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Handling the hired guns: Top tips for managing temps. By Rob Lewis


There are more agency workers than ever in UK workplaces: a curse of the modern office, or a blessing for under-staffed departments? Either way, you’re going to have to decide what to about it, and with the relevant employment law constantly changing, this isn’t always easy. Rob Lewis ponders the responsibilities of HR when it comes to managing temps, and finds out it’s more than a case of filing the timesheets.

Once upon a time, a temp was someone brought in to cover maternity leave or long-term sickness, but those days are gone. Now they’re a significant and growing part of the UK workforce. So where does this leave HR, when more and more of the staff pick up their paycheque from a different company?

The exact number of temps in the UK population is hard to determine. “It’s a difficult one,” says Tom Hadley, head of external communications at the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC). “We know there’s over a million people registered to work on any given day. The reason it’s hard to evaluate is because often workers register with more than one agency.”

The Transport & General Workers’ Union (TGWU) put the figure even higher at 1.4million. Even taking into account the difference between the highest and lowest estimates, temps constitute between 3 percent and 5 percent of the workforce: as Hadley says, it’s “a massive proportion”.

This booming popularity has proved sharply divisive. Organisations like the REC and Confederation of British Industry argue that the flexibility temping gives the UK labour market is a big part of our economic dynamism. Others, particularly the trade unions, believe that flexibility comes at the cost of temps’ basic security, and have been arguing for more protective legislation. It’s an ongoing political battleground, with a European directive being argued over in Brussels, and a series of private members’ bills appearing in parliament.

“Obviously relying on agency workers permanently, or for a large proportion of your people resource, is expensive but it also restricts the retention of knowledge and capability in your staff as a whole, as they’re obviously only there for a short spell.”

Nicola Monson, research associate, CIPD

“We’re not against protecting the rights of temporary workers, but a lot of the things the unions propose would impact on the viability of temporary work itself in this country,” says Hadley. “[The trade unions] portray temps as being systematically underpaid and exploited, which is absolutely wide of the mark.”

Hadley cites a study recently published by the REC research unit that said 84 percent of temps were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their work. Further research by the School of Management at King’s College London found that “contrary to expectation, workers on temporary contracts reported better wellbeing, better general health, more positive attitudes towards work and better
work behaviour than their permanent counterparts”.

While all that may be true, it would be dangerous for employers’ to regard agency workers as a ‘magic bullet’ solution to their recruitment problems. Those relying on outside help will always need to exercise caution, advises Nicola Monson, research associate at the CIPD.

The basics

“Obviously relying on agency workers permanently, or for a large proportion of your people resource, is expensive,” she says. “But it also restricts the retention of knowledge and capability in your staff as a whole, as they’re obviously only there for a short spell. It does require time and investment for people to be able to get to grips with the job and start making a contribution.”

Of course, it’s worth remembering that the flexibility you enjoy as an employer is shared by them too: they can leave in an instant. Inevitably, the differing working conditions of temporary employers do make for different working attitudes, and not always for the best.

“Often there is less commitment,” Monson explains. “They could be in it for work/life balance reasons, rather than career advancement, so they might not be prepared to go the extra mile.”

So what sort of steps should HR be taking to maximise value?

  • Induction – You don’t have to give the same induction as a permanent worker, but “they still need to be welcomed and valued if they’re do to their job properly” says Monson.
  • Pair-off – Team your temps up with full-time staff to minimise the “us vs. them” mentality.
  • Rotate – If possible, give your temps the opportunity to develop skills and experience in more than one role or department, keeping them challenged and motivated.
  • Interview – And not just at the start (all agencies should send you candidates for interviews as a matter of course). Ask them for their input throughout their stay, and ask for an exit interview when they leave. They’re an excellent source of objective information, and they’ll like being asked.
  • Reward – You can’t interfere with the pay structure set by the agency, but non-monetary incentives will still be welcomed, even the tired old ‘temp of the month’.
  • Get the right agency – Exponentially more important than getting the right temp. Ideally employers should be looking for a long-term relationship with an agency that knows their needs and whose culture dovetails with yours. “Look for membership of trade bodies, codes of practice, and relevant qualifications,” Hadley says.

In fact, getting the right agency isn’t just about maximising value. If you’re not careful you can get yourself into a whole heap of trouble, as recent developments in employment law have suggested.

Legal aspects: employee vs. worker

The rights of agency workers have been protected for some time now, at least in the field of working hours, holiday leave, health and safety and discrimination. Employers neglecting to abide by such laws can expect rulings against them directly. However, all the relevant legislation affecting these issues refers to them as ‘workers’, rather than employees. It’s a point of some significance, as only employees can sue for unfair dismissal.

Unfair dismissal cases involving agency workers have been the biggest problem his clients have faced, says Chris Davies, employment lawyer at Halliwells. But the start of this year has seen three landmark cases, in close succession, which suggest the ruling has been reversed.

“The tide has turned in favour of the employer now,” he says. “From an employment law perspective it’s a time of great change.”

As is usually the case in legal matters, the devil is in the details. Businesses using agency workers need to check the employment contract between the agency and its temps. Of course, this isn’t something that agencies have generally offered up for inspection.

“Make sure the contractual information is comprehensive, and expressly stipulates the arrangement is for the worker to provide services as per an agency agreement,” Davies recommends. A specific clause stating that the temp is in no way your employee is what HR professionals should be looking for.

And is this situation likely to change soon? Davies doesn’t think so: member states have been arguing about the EU’s Agency Workers Directive for over five years now, and if a private members’ bill does pre-empt it, it’s far more likely to adhere to current UK working practices. With more temporary workers in the UK than any other European country, the flexibility they provide is clearly enshrined in the economy.

3 Responses

  1. Temp to perm is a fix
    I think the bigger issue here is the temp to perm factor.
    A company advertises for a perm job but cant really make its mind up so instead of asking for a probationary period asks for temp to perm.

    Or the agency realise there is a quick buck to be made and ‘cant find anyone interested in perm jobs’ but how about advertising it as temp to perm?

    Either way the poor old jobseeker is faced with pressure to take a temp job (albeit for a few months) when they were actually looking for a permanent job. They are pressured by the agency (because they want double to commission – for the temp and the perm).

    Often they say “Why are you interested in a perm job wiht X?” and you say “But you arent advertising a perm job – there is no guarantee there will be a perm job at the end of it – has the budget been agreed? Is this definite?” If it was definite why didnt they just recruit for a perm in the first place?

    Isnt it all a big stitch up from either an employer who darent make a decision to employ a perm or the agency who wants a more commission via temp to perm? Why should the employee lose their rights because the other parties are unsure or dont have the budgets agreed?

  2. Workers
    Further to Tim’s comment:

    The tribunal ruled that she was an employee because her daily work was organised by the company, (not the agency), working hours were agreed by the company, holidays were agreed by the comapny and the only thing the agency did was pay her.

    This is the same view Revenue and Customs take on employed v self employed.

  3. is a temp an employee?
    I read this article with interest as a few years ago my wife successfully sued the company she worked at for unfair dismissal and she was a temp.

    She had previously worked there as a permanent employee but took voluntary redundancy in the mid 90’s. A few years later, she was asked to go back to her old job by her former manager but as a temp. She did that job at the end of each month for about 6 months but then found a full time temping job, with the same company,in a different department.

    She did this for 3 years after which time she was invited to apply for the job on a permanent basis which she did. The HR dept then came back to her to say that as she was a former employee that took voluntary redundancy she shouldn’t be working there at all and not only could she not have a permanent job, she could no longer temp there.

    When taking the matter to a tribunal, the Company’s defence, (and the point that the case rested on), was that they treated my wife fairly as she was not actually an employee of the company and not paid by them so what they did was lawful.

    The tribunal ruled that she was an employee because her daily work was organised by the company, (not the agency), working hours were agreed by the company, holidays were agreed by the comapny and the only thing the agency did was pay her. She won the case on this basis

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