If you’re fresh out of college, newly laid off, or a self-employed person going through one of those inevitable slow periods, temp work can be a ready source of cash. Depending on your temperament, you might see temp work as a great opportunity for gaining new skills and possibly landing the permanent job of your dreams. Or, you might look upon temping as a necessary evil, a cruel twist of vocational fate. If you fall into the latter category, you may want to take a little advice from someone who’s been there more times than she cares to count:
Shop around. Don’t settle for the first agency that throws some temp work your way. Some temp agencies are better than others, plain and simple. How do you feel when you enter the office or call in to check on possible temp work? Are you welcomed or treated like a number? Is there a general sense of chaos, perhaps an air of desperation, or do people seem to like their jobs? The agency is technically your employer as long as you’re doing temp work, and the way they treat you will have a big impact on your morale. You need to feel that if anything goes wrong or needs to be negotiated at the job site, they’ll have your back.
Don’t expect that the agency’s description of an assignment will even remotely resemble the temp work you’ll actually do. This is not an indictment of temp agencies. Most of the people who work at temp agencies are, in my experience, really rather sweet. At the very least, they’re probably not out to get you. The problem is that the job descriptions they receive tend to be vague, incomplete, or flat-out inaccurate. Like a well-worn piece of gossip, job descriptions for temp work often get garbled every time they pass from one person to the next.
Here’s one scenario: Say a manager, someone who has never done temp work in his life, looks around his busy hive of cubicles and realizes his staff needs some real help, real fast. He calls a rep in Human Resources-say, someone who has done temp work, perhaps recently, and who does not want to spend precious seconds of her overpacked day contemplating those dark times. The rep jots down the manager’s request and takes it to her supervisor. The supervisor frowns, hating the very idea of the company paying for temp work, thinking of all the money that’s going to go straight down the toilet. She gives the Human Resources rep sixteen other things to take care of first.
Later that day, or the next day, or the next week, the rep must finally handle this issue of getting someone to do temp work. She calls the temp agency and passes along the job description. She’s long since lost the scrap of paper she took notes on, but she figures, “I’ve done temp work. I know what’s involved. It’s all the same.” She mentions “filing” and “data entry.” She gets the hourly rate, the schedule, the department, and the supervisor’s name exactly right, because these are the really important details when it comes to temp work. The person at the agency says, “Great!” because that’s her standard response to everything.
You get the call for the temp work. You hear “filing” and “data entry,” and you say, “Great!” because you know that’s what you’re expected to say. You wonder why someone is paying $12 an hour for temp work that a chimp could do, but you’re not about to ask. You get to the job site the next day and track down the supervisor. He whisks you away to his department, sits you down at a desk, and starts talking very fast about the temp work you’ll be expected to perform. He mentions computer programs you’ve never heard of in your life, and he never mentions filing. It seems you won’t be entering data so much as mucking around with it: changing it, analyzing it, making charts and diagrams out of it, and the like.
“Does that make sense?” he asks when he’s finally out of breath. Which brings me to…
In temp work, be honest about what you can and cannot do. If you don’t know a computer program well enough to perform the temp work you’re being asked to do, say so. If instructions aren’t clear, speak up. How is this preserving your dignity? Well, is there anything more embarrassing than pretending to know what you’re doing in a job situation, only to have the supervisor look at your work and gasp, “Wow, are you lost! How did you manage this?”
By this point, you’ve probably wasted a whole eight hours of the company’s time. (Even when you completely screw up in temp work, they still have to pay you. You did show up and give it a try, after all.) What’s worse, you’ve wasted a lot of your own time and effort. Forgive me for sounding old-fashioned, but a job well done is a job well done, something you can feel good about. If you’re going to do temp work, you may think it’s pointless and even stupid, but you’ll feel better if you do it well.
In a temp work situation, you have the advantage of already being there. They really don’t want to send you home. They really don’t want to start this process all over again. Tell the supervisor you’ve never laid eyes on the program he wants you to use, but you’re willing to give it a try if he’ll take three minutes to show you what needs to be done. Chances are, they don’t need someone who knows the program inside and out. Jot down a few basic commands, and these may be enough to perform the temp work that’s required. If they’re not, you’re the one who did the honorable thing. It’ll be the supervisor’s turn to be embarrassed and the temp agency’s responsibility to make sure they’re matching the right people with the right temp work.
If you’re given your own work space, personalize it. Even if your temp work assignment only lasts a few weeks, that desk is still yours, damn it, at least for the time being. Bring in a few items that won’t make holes in anything and won’t make you cry if you find out that someone “borrowed” them: colorful notebook paper, your own coffee mug, a page-a-day calendar with (tasteful) jokes, a to-be-read-on-your-lunch-hour magazine that says something about who you are.
When I did temp work, no one ever noticed my conspicuously displayed copies of Poets and Writers magazine, but most people–okay, most women–seemed to like the pastel-colored Post-It notes I left on their desks. (“So much nicer than yellow!”) But personalizing your space isn’t about getting people to notice or comment on your stuff. It’s about reminding yourself that you’re a unique, intelligent, creative person who just happens to be doing temp work.