Each holiday season, employers turn to hiring temporary staff in preparation for the hectic Thanksgiving and Christmas months.
The sluggish economy has chipped away at seasonal positions this year. Only 19% of 100 major retailers responding to a survey by Aon Consulting said they will hire more workers this season, while 44% plan to hire fewer and 37% intend to hire the same number. (To read the entire survey, click here
With employers hiring less seasonal staff, organizations will have to make the most of what they have—although they will have a large applicant pool to choose from. Competition for available jobs is intense this season, according to the Aon survey, with a majority (54%) of hiring managers expecting more applications than last year.
SIOP Member John Arnold, president of Polaris Assessment Systems, a Michigan consulting company that designs assessment systems for companies’ permanent and temporary employment needs, says employers should look for a few key traits when adding seasonal employees in order to make the most out of each hire.
“What you look for in seasonal employees is not very different from what you would look for in a permanent employee,” Arnold said. “But there are a few characteristics that an employer will want to emphasize even more strongly than usual.”
Arnold named four characteristics that are especially important in a seasonal employee:
· The ability to learn quickly
· A personality that makes them easy to supervise
· A customer-oriented personality
Arnold said the first two characteristics, reliability and the ability to learn quickly are probably the most important.
“You want to make sure you have reliable employees who are going to show up,” he said. “These people are coming and going very quickly in the organization and it is a hectic time of year, so you need people who are going to be reliable and who you know will be there to work.”
Arnold said it is also important to hire self-starters who are able to learn quickly because there is little time for temporary employees to learn skills on the job.
“You want people who are going to come on board and learn as quickly as possible because you just don’t have the luxury of time that you would with permanent employees,” he said.
SIOP Member Sandra L. Fisher, an associate professor of organizational studies at Clarkson University School of Business, said it is important to make sure seasonal employees know what they are doing on the job.
“The first thing I would say is to make sure the temps are adequately trained,” she said. “Even though it may seem not worth the investment because the employees won't be there long, having employees around who can't effectively do their work, especially during busy times, will create challenges for the standard employees and may cause the business to lose customers. Given the record high unemployment rates, it should be easier to find temporary employees with higher skill levels (this year).”
Arnold, who is also a faculty member in the Department of Psychology at Wayne State University, explained that different types of organizations may differ somewhat in what they look for in their seasonal employees. Many seasonal jobs are in the retail sector, he explained, which will need a customer-oriented attitude, but other employers will need to stress traits that work best for them.
“Around the holiday season, you certainly see a lot of retail employees being hired, but you also see a lot of people hiring seasonal help in distribution centers to get all of the retail products out to consumers,” Arnold explained. “For those jobs, customer orientation is less important. Instead, the emphasis is on reliability and work ethic.”
SIOP Member Robert Sinclair said it is important for managers to not only consider the industry when hiring temporary employees but also the individuals and adjust their training and management styles accordingly.
Temporary employees vary widely in their reasons for taking a temporary job, said Sinclair, an associate professor in the Psychology Department at Clemson University. For example, some people are looking to pick up extra money to cover the higher costs of the holiday season.
“At one end of the spectrum, growing up in Maine, I had multiple friends who would work at L.L. Bean for a couple of weeks during the Christmas holiday—in part for the employee discount!” he said. “At the other end of the spectrum, many temporary employees seek full-time work.”
Fisher, whose research focuses on the impact of outsourcing labor in businesses, said problems could arise if seasonal employees seek permanent work.
“The contingent worker literature clearly suggests that temporary employees can be threatening to the standard employees if there is a perception that the contingent workers might take the standard employees' jobs,” Fisher said. “This would cause conflict in the workplace and an unwillingness to help the temps.”
However, the chance to become a permanent employee could create a better work environment, Fisher added.
“On the other hand, research also suggests that contingent workers, or temps, are more likely to develop some commitment to the organization if they feel there is potential to convert the temporary assignment into a full-time, more permanent job,” she said. “If a manager plans to bring some of the temps on full time after the holiday season, they should tell the temps there is a possibility of being hired full time. However, to minimize conflict, the standard employees should be assured that they will not be replaced by the temps.”
Sinclair’s research, which focuses on part-time employees, deals with the differences between employees’ motivations for working.
“There are high school and college students who may be seeking the income to pay educational or social costs; moonlighters, who have another job elsewhere; supplementers, who have a spouse as the primary breadwinner; and primaries, who depend on their current job for most of their income,” Sinclair explained. “Employers need to appreciate that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to managing might not work for people in these different groups.”
Employers may have more success at managing seasonal workers if the employee and employer’s expectations for the job match. Arnold said it is important for organizations to be clear about job expectations from the beginning of the selection process.
“What you want to do from the beginning is set very clear expectations for what a job is,” he explained. “It isn’t in anyone’s interest for an employee to find out about something on the job only after reporting to work. When new employees understand the employer’s expectations from the beginning, they tend to be more accepting of the job, which helps in terms of reducing turnover and improving morale.”
Sinclair said that although some people assume that temporary employees have poorer job attitudes, research shows that this is often not the case. For example, temporary employees can form what are known as psychological contracts—the mutual beliefs, perceptions, and informal obligations between an employer and an employee—when they feel both parties are getting benefiting from the employment situation. In this instance, the employees are willing to go “above and beyond the call.” Overall, he said, all employees, seasonal or not, can appreciate the same things from employers.
“All employees respond well to fair, decent, supportive treatment,” he said. “Temporary employees are certainly no exception.”