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By Liz Warren-Pederson

As the economy begins its slow recovery, firms continue to turn to part-time and temporary workers to bridge the productivity gap. But management’s treatment of these workers could have unintended consequences for a firm’s full-time employees, according to research by associate professor of management and organizations Joseph Broschak.

“Using temporary workers can be a good thing for organizations,” said Broschak. “But managers must think carefully about how they manage nonstandard work arrangements, such as temporary and contract work. Treating the population of nonstandard employees as a separate workforce can have unintended consequences for everyone.”

Broschak and Alison Davis-Blake of the University of Minnesota studied the issue in two recent papers, one of which was a finalist for theAcademy of Management Journal’s best paper award in 2007.

“More and more organizations are using nonstandard employees — temporary or part-time workers — alongside their full-time staff,” Broschak explains. “The questions we were interested in were what happened to full-time people who worked with nonstandard coworkers? Does the composition of the workgroup matter?”

It does. Broschak and Davis-Blake discovered that full-time employees in workgroups with larger proportions of temporary workers were less satisfied with their colleagues and supervisors. “This happens for a few reasons,” Broschak said. “One, in many organizations the task of training and socializing temporary workers on company-specific processes is often delegated to full-time workers. Having more temporary coworkers makes full-time workers’ jobs more complicated, since they are always training new people. Two, regularly helping temporary workers can get in the way of full-time employees completing their work. Further, in the minds of full-time employees their jobs have diminished status when temporary workers occupy similar jobs.”

The effects are particularly strong for people at lower levels of organizations because this is where full-time and temporary workers are most similar. “The more full-time employees are required to interact with temporary workers to perform their jobs, the more likely they are to experience these negative effects,” Broschak adds.

Traditionally, organizations have treated temporary workers as a separate workforce, excluding them from employee-only events and limiting the extent to which full-time and temporary workers interact socially at work. “This has the opposite effect of what managers intend,” Broschak said. To ameliorate the negative effects on full-time employees, Broschak found that it was important to encourage social interaction among all workers, and include temp workers in things like formal and informal departmental lunches and holiday parties. According to Broschak, “Allowing workers who are employed under different work arrangements to develop social ties at work is a key to developing a cohesive and well-functioning workforce.”

In a second paper, published in 2008, Broschak, Davis-Blake, and Emily S. Block of Notre Dame University looked at organizations that used temporary workers and employees who chose part-time work arrangements alongside their standard workforce, and hired full-time workers from the temporary work force. As they expected, the study indicated that voluntary part-time workers tended to be more positive and temporary workers more negative about their work arrangements versus standard workers.

But they were surprised to discover that temp workers who had opportunities to transition to standard employment arrangements had better attitudes toward supervisors and coworkers and were better performers than their peers in standard work arrangements.
“Temporary workers want to work hard and want to fit in when they see a job as an avenue to getting ahead,” Broschak said. “This can be a real plus to organizations that use this as a method of finding standard workers.”