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Problematic Temp Made for a Taxing Tax Season

May 18th 2017
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Having just completed my 22nd tax season, I am surprised – as I am every year – that there are still things to learn in managing my practice, and there are painful reminders that some lessons are not learned the first (or second, or third) time.

This year we had an issue with staffing that nearly demoralized everyone in our office, which could have been avoided had we been more vigilant.

At our office, we supplement our full-time staff by using a temp agency to fill the receptionist and back-office positions during tax season. We learned the hard way that laying off several people each April 15 was murder on our unemployment rates.

Using temps who have been screened and background-checked by an agency has saved us thousands of dollars over time, particularly in the many years that the economy was troubled. We take care to treat the temps with the same interest in their well-being afforded to our staff, and we give them substantial bonuses if they stay through to the end of tax season. We have occasionally been lucky enough to have some of them back the following year.

In the temp world, there appears to be three types of worker personalities:

  1. Those who are solidly employable but are just in between jobs.
  2. Those who are talented but don’t work well with others.
  3. Those who enjoy temporary assignments as a lifestyle.

Understanding the differences and how it translates to one’s practice is critical. In the past, our firm has had some issues with those in the first category, as they have been in the market for full-time jobs and have occasionally landed them late in the season – which is one reason we instituted the conditional bonus. Those in the third category, permanent temps, tend to be the most reliable even if they don’t quite set the world on fire with their skills.

It is the second category – those with skill but who are not team players – that caught us off-guard this year. Having been down this road a few times, never with a good result, one would think we would quickly dismiss a risky hire. But the candidate was clever, had taken a tax class, and knew our software – tempting indeed.

We ignored clear signs of big trouble ahead, as the temp’s resume had nine years of experience in as many tax offices, but never the same one for more than one tax season. Did we question the temp agency or call the previous employers about this? No. The truth is we took a shortcut and grabbed at a shiny penny that could be trained quickly and cheaply, stifling any internal qualms with the rationalization: “It’s only 12 weeks, how bad can it be?”

You can guess the rest. The first couple of weeks were great, as the training was swift, and she had helpful procedure-streamlining suggestions from her experience at the other offices she worked for. She was a little pushy, but still eager to please. Then just as the full-time appointments started, she became competitive and combative with our other staff, terrorizing our receptionist and driving my assistant to distraction. She also challenged directives from the partners.

Did we let her go? No. We did not want to start over, so we tried to work with her and reason with her, and when that failed, we talked to the agency. These were only half-measures, and by the time tax season was over, we were all reeling from the dissonance whose root cause was not really her bad behavior, but rather our unwillingness to correct our mistake early, no matter the inconvenience.

Lesson learned? I hope so, but never again is a long time …

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