The double psychological contracts of temporary agency workers

Publication Date30 Sep 2014
AuthorManuela Morf,Alexandra Arnold,Bruno Staffelbach
SubjectHR & organizational behaviour,Industrial/labour relations
The double psychological
contracts of temporary
agency workers
Manuela Morf
Department of Business Administration, University of Zurich, Zurich,
Alexandra Arnold
Department of Business Administration, University of Zurich, Zurich,
Switzerland and Department of Human Resource Management,
School of Management and Labor Relations, Rutgers University,
New Jersey, USA, and
Bruno Staffelbach
Department of Business Administration, University of Zurich, Zurich,
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to investigate how temporary agency workers’ job attitudes
are influenced by the fulfilment of the psychological contract; a set of employees’ expectations, formed
with the temporary work agency and its client: the host organisation.
Design/methodology/approach – The paper estimated moderated regressions with data collected
through an online survey of 352 temporary agency workers employed by a large temporary work
agency in Switzerland.
Findings – Results suggest that temporary agency workers’ job satisfaction, commitment towards
the host organisation, and intentions to stay with the temporary work agency relate positively to the
fulfilment of the psychological contract by both organisations. Additionally, reported spill-over-effects
imply that the fulfilment of the psychological contract by one organisation moderates job attitudes
towards the other organisations.
Research limitations/implications – Results of the explorative study reveal that future research
should consider the interrelated nature of psychological contracts in wo rking arrangements when
multiple employers are involved. However, for more generalisable results, a greater international
sample, including different temporary work agencies, would be favourable.
Practical implications – Findings will help temporary work agencies to better understand how
they rely on host o rganisations to fulfil the temporary agency workers’ psychological contract to
attract and retain temporary agency workers.
Originality/value – This paper contributes to the literature in the understudied field ofnon-traditional
work arrangements as oneof the few to examinethese spill-over-effectsboth empiricallyand theoretically.
Keywords Employee attitudes, Employee behaviour, Psychological contracts, Temporary workers
Paper type Research paper
The number of temporary agency workers (temps) has doubled in the last decade
in Europe, and a fu rther increase is expected (de Cuyper et al., 2008). Similar
developments can be found in the USA (van Breugel et al., 2005) and in Asia
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Received 4 March 2013
Revised 2 August 2013
16 November 2013
5 March 2014
16 April 2014
Accepted 5 June 2014
Employee Relations
Vol. 36 No. 6, 2014
pp. 708-726
rEmeraldGroup PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/ER-03-2013-0026
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency or other third party in the
public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors. The authors thank the Swiss temporary work
agency that provided us with a sample of e-mail addresses of their temporary agency workers.
(Liu et al., 2010). Moreover, in Switzerland, where our explorative study was conducted,
the number of temps is almost three times as high as it was 20 years ago (Rosinger
and Djurdjevic, 2007). Temporary agency work is characteristically sho rt-term in
nature, with a shared employer role between the temporary work agency (agency) that
contracts the temp and the host organisation (host) that leases the temp’s labour work
from the agency (Claes, 2005; Svensson and Wolve
´n, 2010). The market for temps has
grown and become more competitive, thereby, being able to attract and retain the best
temps is a competitive advantage for agencies (Liu et al., 2010; van Breugel et al.,
2005). For this reason, agencies need to understand how to develop and maintain
employee-employer relationships with their temps.
To understand employee-employer relationships, a great body of research has
adopted psychological contract as a theoretical foundation (Conway and Briner, 2005;
Rousseau, 1995; Zhao et al., 2007). According to psychological contract theory,
employees hold a set of implicit expectations (the psychological contract) about what
they feel committed or obligated to provide to the employer (e.g. productivity), and
what their employer is obligated to provide them (e.g. salary or career opportunities).
In other words, employees perceive the employee-employer relationship as a reciprocal
exchange (Rousseau, 1995). In contrast to traditional employee-employer relationships,
the employer role in temporary agency work is divided betwe en the host and agency.
As a consequence, temps form dyadic psychological contracts with the host and the
agency (Cullinane and Dundon, 2006; Marks, 2001; McLean Parks et al., 1998).
Various studies have investigated how employment outcomes of workers with
fixed-term contracts differ from traditional workers. However, these results are
inconsistent; indicating the short-term nature of work is not the on ly factor influencing
temps’ job attitudes and behaviours (de Cuyper et al., 2008; Guest, 2004). In contrast,
some studies support the fact that the fulfilment of psychological contract in genera l
is a good predictor of employee job attitudes and behaviours (Guest, 2004; Van Dyne
and Ang, 1998). Moreover, findings imply that employees’ attitudinal responses to
fulfilled psychological contracts in non-traditional work arrangements might
differ from employees in traditional work arrangements (Guest, 2004). Consequently,
the existing findings linking traditional workers’ psychological contracts to job
attitudes should not be generalised (Claes, 2005; McLean Parks et al., 1998; Svensson
and Wolve
´n, 2010). To gain more insight into the impact of psychological contracts
on job attitudes in non-traditional employment settings, further empirical study is
required (Guest, 2004; McLean Parks et al., 1998; Svensson and Wolve
´n, 2010).
Accordingly, this paper aims to contribute to the literature of multiple psychological
contracts by investigating the effect of a dyadic psychological contract fulfilled by the
agency and by the host on temps’ job attitudes. Specifically, the job attitudes
we examine include job satisfaction and affective commitment towards the agency
and the host, because these two attitudes strongly influence job behaviours (e.g. job
performance), which is of relevance to employers ( Judge et al., 2001; Meyer et al., 1989).
However, the management of job attitudes in a multiple employer setting remains
unclear (Burgess and Connell, 2006; Liden et al., 2003; van Breugel et al., 2005).
Accounting for the fact that the agency is not only the employer of the temp, but
also its provider of placement services (Liu et al., 2010; van Breugel et al., 2005), we also
investigated the impact of a fulfilled psychological contract on intentions to stay with
the agency for future short-term assignments.
Moreover, in the triangular relationship between temp, agency, and host, elements of
indirect reciprocity exist (Molm et al., 2007; Seinen and Schram, 2006). For example,
agency workers

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