Employing Temporary Staff: Just How Easy Is It?

For retailers, there’s more to a successful Christmas than coming up with a winning marketing strategy. There’s the logistics to consider too: not least, anticipating likely staffing requirements to cope with demand.

In terms of staffing requirements, the issue of seasonal peaks and troughs isn’t exclusive to retail: it’s an inherent characteristic of hospitality and agriculture to name just a couple of notable examples. More widely, many different types of organisations will find themselves in need of extra manpower from time to time – to fulfill a particular contract for instance, or to help a business meet the challenges posed by extraordinary circumstances.

“Take on temporary staff”. That’s the obvious solution to the problem – although in some cases it can be easier said than done. Employers also need to be careful not to sign themselves up to more than they bargained for when attempting to fill a temporary staffing need.

Zero-hours and a replacement for SAWS: Are employers demonised if they want flexibility?

The recent controversy over zero-hours contracts demonstrates there is a right way - and a wrong way - of approaching the issue of seasonal or fluctuating need. Employment contracts featuring non-guaranteed hours are common in those industries where the need for manpower fluctuates (bar work and the hotel trade are two common examples). For some employees such as students or those individuals with home commitments, the arrangement offers a welcome degree of flexibility and the option of picking up shifts as and when they can fit them in. This though, presupposes a two-way street; so employees are able to turn work down without fear of recrimination or criticism.

There is a difference however, between ‘flexibility’ and having staff ‘on call’ as a matter of course. This is where the controversy over zero-hours contracts lies. This issue was once again in the headlines in October in a case concerning Sports Direct. In it, the company agreed an out-of-court settlement in an issue concerning their policy of employing 20,000 staff on contracts that guarantee no fixed shifts. If businesses cannot show a genuine reason for use of these contracts, they run the risk of opening themselves up to charges of attempting to compromise their employees’ rights.

Policy makers have promised greater stricter regulation of zero-hours contracts. Farmers, however, have already seen the effects of a change that could drastically affect their long-term ability to source vital seasonal workers. Each year, arable farmers especially are faced with the Under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers’ Scheme (SAWS), about 22,000 agricultural workers travelled to the UK annually from Bulgaria and Romania under an arrangement that allowed them to remain in the country for up to six months and work exclusively on farms. EU membership means workers from these countries can effectively work anywhere – and are likely to consider other urban-based jobs more appealing.

The NFU has urged the Government to consider a new alternative to SAWS – perhaps involving workers from non-EU territories. This is not on the cards, according to the Home Office. As well as dealing with such matters as risk assessments, putting in place appropriate agricultural insurance and training, farmers could soon be faced with another major issue each harvest: sourcing enough workers.

Hiring temporary employees: potential pitfalls

As well as meeting a specific staffing need, hiring workers on a temporary basis can bring other advantages too. Given that research suggests that as many as 46% of supposedly ‘permanent’ hires fail, hiring employees on a temporary basis can sometimes be a useful way of road testing potential recruits and of avoiding costly recruitment mistakes. Drafting in extra help can also have a positive effect on morale across the organisation at busy and stressful times.

This assumes however, that the new recruit will ‘hit the ground running’. Given that it takes up to 28 weeks on average for a new employee to reach maximum productivity, it may be unrealistic to assume that recruiting a temporary employee will have a positive impact on productivity from day 1. Much will depend on the complexity of the role and, of course, the skillset of the new starter. This is one of the main reasons why taking on pre-vetted employees through an agency holds considerable appeal.

Employers should also be aware of the specific legal responsibilities owed to temporary workers. Special attention should be paid to the Agency Workers Regulations. Under these, from day one, all employees should be provided with equal access to facilities (e.g. car parking, canteen and subsidised transport). After 12 weeks in the same role, the employee becomes entitled to the same pay and same working conditions as comparable permanent employees within the organisation.

Employing temporary staff can sometimes be a useful ‘quick fix’. It is not without its potential problems though. The challenge is to achieve flexibility whilst ensuring obligations to employees are met.