete the project. And once a task is completed, don't overlook a job well done. Managers who recognize the achievements of permanent employees will often neglect to congratulate contingent employees. That's devastating. "The recognition of a job well done is even more important for contingent workers," says Dr. Peter A. Spevak, director of the Center for Applied Motivation, Rockville, MD. "Their own identity with the company is not as strong, and they need to be reinforced." Employees are more likely to feel they are "just part-timers" if they are not given adequate praise for achievement. That leads to a lack of motivation. Consider giving a plaque to the contingent "Worker of the Month" who has exhibited enterprise beyond the call of duty. Mount a series of photos of the winners on the employee bulletin board. Full-time conflicts Without proper communication, permanent employees may feel threatened by the contingent workers. Fearing for their own jobs, employees may give part-time workers the cold shoulder, or fail to cooperate with them. It's important to explain to current workers why outsiders are being brought in. "Bring your permanent employees together prior to the arrival of the temporary and part-time people," suggests Burt Slatas, director of marketing at Olsten Staffing Services, Melville, NY. "Explain your business needs the help of the extra staff to get the job done right. Communicate that the new people do not represent a threat to the jobs of the staff members." Bonus tip: Reward successful referrals with cash bonuses. Additional 'no-nos' Omitting contingent workers from business activities is another common mistake. "Suppose you have a Saturday workshop on time management," says Misa. "Why not invite the contingent employees?" This will make them feel part of the team. As will inviting them to employee lunches, parties and any other activities in which the staff participates. And don't overlook financial incentives. Traditionally, bonuses have been reserved for permanent staffers. Times are changing. Now, employers are setting up programs for contingent people to stimulate enthusiasm for performance. "Develop some kind of a bonus plan based upon gross sales or upon some performance-based criterion," says Schackne. "Consider providing benefits for contingent people," says Roy E. Chitwood, president of Max Sacks Intl., a consultancy in Seattle, WA. "Typically they are excluded from normal benefit packages. After a certain amount of time, offer insurance coverage or vacation time for number of hours of work put in." It wouldn't hurt to pay contingent workers a little more per hour than competing businesses. This will help prevent raiding by competitors of workers after they've been trained at the company's expense. Also avoid insisting on rigid hours. A substantial portion of part-time and temporary employees are doing that form of work because they do not want to be tied down to nine-to-five hours. Some have children to care for and can have a problem finding sitters. Capitalize on that. Allowing flexible hours will encourage employees to stay with the business. And to help avoid potential panic situations, encourage employees to communicate anticipated scheduling conflicts. Finally, it's important to gather feedback after the job. "At the conclusion of the assignment, give the contingent worker some opportunity to express feelings," says Misa. "Have a brainstorming session with all employees. What was done well? Poorly? The answers can provide guideposts for improving your future treatment of contingent workers. And increase the return you get for your investment in their labor." Adds Spevak: "Get feedback, even if you do it formally with a checklist. This lets the workers know that you are pleased to have them as part of your team. It's a reinforcement." "We have had a perception in the past that part-time and temporary workers were disposable," says Marc Silbert, spokesperson of Robert Half Intl., Menlo Park, CA. "They came, performed a menial function and left with little interaction. Now, contingent workers serve virtually all aspects of the workplace. They should be recognized as the professionals they are." (Phillip M. Perry is an award-winning journalist specializing in business management and law. He has written more than 3ꯠ articles, in a variety of publications. He may be reached at 212/274-8694, or via E-mail:

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