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Handle with care: looking after your temp staff

10 October 2017

Most charities try to live out ethical values, not only by delivering their mission, but also in the way they operate – their equal opportunities policies, ethical investments, transparency and more.

However, one area not always covered is the treatment of casual staff – primarily agency, zero hours and freelance staff – who might be found attached to comms teams, either working in the office or from home. Unintended slip-ups are usually the problem; a hastily arranged bit of cover or a last-minute commission can easily lead to management oversights.

Getting it right is most often about good communication. A fundamental example would be taking the trouble to brief casual staff properly, with clear, measurable project objectives. As most comms professionals know, ethical and effective communications tend to go hand in hand. The vital thing is to approach our interactions respectfully, regardless of a colleague’s contract type.

Treating casual staff decently helps to ensure your values run right through your brand, as well as ensuring you get the best out of your hired hands and keep them onside. The communication skills involved should give comms teams a big advantage – the downside is that it looks particularly bad when comms gets it wrong.

Once the basic project brief is sorted, here are five ways to ensure good practice prevails:

1. Communicate the reporting lines

Who is your casual worker responsible to? Often, a temp is dispatched to a task without knowing who the main contact or the key decision-maker is – or they are made accountable to the wrong person. Sometimes the problem may be corporate fogginess over who is really in charge of the project. At other times, a project manager is reluctant to concern themselves with the day-to-day tasks of a temp – and fails to recognise that without their input, time will be wasted and red herrings chased.

With no clear reporting line, the casual worker receives conflicting instructions from multiple parties and a blurred vision of where the project is headed. All this can be avoided with a simple: “I am your key point of contact; all decisions come through me.”

2. Communicate respect for professional roles

Resist the temptation to tell permanent colleagues your temp is “giving us a bit of help with” a project when, in reality, they’re a substantive player. It is better to call a spade a spade: they are re-organising, writing, reporting, researching, analysing, designing, archiving – whatever it may be.

There could be various reasons to fudge the description of a temp’s role – perhaps the director disapproves of responsibility being outsourced, or a permanent team member may feel the need to shore up their own status. Still, it’s hard to overstate how motivational a bit of recognition can be, and it’s the right thing to do.

3. Acknowledge the size of the job

When you are rushed for time, horrified to discover an overlooked task is close to deadline, yet with little budget to throw at the problem, it can be tempting to dump the mess on an unsuspecting temp. I once received the following commission: “We’ve got a straightforward bit of proofing for you. We can pay you for two days’ work – it shouldn’t take more than that.” The task turned out to involve a substantial edit of a 100-page report.

Get real about what will be involved and pay for the number of days it will take. If that is not an option, reschedule things and find appropriate resources within the comms team.

4. Talk about meetings and travel expenses

When you invite a casual worker to a meeting in the office, make sure you have covered the bases. Will colleagues normally working off-site be paid travel expenses? Will those not already booked to work that day, or at that time, be paid to attend? In many instances, it’s only fair to offer compensation, so don’t forget to do so.

Where there is no meeting budget, explain the situation rather than leaving people guessing. In that case, the meeting could be made optional for some categories of worker. Ask for their prior input via phone or email, set them up to contribute live on Skype, or promise to brief them on what has happened. For those who need to be there, offer tea, coffee or snacks to show you care.

5. Keep all colleagues up to speed

Some casual workers enjoy many of the same employment rights as their permanent counterparts. They should be receiving applicable group emails like any other staff member and benefiting from catch-up meetings with colleagues and managers. Even casual workers on the briefest of contracts are now often given email addresses and access to remote desktops, which can improve their effectiveness as well as their sense of being valued.

Remember to update your temps on new developments – whether it’s something dramatic like a big resignation or restructure, or a tiny change, such as a new house style rule. Comms teams should be standard bearers for keeping fellow workers, of all kinds, in the loop.

Temporary staff are professionals too, and part of your organisation for the duration of their time with you. Treat them accordingly to help ensure that consistent values – and their benefits to effective working – run through your charity.


Image: Raw Pixel, 2017

Kay Parris

freelance journalist and editor

Kay Parris is a freelance writer, journalist and editor working in the not-for-profit sector.