Temporary Life 3: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You
Getting hired by a temp agency is relatively easy: make an appointment, appear in your second-hand monkey suit, fill out the application, take the software test, and discuss your resume with the “analyst.” Provided you type over forty words per minute, pass the software test and are functionally literate, they’ll hire you. As you leave, however, do not skip, sing, or whistle the theme song to Rocky; you’ll wait before you work. And, as you wait, your day of ostensible triumph will become one of languishing hope, brooding uncertainty, indignant irritation, then cynical indifference. It will become days and days will become weeks and weeks will become months until the day you abandon any chance of the phone ringing as a sucker’s bet. Whatever hopeful signs the analyst gave will cease to evoke hope. Rather, they will evoke abhorrence and disillusionment, thus preparing you for the ultimate sacrifice: that of personal liberty to institutional authority.
The first thing a soldier must abandon is personal accountability. His personal choice in just about everything, down to when he eats, sleeps and shits, is either voided or replaced with a rule, regulation or guideline. He must be conditioned to act on command, without hesitation, doubt, or consideration of the options. The extremes required of him would not be supportable without this substitution of the personal with the compulsory. The soldier’s depersonalization is achieved by punishment—usually pain, privation, or public humiliation. The white-collar world, which prides itself on decorum and civility, achieves depersonalization by indirect punishments, such as letting the penitent stew in isolation. This withdrawing of attention, as opposed to applying it, is what pop-psychologists refer to as “passive aggression.” Really, it’s just a way of exploiting the natural human terror of being cut off from communal resources, of depriving a gregarious creature of the social feedback necessary to establish itself within the community. It is designed to leave you alone in the universe—or the jungle.
After signing up with my first temp agency, I soon discovered that this isolation took various forms, most notably the coveting and concealment of information. It began with the agency not revealing its intentions regarding prospective assignments, which always came out of the blue. The agency also concealed both its commission and its clients’ reports of my performance. Finally, I never knew whether an agency intended to assign me again, a withholding of information designed to delay my looking elsewhere. And never did an agency explicitly terminate our professional contract; whether I worked or not, I was—and, as far as I know, still am—ostensibly employed by these agencies.
Agency analysts would sometimes tell me that I was a “free agent,” a contractor working for myself. This was specious PR; I had no control over the contractual terms of my employment. Temps don’t set their own pay rates, negotiate with clients, set the agency’s commission or define the scope of their work. It is a lie to even suggest that temps have the decision-making power that the word freedom implies. The belief that they might be free, if pleasant, doesn’t alter the fact that the terms of their employment are completely under the agency’s control, and the percentage of their earnings claimed by these staffing agencies far exceeds that of agency commissions in any other field. At best, a temp’s decision-making power takes two forms: the power to accept or decline an assignment, and the power to switch to another agency. The latter usually happens when the temp has been “blacklisted” (unknowingly barred from future assignments, which is not uncommon) or motivated by better assignments at higher pay rates.
Because agencies deny temps the freedom and information necessary to act in their own interest, temps have evolved stratagems to overcome this; they leverage one agency’s offerings against another’s, talk with people at their assignments to find out what their agencies will not tell them, and hire themselves out by undercutting their agency’s rates. However, a clause in their contract bars them from working for an agency client for at least 6 months after an assignment. The very existence of this clause indicates the degree to which agencies seek to professionally restrict temps, especially from the possibility of actually being free agents. If members of Congress are restricted from working as lobbyists for a year after they have left office, it is a justifiable (though ineffective) prohibition against the exploitation of public service for private gain. However, being a temp involves no such conflict of interest. Temps are prohibited simply because the agency wishes to retain its profits and its dispensable workforce.
Thus temps quickly learn to act in their own interest; they access and exploit information wherever possible. And this is as it should be, because agencies hoard information at their employees’ expense and offer no recompense for this imposed ignorance—no health insurance, no job security, no professional advancement, no sense of self-worth. Being disadvantaged and dispensable, temps rightly survive by dispelling the darkness that surrounds them. They often go into dysfunctional and politically treacherous workplaces, where, perceived as innocuous, disinterested drones, they hear things that more vested parties do not. As temps pretend to disinterested efficiency, so, perms, sensing them as posing no political threat, sometimes enter into confidences with them. These perms usually grouse, which is to be hoped for. However, while such confidences are advantageous, they must not appear invited. Any overt show of allegiance to a grousing perm could draw fire from the latter’s enemies. A too-interested temp can find the assignment cut short and the reason shrouded in secrecy.
Being kept from the truth is the hallmark of subordination. Higher-ups rarely reveal the geneses of the decisions that affect their subordinates. As in politics, so in the workplace: the consequences of the fait accomplit distract from its cause. Subordinates deal with what happens, not why it happens. When an assignment ends “earlier than expected,” experienced temps immediately get on the phone and make their availability known to the several other agencies. Whatever provisional rationales, apologies, or defenses an agency might give for ending an assignment early are likely only a convenient, unassailable means to ending the discussion. The true reasons may range from budget shortfalls to out-and-out dislike; however, if clients are under no obligation to give truthful answers to an agency, certainly an agency is no more compelled to be truthful to its employees. Anyhow, were the truth revealed, could the temp do anything about it? No. So it’s best that a temp act on the assumption that it’s over for good and find another agency.
© Copyright 2008, Jan DiVincenzo. All rights reserved.