Whatever business is outsourced in favour of India vis-à-vis other rival nations, is clearly on account of its competitive edge. By and large, the functioning of call centres in India has given no cause for anxiety among the outsourcers, thus far.
For employees however, the story is different. The work culture in a call centre is quite distinct from that prevailing elsewhere. Apart from the international time zones, language skills, confidentiality and secrecy of work content, tailor-made precision to client needs and exacting standards of professional competence impose enormous pressure on employees. Often, this takes a heavy toll on the physical and mental health of call centre employees.
Irregular timings, including night shifts coupled with frequent job surveillance by superiors and zero tolerance towards work lapses do not make work as hunky-dory as it is often perceived. Despondency among junior employees, designated as “agents”, is quite common.
Not taking the job seriously and unauthorized absence from work can lead to immediate termination under a zero tolerance policy. Under this, the employer can, without any justification offered, take action on any employee found guilty of definite infractions, or unaccepted behaviour or performance. This zero tolerance seeks to address two concerns among employers. First, no negative impact on the quality of service. For instance, all employees must adhere to the promise of data confidentiality. Second, any unacceptable behaviour such as rudeness to clients. The confidentiality aspect may be understandable, but as regards what is generally perceived as rudeness or uncivil behaviour, it must be understood that even when uncivil behaviour from the client is defensively responded to by a call centre employee, it has connotations of rudeness. There have been instances when clients used abusive language against an employee, without sufficient reason and a mere defensive explanation was taken to be “rudeness”. The fear of such measures can itself be a psychological trigger to disturb the mental balance of an employee. Many employees need frequent counselling.
According to a study conducted by the V.V. Giri National Labour Institute, the organizational structure of a call centre is basically dualistic—consisting of a core or permanent set of employees and periphery or non-permanent set of employees, referred to as “agents”, who are conveniently substitutable—the latter are exploited with harsh working rules. These have been compared with conditions prevailing in prisons. While the above finding may, perhaps, be a sweeping generalization, there is definitely a strong case for reform from within, though trade unionizing the organizations may adversely impact discipline and efficiency. A better system of employer-employee dialogue, rather than merely on the intranet, and collective deliberations on issues that affect employee morale, should go a long way in giving relief to distressed employees. This can be bettered by a permanent grievance removal mechanism.
The red brigades’ call for trade unionizing was cold-shouldered by the $8 billion outsourcing industry. Irritants major and minor must be resolved without delay, without compromising the professional efficiency or the required discipline, lest it send the wrong signals to prospective clients.
V.B.N. Ram retired as a senior executive in the corporate sector. Comments are welcome at email@example.com