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November 27, 2006

Your Company's Holiday Guests

While some of you stock up on mistletoe, (heavily) rum-laced egg nog and ticky tacky ornaments, you'll also be stocking up on temporary staff. For companies that rely heavily on holiday sales and services, the  guests are more than drunk Uncle Fred, they're that bizarre, yet nonetheless, inefficient team of temporary workers you've hired to aid rude, frenzied shoppers or shore up an overwhelmed distribution center.

I imagine the arrival of these "guests," who usually (if you're lucky) don't arrive with bottles of wine and babka, come with a slew of training decisions not too dissimilar from the choices you make when "entertaining." If they were coming to your house, you'd have to decide what to serve them and were to place them around the dinner table. In your company, you need to decide what learning materials and legal documents they need to be both useful and harmless to your harried permanent staff. You also need to know where they fit inside your organization structure for their limited stay. What work groups will their figurative chair be smushed between, or worse yet, what metaphorical lap will they be plopped on top of. They need to help without stepping on anyone's toes or causing the workplace equivalent of the uncomfortable after-dinner conversation. You need to be strategic enough, in other words, to avoid stirring conflict with this stranger to the office-store-warehouse clique.

That means taking culture into consideration. In your home that means not inviting the man with multiple piercings and a bright pink mohawk to a party dominated by suit-tie-and-briefcase "corporate types," even if the mohawked dinner prospect also happens to love Mozart. In the holiday-pressured workplace it means thinking about more than whether the applicant can do the job. If it's taping up boxes in a distribution center, well, a lot of people can do that, as can most manage to direct shoppers to the right bin of two-for-the-price-of-ones. Since the skills you need often aren't daunting, the bigger question is whether they're culturally like your permanent employees. If you need five extra IT specialists at your solution center to field calls from the recipients of computers and electronic devices purchased from your company, and your dozen permanent staff members are quiet and retiring, hiring that intelligent, loud-mouth computer whiz kid may not be the best idea.

I also feel like a variation of the kind of talk young children are given before their first holiday at the grown-ups table may also be worthwhile. A seminar or class before the temporary arrivals are upon you may be called for. I wonder whether coming up with standards for how the permanents should treat the temporaries is a good idea?  How much a part of your corporate family do you want to make them?  Will preference for flexibility with schedules and shifts automatically be given to the permanents, and will the temporaries be held to the same performance standards as the permanents? How much mentoring responsibility do permanents have, and do you want them to each act as informal supervisors of temporaries, reporting to supervisors on their usefulness?

You probably wouldn't expect your friends to clean dishes or help Uncle Fred past his Oldsmobile to a cab. I guess you also wouldn't want to give your permanents the thoughtful gift of incompetent help for the holidays. As boxes of plaid pajamas and gift towers of caramel popcorn bust open on the conveyor belt, they just may decide this isn't the party for them.


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