One of the first questions people often ask when meeting someone new is what the person does for a living. Whether it is a good or a bad thing, we live in a society where a person’s job carries a lot of social meaning. It provides information about who we are – our likes and dislikes, interests, personality, educational background, and social status. In many ways our work is a big part of answering the question, “Who am I?”
The growing trend of employing external workers through contract or temporary employment is adding a new level of complexity to the question, “What do you do for a living?” or “Where do you work?” The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the number of Americans engaged in this type of work to be approximately 20 million. However, many experts in the field believe it is a much larger number if one considers all the different forms of contract labor. This trend is true in other parts of the world as well.
With numbers like these it is worth considering how this type of work impacts one’s work identity. A recent paper in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology addressed challenges that external workers face to develop a healthy sense of self-identity given the unique nature of their employment.
Self-identity and engagement
Self-identity directly impacts a person’s well-being and work performance. A sense of identity at work provides a person structure to their social environment, a source of self-esteem to develop a positive self-image, and a set of expectations regarding their attitudes and behaviors. When one’s work is comprised of multiple, short-term, varied jobs it can be difficult to create a coherent, established sense of work identity leading to potentially negative consequences. Even more challenging is that people engaged in external work may be forced to take identities that do not reflect how they want to view themselves. After all, who wants to be thought of as a “temporary” or “contract” person?
This lack of identity can lead to unfulfilled, unmotivated, and underperforming workers. This is not just bad for employees, it is bad for companies.
Organizations are increasingly relying on external workers to achieve core business goals. In fact, over two-thirds of the top human capital leaders from around the world reported in 2017 they were likely to move toward a workforce composition model that included contract and temporary workers. Given the growing reliance on the contract workforce, it is critical organizations ensure the investments made in external employees generate a positive return. This includes addressing the self-identity risk posed by contract and temporary employment relationships.
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Fortunately, there are several things that organizations and managers can do to help external workers foster a positive work identity and have a positive experience at work.
- Managers can help external workers derive a sense of meaning in their work. When individuals see the big picture of the work they are contributing to, they are more likely to develop a positive work identity.
- Managers can provide positive feedback to external workers, just as they should for internal employees. A simple, “Well done!” “You’re really good at this!” and “We really appreciate you helping us out” can help build and validate a contract employee’s sense of self and work identity. Managers who show appreciation and recognize the value added by contract workers help these workers develop a positive work identity. If workers’ work is noticed and appreciated, they will value their own work more. Letting people know that they matter and that you appreciate what they do is a simple, but powerful act towards creating a positive self-identification with the work.
- Mangers should create a culture, or shared values and norms, with their contract employees despite the positions being temporary. This can be accomplished by creating a sense of a team, or even having set standards that are disseminated across all contract workers. This structure, or shared community, can lead to increased identification with the work itself as well as the organization leading to increased morale among the workers.
People do not have to be full-time employees to be fully invested in their jobs. But if companies do not invest in their external workers, they will lose out on the value and insight of contract workers. Organizations must do their part to help these workers identify with their work in a positive way, ultimately benefiting both the organization and the workers in the long run.
Contract employees should not be treated as though they are less important than full-time employees. All people should be valued for their contributions, regardless of their formal employment relationship. Most importantly, this value should be communicated so whether someone is doing a job for 10 years or 10 days they feel a positive sense of self based on the work that they do.