A Day of Remembering

With Remembrance Day approaching us this week, I am reminded that I have zany employee stories for every occasion, even this one.

Right or not, most call centres are open Remembrance Day and don’t even stop for an official moment of silence at 11am. They will usually offer employees the opportunity to take that one minute for themselves, should they desire it.

In my cynical call centre management view, I am surprised by how few employees actually take this opportunity, giving that it means a brief respite from their phone duty, if nothing else.

We did have one employee who was particularly unimpressed with this policy. He was always a bad fit for the call centre business. He hated all of the clients and spoke to them like they were morons. (Plenty of the clients were nuts, but we did have normal ones too.)  He was always ranting about something and looked miserable dragging his butt into work each day. He was never going to last.

My boss sent an email to the floor the week before Remembrance Day explaining the company policy to everyone. It wasn’t new, but we always had new employees.

The employee I will call John thought the policy was awful, and at first expressed his displeasure in a professional sounding email to my boss. She responded in an equally professional email stating that she understood his concerns, but the company policy would stand.

I knew nothing of this email exchange while it was happening, so I couldn’t figure out why John threw down his headset and stormed off the floor.

My boss burst from her office to find John, because he had just sent her back an email telling her she was “pathetic”. That’s an exact quote. It was the nicest thing he said in his electronic tirade.

Calling the big boss pathetic is never a good career move. We didn’t have to worry about firing him for this exchange or his other moody behaviour and poor client handling, because John was so mad about the incident that he never came back. I guess his principled stand made life easier for everyone.

While I don’t agree with John’s response, his anger was at least well placed this time. I think all call centres outside of 911 should pause to mark this solemn occasion. Lest we forget.

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Pants Are Not Optional

After last week’s lengthy diatribe, I decided shorter and funnier would be a nice change for this week. So here I present some of the weirdest call centre happenings I can come up with.

I’ve talked a few times about a nutty employee named Julia, who managed to keep her job through a pleasant attitude and the comic relief she provided for the management team. Watching Julia at her desk was always entertaining. She wore more make-up than Tammy Faye Baker and usually painted it on while seated at her desk. This included painting on eyebrows that she’d previously waxed off. She managed to do this with one hand while typing with the other and talking to clients. Talented girl.

I’ll get back to Julia in a second, but I told that story mostly so I could tell this one. The worst story of personal habits you should never do at your desk actually comes courtesy of my old partner, Jason. He worked in a different call centre before joining ours. It was a fabulous place to work. On the nightshift, you could actually walk down the aisles and interrupt drug deals.

The story in question involved a girl sitting at her desk trimming her hair. Only it wasn’t the hair on top of her head. Let’s just say it was a lot lower and required her to be sitting at her desk with her pants open. She was dropping her trimmings on her desk. I wish I was making this up.

If anyone out there has a disgusting employee story that can top that one, please let me know. I’d love to hear it.

Back to Julia and the title of the post. Julia has clothing issues that I’ve documented before. For some reason she was seated at her desk one day when a manager noticed she wasn’t wearing any pants. Instead, her pants were sitting on the desk next to her. Not something you see every day.

Julia got called to HR (I think to discuss her pantless state). She got up, put her pants on and walked to HR. When she came back from her meeting, she took her pants off, sat back down at her desk, and continued taking calls.

Some things you just can’t make up. I don’t have the imagination to top real life.

The One That Almost Made Me Crazy

When you are a manager, there is always one employee you think might break you. You’ll have lots of good people, mediocre people and even bad people. But there is another category reserved for the nightmare employee.

Unfortunately for me, this nightmare showed up on my very first team in my very first management job. I only had three people reporting to me and two of them were problem children.  The one I will call Victoria tested my mettle. There were moments when I didn’t think I would survive being her manager.

Not a great introduction to employee management.

What made Victoria so special? I classify her as one of the “persecuted”. The persecuted are employees who think everyone is out to get them, everyone else is always wrong and they’ve done nothing to bring on the treatment they get. These people are so troublesome because you cannot reason with them.

Victoria was a classic case. She considered herself to be overworked when she wasn’t. (Yes, I can be sure of that. I covered her desk when she was away, and the longest it ever took me to do her whole job was 5 hours.) She considered any additional requests for work to be unreasonable and unfair. She complained to anyone who would listen (and some who wouldn’t) that she was overworked. Never mind that she spent most afternoons online checking out her stock portfolio. (Silly thing to do when a supervisor has the cubicle directly behind you.)

She had trouble getting along with everyone—every manager in the department, every co-worker and every vendor we dealt with.  None of it was ever her doing. To illustrate, someone in another department once asked her for something via email. This person used to work in our department and got a promotion Victoria wanted.  Victoria’s response was, “You are wrong and shouldn’t you know how to do your own job?” That’s an exact quote, I swear.

Our vendor managed to typo her name in one email by simply leaving a couple of letters in the middle out, clearly a typing brain fart. Victoria emailed him back with the correct spelling in bold, capital letters and said, “Shouldn’t you know how to spell my name by now?” When I asked why she responded that way to a typo, Victoria insisted it was not a typo and that the vendor had done it on purpose to insult her.  Good grief.

Review time was even more fun.

Victoria insisted she was a high performer (she wasn’t) and refused to acknowledge that any aspect of her behaviour could require improvement.  She did once get a high performer review when she was actually doing her job, but still took it all the way to HR with a complaint about the minor amount of improvement suggested for her. She thought her review should be nothing but glowing praise.

My own review with her rated her as satisfactory. (Trying to get approval from HR for a needs improvement ranking was near impossible.) This resulted in a two month soap opera of me, my boss and my boss’s boss having to justify to HR everything we had ever said or done concerning Victoria, because she showed up at their offices in tears on the day she received her review.

Note to HR folks: if the employee is bad mouthing every single manager they have ever come into contact with, the problem isn’t management. Figure out who the common denominator is.

Victoria did of course think she was too good for her job and pay grade and was always applying for higher positions, most of which she was grossly under qualified for.  She felt even more persecuted and complained it must be racial discrimination. Clearly untrue when you looked at the makeup of our department and every other one she applied to, but that was using logic again.

It got to a point where I didn’t think I could handle her anymore. Then a miracle happened. Some crazy person from another department actually wanted her for a job. The only problem? They were going to call me for a review before making the offer. Drat.

Telling the truth meant there was no way Victoria would get the job. We’d all reached our boiling point and really wanted her to be someone else’s problem.

Did I take the high road and tell the truth? Nope. I’m ashamed to say I took the (mostly) cowardly route. I didn’t give her a glowing review. I did point out that she had communication issues that needed to be worked on but I also sold the things she was great at, such as her attention to detail.  I lied enough that she got the job.

Did I feel badly? Not at the time. Courtesy in our company dictated that hiring managers inform the employee’s supervisor of a job offer before calling the employee. I knew Victoria would soon be out of my hair. My boss wasn’t in that day, but I ran gleefully to her boss’s office and shared the news. Neither of us are “huggy” people, but we both jumped up and down yelling and hugging, so happy that we were getting rid of Victoria. That’s how bad she was.

Guilt did start to creep in later. I’d done something I didn’t think was particularly ethical. I’m no longer with that company, but I keep tabs with people who are there. Somehow Victoria has been promoted to a manager position. I know she had a baby a couple of years ago, so I really hope it changed her attitude and maturity level. If not, I feel terrible for anyone that reports to her or even works near her.

It was frustrating to have such a bad employee that we couldn’t fire. HR was unwilling to let go of an employee who got her work done, no matter how much poison she spewed into our department. There was no one sad to see her go.

It’s employees like Victoria who drive people out of employee management. I’ve been at this a while now and I still haven’t figured out a good way to deal with “persecuted” employees. They crop up periodically and I always have the same troubles. I do know to document everything with these people, so I have a leg to stand on when things go bad.

But I’d certainly love to hear from someone who has experienced more success with employees like Victoria. I still have nightmares about her.

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.

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.

Feigning Interest in Their Lives

As a people manager, you can’t help but get caught up in employees’ personal lives sometimes. I do care about what’s happening with my staff and personal troubles bleed into work life some days. But there are some personal things I just don’t care about or really don’t want to know. There are also stories that leave me trying my best not to laugh.

One such story came to mind recently out of a plethora of tales from one employee I will call Teresa. She was an odd duck from day one. Bad social skills, strange customer service skills and weird life problems.

I answered our internal work line one day to find a sobbing Teresa on the other end. My first thought was, ‘Crap, what happened?’ I’ve certainly known employees who’ve had nasty things happen to them over the years.

Then Teresa blurted out, “A cat attacked my dog!”

Not what I was expecting.

Teresa proceeded to bawl out the story of walking her apparently wussy dog down the street. A neighbourhood cat came out of nowhere and beat the snot out of the dog.

I tried to sound understanding, really I did. I am an animal lover and wouldn’t want to hear of harm coming to any four-legged, fuzzy creature. I also don’t enjoy having employees in distress. But it became obvious quickly that no real harm had come to the dog. He had some scratches and cuts, but the vet had pronounced him mostly healthy. I couldn’t figure out why Teresa was still screaming over the incident.

I made some sympathetic noises then got off the phone as fast as I could, because I just couldn’t hold the laughter anymore. How on earth did one wily cat overtake both a dog and a human? She was standing right there. If she screamed at the cat the way she screamed at me, Teresa should have scared the bejeesus out of it.

She came back to work the next day acting normal. At least as normal as she ever got. I asked for a pet update and continued to act as though I cared.

As a manager I sometimes feel like I am part psychologist. I could have pointed out that the incident wasn’t really worth sobbing and screaming over, but some days I just find it’s best to feign interest. Anything else really isn’t worth the aggravation.