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Saturday, May 22, 2010

call center job misery

I'm calling on the readers' help with this one. A reader writes:

I recently took a job in a call center doing order entry. I'm very overqualified but it's a job and my unemployment ran out so I had to find something with an income. 

As part of being a call center agent, I'm expected to maintain certain stats. One of them is called "accountable time," which means the amount of time you were clocked in vs the amount of time you were logged in on the phone. We're supposed to maintain a level of 90%, which doesn't sound so hard. For a 30-minute day, that gives you 48 minutes leeway, including two 15-minute paid breaks. The problem is that the company uses something called "required time off." This is where the call volume is low and they don't need as many agents answering the phone. I understand why they do that, it's better to send a few folks home early than to lay them off permanently. 

I'm not too thrilled that I took a 40 hour a week job that rarely results in 40 full hours but that's not what ticks me off. What does tick me off is that when they figure out your accountable time, they don't seem to take into account the fact that they send you home early and after you've already taken both of your paid breaks. For instance if I'm sent home an hour and a half early I only have a 39 minute leeway and with just 9 minutes to "play" with that cuts it kind of close when you're waiting for the computer to boot up or adjusting your chair (since we don't have assigned seats, I have to readjust the chair wherever I land that day). 

I'm not normally the type to complain about a simple rule like this or claim something isn't fair but this detail ticks me off. The first week I was on the phones and didn't get sent home, I had no problem meeting this 90%. Since then I've been sent home 3-4 days a week and haven't hit the 90%. And of course you never know if/when you are going to be going home. Further, after my probationary period of 60 days, they look at your performance including these stats (and others, this isn't the only one) and decide whether or not to keep you on. So now I'm worried because of this problem that I might be out of a job once the probationary period is over. (It is an at-will state and I fully understand that I could be fired the day after my probationary period ends for whatever reason they like.) Since this isn't an ideal job for me, I haven't stopped looking elsewhere and I hope something else comes up, but given that I was out of work for so long I fear that I won't be able to find anything and that I'm at the mercy of this company. 

I'm not sure what to do. Do I skip my breaks? Or only go long enough to use the washroom? Is it right for them to make people's job dependent on a statistic that they have so much control over? I've pointed this out to my manager and he just told me to work on getting my number back above 90%.

First, in case anyone else makes the same mistake I did at first: When I first read this, I thought they were requiring you to be at 90% of a full 40 hours, even if they only allowed you to work 32 hours that week. But that's not it; the issue is that you're taking breaks during the day on the assumption that you'll have a full 8-hour day to make your 90%, but then they send you home early without warning, which throws your numbers off.

What do other people there do, people who do regularly hit 90% or above? Do they skip their breaks? Eat at their desks while they continue to work? That's the first thing I'd look at.

It's also worth mentioning that call centers are notorious for being miserable workplaces. I don't know why -- I assume it has something to do with the high turnover meaning that they don't really care about people's quality of life, because they're not making a point of trying to retain people. Therefore, my usual advice about trying to make a rational argument to your manager about how this is impacting you probably doesn't apply, because they probably don't care.

In fact, it could be that they're hoping this system will actually encourage people not to take breaks, which is obviously really jerky.

I'd love it if any readers with call center experience weighed in on this one.


Anonymous said...

I would like to comment on this although I was never into the numbers like this dude is/was. I worked for 3 years at a call center and the managers were always pumping us to be positive to sell, sell, sell. I did well a lot, but other times did awful and those are the times the managers were on my back all day. It was a 5 hour work day and we got a whole 15 minute break, and if you wanted to make more money for yourselves(commission), you wouldn't take any breaks. I myself couldn't do that. And near the end of my work there I started taking longer breaks and eventually quit.

Tim said...

I've worked in call centers before, and this situation sounds odd in that they are counting the breaks as part of the time where they are allowed to be working, but not on the phones. Requiring X amount of time "logged in" and ready to take calls is normal, as is (unfortunately) sending people home when the workload is too low, but where I've worked, the break times were not counted as part of the "offline" time. That does seem very unusual to me.

This would especially be the case if this is in a state where breaks are mandated by law, and I would think that in this situation, having the breaks count against the 90% requirement may be considered akin to requiring someone to work through a break. But without knowing what state this is in, it's not possible to know one way or the other.

Anonymous said...

I, too, work in a call center and our every minute is monitored, micro-managed and accounted for, which is the nature of a call center environment.

Call center management love to play with stats and there's nothing you can do about that, but here's what you can do for yourself:

1.Keep track of your own accountable time, especially those days you're sent home early after taking all your breaks. Keep a log of this. Tedious, I know, but do it.
2.When you meet with your supervisor to go over your stats, bring your log to compare your percentages with his. Be professional, calm and positive when you point out that it makes more sense to calculate accountable time against actual hours worked versus the 40 hour week/8 hour day.
3.Continue to do your best to meet those stats, but there's no need to put any passion into it - like you said, it's a job, you need a job and it's not forever. Any emotional energy expended over policy in your call center is wasted energy. Save that for your job search.
4.Keep looking and best wishes for a speedy deliverance from call center heck.

Jenn said...

I worked in a call center for 2 1/2 years and I can share why they are miserable work places. One of my co-workers had a stroke at his desk and was taken to the hospital by ambulance. Because his group didn't meet the minimum staffing requirement after he left his desk, he was written up for missing work. Pregnant women suffering from morning sickness would keep buckets at their desks so they wouldn't be reprimanded for running to the bathroom while they were supposed to be working.

I think this is one reason why customer service has declined. If the companies treat their employees this way, those employees aren't likely to go the extra mile for customers. The companies don't really care about high turnover because there are always unemployed people who are desperate for jobs that pay above minimum wage and have good medical benefits (if you're ever allowed to take the time off to use them).

Anonymous said...

I used to manage a call center, though its adherence measurements were not as draconian as this one seems. Measuring your "on" time is not unusual, and is probably the easiest way to be sure that hundreds of people are doing what they're being paid to do, and not off wandering around. That said, it's a pain in the neck sometimes.
As mentioned, the 90% is a proportion of the time actually working, and there's an expectation, I would assume, that that the 10% "off" time should be paced throughout the day. It's like when you quit halfway through the year, but you've used more than half of your PTO and you have to pay it back. It's a bummer, but the expectation is that you would have spread it out.
For the breaks, etc., it's not always easy to do, but if call volumes are slow, it's probably not a good day to take all your breaks by 2pm. If you know this is going to happen, pacing your break time makes sense. Take 12 minutes every hours, for example, and that's 10%. Adjusting your chair and turning on/booting up your computer are probably things your company wants you to do before you log in. I imagine your start time is when you are expected to be available to take your first call, not when you come in the building.
Call centers are good for entry level jobs, or easing into retirement, or finding a job that's just a "job" where you come in, do your thing and go home. Call center jobs are not good for people who need a lot of autonomy and flexibility.
I don't think trying to fight the system will end up being a good use of your energy, nor logging your minutes independently. If you can't work in this type of environment, you're certainly in the majority. Call center management is, by necessity, about controlling the time spent by the employees to maximize output with minimal cost. No one grows up wanting to work in a call center, so there's a high percentage of employees who don't care about their jobs (like the OP, I imagine) and don't want to be there, and without tracking time, there is a lot of shrinkage. This is expensive to the company, the customers, and unfair to the employees who ARE adhering to the policies. So the call center managers aren't trying to be mean, or exercise some power trip, but need to get people who really don't want to be there to get on the phones and help customers.

Anonymous said...

I'm more than a bit disgusted to hear people suggest that breaks should be skipped and lunches be taken on the job. At least here in Washington State, paid and unpaid breaks are a required part of the day for the vast majority of hourly workers.

Setting draconian standards like this is a great way to force these breaks to go away. I don't care how tight your costs are - if you cannot manage to give your employees the required breaks that every other business in the state can give (and yes, Washington has *plenty* of call centers), you and your company have some serious ethical and possibly legal issues to deal with.

TheLabRat said...

I don't suppose you're working for an outgoing call center that does opinion polls in Sacramento, CA? This sounds familiar.

And anon above me, In California those breaks are mandated by law as well. But missing quota when you could have worked through your paid break can still get you fired. They won't tell you to skip your paid breaks but if doing so would get you your quota, I guarantee you many people will do it while management looks the other way. It happens everywhere all the time.

Anonymous said...

Looks like the OP should explore the legal issues/state law surrounding the breaks and what not. I'm really curious if the state labor board has an opinion on whether or not breaks are supposed to be calculated based on *scheduled* or *actual* hours. (The comparison to using up all of your vacation my mid-year and then quitting seems reasonable here.)

Whether that will do any good, who knows. It's not like the jobs are worth filing lawsuit over. Otherwise, "suck it up" looks like the best advice.

Anonymous said...

I survived two call centers for four years because I couldn't leave my area and they were the only jobs I could get. Really, there are only two strategies to surviving:

1.) Try your honest best to follow the rules and hope management responds with sanity. Even with the BS technicalities you're talking about, you might still be in the upper tier for metrics compared to your coworkers. I wouldn't keep your own records or argue -- your bosses are probably very threatened by you and looking for any excuse to punish you. I had one supervisor whose favorite line was "Are you calling me a liar?"
2.) Refuse to take the job seriously, do whatever you want, keep your head down and stay out of the way, and see how long it takes to get fired. If most of your coworkers are like you (very underemployed), this is probably not the best idea. But if a lot of them are clearly too stupid or lazy to do any other job (and possibly too stupid/lazy to do this one), you can cruise for months.

I followed the first strategy until I was fired for going off-script and taking too long on handle time -- two weeks after winning a customer service award from corporate for outstanding post-call customer satisfaction survey results. At the next job, I followed the second strategy, and it took over a year for anyone to notice I was underperforming and discipline me; by the time they did, I already had a job offer in hand from somewhere else.

Hang in there.

OP said...

OP here. First off, thanks to Allison and everyone else for the help. I really appreciate it. Second, to clarify a few things, the "Accountable" time is the percentage of time we're logged into the phones compared to the time we're clocked in to the time clock. So just for example, say I worked 100 minutes, and I get a 10 minute (paid) break. That means I'm clocked in but not logged in, and that's 90% and there's no issue. The issue is that they send me home after say, 75 minutes. Well now I'm at about 86%. This is oversimplifying it of course and the numbers aren't that drastic. And, to be fair, that isn't the only stat I'm measured on. And yes, this is just a job for me until I can find something better. BUT I don't know when something better will come along. I was unemployed for over a year and technically I've been looking for "something better" for over 4 years. Since I'm somewhat new I'm still in my probationary period. At the end of it (I'm half way there) my manager will look at my stats and determine whether or not I keep my job. This is why I'm worried about my numbers. My unemployment was exhausted so if I lose this job, it's going to be very tight until I find something else. That's what I'm really concerned about, it's just a crappy job I only need to survive for awhile but who knows how long that while will be.

As for where I work, it's at an inbound call center in Omaha. I'm not sure what the labor laws in Nebraska have to say about breaks.

My husband tells me not to worry about it that managers just give people a hassle because they can. Perhaps I should just not worry about it. While giving way a lot of free shipping...

OP said...

I had another stats review with my boss today and again my accountable time was down. He suggested taking shorter breaks. I hope something better comes along soon.

Anonymous said...

Speaking with some experience as an employment attorney, including Counsel at an IT company, I can tell you this behavior is definitely against the Fair Labor Standards Act, the federal law that guarantees overtime, etc.

Every employee of a call center should see an Attorney in their state immediately to get exact details, but the basic idea is that it is not relevant what employers call breaks or metrics or whatever: as an hourly employee, you are entitled to the protections of the FLSA. Plus, the commenter who had pregnant colleagues with buckets probably has a discrimination claim, as well.
If you are treated like garbage at a company, why not treat them the same?

Anonymous said...

Oh, and if your pay is based on the time you are online and ready to take calls, that is also illegal. They have to pay you when you are on the clock-including adjusting your chair, booting up the computer, etc.

OP said...

I get paid for when I'm clocked in, not just logged in to the phone. I looked up the state laws and NE has no laws regarding paid breaks or their length. They have a law about an unpaid meal break but it doesn't apply to call centers. I'll look into the FLSA thing.

Anonymous said...

dear friend,
i know i am too late for a comment,but i just got thru dis article now.
i did call center INBOUND job for nearly 5months when i was finally terminated.
to be frank, callcenter remains da last option when nojob is available to do, and in middle east for expatriates its more difficult to chooose a job just due to not havin a workpermit.
i did choosed call center job just to get the workpermit, it was technical troubleshootin,dis is da only company provides internet and u cud imagine da customers!
dey use to abuse, dey use to complain and stay on calls for longer hrs yellin n shoutin upon internet service, i got mentally tired due to being away from family, 1day off and shift timings...and NO WORK EXPERIENCE for better job.
finally, i abused a customer and it got worse when i was finishd from job, but in return i got much better doing Masters degree, also gonna start certifications related to networking field.
but i am not @ all in favour of callcenter jobs for those who r really requires alot of SACRIFICES! TOLERANCE ! and GIVING UP YOURSELF..10mins or 15mins breaks aint a solution, we r not ROBOTS ! we r humans! and these call centers cant treat us like humans i pray for all those of u out dere workin in callcenters may get a better job.

WFM Kyle said...

Sorry to post so after the fact, but I'm new to AAM (love it!) and can't resist! I have 14 years in Contact Centers and currently manage the team that provides all these stats to the Managers.

We've struggled with this metric before. Some employees do the math as the OP did, and see if you account for the two breaks, that leaves 18 minutes they "have" to use. Some employees make it a point of using all these minutes and can get into trouble... It's important to remember the company isn't trying to say please use all this time, it's the minimum standard they set to maintain productivity. Of course, some Managers over emphasize this metric or mismanage it. My contact center actually stopped publishing this metric to the managers and my team provides feedback if any particular employees are missing the metric severely. My suggestion is to stop counting the minutes, and focus on helping as many customers as you can. A good Manager will get a feel for whether you are working the system, or genuinely doing your best, regardless of the metric itself.

I have to make three other quick points. My CCC takes about 6 million calls a year, if you assume we pay $10/hr (which is less then we actually do) and every employee reduces their unproductive time by just 1 minute, that saves $28k per year, that's more than an FTE, for just 1 minute. 2nd, my last contact center was an outsourcer, we got paid per minute of phone time. We couldn't keep our productivity high enough for my particular client and we lost it, 300 people lost their jobs and we all wished we had worked harder. 3rd, There are good and bad Managers, good and bad Contact Centers. They can be a great place to get some experience, learn some customer service skills and learn about the corporate world. For those who work hard they can also hold a lot of opportunity. But I definitely agree, it's not an easy job.