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Fall 2005 Managing Part-Timers

10 Traps to Avoid

Motivating full-time employees is hard enough, but part-time workers pose a special challenge. How do you light fires under people who are with you only some of the time? How do you keep them motivated, productive—and on the payroll?

Answering that question is critical. Slimmer profit margins are forcing more retailers to maintain smaller payrolls, hiring part-time employees for busy hours and temporary workers for peak seasons. These “contingency workers” account for 20 percent of the work force, according to the national consulting firm Towers Perrin (Chicago). That’s expected to rise to 30 percent within a decade.

“Part-time and temporary employees have become vital tools for keeping a retailer’s labor costs under control,” says Carl Johnson, president of Princeton Employee Relations (Princeton, NJ). But unmotivated part-timers are dangerous. If they feel demoralized, they perform listlessly and neglect customers. That threatens your profits. Worse, they’re likely to quit. That saddles you with the task and expense of finding and training their replacements—only to find yourself in that spot again at some point later on.

Here’s the good news. You can turn it around. The secret? Not making the common mistakes that are proven turn-offs for part-time employees. Here are the 10 traps to avoid.


According to leading management consultants, these are the most common errors employers make with part-timers. Obviously, you want to avoid all of these traps:

Trap: The cold shoulder. Parking new part-timers at a sales counter with a vague promise to “get back to them later” is unproductive and creates anxiety. Instead, give them a warm welcome when they arrive the first day. Introduce them to the other staffers who are there. “It’s easy for part-time workers to feel they’re not wanted or needed or loved, so they don’t fit in,” says John Fanning, president of Uniforce Staffing (New Hyde Park, NY). And avoid confusion and hurt feelings by clearly identifying the chain of command: who reports to whom, and who has authority over what.

Trap: Turned loose without orientation. New part-timers can easily feel lost, so you need to orient them to the workplace. First, plan ahead. “Do things ahead of time,” says Bruce Steinberg of National Association of Temporary and Staffing Services (Alexandria,VA). “Don’t just assume that when people show up, you’ll get everything ready. Prepare their workspace with all the tools they need.” When the new part-timer arrives, “take 15 minutes to describe job duties exactly,” he says. “And cover the basics,” from overtime to personal calls to whom to call if the computer crashes.

Trap: No mentor. Even with a good orientation, the new part-timer will start feeling confused as job tasks and expectations increase. You or other staffers may be so busy that the new worker hesitates to ask questions or advice. When that happens, the part-timer is easily demoralized and works at less than full capability. So assign a mentor to every part-time employee the first day. “A mentor is a tremendous motivational tool,” says Don Schackne, president of Personnel Management and Administration Associates (Delaware, OH). “Select someone who’s willing to teach and is patient.” If you have a larger staff, you can also assign roving mentors. “This is especially valuable in retailing, where these people can roam the [sales] floor.” Extra benefit: the employee as mentor feels good about the role.

Trap: Micromanaging. Managers often exert too much control over part-timers. It usually comes in the form of “We’ve always done it this way, and you will, too.” Yet maybe there is a better way—you’ll never know if you don’t give the new employee room to suggest and try some new ideas, and solve problems creatively. Motivation, self-esteem and admiration for the job—and you—can skyrocket.

Even better: Encourage everyone to think creatively by recognizing new ideas publicly. “When part-time workers believe they are making a difference in an organization, they feel better about being there,” says Ian Jacobsen, president of Jacobsen Consulting Group (Sunnyvale, CA).

Trap: Grunt work. It’s tempting to assign all the low-level work to the part-timer and let things go at that. After all, doesn’t that free you or your permanent employees for “more important” work? “Part-timers are [often] assigned the worst tasks,” says Ellen Wagner, president of Creative Solutions (Farmingdale, NJ). “That’s demoralizing.” And then they quit.

There’s nothing wrong with assigning low-level work. Just be sure to add interesting, challenging, more-specialized tasks to the mix of everyone’s workday. Aren’t sure what they’d find challenging or interesting? Ask them! Perhaps it’s learning about a new product line, improving their demonstration skills, or trying their hand at displays. Divvy up or rotate the grunt work among everyone, and give some “good” tasks to everyone. You’ll minimize boredom, resentment and turnover.

Trap: No praise for good work. Managers and employers often neglect to congratulate or even mention part-timers’ good work. That’s uncool. And it can be devastating. “The recognition of a job well done is even more important for part-time workers,” says Peter A. Spevak, PhD, director of the Center for Applied Motivation (Rockville, MD). “Their own identity with the company is not as strong, and they need to be reinforced.” They feel they’re “just part timers” if they don’t get adequate praise for their achievement—and that de-motivates them. So go ahead, give “Part-timer of the Month” awards. And put photos of the winners where everyone—including your customers—can see them.

Trap: Conflicts with full-timers. If you also have full-time employees but poor communication with them, they may start feeling threatened by your part-timers. Fearing for their jobs, they may give part-timers a hard time, or not cooperate with them. Solution: “Bring your full-time employees together” before new part-timers arrive, says Burt Slatas, director of marketing at Olsten Staffing Services (Melville, NY). “Explain that your store needs the help,” and that the new people aren’t a threat to anyone’s job, he says.

Trap: No financial incentives. Traditionally, bonuses go to full-time sales associates and other staffers. But now, savvy employers have incentive programs for part-timers to motivate and reward them. “Develop some kind of a bonus plan based on gross sales or on some performance-based criterion,” says Schackne. Another option: “Consider providing benefits for part-time people,” says Roy E. Chitwood, president of Max Sacks International (El Segundo, CA). For example, “after a certain amount of time, offer insurance coverage, or [paid] vacation time for x number of hours of work.” Finally, think about paying part-timers a little more per hour than other retailers in your mall or area. This helps keep competitors from raiding your employees after you’ve invested in training them and bringing them along.

Trap: Rigid hours. A substantial portion of part-time and temp employees don’t want to be tied down to a 9-to-5 or other fixed eight-hour shift. Some have kids, others have classes, and some just don’t want a full day every day. So capitalize on that! If you allow for some flexible scheduling that also meets your operation’s needs, you encourage your employees to continue being your employees.

Trap: No feedback. After a project or sales cycle is over, have a brain-storming session, says Kenneth Misa, president of HR Consulting Group (Glendale, CA), “to give part-timers some opportunity to express feelings.” What was done well? Poorly? What could make it better next time? Their answers can be “guideposts” for improving the way you treat and manage part-timers in the future—and increase your return on investment in them, he says. A similar note from Spevak: “Get feedback, even if you do it formally with a checklist. This lets the workers know you’re pleased to have them as part of your team. It’s reinforcement.”


Sidestepping these top 10 traps will help you motivate part-time employees to work with more enthusiasm and commitment to your business. And that, of course, is good for your bottom line. It can also put your business ahead of the competition for good employees. Employers in the past “have had the perception that part-time and temporary workers were disposable,” says Marc Silbert of Robert Half International (Menlo Park, CA).

“They came, performed menial functions, and left.” But now, he says, “they serve virtually all aspects of the workplace. They should be recognized as the professionals they are.”

Phillip M. Perry

Perry is a freelance writer based in New York, NY.

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