Making Seasonal Employees Work

By Donna M. Owens Apr 1, 2006
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HR Magazine, April 2006Heres how four employers manage the challenges of attracting and retaining seasonal employees.

Pamela Tandoc is not an accountant, but this tax season she’s helping thousands of people across America file their income tax returns.

Tandoc is a seasonal employee working in technical support for Liberty Tax Service. The Virginia-based firm, which offers retail and online tax preparation services, is the nation’s third-largest income tax preparer.

Hired back in December, Tandoc, a recent college graduate, has a degree in information technology. She works at Liberty’s Virginia Beach headquarters as part of a team that maintains the computer systems and specialized software that are integral to computerized tax preparation nationwide.

“This is my first professional position in my field—I was working as a bank teller,” says Tandoc, whose sister, a full-time network support technician for Liberty, told her about the job.

She earns more than she did as a bank teller. And while the position does not offer health care or benefits, Tandoc thinks it’s a good situation for someone starting a career. “I wanted to get the experience, and I really like the company. … It’s laid-back, and people are friendly,” she says. “It’s been a good option for me.” She would like to stay on, but so far expects the job to end in April.

For many companies, the use of seasonal employees is a fundamental part of the business model, allowing the organization to expand and contract the workforce—and the cost of salaries for those workers—in response to variations in workflow.

The use of seasonal workers also benefits companies by saving them money on benefits, which usually are not granted to seasonal employees, and on long-term training.

John A. Challenger, CEO of the HR consulting and outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas in Chicago, says seasonal employment gives employees “more freedom and control, a balance between their personal and working lives.” ›

For employers, seasonal staffing offers the financial flexibility that comes from filling positions on a “just in time” basis.

Companies gain, Challenger says, “when they utilize workers only when needed for projects, be that for a day or a year.” How companies attract and retain these important workers, then, can be vital to the effective and efficient operation of the business, potentially providing an edge over competitors. Here’s how four very different employers handle this important job.

Tis the Season

For Liberty Tax Service, seasonal workers like Tandoc help the company beef up staff at its 2,000 offices in the United States and Canada during the critical tax season, when most of the company’s revenue is earned.

Kathleen Curry, Liberty’s vice president of legal and human resources, says the company normally has about 300 full-time, year-round employees. But come the peak season leading up to tax time—typically from early January through mid-April—and the staff at corporate headquarters alone can swell by several hundred people.

In the various individual offices, 99 percent of which are franchises, most outlets hire between 10 and 20 seasonal employees. Depending on the type of position and other factors, the number of hires varies from year to year.

On a companywide basis, the majority of Liberty’s seasonal hires are tax preparers who provide services such as computerized tax preparation and fast refund-anticipation loans. At corporate headquarters, temporary workers include technical and customer service support staff and receptionists. Seasonal workers also act as “wavers” to do “guerilla marketing” as the company’s costumed mascot, Lady Liberty, says Curry.

Without these workers, the organization would have difficulty meeting customer demands. “We need our seasonal employees,” says Curry. “Without seasonal employees, Liberty could not as effectively provide tax return preparation for our customers or technical support for our franchises.”

What does the company look for in a seasonal employee? For starters, it seeks workers who have “a great attitude.” Some accounting experience is helpful but not required; neither is a college degree. New hires attend a 12-week tax school as well as an intensive one-week “rapid course” for training on preparing returns. Hiring repeat employees helps the company save on retraining costs, Curry says.

Like many companies whose workers deal primarily with the public, emphasis is placed on hiring those who project a positive image. As the “face” of the business, they’re often the first person customers have contact with.

“We look at personality,” says Curry. “We want people to be fabulous at customer service.”

Those hired earn “competitive” salaries, plus bonuses based on fees received from tax customers if the employee stays the whole season, says Curry.

“We want people to stay the whole season,” she says, “and we want everyone to come back next year. Every year, they gain knowledge of the customers and the company.”

The record shows that the company’s formula has been successful. Many seasonal employees return each year, an indication that they are pleased with their jobs and the perks.

The fact that workers can earn extra money to help pay off holiday bills is certainly an incentive for some. “Tax season starts right after Christmas, and many people have bills,” notes Curry.

But she believes it is the way Liberty treats both its customers and team members that differentiates the company from its competitors and improves its staffing results.

“We don’t want anyone to feel they are dealing with some nameless, faceless company. You build a partnership,” says Curry.

Profiting From Seasonal Success

Specialty food purveyor Hickory Farms has found that the knowledge of its HR and management team are key when developing training programs, HR systems and recruiting strategies for hiring seasonal workers. That’s especially important for a company that has built a unique image and niche in the marketplace using seasonal workers.

Hickory Farms, a multi-million dollar company focused on specialty foods such as cheese, meats and crackers, operates only one year-round retail store, in Maumee, Ohio, where the company is headquartered. But around the Christmas season, several hundred temporary kiosks spring up in shopping malls nationwide. There were more than 700 kiosks during the 2005 holiday season. The colorful kiosks are typically open throughout November and December, but may stay open one or two weeks in January depending on inventory.

To keep these kiosks up and running, Hickory Farms seeks not only friendly and outgoing people, but also hardy workers who are able to meet the demands of a bustling retail operation, says the company’s vice president of human resources.

“We want someone who can work in a busy mall environment, who can multi-task,” says Sheri Caldwell, SPHR, who holds a doctorate in HR development. “Someone who feels comfortable [offering samples] to customers, can work on their feet and lift 20 to 30 pounds on a regular basis, and stock items.”

In addition to its kiosk sales, Hickory Farms’ products are also sold in grocery stores and mass-market retailers like Target and Wal-Mart. The company also has a growing catalog business, handled by a massive call center team at headquarters.

Normally, the company employs 250 full-time year-round employees, says Caldwell, but during peak periods around the holidays, that number rises considerably, soaring upward to 11,000. To recruit these staffers, HR advertises primarily in newspapers and at malls, starting in September and October. However, a majority of hires come from employee referrals and repeat employees. Seeking referrals is part of the company’s overall hiring strategy because it saves the business money by decreasing its advertising costs and reduces time and money spent on recruitment efforts.

Seasonal workers are paid anywhere from $6.50 to $8.50 per hour depending on position and location. Kiosk managers with strong performance get an extra incentive to return the following season.

Caldwell says the company devotes a great deal of time and attention to training everyone on its team—from supervisors to sales staff. The efforts range from three-day training workshops that cover everything from disability and safety issues to instructions on how to operate the cash register.

Workers in the call center also receive a detailed binder that covers phone order entry and customer service training, as well as a computer reference guide.

Call center employees who worked for the company the prior year attend a four-hour refresher course before they begin manning the phones. Rehires who have been with the company for more than two seasons do not attend any training unless software changes have occurred that would necessitate additional training.

The call center training is the responsibility of Carol Stamm, a former seasonal employee who is now the company’s HR training manager and call center partner. “I came on board as a trainer one season, and I stayed in contact. The following year, they brought me back,” says Stamm.

Her duties—among them oversight of hundreds of call center seasonal employees—require exceptional organizational skills. Several hundred employees are being trained for the call center this year. (Heavy periods are mid-October through early December.) They will work in two shifts; the call center is open 24 hours a day during peak season.

“We’re figuring out the days they can all work. We call it controlled chaos,” says Stamm.

The company’s seasonal workers include parents and students, according to demographic information from Hickory Farms. More women than men apply, and many are college students or working second jobs. Applicants are all ages, but most are young adults.

To manage its seasonal workers, Stamm says the company keeps employee names in a database, along with information designed to help maintain their rehire eligibility.

“We know who’s good, those who are keepers,” she says of return hires who tend to get better with tasks like identifying product lines, thereby enhancing customer service. An added plus for employers who bring seasonal workers back year after year: “You get to try before you buy.”

Timely Assistance

Indeed, many employers say that hiring seasonal employees can positively impact their ability to provide optimal customer service.

One example is The Vermont Teddy Bear Co., a gift delivery company where the core product lends itself to a warm, friendly, customer-focused philosophy.

About one-fifth of the company’s annual seasonal workforce returns to work for the retailer, bringing with them their past experience with their particular job, their prior training, and their knowledge of the company’s overall business processes and products, all of which are valuable, says recruiting manager Kerry Aliesky.

The company’s history dates back to the early 1980s, when founder John Sortino began peddling his hand-crafted teddy bears at an open-air market in Burlington. Today, the company resides in a 60,000-square-foot factory (known as the fulfillment center) at its Shelburne headquarters.

For this business, workers who can relate to customers in a fun, personal and meaningful way are most desirable. “We want someone outgoing, energetic, enthusiastic and entertaining, because this is a very interactive business,” says Aliesky. This is especially true of the “bear ambassadors” who work in the on-site retail store, an environment often filled with children, she says.

The company employs 250 people year-round—from retail workers to “gift counselors” who staff the call center and help customers order from multiple product lines, including PajamaGrams, Gift Bag Boutique handbags, and Calyx and Corolla floral bouquets. During busy periods like Valentine’s Day (their No. 1 sales period followed by Mother’s Day and Christmas) the workforce can grow by as many as 600 people.

“It’s all about getting the gifts out there on time,” says Aliesky, who adds that many seasonal hires are students and professionals working second jobs.

The company finds its seasonal workers by advertising on the radio and in newspapers and by recruiting at local colleges. Normally, they’re paid above minimum wage; on Valentine’s Day and holidays there’s a “premium” wage.

“We certainly want to compensate them for that time,” says Aliesky, who acknowledges that financial perks are one way to keep good seasonal workers coming back time and again. “We’ve done tremendously well with that.”

Growing Seasonal Staff

Family-owned Bishop’s Orchards, in Guilford, Conn., operates a 300-acre farm, where approximately 200 acres are devoted to growing apples, peaches, strawberries and various vegetable crops.

At harvest time, seniors—as well as high school and college students—work at the farm market, a 7,200-square-foot retail space that sells produce, fresh baked goods, apple cider and fruit wines from the farm’s mill and winery.

“About 95 percent of the business comes through the farm market,” explains co-CEO Keith Bishop, who runs the operation with his second cousin, co-CEO Jonathan Bishop. “Getting good local help is hard, but we’ve been successful.”

Bishop stresses that in these times when farms must keep pace both with planting practices and developments in technology, the enterprise values its seasonal employees as a way to achieve greater economic flexibility and provide better customer service.

“We have a pretty good retention rate, especially the high school students,” says Bishop. “We want to be an employer of choice and prefer to hire high school juniors, so they can be with us several years and return through their college years.”

The business may bring on as many as 100 seasonal workers during the peak months of September and October. Of those hired last summer for the fall season, about 60 seasonal employees plan to return this year.

The Bishops try to cultivate loyalty by taking good care of their seasonal labor force. During training, employees are given tours that offer them a sense of the farm’s history. Other perks include hayrides, gift cards, movie tickets, pizza lunches and employee appreciation nights. Employees also work on teams during training to learn the ins and outs of jobs other than their own.

In May, an annual celebration held during apple blossom time gives seasonal workers a chance to learn about the crops they help sell.

This year’s festivities will coincide with the farm’s 135th anniversary and the grand opening of its newly expanded farm market. Bishop believes such gestures allow the business to show its workers, particularly those who are seasonal, that “employees are the key to our success.”

Donna M. Owens is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.

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