How Hiring Decisions are Really Made

Employees find all sorts of silly reasons to claim hiring decisions are unfair when it comes to internal job postings. And when you work in a call centre, competition is fierce for any job that will get people off the phones.

If you think to yourself, ‘Who would want a boring admin job that doesn’t pay great?’ you’ve clearly never been forced to work a call centre before. Any job that gets you away from crazy clients and over-analyzed phone stats is a godsend. I would have taken a pay cut to get off the phones when I first started.

Internal job postings still involve the old resume and interview shtick, but hiring managers and HR also have access to more information to help with a decision. We could look at call stats and scores to determine how good a phone rep was at their job, plus we got to take into account team manager and floor supervisor feedback.

At every call centre I’ve worked, it’s the manager feedback that was actually an employee’s ticket off the phones.  I didn’t realize how important this feedback was until I was on the other side of the equation.

During my first interview for a team manager job, I got asked plenty of situational questions, those pesky “what would you do if…” questions. I find those harder to answer than “give me an example when you…” because you aren’t talking about a real situation. The question that threw me the most was, “What would you say if employees were complaining that promotions always come from X side of the call centre floor?”

The first that went through my head, which I also blurted out unfiltered, was “Do people really complain about such stupid things?”

Who would have thought geography had anything to do with hiring decisions? And who would even notice? (No, management had not decided to only hire people from the west side of the call centre as some sort of ploy to mess with everyone’s heads.)

The interviewer assured me it had been a real concern expressed. I kept thinking everyone was nuts until I was on the other side and saw just how much team manager input influenced hiring decisions.

It turns out the complaining employees were right, but it wasn’t geography itself that resulted in the hiring decisions. In this call centre everyone was assigned to a team with around 15 other employees and one team manager was in charge of that group. Every phone rep was assigned a workstation in the call centre near their manager’s cubicle.  And some managers pushed harder for promotions for their employees.

The pushers would lobby for their employees during every hiring decision, whereas others would only occasionally push and some never bothered.  The pushers almost always won. And by chance a couple of the pushers had teams clustered together, so promotions did mostly come from one section of the floor.

For once the crazy employees were sort of right. It happens sometimes.

I guess the moral here is be nice to your boss. You’ll never know how much they can help or hinder your progress at work. And pray you don’t have a lazy manager who will never bother to fight for you.

Trust Your Gut

I’ve never been wrong when I have a bad feeling about an interviewee. In any interview or resume scan where I felt even the slightest inkling of trouble, I was always right. The employees did not do well. Some became nightmares.

Why would I even hire candidates who worried me? If you ask that question, you have never worked in a call centre. When you have to hire new phone reps, you don’t hire one at a time. You hire a whole class, because they will be put through a three week training program before they ever hit the floor.  We often needed groups of up to 25 people.

This whole process is expensive, so you’d think we would want to hire the best candidates. The problem is we are culling applicants who have offered to work in a call centre. It’s a crap job, so we often attract lazy and desperate people. The only real exception is students. They need to work odd hours at easier jobs to pay their tuition. I’ve had great luck with students over the years.

If we already had dubious candidates and we needed to pick upwards of 25 of them, we were talking a different recruiting ballgame. Instead of trying to pick the best candidates, we were trying to eliminate the worst.

This proved easier in some recruiting rounds than others. There were times when we desperately needed bodies, and none seemed good. So we tried to find the least detestable options. This meant we sometimes hired people that gave us the willies.

After each interview, I would bounce my opinion off the HR person conducting the interview with me. We had two HR people we worked with. One was often on the same wave length as the team leaders and would let us say no when our alarm bells were screaming. The other one, not so much.

HR Person Two would push us to take people we really didn’t want. I suppose she was being more realistic. We couldn’t say no to everyone. Sometimes though, she would have been better off listening to us. We ended up with a few nightmares.  They caused a lot of destruction before we could push them out the door.

When the company was really starting to tank, we couldn’t even fire our own employees. We needed approval from some HR person in a different province who never worked a call centre. She just didn’t understand how call centres work. Of course they have high turnover. They are filled with lunatics.

This new policy meant we had to keep one employee who showed up in the police blotters of our own newspapers. Nice, right?

We also had to keep two brothers who fell asleep at their desks, had pants around their knees and spent shifts writing indecent rap lyrics instead of taking client calls.

I guess my main point here is to trust your instincts as a manager. I have felt positive about a few employees who did not turn out well. But I have never been wrong when my instincts tell me no. And if you happen to manage in a call centre that forces you to take bad apples, you have my sympathy.

The “Eewww” Factor

I recently wrote a post about keeping your poker face at all times with employees, lest they see what you really think when they do something stupid. That post brought to memory a story that I have tried to repress, to no avail.

In my last call centre, headsets were like gold. Valuable and hard to find. This shouldn’t really be the case in a call centre. You can’t answer phones without a headset. Our phones did have handheld receivers, but you can’t actually use one while typing and flipping between screens at a rapid pace.

In my first call centre, each employee had their own headset that was their own responsibility. People took good care of the equipment and we didn’t need to replace headsets all that often.

My second call centre was not so enlightened. They refused to assign anyone a specific headset. I know they were worried about high staff turnover, but they shot themselves in the foot. Our employees just had to grab any headset they could find when they arrived. This meant they had to always carry around their “foamies”, or ear covers, for hygienic reasons.

I can’t even count the number of foamies we went through. People didn’t bother to keep track of them and they were easy to lose because of their size. Since the headsets didn’t belong to anyone in particular, you can guess what happened. No one even tried to take care of them. We always had broken and semi-broken headsets. We had very few on the floor that worked properly. I and the other managers begged and pleaded for assigned headsets and always had to justify a request to order new ones.

I thought telling employees that we could not supply headsets that allowed them to hear customers and vice versa was one of the dumbest tasks I ever had to perform. It was hard to look professional with faulty equipment that should not have even been an issue. It didn’t teach the employees any respect for their work environment either.

Since we regularly only had half a dozen mint condition headsets, employees took to hiding the good ones so the headsets would be available when they started their next shift. This caused us a lot of headaches when we actually could not find enough headsets for everyone who happened to be working at any particular hour. Can you imagine, coming to work and not being able to do your job because we couldn’t find you a simple headset? Our customer queues were actually longer because we were scrambling to find headsets for employees.

To alleviate this, we always had to harp on the employees to not hide headsets. We became good at ferreting out their best hiding places. This pissed off the hiders to no end. Which finally leads me back to my poker face story of the week.

One employee I’ll call Giselle came up to me one day all disturbed. “I can’t find my headset!”

To which I replied, “It’s not your headset. You have to share. Please find another one.”

“But you don’t understand. You see this rash on my face?” She got right in my face to make sure I didn’t miss it. Trust me, it was hard to miss before she got that close.

“Yeesss,” I replied.

“It’s Impetigo! It’s highly contagious. No one can use my headset. They might catch it.”

Cue the poker face. Don’t think I did such a good job this time.

“Why are you at work?!”

“Uhhhh.”

That was the best she could come up with.

Fortunately, we didn’t have any impetigo outbreaks at work.  I swiftly took myself to the safety of the HR offices so I could bitch in private. Some days just go like that.

Letting “Bad” Behaviour Slide

Sometimes employees do things they aren’t supposed to, but you want to quietly cheer them on anyway. I’ve had a few of those experiences over the years. In a call centre you often send emails “to the floor”, meaning to every person who works in that particular business unit. Sending these emails is generally done only by the management team when they need to disseminate information.

In all of my call centres, there were always a few employees who forgot this, and used the call centre emails for their own rants or to try selling something. I’ve seen people send religious thoughts to the floor and try to sell their used barbecues. People never learn.

At my last call centre, classy place, we had a problem with lunches being stolen out of our communal refrigerators. I guess some people were too cheap to bring their own. I lost my own lunch twice. The second time the culprit also took my Winnie the Pooh lunch bag. (Yes, I am a grown woman with Winnie the Pooh gear. It was a gift from my mother.) I happen to really like Pooh, so I was steamed. I started keeping my lunch at my desk with an ice pack after that.

Anyway, when this would happen the unlucky lunch loser would often send a nasty email to the entire floor, something along the lines of “Thanks for stealing my lunch, jerk face.”

While I sympathized, we couldn’t just let staff run amok with mean emails. However, one of my employees, who I’ll call Maria, sent a more ingenious message after losing her lunch one day. The email said:

“To whoever stole my carrots today, I hope you really enjoyed them. I licked each and every one when I put them in the bag.”

I snorted tea through my nose when I read that one. I didn’t publicly applaud Maria’s email, but I didn’t chastise her for it either. The lunch snatching was getting worse, and we couldn’t figure out a way to catch the culprit(s). Everyone is always in and out of the fridges. How do you determine what belongs to whom? It does nothing for morale when you can’t trust your coworkers not to steal from you.

Everyone got a kick out of Maria’s email. Not sure what the thief thought. So I decided to let the etiquette breach slide. Not sure what other managers would have done, but I’m glad I left it alone.

The Perils of Employee Reviews

As a manager, I hate writing employee reviews. My loathing exists on a number of levels.

Time is a problem. To do a thorough job on a review takes a lot time, especially when you have thirty employees reporting to you. My first management job required reviews to be all free-hand.  No check boxes for us.  And they wanted a full page for each category of each review.  Forget the time factor with those. The biggest problem was coming up with enough material for each section. For an employee who was severely underperforming or a superstar, I was ok. For anyone just doing a solid, run-of-the-mill job, I didn’t have enough content to fill all of the blank spaces.

My second management job at least had reviews with multiple-choice check boxes and room in each section for a couple of comments. Much better. The problem here? I took over the team one month before annual reviews were due.

It’s a little hard to write creditably about anyone you’ve only known for four weeks.  To make matters worse, three members of my team had been seconded to another department months before I arrived. Management thought I should still write the reviews instead of their new temporary team leader. I thought it was a little unfair to me and the employees that I had to write reviews for people I had never laid eyes on. But hey, that’s just my opinion. (It was multiple decisions like that one that had me running for the door five months into my tenure. I don’t know why they were surprised by my exit.)

Having to answer to scores that don’t fit perfectly onto a bell curve is another fun part of the review process. Fighting against HR and upper management over unfair scores being forced onto employees is even more joyous.

None of those things counts as the biggest employee review headache. In any review process that has an official scoring system, such as a five-scale or three-scale ranking, the biggest headache is having 85% of your employees who truly believe they are above average performers.

For anyone a little slow at math, let me point out that the majority of people can’t be better than the average. Try explaining that to pissed off employees.  If there is a high performance category, no one wants to be solid or satisfactory. Those are dirty words.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve had the same conversation:  if you are doing everything you are supposed to, that makes you a satisfactory performer. And there is nothing wrong with that. We’re thrilled that you can do your job competently. Especially in a call centre filled with boobs.  (I don’t actually say that last part.)

No one ever listens. They explain all of the things they do that make them high performers. I patiently answer that each item they have listed is a regular requirement of their jobs. It gets me nowhere.

If you are a new people manager, know that someone will definitely complain to HR about you in regards to their performance appraisal at some point in your career. It’s a big hassle that includes HR combing through every check mark and comment you have made. For pissed off employees out there, know that almost all of these complaints will be rejected by HR. They too, will eventually determine you are average.

For those who may be wondering if I am one of those managers who hates giving out high scores, even in individual categories on one evaluation, I am not. I love giving out high scores. I love great employees. I enjoy telling them how great they are. I like to see how excited employees get when they see their scores and comments.  I like telling employees about the nice cash bonuses they receive with their high scores. It’s one of the best parts of my job.

More high performers also result in fewer repetitions of the “you are doing everything you are supposed to” conversation.  I love that too. I wish I had nothing but high performers to work with, but I must live in a place called reality.

Keeping Your Poker Face at all Costs

I don’t have the world’s best poker face. My emotions tend to be obvious. If I think you’re a fool, it shows.

As a people manager, I’ve had to temper my natural responses. With good employees I don’t need to worry. With my problem children, it takes a lot of effort to keep a neutral countenance.

I’ve gotten better over the years. I can think of one example in which I did a marvelous job of keeping my feelings to myself. I had one horribly high-strung employee I’ll call Mara. She freaked out at nothing and had a temper like a bulldog with an oozing toothache.

Her boyfriend also worked for us, and keeping her happy was almost a full-time job for him. Watching them reminded me of an old song by the Canadian band the Northern Pikes called, “She ain’t pretty, she just looks that way”. I could see the physical attraction, but I have no idea how any male could put up with her antics. I digress.

Mara yelled at customers and coworkers alike. She cried a lot. I couldn’t stand her. She sucked people of their energy.

One morning after a particularly bad phone call, Mara walked up to my desk and announced, “I’m leaving.”

“Are you leaving for the day?” I asked.

“No, I am never coming back.”

This is where the poker face practice came in. I wanted to grin like a Cheshire cat, but I was afraid I would jinx her leaving. Normally, when you put a lot of money and time into training an employee, you want to get your money’s worth. That means you try to talk them into staying, particularly when your call centre has high turnover. With Mara, I felt like I’d just hit the jackpot.

I had to at least pretend that I cared, especially since we were in the middle of the call centre floor surrounded by other employees. So I asked what happened and was there anything I could do to make her stay?

This started sobbing and screaming on Mara’s part. I was smart enough to get her the heck off of the floor. Crying panic doesn’t do much for the rest of the troops. I herded her to a quiet corner while she yelled about how awful the job, the people and even the city were. She wanted to leave all of them and she was never coming anywhere near the place again.

I wanted to dance a jig, but I kept my serene manager face plastered on. I told Mara I understood her feelings, wished her luck, then whisked her towards the front door. I made sure to take her security pass. If she changed her mind, I didn’t want her getting back in the building.

Only when she was gone did I skip back down the hall to my desk. I went straight to my computer and did the electronic processing required for her termination in record time. It was a good day.

You Must Give Clear Instructions

If you become a people manager, please know that providing instructions can sometimes backfire.

With some employees, I must be as detailed as possible when providing instructions, otherwise a task or behaviour will go completely awry. One of my favourite examples comes from the first employee I posted about in this blog, Julie.

Julie had a habit of wearing inappropriate things to work. Sometimes her outfits were jaw-droppingly awful. Others just needed minor tweaks. One day Julie’s bra straps appeared prominently as part of her ensemble. Another team leader pulled Julie aside and told her she needed to do something about her bra straps.

Julie said ok and quickly went off to the bathroom. She came back without her bra. Just took it off, so the straps couldn’t stick out.

Did I mention she was wearing a skin-hugging, white shirt? And that she was incredibly endowed, thanks to some cosmetic enhancements purchased by her boyfriend?

“Do something about your bra straps” was not enough direction.  With an employee like Julie, we should have told her to push the straps under her shirt or pull her shirt back over the straps. “Do something” was just asking for trouble.

You might be thinking to yourself, ‘Do I really need to baby my employees that much?’ The answer is yes. Sometimes.

I hope you don’t run across too many Julies in your career. I promise, there are frontline employees capable of rational thought. They just didn’t work in my call centre.