Engaging External Workers:  What’s Your Self-Identity When You’re Not a “Real” Employee?



by Cassondra Batz-Barbarich, Steven Hunt, and Autumn Krauss, HCM Research, SAP SuccessFactors and Trent Burner, SHRM Research 

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 interests, areas of expertise, 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 arrangement is adding a new level of complexity in answers 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, although many experts in the field believe it is a much larger number if one considers all the different forms of contract labor. According to a recent report by Gallup, as many as 36% of Americans works as an external worker in some capacity. 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. To investigate this issue, a recent study reported 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 directly impacts a person’s well-being and work performance. A sense of identity at work provides a person a social environment to which they belong, a source of self-esteem to develop a positive self-image, and a basis on which to further develop their attitudes and beliefs to inform their 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 such as decreased job performance and increased intentions to turnover. 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 or “non-employee,” which is often used by companies to label the external part of their workforce? 

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 report that they will adopt a workforce composition model that uses contract and temporary workers. In fact, according to a recent report, 65% of companies say that the external workforce is important or very important to operating at full capacity and meeting market demands.  Given companies’ reliance on the contract workforce, it is critical that organizations ensure that the investment made in external workers generates a positive return. Part of this is addressing the self-identity risk inherently associated with a contract or temporary employment relationship.  

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.

  1. Managers can help external workers derive a sense of meaning in their work. When individuals see the big picture of the work that they are contributing to, then they are more likely to develop a positive work identity, even if their assignment and contribution is temporary.
  2. Managers can provide positive feedback to external workers, just as they should for internal employees. A simple, “Well done!,” “We couldn’t have done this without you,” and “We really appreciate you helping us out” can help build and validate an external worker’s sense of self and work-identity. Managers who show appreciation and recognize the value added by external workers help these workers develop a positive work identity. Simply put, realizing that the work they do does not go unnoticed leads them to value their own work more. Letting people know that they matter and that you appreciate what they do, even if they are a temporary member of the team, is a simple but powerful action that fosters a positive self-identification with their work.
  3. Managers should create a culture, or shared values and norms, with their external workers despite the positions being temporary. This can be accomplished by creating a sense of a team inclusive of external workers, such as having set standards and cultural norms that are disseminated across all team members. This inclusive team culture, or sense of shared community, can lead to increased identification with the work itself as well as the organization, resulting in increased morale and collaboration amongst all workers.

People do not have to be permanent internal employees to be fully invested in their jobs. But if companies do not invest in their external workers, then they will lose out on the potential value and contribution of this important and growing segment of their workforce. Organizations must do their part to help these workers identify with their work in a positive way, ultimately benefitting both the organization and the workers in the long run. Contract workers should not be treated as though they are less important than permanent 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 ten years or ten days, they feel a positive sense of self based on the work that they do.

This article is part of an extensive ongoing research program currently being conducted by SHRM’s and SAP SuccessFactors’ research groups on the challenges affecting the use and management of external workers including contractors, temporary employees, contingent workers, and freelancers. If you would like to learn more about this research program, including opportunities to participate, please contact Mitchell Ogisi from SHRM Research at Mitchell.ogisi@shrm.org or Cassondra Batz-Barbarich from SAP HCM Research at cassie.batz@sap.com.


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