Staffing firms act as offsite HR departments

But larger companies keep employee management internal

Employers increasingly rely on contract workers, both to curtail benefit costs and to remain flexible. When they go through staffing services to fill positions, organizations in effect are turning to an external HR department, so they don’t have to worry about hiring, firing, payroll and benefits.

But what of the managing relationship? Who maintains the responsibility to make sure an employee is in the right role, receives the appropriate feedback so that he performs at the required level?

Nobody, some would say. To David Guptill, vice-president of HR at building materials supplier Lafarge Canada, managing people placed through staffing firms can be a “black and white” issue.

“The person either fits, or they don’t. If they don’t fit, don’t send them back. I find that to be the culture that has crept into that business,” said Guptill in describing a general attitude he sees among employers. (At Lafarge, the number of contract workers tops out at 100 — one per cent of the workforce of 10,000.)

That perception stands in stark contrast to the relationship described by people at staffing firms. At Toronto-headquartered Manpower Services (Canada), vice-president of operations Lori Rogers describes the relationship between Manpower and a customer as almost akin to that between an HR department and a line manager.

“Our customers look on Manpower as a human resources solution company. They look at us to also give them feedback on what it is they can do differently to manage a person’s performance.”

Rogers said Manpower takes care of all the employer obligations, from interviewing and recruiting, through to setting pay levels and determining job assignments and ensuring compliance to labour standards and health and safety laws.

In instances where Manpower has an on-site representative, it’s the staffing service that will meet and greet new employees, introduce them to people they will work with and give them an overview of the site rules and regulations, said Rogers.

Manpower uses an audit system to keep track of employee performance at regular intervals — typically, every quarter. “We’re pretty well in tune with who is doing well and who isn’t. When that review tells us the performance is not satisfactory to our client, Manpower takes over, and we can coach our temp employees on developing a better performance,” said Rogers.

She outlined a number of different approaches Manpower would take in addressing unsatisfactory performance. “We look at performance gaps. We try understanding what’s happening from the client’s end. We look at whether there’s a lack of training for the individual, what barrier the individual is facing in order to do the job well and what kind of barrier the customer is facing with this individual.”

Manpower has what it calls the Global Learning Centre, an e-learning suite of about 2,000 modules that workers can access, said Rogers. However, the customer is responsible for on-the-job training, she noted.

Asked if Manpower will ever suggest that a manager try out a different managerial approach if that will improve an individual’s performance, Rogers said, “Absolutely. That doesn’t happen often, but it does come up. We’ve had those difficult conversations with customers as well. We’re not shy about making sure we’re doing business with the right customer either.”

The strict delineation between who can and who can’t manage an employee stems from a number of court cases in the United States, said Chris Roach, vice-president of the Association of Canadian Search, Employment and Staffing Services.

“Good employers will make it seamless so that (temporary workers) don’t feel like they’re an excluded group within the workforce. However, unfortunately, there has been some major litigation in the United States in the last five years that have put fear into a lot of clients,” said Roach, referring to a case involving Microsoft and its use of “permatemps.”

“Large corporations, especially, need to maintain that arm’s length relationship. They can’t invite (temporary and contract workers) to the Christmas party. They can’t pay for (these people’s) safety shoes and safety glasses. A lot of companies are saying, ‘We have a large contingency workforce here. We can’t afford to have people come back after they’ve been with us for three years and sue us for benefits that they didn’t receive. It’s a bit of a challenge for companies,” said Roach.

At Montreal-headquartered Unique Personnel, director of HR Josie Granitto the client organizations she works with don’t want to have anything to do with employee management for the jobs staffed by her service.

Most of Unique’s employees are placed on a long-term basis at a single organization — some up to 25 years, said Granitto. However, “we remain the employer. Our clients don’t want that burden.”

Unique specializes in placing truck drivers and office workers in the transportation industry.

Granitto admits it can be difficult to manage workers that she sees maybe once every few months. “Because sometimes we don’t have control. I don’t have any control over work accidents. I don’t see it; I don’t know what goes on,” said Granitto. “We work a lot with memos, with meetings, and that’s how we have our control. We also rely on clients.”

Because of a strong relationship with clients, Granitto feels it’s not a challenge for Unique to sort out a problem or discipline a worker.

“The client lets us know exactly what happened and we meet with the worker and we figure it out and we discipline him if necessary. Or if there’s a problem we talk to our clients and we make sure it doesn’t happen again. We’re informed of everything that happens. To that extent the control is there completely.”

One issue that has posed a challenge since June 2004 has been the employer obligation to protect workers from workplace bullying and psychologically toxic workplaces, said Granitto. To comply with this duty, as set out by the Quebec’s Labour Standards Act, Unique makes sure that its clients have given their managers training on psychological harassment.

But once in a while, Granitto will get a call about a driver who feels harassed by the way a dispatcher talks to him. When that happens, “I make sure I call the dispatcher. I handle the situation myself. ‘You’re not allowed to speak to the worker that way. Remember that he doesn’t work for you; he works for us. You’re only responsible for giving him assignments and if you have a problem with him, we’ll deal with it.’ It’s not up to (clients) to discipline the drivers.”

However, Toronto community legal worker Mary Gellatly said she rarely sees staffing services sorting out disputes in an even-handed manner. “When it comes down to any conflict, the worker is out the door,” said Gellatly, who encounters temp workers from a broad swath of sectors — clerical, government, industrial, manufacturing, home care — in her work at the Parkdale Community Legal Services and the Workers’ Action Centre.

“When it comes to temp workers, the client company is only interested in their core workers. The temp agency is only interested in maintaining the contract with the client company. None of the standard HR policies practices ever come into play for temp workers. We’ve never seen it.”

Indeed, some employers still balk at the idea of outsourcing an employment relationship. Guptill of Lafarge Canada said using temp workers might make sense for organizations that are too small to have an HR department.

“This may show our social democratic roots being a European-headquartered company, but we feel a strong connection to our employees,” said Guptill.

“We feel that there’s a high degree of customer contact with many of our employees at low levels of the organization and we feel we can only do that when we have complete control over the employee. By control, I mean we are the employer, we want them to know we’re the employer and we want to stand on record as the employer.”

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