Academic journal article Journal of Managerial Issues

The Experience of Alienation among Temporary Workers in High-Skill Jobs: A Qualitative Analysis of Temporary Firefighters

Academic journal article Journal of Managerial Issues

The Experience of Alienation among Temporary Workers in High-Skill Jobs: A Qualitative Analysis of Temporary Firefighters

Article excerpt

Over the past fifteen years, one of the most pervasive trends in staffing has been the utilization of non-standard employment relationships, including contingent and temporary workers (see Connelly and Gallagher, 2004, for a recent review). Indeed, this has become a worldwide trend, with increases in contingent worker utilization in North America, Europe, and Asia (Isaksson and Bellagh, 2002; Quinlan and Bohle, 2004; Supangco, 2008). Given the uncertain environment in which most businesses operate, the flexibility offered by the utilization of contingent contracts seems to imply a likely increase in their use in the near future. Despite the rapid growth in the utilization of temporary employees, there are gaps in the literature examining the manner in which temporary workers experience their jobs. Specifically, while researchers are beginning to recognize the potential negative outcomes of the utilization of temporary work (yon Hippel et al., 1997), there remains limited research on the negative experiences of temporary workers.

This research draws upon the literature concerning alienation to better understand how temporary workers experience their jobs, and moreover, how their experiences differ from the perceptions of their coworkers and managers. To that end, in this paper the literature concerning alienation is reviewed to develop research questions that address gaps in the extant literature. The findings from a qualitative study of temporary firefighters and their coworkers and managers to address the research questions are presented and themes concerning alienation that have implications for research on temporary workers are developed.


While a variety of definitions have been put forth, alienation is related to feelings of powerlessness and lack of control among workers. Dean (1961) conceptualized alienation as a combination of powerlessness (a lack of control over one's economic outcomes), normlessness (anxiety associated with questioning one's purpose as well as conflicts between one's ideal self and their current situation), and social isolation (separation from social or group norms and relationships). The notion of alienation from work has been taken up by a variety of management scholars; many of those studies have been tasked with understanding the consequences of alienation. For example, Cummings (1977) found that alienation was associated with lower motivation (effort), lower performance, and greater tardiness from work among male blue-collar workers. Alienation retains researchers' interest today as scholars seek to understand its application cross-culturally (e.g., Banai and Reisel, 2007; Mir et al., 2007) as well as in the growing population of workers with non-traditional work arrangements.

Along with general interest in alienation among workers, specific interest has developed in the nature of alienation among temporary workers. This interest has developed because of a recognition that temporary employees work in an environment that facilitates alienation. For example, they may be alienated because they often represent an objective by management to increase flexibility and reduce the permanent workforce (Barker, 1995).

Rogers (1995) provided the most comprehensive investigation of alienation of temporary workers to date. She conducted interviews with 13 women working in temporary clerical positions. She found that alienation was experienced in three forms. Alienation from work referred to the distance from the work process and final product that is often experienced by temporary workers. For example, she found that temporary workers were often given extreme amounts of very tedious work (work that was often rejected by others) as part of their assignments with little control over work assignments (see also Carls, 2009). Alienation from others referred to the distance that is kept between workers and others in the workplace, either physically or psychologically. …

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