my boss keeps me on a month-to-month contract

A reader writes:

I was only supposed to be in my temporary job for one month, but now I’ve had it for a year and a half. Three months into the job, my boss left the company, and we only got a new one six months later. In the beginning, my contract was renewed for two and three months at a time, but since starting, my new boss has been renewing my contract for only one month at a time, for 10 months in a row. And he’s always waited until the last week before it ended to renew it. I don’t know why, seeing as how I’m needed, and our finances are good (I work in accounting), but I think it might be because he’s a rather insecure leader, and wishes he could show his bosses that he can do without me and save my salary.

I’ve never complained about any of this, because it won’t do any good, and I don’t want to stay in this job forever anyway. But I do find it a bit disrespectful, and while I try not to let it affect my work, I can’t say that I feel any great loyalty towards my boss or my company. Which is not to say that I don’t do a good job, in fact, I’m very much appreciated by my co-workers, but I could actually do way better, they just don’t know it. And if I did step up my game, my boss would be pleased for himself, but it wouldn’t do me any good. I’d just feel like I was wasting my dedication for nothing. So you see, I’m being merely good enough at it as a means of self-preservation.

My question to you is a general one: How much dedication do you think a boss can ask of an employee like me, who spends one week out of every month not knowing if she has a job next monday? Can he really expect me to take a deep interest in things that, to my knowledge, I will never see the benefit or result of? I know it would be stupid of me, but would it ever be completely unreasonable for me to point out my situation when he questions my work in regards to results that lay way ahead in the future? An example would be working on better accounting routines versus just making the best of it with the routines already in place, or permanently fixing a computer program system as opposed to just working around it. I tend to do the latter because my focus is on getting things done, which is what I was hired to do.

Nope, your boss is handling this badly. If he read a book on how to demotivate and disengage people and send them off on a job search, this is what it would tell him to do.

That said, have you asked him directly to handle it differently? If you haven’t, it’s worth saying, “It’s tough not knowing until the week before whether my contract will be renewed, every single month, and it makes it hard to do long-term or even medium-term planning, although I’d love to be able to take on some long-term work here, like figuring out better accounting routines or ___. It also makes me feel like I should be job searching, since I don’t know if I’ll still have work in a few weeks or not. Would you be open to taking about a different contract term?”

If he’s not, then at that point you’d need to think about whether you can be happy while being kept in this permanent state of limbo.

One thing to factor into that calculation is that the situation is probably causing you to do yourself a disservice: If you’re not working at the level that you could because of this constant instability (which is understandable), you’re not building the reputation for yourself that you’d be building if you were. And that really matters; you want to have a network of people who know you to do awesome work, because that’s often what will give you better options.

{ 58 comments… read them below }

  1. JB (not in Houston)*

    “you want to have a network of people who know you to do awesome work, because that’s often what will give you better options.” I could not agree with this more . There are people at my current job I’d give glowing references to because they go above and beyond. And there are others who may be capable of being fantastic employees, but they don’t put in the effort to be above average. And for them, any reference from me would be that they are just average. Dependable, reliable, but average.

    1. nm*

      I’d add – I will advocate for someone to be brought on if they are doing the sorts of things that grow us. You may have a point with not giving above your “value”, but you are missing a chance to build your resume and to build colleague advocates.

      1. TootsNYC*

        And missing a chance to build your skills and your own experience.

        When you go looking for a new job, you would find it invaluable to be able to say, “Although I was just a contract worker, I suggested some new procedures that streamlined things; my colleagues thought they were good ideas and implemented them. We saw a huge uptick in productivity.”

        1. AW*

          Excellent point. OP, you’ll get the benefit of making those changes because you’ll be able to put it on your resume.

    2. Have courage and be kind - Austin, TX*

      Exactly this!

      I have several people in my line of work asking me for help getting a job. We are in a super hot field; I have difficulty keeping headhunters at bay. There should be no reason for them to stay unemployed for 1 or 2 years, like is happening. The problem is precisely what you describe. I have lots of people from past jobs lining up to give glowing references, and that’s how recruiters find me as well (from getting positive feedback With these colleagues, it’s the opposite: they admit to being very average in past jobs, and the lackluster references are really keeping them from finding a job after a layoff.

  2. Ann Furthermore*

    Ugh, OP, that is a terrible situation to be in, I’m sorry. I’d probably be handling it the same way you are. I think Alison is right though. You should talk to your manager and ask if there’s a different way to handle things, like extending your contract in 3 or 6 month increments. If he’s not, then at least you’ll know where you stand, and you can make a decision about what to do next.

    It is really a drag to be in a “marking time” sort of job. Yes, you’re earning a paycheck, which is important, but at the same time you’re not able to challenge yourself, or increase or strengthen your skill set, which can hamper your career development.

  3. Apollo Warbucks*

    I start looking for another job if I were you, the signals you’re getting are the firm isn’t going to make a long term committement to employing you.

    For what it’s worth I wouldn’t bring it up to your manager by making comments about you not being there in he long term it will come of as being weak / passive aggressive and look like you do not have the ability to have a direct conversation.

    If you’re inclined to stay at this job speak up and ask for a longer contract or permanent job depending on what you want and see what you can negotiate.

    1. Stranger than fiction*

      I disagree. Saying the part about not being able to plan long term is perfectly reasonable to say without it being ultimatum.

  4. Coach Devie*

    I think you should probably be job searching.

    But I also think you can’t be passive aggressive about this situation either. Unfortunately your boss is not a good leader, so it’s also possible he is oblivious to how this would affect you and it’s also possible he is oblivious that you want something different than this, if you haven’t spoken up about it.

    So you need to speak up first and foremost. I understand you may be a bit afraid to do so because you worry it could mean you won’t have a job next Monday, but you already worry about that as it is and that really is terrible for your morale and sense of well-being. I can imagine it is causing you stress outside of work that you may not even realize.

    So first things first: Have the discussion. Either longer contract terms or a permanent role. Alison’s script is a good one. Refine it for your needs.

    Secondly: I would be actively job hunting. You deserve to be working somewhere that you feel secure at and your employer deserves an employee who is operating at their best.

    Third: The other advice is good too. You don’t want to limit yourself or your resume by only doing the bare minimum.

    But FIRST you HAVE to advocate for yourself and your needs. That is step one.

    Best wishes!

    1. GigglyPuff*

      Yes, and I really hoped it had to do with CPR training because otherwise… :0

    2. Abradee*

      I not only initially read it as “mouth to mouth,” I read it as “mouth to mouth CONTACT.” I then I thought, “this post is going to be messed up.”

      It has been a long week.

          1. HeyNonnyNonny*

            Unless they’re a life guard or adult movie star…that seems like it might be a normal requirement of the job.

  5. Marie*

    I am in this exact situation (so much so that I when I read the title I thought I had sent this one in), except I’ve had the carrot of a permanent job dangled in my face for the last year and a half (It’s always, just one more renewal, then you’ll have the job). My boss usually waits until the last day of my current contract to renew the next one. So believe me when I say I know exactly how you’re feeling.

    This is what I’ve concluded from my time here: In these situations, the well-being and mental health of the temp is not a factor in how the manager and the department are making decisions. Renewing your contract at the end of the month is just something that they need to check off at the end of the month, and the fact that this constant insecurity might be having a negative impact on your well-being are at the very, very bottom of their list of priorities. They’re keeping you month-t0-month because they want the flexibility of being able to let you go with no hassle as soon as they don’t think you’re needed anymore. They’re also probably completely disconnected on how this situation might feel because they are comfortable in their regular, permanent jobs (and maybe they’ve never had to do temp work like this before). You’re right – your boss is being disrespectful and inconsiderate, and while you can take the advice here and approach your boss for contracts of longer length or the possibility of a permanent position, there’s always the chance that that conversation will end with you not being offered a renewal next month, especially if your boss is insecure, which might make him prone to making rash decisions.

    You can also familiarize yourself with your company’s HR rules. There might be a limit on how long someone can be a temp before they’re made a regular employee. Mine unfortunately doesn’t, as there are many employees here who have been working on these constant renewals of short-term contracts for 5+ years.

    I think you’re better off job searching – if your boss wanted to change the state of your employment, he would have done so already. If you work for a large company, you can also look into applying internally. Good luck.

    1. JMegan*

      I agree with everything you’ve said, except this: if your boss wanted to change the state of your employment, he would have done so already. It’s possible that the boss hasn’t thought about it at all, and that he’s just doing what has always been done. Or if he has thought about it, he may have thought that the OP was okay with the situation since she hadn’t said anything.

      So I think it’s worth having the conversation with the boss, to find out where he stands on the issue. Find out if it’s possible to have the contract changed, and if the boss is willing to do it. If says there’s nothing he can do (or nothing he *will* do) about it, then definitely start job searching. But I would start by giving him the benefit of the doubt, just in case this is fixable.

      1. AW*

        he’s just doing what has always been done

        But he isn’t. The OP was getting extensions of 2 or 3 months before this new boss started.

        1. JMegan*

          Oh, you’re right – I missed that part. In that case, I fully agree with Marie (and others) that this is a crappy way to treat someone, and it’s time for the OP to move on. Good luck!

    2. K.*

      “If your boss wanted to change the state of your employment, he would have done so already.” Agreed. It’s gone on long enough – he’s had ample opportunities to make you permanent and he’s opted not to take them. I might have the “can we do this differently” conversation, but I’d be job-hunting all the while.

  6. Adjunct Gal*

    Wow, that’s horrible of your boss. I agree that you really should try to shine as much as you can though for the sake of better references and to make your boss really feel what he’s missing if he decides not to renew you after all.

    1. Stranger than fiction*

      But would the reference be all that much better? This guy sounds daft

  7. John R*

    You may also want to look into the rules regarding contractors. For example, the IRS frowns on “contractors” who have been in one place a very long time, especially if they work set hours, work at the employer’s premises vs. their choice of location (obviously, you’ll be at the employer for meetings and such, but can you work at home when you’re not in meetings or do you have to go to a set location), etc. There is a very specific “20 factor test” used to determine if someone is an employee or a contractor. Here’s a link: Hope this helps

    1. AW*


      IIRC, there’s been a letter about this issue on the site as well (I can’t recall when though).

    2. Stephanie*

      I read it as OP was a W-2 employee of a contracting agency (ie, she is technically an employee of a Manpower or Kelly Services, but is assigned to MegaCorp) versus being a 1099 contractor. But this info is interesting and good to have on hand.

      1. Meg Murry*

        Yes – this kind of “permatemp” situation has become more and more common in my industry – there are even cases where ABC Corp spins off ABC Temps to be a W-2 temp agency that only places people at their own facilities, but with lesser or NO benefits (and usually no union). Its not just low wage jobs either – I know of people that have been permatemping for over 5 years for a major Fortune 500 company that are working jobs that require a minimum of a bachelors degree in a specific STEM field – the only way they might get hired in is if someone higher up the totem pole quits or retires. The “associates” (i.e. nicer word than temp) are doing the same work as full time hired in employees, but with no insurance (or super expensive, no employer contribution), very minimal vacation days if any and no retirement benefits.

        1. Ruffingit*

          That is horrid. I cannot imagine temping that long with no benefits. Ugh. I have to wonder why they stay especially with 5+ years of experience under their belt.

          1. Jennifer*

            Easy: they don’t have options any more and this is literally the best they’ve done. Most of us can’t find new jobs or shop around for better options and get them. I’ve been really lucky, but a lot of people can’t get out of shitty situations.

            1. Ruffingit*

              I get that, been there too. I’m just thinking that having worked for a major F500 corp, they might have more options than some of the rest of us. Overall, I just feel badly for anyone in this situation.

  8. That Lady*

    It is so demoralizing and stressful to be in this situation. While I had the “luxury” of having a succession of six-month contracts rather than one-months, I would get newly peeved every time I had to sign my new contract. I was doing better work than the regular staff and the tenured faculty, why was my continued employment up in the air every six months? I would have to plan long-term projects so that I could just “fall” off of them at any point, but at the same time I was the driving force behind making them happen! It finally got under my skin so poisonously that I had to get out, and now I’m at a job that I don’t like rather than the one I loved, all because it’s a permanent position that pays me market rates. Look for a new job. If it hasn’t already, this one will become poison in your life. You’re better off without it.

    1. Ruffingit*

      What did your ok employer say when you resigned? Did they even care that they were losing one of their best?

  9. Ed*

    I was in this situation about 5 years ago. The difference was we had mass layoffs including all contractors being let go except me because I was on an important project. They would tell me on the 28th or so whether I had another month or not. In addition, my network account would expire every 30 days until my manager sent HR an email to extend it another 30 days. He always forgot so there would be an emergency over the weekend when I was on-call and I would try to VPN into work only to find out my account was disabled. I felt a jerk getting one of my coworkers out of bed in the middle of the night when I was on-call.

    I knew I was gone at some point but just didn’t know when. Well, I found a new job and quit just as the project was coming to the climax. And because of how they always extended me at the last minute, I simply turned down the next 30 day extension so they technically got no notice. I will admit it did really screw up the project and push it back months which I regretted. If they had at least extended me 3 months at-a-time, I would have honored my contract but extending me only a month with 2-3 days notice was ridiculous. Needless to say my staffing company was mad and the company where I worked was really mad but what did they expect? I saw it as no different than a lease that goes month-to-month after the year ends. The difference is the actual contract was with my staffing company and not me so I wasn’t legally bound to anything.

    1. Jenny Next*

      I don’t think you should feel bad about it. They wouldn’t think twice about cutting you loose on a couple of days notice — and they made that explicitly clear. Sauce for the goose, and all that.

    2. Artemesia*

      It gives me such pleasure to read that. They could have dropped you at any time and they were shocked, shocked that you just one day dropped them. Good for you and great that it messed them over. It was deserved since they messed you over.

      I had a job once with annual renewals and mine always came in about November although they expired technically in August — I would keep working and they would keep paying me, but I never saw the new contract until then. I had great confidence in my boss so I let it ride, but it was sort of irritating to be in this situation.

    3. Stephanie*

      Nope. Don’t feel bad. Someone on here said this recently and I’m going to steal it: it’s a business arrangement, not a marriage. You’re under no obligation to work through the tough times.

      Perhaps because I’m in a similar situation now, I don’t have a ton of sympathy for companies that freak when a contractor leaves with short notice. It feels like having it both ways to expect the flexibility of a contract hire and the longevity of an employee. IMO, if they were seriously committed they would have hired you outright or at least told you how to get hired on (or acknowledged “Hey, we can’t do any conversions until Q2.”)

    4. Mike C.*

      You really shouldn’t regret it. If they wanted to you stick around, they could have offered you a full time job.

  10. John R*

    Hmm, my last comment doesn’t seem to have posted, probably because I included a link. Sorry if this ends up double posted.

    The IRS has very specific rules for when you’re considered a “contractor” and when you’re considered an “employee”–and the longer you’ve been with a company the more likely it is that you’re misclassified as a contractor.

    I couldn’t include the link, but google “20 factor test” to see the list of 20 factors the IRS uses to consider whether someone is really a “contractor”. Two of the main ones are: “do you have set hours or do you set your own hours?” and “Do you work in your employer’s location most of the time or are you free to work from wherever you choose?”

  11. Stranger than fiction*

    To add to Alisons last paragraph, you’re also doing a disservice to yourself by not being able to grow, which can reflect negatively on your resume.

  12. Jill*

    Is the OP assuming that the boss is *choosing* to keep her in constant contract renewal? Is it possible that no one above him explicitly told him that he can permanently fill the position (ideally with OP) if he wishes to?

    1. AW*

      Another good reason to ask. It would at least let the OP be irritated at the right person and would likely improve the relationship with the boss if they know they’d hire them if they could.

  13. Eliza Jane*

    I would be really, really, really tempted to find a new job, not tell anyone, and just be all surprised when he brought the contract renewal papers on the 29th. “Oh, sorry! Since my contract is up on the 30th, I accepted a new job starting Monday!”

    I would not actually do it. But I’d be tempted.

  14. Stephanie*

    Sort of in a similar situation, except my contract is long-term. Rubbing salt into the wound is that (a) even the most entry-level employees get good benefits, (b) I’ve somehow wound up on the union’s mailing list and get info all the time about the pension, and (c) I can’t transfer to anything internally until I successfully complete my contract assignment…which keeps getting extended.

    So facility’s heavily unionized and there are certain things I’m not allowed to do. One of the managers asked me to do something so he wouldn’t have a grievance filed. I’m like “Oh, I’m actually a non-union contractor myself.” “You are? Man, your role at my last facility was salaried management.” The rest the evening, the manager would see me and shake his like “Man. You’re a contractor. That sucks, Stephanie.” Which…yeah, but let’s not rub it in.

    I kind of figured being hired on would be a pleasant surprise, so I’ve been looking elsewhere. I interviewed at a supplier and fantasized briefly about showing up like “Hey, you could have had this!” (Even better would be going to a competitor.)

  15. Chickaletta*

    I have no advice, just my condolences. My husband just ended 1.5 years of working on a month to month contract. There was 100% travel involved too, which meant he lived in hotels knowing he could be asked to pack up and leave at any time. It was absolutely draining. We couldn’t make any future plans. One time I did book tickets to visit him, it was only two weeks out and we thought we were safe, but I had to cancel those because he got moved to a new city with 48 hours notice. We couldn’t plan vacations, didn’t know if he would make it home for holidays or birthdays, sometimes he’d make it home for the weekend but I already had other commitments. Since it was a month-to-month contract, there were no benefits either. So, when he got ill last month, that was it. No FMLA or sick leave. He had to quit. Hopefully he never has to work like that again. I hope you find something permanent.

    1. Jenny Next*

      How awful for both of you!

      Could this be a case where an employee is wrongly labeled as a contractor? If so, he may have more rights than he thinks.

  16. Nervous Accountant*

    If you’re not working at the level that you could because of this constant instability (which is understandable), you’re not building the reputation for yourself that you’d be building if you were. And that really matters; you want to have a network of people who know you to do awesome work, because that’s often what will give you better options.

    This part jumped out at me in response to Op’s letter. I frequently struggled with this through my temp season, not knowing if I would be fired or hired. However, for the most part, I put in 100% effort into it, at times it still felt short and I did spend some time wondering what was the point of working so hard just to be fired. I’m glad I put in the effort though, at least this will be one regret I will not have, not trying hard enough.

    1. JM in England*

      I agree with the ” working hard despite the risk of being fired” part. Found myself in this situation during my early career and needed to do this to ensure good references. Btw, I was on a week-to-week contract and therefore had an extra reason to dread Mondays!

  17. Follow up*

    Hi everyone!

    I’m the one who wrote the letter, sorry for not responding sooner.

    I should have mentioned in my letter that I did ask my boss once if I could be renewed for more than month at a time, arguing that it would make my life more predictable. His response was “Sorry, but I can’t” (no further explanation given, but he did try to look very sorry when he said it…). I’m pretty sure this meant that he wasn’t willing, rather than actually able, to ask his superior if he could keep me for longer than a month. I have a feeling he didn’t want his boss to truly realize that he could’t do without me, so better to just continue to tell him that he just needed me for one more month. Or maybe he genuinely believed that he wouldn’t need me for more than one more month, which I find unlikely because it would mean that he had no knowledge of the workload in our department. Either way, I didn’t push the issue any further because I sensed it would lead to me giving him an ultimatum I didn’t really want to go through with. So in a way I guess I made it easy for him to just go on renewing me for a month at a time. This (very brief) conversation happened after he was slightly annoyed that I hadn’t informed him of my plans for the summer holiday, and I pointed out that I hadn’t thought to tell him, as my contract ended in may.

    Anyway, what’s happened now, is that I’ve actually been let go, one month from now. Which is fine, I obviously needed to get out of this situation somehow. He’s hired someone who on paper have more skills than me, but after working with her for two days, it’s obvious that what she knows about accounting that I don’t, I could have learned if they’d just sent me on a short course, and then they wouldn’t have had to train someone new (which will take more than a couple of days). But then this only confirmed what I already knew, which is that my boss doesn’t care about developing the skills of his employees, mainly because he doesn’t really see any of us, even when we make an effort to be noticed. When he praises my work, which he does, it always feels like it’s something he thinks is a clever thing to do, like I will be so grateful to him for being so kind to me. And maybe I would have been, except he usually praises me on things a monkey could have done, which makes me feel like I’m kind of stupid. He does this with everyone by the way. He’s a nice and smart guy in many ways, but he’s not great with people.

    So now I’m being super-nice with my replacement (who didn’t know she was replacing me, and was a bit upset when she found out), which is easy because none of this is her fault, and I’ve decided to do a really great job this last month and make sure he gives me a great letter of recommendation. One of the reasons I’ve been so nice about everything all along is that I’ve worried about using him as a reference for when I apply for new jobs. It’s very risky to criticize someone who has so much power over your future work-life.

    Thank you for all your comments, they’ve been very helpful. I think the main lesson I’ve learned from this enormous waste of my time, is that I need to stop working jobs that are a dead end, and get serious about building a career for myself. I have to figure out what kind of job I really want and go after it, and when I get it, then I have to use all my skills in order to succeed at it. If I continue to just drift along, I will be very unhappy. But this is all easier said than done, it takes courage to go after something and try your best at it. I might fail.

    So my plan for the next month is as follows: make my boss miss me when I’m gone, and figure out what to do next… And be way more courageous than I’m comfortable with.

    I wish those of you who wrote that you too were in similar similar situations the best of luck!

    PS. For those of you who wrote about laws regarding how long you could work a temporary job before they have to hire you permanently: I actually live in a country with quite strict laws about temporary employment, but I work through an agency, like Manpower, and the laws don’t concern you when you’re rented out by an agency. But the funny thing is that (lets call it) Manpower rents me out to themselves, I temp for their own administration.

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