The call centre diaries, part 2: performance review

The call centre diaries, part 2: performance review

The second installment of this ongoing series details boss/worker relations at Manpower's National Recruitment Centre before and during a period of performance reviews, focusing in particular on the behaviour of one notorious member of management

During conversations snatched between call handling time and over lunch in the staff room during my first few weeks working at Manpower I was warned by fellow workers about one member of management who had a reputation for doling out unnecessarily personalized digs and punishments to members of staff. For the purposes of this article I'll refer to her by the initial: “B”. While I had no reason to disbelieve any of the rumours I had heard about management, my personal interactions with B were few and far between during the early days of my tenure and I had no direct experience of her management style until a little later on. As befits the often purposefully ill defined management structure at contact centre based workplaces, she operated under the title of “National Recruitment Manager”. Although the hierarchy at the top was never fully explained to staff – who reported to who and within what context – it was implied that B and another member of management with the title “Head of Operations” wielded a further degree of authority than their various managers, sub-team managers and supervisors.

There were around half a dozen or so managers in the National Recruitment Centre and, as tends to be the case with bosses in workplaces run on the cheap, their attitudes towards staff could usually be placed at varying points on a spectrum of what the late 20th Century political theorist Divine referred to as assholism. From those prepared to impose only the bare minimum of the unworkable targets and irrational disciplinary measures so prevalent within the call centre – possibly in the the vain hope that they might be able to get through the day with as little confrontation as possible - to those that went to no effort to disguise the glee that came from their control over a work environment largely populated by people below the age of 25. Yet the attitude of the National Recruitment Manager stood out.

My first exposure to B's approach to boss/worker relations occurred on a fairly quiet Thursday morning. A newer member of staff had taken several brief trips to the toilet over the space of the morning. There are numerous, potentially pretty sensitive reasons that a worker who spends the entirety of their day chained to a desk taking both inbound and outbound calls might require regular trips to the toilet. But it seemed sensitivity wasn't B's strong suit. Upon returning to their seat my colleague was subjected to a very public interrogation on the shopfloor in front of the entire workforce within earshot of an entire rows headsets:

"You've been up and down an awful lot today, where have you been? The toilet? Whats wrong with you? That's a lot of visits to the toilet, don't you think?"

Quite aside from the fact that it shouldn't be a managers business how often and for what length of time a worker is using the toilet, especially when this isn't amounting to any serious decrease in productivity, the implication was clear: every last smidgen of potential call-time needed to be maximized, every last bodily function accounted for. Considering the amount of coffee and energy drinks people were encouraged to consume in an effort to maintain productivity, in conjunction with constant drinking of water to guard against our throats becoming dry in a job in which we are required to use our vocal chords more or less constantly over a period of 8 hours, the workers trips to the toilet that morning certainly didn't seem out of the ordinary. I was struck by how arbitrary the sudden and embarrassingly public dressing down was. Over time, and perfectly in line with the age and experience dynamics of the call centre as detailed in my first article in this series, I began to realize that workers roughly aged between 17-21 were subjected to public rebukes
from management more routinely than those of us who were older, with B even remarking openly in the staff room to another manager that “sometimes the younger ones need to be embarrassed”. The rest of us – especially those of us who might challenge such treatment - would be summoned to a smaller one-to-one room should any issues arise.

Soon after this incident B began to routinely send members of staff round the corner to the shops for her, often for items as inessential as a can of coke and even more often in the middle of their own lunch break with no offer that the ten minutes or so it took to bring back the lunch order would be compensated for in any way should it cause them to run over their allotted time. That was just ten minutes off the workers lunch break. One staff member told me that she had complained that this sort of thing wasn't in our job description, not even if one took “business needs” - that deliberately muddied small-print contractual term that scunders so many employee complaints – into consideration. She was asked if they had ever “talked back” to bosses in previous jobs and berated (again, on the shopfloor in full earshot of all her colleagues) for her “bad attitude”.

This kind of thing dictated that B was by some distance the most despised manager. Her reputation for pettiness was exacerbated further in the following weeks when a series of performance reviews begun. One worker described to me over lunch how she had become self conscious about her accent after B had pointed out during her review that she needed to speak “with less of a geordie accent. Its very strong”. Considering the worker was still a teenager and had been informed during the review that the rest of her work was satisfactory this seemed a particularly unnecessary and nasty thing to bring up. I began to think back to the toilet incident of a few months previous and figured when my turn came to have my review my own toilet breaks might come under scrutiny. Certainly, my colleague spent nowhere near as long a combined amount of time over those brief visits as I would during my hourly routine of escaping into a cubicle simply to rest my voice and mind, to escape the incessant clatter of keyboards and chatter of mouths: modernities answer to the clanging of heavy machinery on the factory floor. Always with the thought in the back of my head that I would have to return soon, that they'd be collating our call handling data and deciding whether or not it was adequate.

No prior warning was given to employees of when these might be taking place, members of staff simply begun to receive emails sent from managers who were sat just feet away from them in the same office to enter a one-to-one room. Once inside, the manager would lead off with the not-all-too-reassuring statement: "Don't worry, this is not an interrogation". Which was odd, because the pile of itemized call handling data they had in front of them, the form that they had poised to fill in that would eventually become attached to the employees permanent record and the fact that the worker had been called into the room with no prior knowledge of what was about to be discussed seemed to indicate a markedly interrogative as opposed to discursive environment. The word on the shopfloor was that the entirety of the management had received a bollocking from the higher ups recently and that these summary one to ones were going to be designed to scare us into yet higher levels of productivity.

When it was my turn to enter the definitely-not-an-interrogation room, B was waiting for me. What followed was one of the most patronizing, absurd experiences of my adult life. Through the software that workers used to call potential candidates, a call log was kept and accessible to management at any time (they were also able to listen in to any member of staff without their prior consent). The print outs that were sitting in front of me were a breakdown of every call I had made since I started working for the company, every time I'd changed the "status" (available, busy, admin, lunch break etc) on my phone and for how long this status lasted, the time between calls and whether or not those calls were external or internal. More out of habit than anything else, I'd brought my notebook and pen into the one to room with me, and its from both memory and those notes, as well as notes I made after the event that I'm documenting the exchange between myself and B. She had concerns:

"It seems that you are taking a very long time between some calls before you make the next one. Your status is set to unavailable or admin far more than we'd like it to be".

B then proceeded to run through a selection of my supposed infractions, detailing precisely how much time had passed between each call before I made another:

"Fifteen minutes between calls here, five minutes between a call here, one for nine minutes here, another for twenty... I've also noticed that you have made a significant number of calls to fellow members of staff that have sometimes lasted for up to two or three minutes... Can you please explain yourself?"

The tone was clipped and indignant, shot through with a sense of ownership and entitlement. It's difficult to adequately convey the multitude of conflicting, instinctive emotions that grip you when you are subjected to this kind of schoolmasterly attempt at establishing a power relationship. One the one hand, I was livid, affronted that at the age of 28 I was still being talked down to by figures of authority whose sole interactions with me had been based on a reminder that my time was monopolized by them, my economic survival dependent on their satisfaction with my workrate, which as far as I was aware should have been completely satisfactory considering the job description and guidelines I had been hired under. I stated that B should bare in mind that I had specifically taken the job on the proviso that it was not a sales based position, not a job subject to targets or "key performance indicators" or assessments based on call handling time. I explained that I had added as many appointments into the diary as anyone else on the same campaign, so my call handling time could hardly be described as problematic.

"We wouldn't have told you that there are no targets. That's impossible"

B responded.

I assured her that I had even gone as far as asking whether or not targets were set during the induction meeting and was again told that they would not be, something which could easily be corroborated by any of the new starters that were in the same induction (and later was).

"That wouldn't have happened, I can assure you. We don't think that anyone should be taking breaks of longer than around five minutes between each call for admin purposes. And transfers between yourself and colleagues should take no longer than 30 seconds, with the customer being on hold for no longer than 30 seconds"


My "Agent Detail Report" for the period in question, complete with notes by both the boss and myself ahead of my disciplinary hearing

This floored me. Those expectations were clearly completely unrealistic within the current environment. As well as having to make outbound calls, we were also expected to handle all the post-call admin of confirmation emails, database updating, data entry, sending off of background checks or other such correspondence, as well as take a moment to rest our voices or get a cup of tea or go to the toilet or any other such act of self care. Seeing as we would often finish a candidate interview, be expected to immediately begin our admin and not even have enough time to put ourselves on "busy" before an inbound call from one of the thousands of people ringing to check on the status of their application who had no doubt been on hold for a not insignificant amount of time already would come through. Therefore admin would pile up while we attempted to transfer that person to the relevant team, or, even worse, realize the person calling was a new candidate wishing to be interviewed over the phone right away for the position, at which point we were duty bound to take the call ourselves and therefore have to start a new application with the previous candidates info unsaved and unfinished and added to the backlog of admin.

I relaid this and waited for some kind of response, some indication that B was taking this in. She appeared almost affronted by the response. Fuck it, I thought. I carried on by explaining how on top of everything I'd just mentioned, when transferring inbound calls to colleagues it was an impossibility to have the candidate on hold for no longer than 30 seconds. It was sometimes very necessary to explain and outline the candidates inquiry to your colleague before they were able to work out whether they could help them or they needed to be transferred elsewhere. Of course, all of us irrespective of the campaign we worked on were subject to the exact same imposing workload. This meant staff would often be unable to take the call ask me to transfer the candidate to someone else on the team or ask them to call back later. Knowing how much of an absolute unabashed fucking ballache it is to be passed around from pillar to post when you call a monolithic, impersonal call centre to try and get anything done, plenty of staff would take this into account and try to get through to every member of the campaign team before giving up and informing the candidate that they would have to wait for someone to get back to them. With a minimum of at least five people on each understaffed, overworked team, often double that amount for even larger campaigns that were yet more over subscribed, it stood to reason that to be in any way thorough in your attempt to get the candidate the help they needed, it was likely, given the huge amount of inbound calls being received at the same time by other members of staff, that the candidate would necessarily have to be kept waiting for longer than 30 seconds.

It was also commonplace, as is to be expected when decent human beings interact with each other, especially under such a stressful environment of monitoring and constant repetition of scripted dialogue , to engage in a small amount of small talk before transferring a call. Nothing major: “how are you today? Any plans for the weekend? What time you got lunch? I've got a transfer for you, its a candidate for the Eon role, can you take it?”. These were not conversations that went on for any longer than around a minute or so at the most – we were aware we were being monitored and aware that we needed to transfer calls within a reasonable time, even if targets had never been mentioned. When the tables are turned and you are the customer on the other end of the line being kept on hold, I understand that this might seem slightly inappropriate, but its nothing short of a survival mechanism in the call centre environment, an absolute necessity to try and maintain some kind of control over your own labour. This reality creates an infinite regress that marks out call centre work as structurally designed to maximize profit at the expense of adequate customer service and acceptable levels of stress among staff, a three way relationship I will cover in more depth in a future installment of this series.

At this point I was pretty sure B's silence, coupled with her frequent smirks and dismissive body language was designed to be intimadatory, a reminder of the positions we both occupied. Still, I'd come this far. I remembered an incident that had occurred the week before. Myself and other TRC's (Telephone Recruitment Consultants) had often taken the time to check on our own stats in the software program used to make and receive calls, which kept its own log of call handling time, although nowhere near as in depth or expansive as the ones available to the bosses, and had found that much of our call data didn't match up with the reality of the work we were doing. One colleague who noticed a number of discrepancies on his digital record had changed his status to “lunch break” and came back to find that his stats indicated he had been on a break for 46 minutes as opposed to the half hour that Manpower deigns to be sufficient for its staff. This led to him being given a warning. Despite the protestations of myself and two other workers who sat on the same row as him that day that he most definitely had not been away for an extra fifteen minutes.

I brought up all these points in as measured, reasonably paced and polite a manner as I could muster considering how anxious I was becoming – I've suffered from panic and anxiety for a number of years, especially in situations like this one – yet B managed to singularly ignore each and every one of these points leaving a dramatic pause after my final sentence, still fixing me with a glare that suggested my response had been both unwelcome and unexpected: :

“We've done serious research into this, there is absolutely no way you need to have a customer on the line for longer than 30 seconds. That's not up for debate. And the software is routinely checked. Its definitely accurate.”

After asking me to “explain myself” one more time – something I thought I had just done fairly cogently, I was informed that I would be subject to a disciplinary hearing at some point in the next couple of weeks time, the ins and outs of which I'll cover in some depth in the next chapter of this series.

Posted By

DanielBaker777
Jan 3 2015 04:25

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  • It's difficult to adequately convey the multitude of conflicting, instinctive emotions that grip you when you are subjected to this kind of schoolmasterly attempt at establishing a power relationship.

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Comments

podemos
Jan 3 2015 21:20

A lot of the experiences in this article really resonated with me. After working in a banking and now an private medical insurance call centre I can relate to most of what you have written, as I think could friends who have worked in other call centres. Not much seems to change from call centre to call centre other than the type of trivia that you are expected to regurgitate and the particulars of the the party line of the corporation which is exploiting and underpaying you.

I am not surprised that you were lied to about targets during your interview, both during the interview process and the training for both jobs I cannot even count the number of utterly unsustainable lies I was told. From being told that grieving families would not have to wait in a queue of a retail bank if they were closing the bank account of a dead relative to being told that new members of staff receive 'easier' calls.

While I have never been given a target for hold times, my colleagues and I have been told to do things in a way which are next to impossible rules. The straw that broke the camel's back for me at the first call centre was being told to read an overly long script, part of which seemed almost designed to anger and frustrate the customer, and to ensure that it was fully read before a customer ended the call. The introduction of this requirement coincided with a few other arbitrary, and nearly impossible to follow. Slightly after these rules were introduced it became obvious why, the bank increased bonuses but achieving the bonuses was dependent on completing these all but impossible tasks on every call.

As far as inaccuracy of monitoring software goes, I have some experience of that as well. When I handed in my notice I was told I had taken 5 days more paid holidays than I was entitled to for the amount of time I spent working for the bank as after handing in my notice I had no ability to access the software which showed how much annual leave I had taken. I knew that this was not true but I had no way of proving it. When my friend left a month later they tried to pull the same trick with him, though he ensured that he took a screenshot of the amount of holiday time he had taken after I told him what happened to me. He confronted management with the screenshot, they grudgingly did not deduct the 'extra' days from his pay packet but behaved as if they were doing him a favour.

I was just wondering, what experience if any the author of this piece has of organising colleagues. The bank call centre I worked at recognised the CWU at several sites, though not the site I worked at. The call centre I am currently working has a relatively large Unite presence, partly because there is recognition in some areas of the business, but no recognition for call centre workers in private medical insurance. At other call centres in the same industry there are recognised unions, Unite is recognised at HSBC for example, but I am not sure whether this has made too much of a difference in the day to day life of call centre workers there, and a lot of the organising seems to be piggy backing off of other areas of the business with a more stable workforce.

I think that there are a multitude of problems which face people who are interested in the organisation of call centre workers. The work itself, being expected to behave as if you are engaged, energised and happy to speak with up to one hundred often very upset people every day is enough to induce apathy and depression in all but a handful of people. These feelings engender a feeling that you need to escape, find a different kind of work, rather than improve your lot in your current job. There is also nowhere to hide on the shop floor, in most call centres for every 12 workers there is a supervisor who is paid to discipline and monitor you, there are teams which are dedicated to listening to quotas of your calls and in most call centres various mechanisms are designed to encourage workers to snitch on each other. Even if you were to begin to build a union and start to convince enough colleagues to join with you then since your every breathing moment while you are 'clocked in' is monitored then management can trawl through your past until enough (subjective or not) infractions are found to discipline you and force you out of the job.

Steven.
Jan 12 2015 23:18

I've had this article open in a tab for ages but only just got around to reading it. Really good piece, thanks.

Although I would say, especially if you still work at the company that I would anonymise more details, and definitely remove your photograph (or least crop out the bit where you are visible)

DanielBaker777
Jan 17 2015 01:41

Cheers for the kind words mate.

And yeah, luckily I don't work for the company any more, s'all good. I'd be much more anonymous about things if I did, that's for sure. I'm out the industry altogether now.

DanielBaker777
Jan 17 2015 01:40

And in response to Podemos, I'll be covering the difficulties of trying to organize in the industry in a later piece smile