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‘Temporary’ Terminology: Research Suggests the Staffing Industry May Need to Update the Terms It Uses


By Steven P. Berchem

What do you call an employee of your firm who is assigned to work for a customer? A “temp”?

If so, you are using what is probably the most common term for that employee. But according to our research, that employee would most likely prefer to be called something else.

“Temp”—and its variations: “temporary,” “temporary worker,” and “temporary employee”—is stigmatized. Many temps, particularly those in professional, managerial, or IT occupations, don’t like it.

And “temp” reflects the temporary help industry, which has evolved into the staffing industry because it now provides more than temporary help services.

Staffing companies have responded to the changing marketplace by adopting new terms to replace or supplement “temp.” Just as the airline industry changed the “stewardess” nomenclature to the modern “flight attendant,” we wanted to explore the viability of alternatives to “temp.”
Previous research by the American Staffing Association showed that temporary employees frequently feel undervalued. In focus groups we conducted in 1998 to determine the most effective public relations messages for the staffing industry (jobs, flexibility, bridge, choice, training), temporary and former temporary employees told us that sometimes they felt branded as unworthy, second-class workers. And people who worked with temps seconded that notion.

“Temp” and “temporary,” when used as nouns (“he’s a temp” or “she’s a temporary”), are defined by major dictionaries as informal, colloquial, or slang terms. That might explain why many temps don’t like them—just like physicians don’t like to be called “docs.” Some dictionaries don’t even define “temp.” And some prominently define “temporary” as office worker.

It’s understandable how the terms have come into common usage. It’s a lot easier to ask “How long have you been temping?” than it is to inquire “How long have you been a temporary worker?” The shorthand saves two words—five syllables and nine letters. Is there an alternative term that’s just as handy to use?

Finding Just the Right Word

We began our research by surveying the Web sites of all national companies and more than 100 randomly selected independent firms that are ASA members to see what words or phrases they’re using today.

We found 81 terms being used for employees assigned to work for customers.

Yes, all 81 terms are being used today. That’s way too many to test. So we collapsed the list into those words or phrases that are most commonly used, or that may have the potential to come into vogue (for example, “free agent” is used by staffing companies as well as by Daniel H. Pink, Al Gore’s former speechwriter, in Free Agent Nation, his recently published book about the growth of independent workers). With the help of ASA’s public relations committee, we pared the list down to 22 for an initial flight of tests (see sidebar).

Our first tests occurred in Philadelphia. We assembled four triads—two groups of three temporary employees each and two groups of three permanent employees each. The triads discussed their feelings about “temp,” “temporary,” and the alternative terms under consideration.
The next series of tests involved two focus groups in Phoenix—one group of eight workers with less than four years of college and one group of nine working college graduates. Both groups had a mix of temporary and permanent employees. The triads and the focus groups helped us narrow the field of choices from 22 to eight terms. We tested the eight terms in a national opinion poll of 450 employed adults (including temps), ages 25 to 55, in March 2001. Perhaps not surprisingly, a strong majority prefers “employee” (see Figure 1). The margin of error is plus or minus 4.6 percent.

On Second Thought…

The temporary employees in the focus groups were unanimous in their disdain for “temp.” And the immediate reaction of the majority of temps in the national poll was to change the terminology.

But “temp” tested well among other employees. At the beginning of the national poll, we asked all respondents whether the industry should continue to use “temp” or adopt another term. The first impression of 62 percent of the respondents was to leave well enough alone; 30 percent wanted a change (see Figure 2).

Later, after respondents heard the eight choices under consideration as possible substitutes for “temp,” they were asked again whether the staffing industry should change its terminology. On second thought, having considered the options, many employees changed their minds, resulting in a reversal of proportions. The majority, 55 percent, wanted change. Only 34 percent still preferred “temp.”

This is a modest majority. There is no groundswell for change among traditional employees. But temps themselves clearly don’t like the term. And while the people working next to temps initially say that “temp” is acceptable, most of them would welcome a change in terminology.

‘Temp’ to You, ‘Contract’ to Me

We asked respondents in the national poll to tell us, on a scale from 1 to 100, how favorably they felt about using each of eight terms to describe a worker, defined as “a person employed by a temporary staffing firm to work at another business.” On the scale, 1 was very unfavorable, 50 was neutral, and 100 was very favorable. Only two terms, “temp” and “contract,” ranked above the neutral zone, with “temp” slightly more preferred (see Figure 3).

We asked a similar question about applying the terms to themselves—”if you were currently employed by a temporary staffing firm and were assigned to work at another business.” We asked respondents to tell us on a scale of 0 to 10 how comfortable they would be using each of the terms to describe themselves to someone they were meeting for the first time. On this scale, 0 was very uncomfortable, and 10 was very comfortable. Only one term, “contract,” scored above the neutral zone.

On average, the respondents would not favor applying “free agent” to others and would be uncomfortable using it to refer to themselves. The other root terms—interim, project, and flexible—were viewed neutrally in both questions.

Although both “temp” and “contract” stood out among the choices as the preferred terms among employees, respondents generally like using “contract” better when talking about themselves.

“Contract” stood out in other important ways. When respondents were asked to pick their first and second choices for alternatives to “temp,” 80 percent selected “contract employee” or “contract worker” as one of those choices. A majority—51 percent—picked both.
And when forced to choose between “temp” and “contract,” 57 percent of respondents selected the latter. A significant number—77 percent—of younger employees (ages 25-34) preferred “contract” (see Figure 4).

Notably, one-quarter of all respondents changed their minds about “temp” over the course of the polling interview. Those most likely to change were younger workers and people who had a very positive opinion about the staffing industry. As you consider your recruitment and retention strategies, be sure to think about what your staffing employees want to be called. “Temp” may be okay with your customers’ employees, but most temps don’t like it. “Employee” is strongly preferred. And “contract employee” would be just fine with most.

This research builds on the results of previous studies, which showed that we are most effective in boosting public opinion about the staffing industry when we deliver positive messages that focus on employees. These new findings suggest that we use “contract” and “employee” more often.


ASA Focus Group Testing of ‘Temporary’ Terminology

A survey of the Web sites of all national companies and more than 100 randomly selected independent ASA members showed that U.S. staffing firms use 81 different terms to refer to employees assigned to work for customers. From this survey, ASA chose 22 terms, listed below, to be tested in focus groups, resulting in eight finalists (in bold) that were tested in a national poll of employees:

  • Assigned employee
  • Assignment worker
  • Associate
  • Consultant
  • Contingent worker
  • Contract employee
  • Contract worker
  • Field employee
  • Field worker
  • Flexible employee
  • Flexible worker
  • Flexworker
  • Free agent
  • Interim employee
  • Portfolio worker
  • Project employee
  • Project worker
  • Supplemental employee
  • Talent
  • Temp
  • Temporary employee
  • Temporary worker

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