- Tech & Gadgets
- BRW. lounge
Published 12 September 2012 13:15, Updated 12 September 2012 13:16
The rise of the “free agent” is posing an intractable problem: how to handle a two-tier workplace.
At one level, there are permanent employees, welcomed and often cosseted with training, flexible work hours and benefits.
Then, there are the contingent workers – the contractors and the casuals – who may be paid less and have little access to the things that make an organisation a great place to work.
They don’t get paid if they are sick, or if they take holidays. They are hired in a hurry, rarely get offered “onboarding” to settle them into the company, they are not allowed business cards and are banned from anything that might give them the impression they are part of the permanent workforce.
Some of this is bad management. No one has carefully thought through a process of careful recruiting and welcoming. But a lot of the problem is due to laws that deem a worker to be permanent if they are treated as if they belong.
“If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck . . . It is a duck,” said one delegate at the Contingent: The New Perm conference in Sydney.
Another delegate talked of a case where a temp worker was asked to the work Christmas party and was successfully able to argue that this led him to believe he was a permanent employee.
“To mitigate the risk, you have to almost disengage them,” says another.
“You don’t give them business cards, you don’t give them training and you don’t invite them to staff functions.”
However, others at the conference (many of them in human resources) spoke of contract workers and casuals who had willingly been in place for five years or more.
“When we have tried to convert them to permanents, they haven’t wanted it,” said one woman. Sometimes,working as a contractor has tax advantages that make it financially preferable.
Organiser of the conference, Trevor Vas, says highly skilled people are usually not particularly concerned about their contingent status. Their loyalty is really to their profession, rather than their employer, and they see the job as an opportunity to build skills and their personal brand.
He says contract management organisations are one way to defray the risk of being deemed permanent. These CMOs, which provide the workers to organisations, may also take care of training and onboarding.
Recruitment industry coach Ross Clennett warns that dividing the workforce can cause problems.
“What you’ve got to be careful of is that the contingent workforce is not treated like second-class citizens,” he says.
Vas says the creation of an A team and B team is inevitable, but not desirable: “I think you will disengage them if you treat them differently, that is inevitable. You have to ask: Are there ways you can treat them with the same level of respect?”
When organisations spend so much time and money working on improving employee engagement, there is a question about whether they are sabotaging their own good work by ignoring the engagement of their temporary workers.
Most temporary workers would be prevented from taking part in engagement surveys, lest they come to believe they are part of the permanent staff.
“But their views do matter, especially if they are [in contact with] the organisation’s customers”, says Vas.
It is also fairly pointless to worry about creating a high-performance workplace if you have a proportion of disgruntled and unenthusiastic people working side-by-side with permanent staff.
While Vas says engagement for highly skilled contingent workers is all about the project, Clennett argues that for low-skilled people, it depends on the person they work for.
This means that, to get the best out of lower skilled temps, it is essential to have great managers.
Vas says the appropriate treatment of temporary workers is a problem that is yet to be solved. “And it is exacerbated by the laws that separate them.”