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The experience of alienation among temporary workers in high-skill jobs: a qualitative analysis of temporary firefighters.

Over the past fifteen years, one of the most pervasive trends in staffing has been the utilization of non-standard employment relationships, including contingent and temporary workers (see Connelly and Gallagher, 2004, for a recent review). Indeed, this has become a worldwide trend, with increases in contingent worker utilization in North America, Europe, and Asia (Isaksson and Bellagh, 2002; Quinlan and Bohle, 2004; Supangco, 2008). Given the uncertain environment in which most businesses operate, the flexibility offered by the utilization of contingent contracts seems to imply a likely increase in their use in the near future. Despite the rapid growth in the utilization of temporary employees, there are gaps in the literature examining the manner in which temporary workers experience their jobs. Specifically, while researchers are beginning to recognize the potential negative outcomes of the utilization of temporary work (yon Hippel et al., 1997), there remains limited research on the negative experiences of temporary workers.

This research draws upon the literature concerning alienation to better understand how temporary workers experience their jobs, and moreover, how their experiences differ from the perceptions of their coworkers and managers. To that end, in this paper the literature concerning alienation is reviewed to develop research questions that address gaps in the extant literature. The findings from a qualitative study of temporary firefighters and their coworkers and managers to address the research questions are presented and themes concerning alienation that have implications for research on temporary workers are developed.


While a variety of definitions have been put forth, alienation is related to feelings of powerlessness and lack of control among workers. Dean (1961) conceptualized alienation as a combination of powerlessness (a lack of control over one's economic outcomes), normlessness (anxiety associated with questioning one's purpose as well as conflicts between one's ideal self and their current situation), and social isolation (separation from social or group norms and relationships). The notion of alienation from work has been taken up by a variety of management scholars; many of those studies have been tasked with understanding the consequences of alienation. For example, Cummings (1977) found that alienation was associated with lower motivation (effort), lower performance, and greater tardiness from work among male blue-collar workers. Alienation retains researchers' interest today as scholars seek to understand its application cross-culturally (e.g., Banai and Reisel, 2007; Mir et al., 2007) as well as in the growing population of workers with non-traditional work arrangements.

Along with general interest in alienation among workers, specific interest has developed in the nature of alienation among temporary workers. This interest has developed because of a recognition that temporary employees work in an environment that facilitates alienation. For example, they may be alienated because they often represent an objective by management to increase flexibility and reduce the permanent workforce (Barker, 1995).

Rogers (1995) provided the most comprehensive investigation of alienation of temporary workers to date. She conducted interviews with 13 women working in temporary clerical positions. She found that alienation was experienced in three forms. Alienation from work referred to the distance from the work process and final product that is often experienced by temporary workers. For example, she found that temporary workers were often given extreme amounts of very tedious work (work that was often rejected by others) as part of their assignments with little control over work assignments (see also Carls, 2009). Alienation from others referred to the distance that is kept between workers and others in the workplace, either physically or psychologically. The clerical workers in Rogers' study reported that many permanent workers would not get to know them because they felt it was not worth their time. Alienation from self is related to the identity struggles that seemed to occur among temporary workers. For example, a number of workers reported changing or downplaying elements of their background (e.g., an advanced degree) to manage impressions. Finally, Rogers studied resistance strategies utilized by the clerical workers, suggesting that while the ability of the clerical temporary workers is limited, they may engage in escapist behavior like turning their work into a game in order to cope with the alienation.

Despite interest in the nature of alienation among temporary workers, there exists a number of gaps in the literature. One of the gaps concerns the experience of higher-skilled workers in temporary jobs. While the temporary help industry has been focused on lower-skilled workers (e.g., clerical and manufacturing workers), growth among highly skilled temporary workers (e.g., health care workers, firefighters, even executives) has increased dramatically over the past few years (Shaffer and Kobs, 1997). However, the literature has not adequately examined whether workers in high-skill temporary jobs experience alienation in the same way as those in low-skill temporary jobs.

A number of research findings suggest that a different experience of alienation based on skill level is possible. For example, Kirsch and Lengermann (1972) found marked differences in the manner in which blue-collar workers (machine operators and clerical workers in their sample) and white-collar workers (computer programmers and bank managers) experienced alienation and its consequences. For example, they found occupational differences in powerlessness, meaninglessness of tasks, and advancement opportunity (e.g., more perceived meaninglessness for blue collar positions). Feldman et al. (1995) found that when temporary workers were working in temporary positions that were consistent with their prior education (which would be more likely for a high-skilled temporary worker); they had significantly more positive attitudes toward their job.

Employers may feel justified in alienating low-skilled workers, particularly those in temporary positions, assuming that they do not make a significant contribution to the core functions of the organization or that they do not want to over-develop identity among temporary workers for fear of inflated expectations (Gossett, 2002). While that point is itself arguable, it is harder to claim that highly skilled workers, in the present case firefighters, do not make a clear contribution to the core mission of their organization. As such, lower alienation of higher-skilled workers would be expected compared with lower-skilled workers. On the other hand, despite their higher level of skill, the workers in question would still be temporary workers. As such, it becomes an empirical question as to whether skill or the temporary nature of the job is more important in experiencing alienation. The following research questions are put forth:

Research Question 1: What is the nature of alienation among high-skilled temporary workers?

Research Question 2: Which is more strongly related to alienation, skill level or the temporary nature of the job?

Another significant gap in the alienation literature has been the awareness and reaction of others when one experiences alienation. Specifically, researchers have yet to examine whether supervisors and coworkers of temporary workers are aware of alienation and the nature of their reactions to temporary worker alienation. This issue is important as it relates to the perpetuation of alienation. If supervisors and coworkers are unaware of temporary workers' experiences of alienation or, further, if they are unwilling to act in a manner that addresses the alienation, it is likely that the alienation will persist. On the other hand, if supervisors and/or coworkers are aware of the alienation and actively engage in strategies to resolve and avoid the alienation, it is less likely that the alienation will continue. With these issues in mind, the following research question is proposed:

Research Question 3: What is the nature of supervisor and coworker reactions to alienation among temporary workers?


To address the research questions at hand, a qualitative data analysis technique based on the grounded theory method was used. The grounded theory method was developed by Glaser and Strauss (1967) as a mechanism for organizing qualitative research and developing themes that represent the richness of qualitative data. It supports the development of theoretical and conceptual relationships by means of a systematic process of data collection and analysis (Locke, 2002). It relies upon an inductive coding process that moves a researcher from general concepts in the data (open coding) to the relationships between those concepts (axial coding) and, finally, to a broad theoretical scheme that helps the researcher understand the relationships between concepts (constant comparison; Locke, 2001).

The grounded theory method was used for two reasons. First, the grounded theory methodology offers researchers a common technique and language for understanding qualitative research. Second, grounded theory accommodates the richness of qualitative data, allowing a better understanding of the nuanced experience of alienation. Given the unique dynamics between temporary workers, their supervisors, and their coworkers, the ability to tap into this nuance was important.

Participants and Study Context

To better understand the nature of the data collected, a brief explanation of the study context is appropriate. The research was conducted at a United States federal fire department on a military installation that employs approximately 95 civilian firefighters, management, and administrative staff. Approximately 90 percent of the employees of the fire department were formerly military fire protection personnel; the department employed only two females.

The observations and interviews collected and reported in the present study were part of a larger intervention study aimed at reducing stress in the department. The present study included four temporary firefighters, 71 permanent firefighters, and nine supervisors. The average age was just over 40 years old (M = 40.65, SD = 5.72), the average organizational tenure was 8.74 years (SD = 3.19), the sample was primarily white (three of the firefighters were black; none of the temporary firefighters were). The four temporary firefighters had an average organizational tenure of about six months (M = 0.57 years, SD = 0.11 years) and an average age of about 30 years old (M = 29.63, SD = 3.18).

The department is structured around three fire stations, one of which is the main station that also houses administration, fire prevention officers (including fire inspectors), and the dispatch personnel. Most of the employees (with the exception of top management) work 72-hour workweeks, whereby they work 24-hour shifts every other day with one 24-hour shift off per two weeks. They are organized into two shifts, red and blue, that are responsible for the department on alternating days. The top management staff works 56-hour workweeks, working regular eight-hour shifts four days a week and one 24-hour shift per week.

While the department staff was entirely civilian, many of the employees were members of United States National Guard or military Reserve units. Given military operations during the course of the study, a number of employees were deployed or returned from deployment during the study. While employees were deployed, their positions could not be permanently replaced. The department utilized four temporary firefighters on one-year contracts to help address the staff issues that emerged as a result of deployment; they form the basis for the present study.


To begin data collection, 90 days were spent conducting observations. The objective of the observations was to collect information regarding the treatment of temporary workers and the interactions between temporary workers and others in the workplace. Approximately 200 hours were spent conducting observations. Included in the observations were two 24-hour shift observations and one 12-hour shift (0700-1900) by the first author. Following each observation period, field notes that summarized the observations were recorded by the first author.

Interview Protocol

As a second data collection step, the first author conducted interviews with 82 employees, including all of the temporary firefighters, 70 of the permanent firefighters, and eight of the managers. A semi-structured interview approach was used, whereby a set of questions to ask each employee was predetermined and was intended to further explore issues that were noted during the observations (the interview protocol is available from the first author). Each interview lasted approximately 30 minutes. Immediately following each interview, a transcript was prepared that included all of the verbal responses of the participants.

Grounded Theory Coding Process

Once the data were collected, the observation field notes and interviews were divided between two coders (independent of the researcher who conducted the observations and interviews). A number of decisions were made at this point in the process. First, open coding was utilized, such that the coders did not choose a priori characteristics upon which to code. A defined coding scheme could potentially limit the ability to note the nuances in the experience of the higher-skilled temporary workers that could serve as important distinguishing characteristics between them and lower-skilled workers.

However, this is not to say that the researchers went into the coding entirely blind. The literature is not entirely silent on the experience of alienation (e.g., Rogers, 1995) among temporary workers. For example, Rogers' work suggests that alienation among temporary workers is experienced in three forms (alienation from self, from others, and from work). The coders used the three forms of alienation as a starting point in order to allow for comparisons with lower-skilled workers from Rogers' (1995) study. However, they also coded other behaviors that might not fit with Rogers' taxonomy in order to discern potential differences.

Once these decisions were made, the coders engaged in the coding process, whereby they followed a number of steps. First, the transcripts and field notes were carefully read, taking notes ("memoing"; Locke, 2001) on key concepts in the text. Within the field notes and interview transcripts, the text was synthesized into conceptual categories called themes. As the coders worked through the notes and transcripts, they engaged in a process called constant comparison. In constant comparison, researchers compare the themes that they have developed in past coding to the new data and compare new themes that emerge to previously coded data.

Next, the two coders exchanged their set of themes and engaged in comparison between their sample of transcripts and notes and the themes from the other coder. Where applicable, nuances (exceptions to the themes) in the notes and transcripts were noted and themes were adjusted accordingly. Finally, the coders' sets of themes were integrated to develop a final set of themes to address the research questions.


Alienation from Work

Rogers (1995) characterized alienation from work as a disconnect between the worker and his or her tasks on the job. A number of clear manifestations of such alienation existed in the fire department among the temporary workers.

Underutilization of Skills. The strongest theme to emerge from the observations and interviews with regard to alienation from work was a distinct underutilization of the skills of the temporary workers. Despite having nearly equivalent training as their permanent counterparts, they were rarely given assignments that utilized their training.

One episode of such alienation from work is particularly illuminating. Occasionally, the firefighters were called to the scene of hazardous waste spills, often these occurred in the streets of the base. As a result, a key function of the firefighters was to contain the spill and avoid allowing people to drive through the spill. To accomplish this, they often stationed a firefighter in the street to direct traffic away from the spill. Invariably, this person was a temporary worker. When asked about this, one temporary worker expressed his displeasure, saying "I've trained for years to clean up spills, and they give me a job that a plastic orange cone could do. Gee, thanks."

Disparate Treatment in Scheduling. The temporary workers were also distanced from their work in the sense that they were given the worse treatment in scheduling. They were given last choice in days off and overtime opportunities (which were desired because of added pay). In addition, if someone called in ill and no one volunteered to stay on to cover that worker's shift, the temporary workers were the first to be "forced" to stay on for an additional shift (which would mean they might work 72 straight hours) on as little as five minutes' notice.

Lack of Training Opportunities. Another form of alienation from work came in a lack of training opportunities afforded to the temporal',/workers. While the temporary workers participated in the same on-base training exercises that the permanent workers did, because they were temporary, they were not eligible for additional training classes that the department sponsored. The temporary workers felt that this was unfair and was going to negatively impact them in the future. One noted, "I'm more interested in the outside training than most of the guys here, but I can't do it. What's worse is that because I can't do the additional training, it makes me less marketable. So here's what happens ... when they have a permanent spot, they hire some other guy who has been able to do the training over someone that already works for them, but can't do the training because they won't pay for it or let me have time off to go to the training."

To more fully understand the nature of alienation among higher-skilled temporary workers, it is germane to note some differences in the experience of alienation from work between the firefighters and lower-skilled temporary workers (as documented in previous research). For example, in Rogers' (1995) study, it was common for temporary clerical workers to be given a work assignment without being given an explanation why they were doing the task. This was less likely with the firefighters, in large part because their extensive training gave them insight as to why they were given the tasks. In the example cited above dealing with directing traffic, they understood why such a task was necessary (to keep vehicular traffic from making the spill worse), but they thought the task could be accomplished in a much more efficient manner.

Taken together, the findings suggest that the firefighters experienced alienation from work; however, it was manifest somewhat different than in clerical workers from Rogers' (1995) research. Rather than being given unexplained, often repetitive and mundane tasks, the firefighters were given tasks that did not utilize their skills appropriately, were given little control over their schedule, and were limited in their possibility for advancement because of limited training opportunities. The differences observed were largely the result of differences in the jobs themselves, not the skill level of the workers.

Alienation from Others

Alienation from others involves structural barriers to relationship development in the workplace (Rogers, 1995). As was the case with alienation from work, a number of manifestations of alienation from others were observed in the fire department.

Isolation from Other Temporary Workers. Alienation from others was manifest, in part, through isolation from other temporary workers in the workplace. The temporary firefighters were typically spread throughout the workplace, working on opposite shifts (two temporary workers on each shift, such that only two were working at any given time), and assigned to different fire stations. This limited their ability to discuss their concerns about their treatment with their peers. As one temporary worker put it, "I guess I have a lot of complaints. Do the others [the other temporary firefighters] feel the same way? I guess I've never really talked with them about it."

Isolation from Permanent Workers. Additionally, temporary workers were often isolated, both psychologically and physically from the permanent workers. For example, psychological isolation came in the form of limited attempts to develop relationships with the temporary workers. As one temporary firefighter noted, "They [the permanent firefighters] rarely talk to me. They don't know my name without looking at my name badge. As far as they're concerned, I'm not even here." Another explained, "I guess they think since we're just temporary that they shouldn't bother to make friends with us. It's really kind of scary ... we could go into some pretty scary situations as firefighters, but I don't feel like I have a friend to support me through the situation or once we're done with it."

It is interesting to note the issue of support from the permanent workers as it relates to psychological isolation. When asked about the reaction of supervisors and coworkers to their concerns, there was some inconsistency in the temporary workers' interpretation of the situation, but with largely the same result. One temporary worker noted, "They don't even know we are here, so why would they notice that it sucks to be a temp worker?" Another temporary firefighter believed that the permanent workers noticed the experiences of the temporary workers, but were not concerned enough to change anything. He said, "They don't really care about us, so why would they try to change anything? It's not hurting them any, so why bother?" With regard to the supervisors, the general consensus among the temporary firefighters was that they did not notice the alienation and they did not care. As one temporary firefighter observed, "The supervisors don't even seem to know we work here. Hell, if we didn't do a head count every morning, we wouldn't even have to show up since they don't know who we are. You want to know the remarkable thing? I've worked here for over six months, and any supervisor above my station chief wouldn't know me from Adam ... now, with all that in mind, do you think they notice that I don't like it here or that I'm in a bad situation? Hell, no. And if they did notice, I doubt they would do anything about it. It [the temporary work arrangement] works out for them; it fits their budget and keeps base command happy, so they wouldn't change a damned thing."

In addition to the psychological isolation, the temporary workers were physically isolated from the permanent firefighters. They were typically given the last choice in bunks, which meant they were often the furthest away from the other firefighters. One temporary worker was assigned to a temporarily renovated office that was separate from the other firefighters because they had run out of room. In addition to bunk assignments, there was some physical distance in other operations. On a number of occasions, the temporary firefighters ate alone during meal times, which were a key socialization period for the workers in the department.

Again comparing these findings to those of Rogers (1995), there are some similarities and differences. The notion of isolation from other temporary workers and from the permanent workers, in both a psychological and physical sense, is consistent with Rogers' findings among clerical workers. While the manifestations of these forms of isolation are a bit unique to this setting (e.g., physical separation of bunks), the general pattern of findings is quite similar.

Alienation from Self

Alienation from self occurs when work does not support a worker's identity (Rogers, 1995). Such alienation was less common than the other forms of alienation, but was present in the temporary firefighters.

Downplaying of Past. The clearest form of alienation from self that was observed in the temporary firefighters was a downplaying of past accomplishments or training, particularly affiliation with armed forces other than the one represented on the present base. For example, one temporary firefighter said he was socially dismissed for his association with another armed force, despite his claims that his training was the same, if not more extensive, as his peers.

When comparing these findings to those of Rogers (1995), the most clear differences emerge. While alienation from self was fairly pervasive in the clerical workers, it appeared to be less so in the firefighters. This may be one area where the higher skill level allows the workers to avoid alienation, in part because their skill level affords them a high level of identification with their occupation. As such, while they might have concerns about their job and those they work with; the personal identity that comes from the occupation remains strong.

Resistance to Alienation

In her work, Rogers (1995) found that clerical workers often felt as though they could not speak out with their concerns for fear of losing their temporary appointments. One might assume that because skilled workers would be more difficult to find in the labor market, they might feel a greater freedom to voice their concerns. However, the findings from the present study suggest that this is not the case. Many of the firefighters desired a full-time position in the department if an opening occurred. Feeling that expressing concerns might make them less attractive (e.g., they would be seen as a "complainer"); the temporary workers hesitated to voice their problems. When asked if he had ever expressed concerns to management, one temporary worker replied, "Are you crazy? I want to keep my job here. They would fire me in a second if I bitched." Another noted, "I don't want to do anything that would risk a regular [permanent] job. There are plenty of other guys that would take that job, including the other temp guys and those working at [municipal departments in the area]; I'm just not going to risk it. Shut up and put up I guess."

The perceived inability to voice concerns was likely exacerbated by the relatively small number of temporary workers. The temporary firefighters made up such a small portion of the workforce (about two percent) that they had little impact as a group. Moreover, their physical separation in station assignments may have limited communication intended to coordinate and vocalize their concerns as a group.

Skill Level vs. Temporary Designation

In exploring Research Question 2, the goal was to examine whether skill level or designation as a temporary worker was more strongly related to alienation. To further examine the idea of similarities between higher- and lower-skilled temporary workers studied by Rogers (1995), the observations of those permanent employees who had worked for a similar length of time to the temporary workers were examined. This allowed the researchers to control for skill level, but investigate differences based on temporary designation. Moreover, one may argue that alienation is merely the result of organizational tenure. In other words, perhaps all of the employees who had not been employed in the organization for very long were alienated; the present analysis allows us to examine this issue.

The data from this organization support the notion that the temporary nature of jobs is a stronger contributor to alienation than skill level or tenure. Striking differences emerge, particularly in the types of tasks they were asked to perform (e.g., even with less tenure than the temporary workers, permanent workers were not relegated to less meaningful tasks as the temporary workers had been) and in their integration with the rest of the permanent workforce (e.g., how often they communicated with other permanent workers, where their bunks were located, whom they ate meals with). Interestingly, the other permanent workers never commented on the plight of the new permanent workers, but readily recognized the negative aspects of the temporary workers' situations.

Reactions of Supervisors and Coworkers

One of the key extensions of the present research is the inclusion of coworkers and supervisors. In addressing Research Question 3, the researchers focused on two issues related to the reactions of others in the workplace, their awareness of alienation of the temporary workers and their response, if any, to that alienation.

Reactions of Supervisors. The dominant theme that emerged from management reactions to the temporary workers was that of lack of awareness of alienation. None of the management team members indicated any concern for the treatment of the temporary firefighters. Indeed, many of the managers thought that they were doing a good job and had not really thought about the distinction between temporary and permanent workers. As one manager noted, "To be honest, I wouldn't mind if more of the employees were like the temp workers. They are some of the best firefighters we've got. They do some good work, follow the rules, and are better team players than most of the regulars." Another supervisor noted, "They do the work, and seem to fit in well with the regular guys. If anything, they seem to be more liked because they fill in for a lot of guys."

Reactions of Coworkers. While the supervisor reactions to the permanent workers were characterized largely by a lack of awareness, the permanent firefighter coworkers were quite aware of the alienation of the temporary firefighters. When asked about working with the temporary workers, they recognized that the temporary workers were not treated the same as the permanent workers. Well over half of those interviewed (n = 40) mentioned something about the temporary workers' lower pay, lack of benefits or lower job security. Many stated outright that the temporary workers were not getting "as good a deal" as the permanent workers. For example, one permanent firefighter commented, "They get absolutely screwed. They are getting less pay, no benefits, and are lowest on the totem pole in the station. Most of the guys just let them be and don't really talk to them much; they seem to have fewer friends here in the department."

Many (n = 29) of the permanent workers commented on the equivalent or similar qualifications of the temporary workers. A permanent firefighter observed, "They aren't any different from anyone else, except for the lack of benefits. They have the same training and qualifications. In some cases, they are more qualified than some of the idiots we have here."

As a follow-up, the permanent firefighters were asked if they had brought up the disparate treatment experienced by the temporary firefighters to management or had otherwise addressed the problem. Only one had mentioned the issue to management, but his concerns were quickly dismissed. "They told me to worry about myself, that the temps were just happy to have jobs here." Many of the permanent workers said that they did not say anything about the problem because they figured that the temporary workers must not be too upset or they would have left the department. Some of the permanent firefighters admitted that they had done little to address the concerns of temporary firefighters because of the temporary nature of their job. As one permanent firefighter noted, "I guess we don't really include them as much as we could, but then again, we don't know how long they are going to be here."

In summary, the permanent workers generally were aware that the temporary workers were not treated the same as themselves, but had not done anything to alleviate the concerns of the temporary workers. Moreover, they tended to believe that the temporary workers were equivalent, or at least very similar, in qualifications to the permanent workers. A comment by one of the permanent firefighters sums up their reactions nicely: "They [management] only started using them [temporary workers] a few years ago, and it seems like they use them more now just to fill in for the deployed guys. They are just the same as the full-timers; some are even better. They seem to work pretty hard for the most part. I feel bad for them; it seems like they get the crappy assignments and have lower pay. Oh well, I guess they were the ones that took the temp jobs in the first place."


The findings of this study suggest, that while manifested somewhat differently, the experience of alienation among high-skill occupations is quite similar to what has been documented among low-skill (e.g., clerical) occupations. Moreover, this study explored the reactions of others at work, finding that while coworkers seemed aware of (and arguably, concerned about) the plight of the temporary workers, supervisors seemed unaware and apathetic regarding the experience of the temporary workers. This study is valuable in that it extends the previous work of Rogers (1995) and others by studying high-skilled workers and including the reactions of supervisors and coworkers.

An interesting question emerges from this study. First, given their expressed concern over the situation faced by the temporary workers, why did the coworkers fail to express this concern to the supervisors? One likely explanation goes to the heart of the issue with temporary workers, the temporary nature of their jobs. The temporary nature of their jobs often limits their relationship development and communication with permanent workers (Chen et al., 1999); thus, the permanent workers may be more hesitant to speak up on their behalf. The permanent workers may also have felt like it was not an issue worth taking up, given that the temporary workers would only be around until they were no longer needed.

Implications for Research and Theory

This research extends the current research on the experience of contingent work in a number of meaningful ways. It suggests that alienation is pervasive and occurs even among those with greater levels of training and skill. This has important implications for the management of highly skilled temporary workers, as it suggests that equivalent skill levels compared with the permanent workers in a workforce do not lead to the automatic integration of temporary workers into the workforce. Indeed, higher skill may actually exacerbate friction in the workforce as the temporary workers are seen as a greater threat to the security of the permanent workers. Indeed, coworkers may be hesitant to assist the temporary workers in addressing alienation in part because as an employee with equivalent skill, they may be seen as a more likely replacement for their own permanent job.

In this sense, the present research adds to a growing body of research demonstrating concern for the integration of temporary workers into the permanent workforce (Connelly and Gallagher, 2004). Recent research has underscored the potential negative effects of temporary workforce integration on knowledge sharing between temporary and permanent workers (Connelly and Kelloway, 2003; Matusik and Hill, 1998; Sias et al., 1997), organizational trust (Chattopadhyay and George, 2001), and relationships between workers (both temporary and permanent) and management (Davis-Blake et al., 2003; Galup et al., 2008). This research helps researchers to understand the processes by which some of these concerns develop, particularly when the reactions of the coworkers and supervisors to the plight of the temporary workers are considered. The inaction of the coworkers is particularly compelling as it suggests that despite recognition of a potential problem, perceived threats may be perpetuating the alienation.

Moreover, when embedded in a larger framework of research on the outcomes of temporary worker utilization, further concern develops for the role of alienation of highly skilled workers. For example, the literature is replete with studies demonstrating concerns with safety among temporary workers (Clarke, 2003; Quinlan and Bohle, 2004), health concerns (Gallie et al., 1998; Isaksson and Bellagh, 2002; Martens et al., 1999; Natti et al., 2009), lower performance (Ang and Slaughter, 2001; Ellingson et al., 1998), and higher work-family conflict (Rogers, 2000) among temporary workers. To the extent that these issues are related to their alienation (e.g., by not giving temporary workers adequate training they may have lower performance and higher safety risk; Hanratty, 2000; Virtanen et al., 2003), they suggest that addressing alienation will reduce some of the negative outcomes associated with utilizing temporary workers.

A critical extension of this research lies in understanding the motivation of temporary workers. Wheeler and Buckley (2000) suggested links between temporary work and motivation lie in expectancy theory. Such a framework is useful and the links between expectancy theory and the present work are strong. For example, temporary worker alienation could reduce the valence of a permanent position in the company, making such a position less desirable because of uncertainty about future treatment by that employer. Moreover, because of the reactions of supervisors, the alienation could lead temporary workers to question the links between their effort and the likelihood of attaining a permanent position in the company. In this sense, the alienation could lead to lower motivation among temporary workers.

Implications for Practice

This study has important implications for the management of temporary workers. In particular, this study highlights a potential concern with retention of temporary workers because of their treatment. Particularly for companies seeking to utilize temp-to-hire strategies in hiring, their treatment of temporary workers may serve to undermine this strategy. While it is the case that some temporary workers will continue to tolerate alienation, hoping that the alienation will end when they are hired on full-time, this seems less likely in high-skill professions that afford more mobility. This implies that organizations need to take clear steps to reduce and avoid alienation, particularly in high-skill occupations, in order to retain high quality employees.

Limitations and Future Research

A key limitation of this research is that it included a single occupation in one workplace that was highly gender-biased. As such, the extent to which the findings might generalize to other occupational groups is unknown. Moreover, the actual number of temporary workers in the sample is limited. These limitations are countered, to some extent, by the ability to collect a far greater depth of data than would be afforded by a more general study. However, future research should explore the issues of alienation and reactions of others and in other high-skill occupations (e.g., nursing, dental care). Further, it may be valuable to consider developing quantitative measures that are based on the dimensions of alienation. Such measures may allow for wider-scale study to improve generalization to other temporary worker groups.

This study also serves as a point of departure for other future research. For example, this research implicitly highlights another key issue with temporary workers: their disparate treatment in terms of pay and benefits (see also Hipple and Stewart, 1996; McGrath and Keister, 2008). In other words, because temporary workers (including highly skilled temporary workers like those in the present study) are often paid less and are far less likely to receive benefits, their negative treatment at work is further aggravated. The issue becomes complex when one considers the demographics of typical contingent workers. While the firefighters studied in the present work were all somewhat older (mid-30s) white males with above-average earnings, they are not representative of typical temporary workers, who are more likely to be females, part of a racial minority group, young, and in a low-paying profession (Polivka, 1996). As such, the gender, racial, and socioeconomic biases in the treatment and rewards of workers because of demographic composition of temporary workers have emerged.


With the increasing utilization of contingent workers, their treatment is becoming a more significant concern to employers. This study highlights potential negative treatment in temporary workers in higher-skill occupations where such treatment may be assumed not to exist. Moreover, this study highlights that the negative treatment of these workers may not be picked up by supervisors, despite recognition by non-temporary coworkers, because of limited voice mechanisms of temporary workers. Taken together, these findings represent an important concern as managers develop strategies for the utilization of temporary workers.


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Jonathon R. B. Halbesleben

HealthSouth Chair of Health Care Management

University of Alabama

Sara K. Clark


University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
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Author:Halbesleben, Jonathon R.B.; Clark, Sara K.
Publication:Journal of Managerial Issues
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2010
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