Call centre workers subject to harassment, abuse and threats

Employers should allow workers to hang up on abusive callers, deny repeat abusers service, says union
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian Occupational Safety
call centre abuse

Michelle Ravary was helping a customer figure out a problem with his cellphone bill when the call took an unpleasant turn. The customer said he just had a “wet dream” and needed help “finishing off.”

“He called me and when I was dealing with his bill, he started pleasuring himself and it was totally disgusting,” she says. “I tried to redirect the focus back to the bill and kind of ignore what he had said… but he would just keep going and kept saying stuff like ‘What are you wearing?’ and ‘What do you look like?’”

As per company policy, Ravary had to give the customer three warnings before she could terminate the call. She told him twice that this was not professional and that she would not continue the conversation if he kept talking to her in this manner.

“I would say it and he would keep going and I would keep talking about bills,” she says. “He just ended up telling me to go fuck myself and then disconnected.”

To address the abuse that call centre workers face, Ravary’s union, the United Steelworkers (USW), launched the Hang Up on Abuse campaign in December. Verbally abusive customers are a serious risk to the mental and physical health of call centre employees and the USW is calling on employers to provide them with better protection. The USW estimates there are about 175,000 call centre workers across the country; 10,000 of which USW represents.

The campaign is a direct response to the high volume of calls USW has received from its members about abusive callers.

“It has become a very, very serious issue. It is a situation across the country that needs to be dealt with,” says USW national director Ken Neumann. “Since we launched this campaign, it has been overwhelming in regards to data and evidence that is coming in.”

Call centre workers can be subjected to all kinds of abuse, the most common being verbal abuse, such as profuse swearing and misogynistic, racist and homophobic comments.

In one instance, Neumann recalls a caller said to a worker “I curse the woman that gave birth to you,” and the worker had just lost her mother two weeks prior to the call.

A gay call centre worker told the USW he has been called a “fucking faggot” multiple times. He is also yelled and sworn at on a daily basis.

Ravary, who works in Toronto, has been repeatedly told to “Put a man on the phone” and she is regularly belittled and called names.

“They will tell you that you’re stupid and you’re an idiot. It’s pretty terrible. They’ll say anything to you. It’s amazing. It’s amazing what people will say to somebody else,” she says.

Call centre workers also experience physical threats, including death threats. One worker, who wrote in to the USW, had a caller tell him there was a rifle being aimed at his head through the window.

Sexual harassment, like what Ravary had experienced, is also an occupational hazard. Michelle Dey, a call centre employee in Vancouver, had a caller ask what colour panties she was wearing, and another made it clear he was performing lewd acts in a hot tub while talking to her.

This type of abuse affects call centre workers in a variety of ways, such as negatively impacting their home life, says Neumann.

“People get up in the morning to go to work and do a good job and have pride in the work they do and fend for their families, but to basically go to work and witness this abuse and torment, there’s no doubt workers would take that home and it has an effect on their kids and their partners. That’s not the society we should condone,” he says.

This line of work can affect workers’ mental health. Ravary now requires higher doses of medication for anxiety and depression after working in call centres for 16 years.

“After a while it just doesn’t bounce off you anymore. You really start taking it to heart and it just makes you feel terrible and awful all the time,” she says.

The stress of experiencing this type of harassment also has physical consequences such as poor sleep and eating habits, says Neumann. According to the Hang Up on Abuse website, one worker was so stressed on the job and experienced so much anxiety that they developed an eye condition called central serous retinopathy, which causes temporary visual impairment in one eye.

And the abuse has negative consequences for employers too because workers cannot perform their jobs properly. It’s very difficult for employees to move on to another call after experiencing abuse and harassment, and it affects them for the rest of the day.

“You don’t want to go back on the phone. You don’t want to talk to anyone else. You just want to say ‘OK, I’m done’ and I just want to walk away and I just don’t want to do this,” Ravary says. “It really makes you shut down.”

But not all call centre workers experience abuse and harassment. Rebecca Cable has been working at Admiral Insurance for 20 years and was very surprised when she heard about the USW campaign.

“We of course get disgruntled, unhappy customers at times, but from an abuse point of view, they are rare,” says Cable, renewals department manager at the 450-employee company in Halifax that provides support for the Admiral’s three million customers in the United Kingdom. “It’s not a huge issue for our company.”

Giving call centre workers the right to hang up on abusive calls is the top recommendation of the USW’s Hang Up on Abuse campaign.

At Admiral, employees are allowed to terminate a call, but they still need to give one warning. Another option is just to transfer the call to a manager who then has the ability to terminate the call.

“All we ask is our staff make the judgment. There’s no set rule in place as to what they have to deem as abusive or too much to take; it’s what that individual feels is too much to take,” says Cable.

If an employee does terminate the call, he is required to tell his immediate manager right away so notes can be made on the account to protect the next staff member who may speak with that customer. Ideally, the manager will call the customer and handle it herself, says Cable.

While they did not agree to an interview, Andrew Garas, manager, media relations at Rogers Communications, says in an email that Rogers has “zero tolerance for abuse” directed at any of its employees.

“Our customer care team is empowered to end a call if they feel threatened or the caller is acting inappropriately, which happens rarely,” he says. Rogers call centre workers are required to engage a team manager and provide warnings if they feel threatened before ending a call.

Bell also did not agree to an interview, but its spokesperson, Jacqueline Michelis, says in an email that its representatives are dedicated to treating all customers with respect and it asks that its employees receive respect in return.

“Our code of conduct states that we will not tolerate harassment toward any person or group, including our team members. Customer service representatives can, depending on the severity of the situation, such as profanity or other abuse, advise a customer they are terminating the call and offer to speak at a later time to solve the issue,” she says.

Neumann says while many companies have a “zero tolerance” policy, it’s not being used in practice.

“It’s not being communicated to the front lines. It might be fine for the companies to say that, but it’s not getting down to the worker that is getting the calls,” he says. “That worker is fearful for his or her job and that’s the crux.”

Employers not only need to ensure workers have the right to hang up on abusive calls but that they will not be reprimanded for doing so, says the USW campaign.

“It’s like the right to refuse in health and safety. I think that has come and gone by the wayside. There’s always been that fear of where an individual wants to exercise his or her right to refuse an unsafe act and somehow they still have that peer pressure of ‘You are abusing this thing’ and you could get disciplined. It’s the fear we are trying to get out of it,” says Neumann.

Workers are also afraid of hanging up for fear of getting a bad survey, says Ravary. Customers may be asked to complete a satisfaction survey — such as answer a few questions immediately after the conversation by phone or after the fact via email — and the results affect employees’ compensation.

After an abusive caller leaves a poor survey, managers often listen back to the call with the employee and go over what they could have done differently, says Ravary.

“It’s like ‘What do you think you could have changed to make this call go different?’ and you’re thinking to yourself ‘Nothing. I should have just been able to hang up on this dude,’” she says. “They look at you like ‘Why didn’t you do this, this or this and you are like ‘Are you kidding me right now?’ A lot of times they will turn it back on you.”

Another worker who wrote into the USW echoed a similar experience: “I get in trouble by management for not using ‘kid gloves’ when handling them or being nicer to them. Never do they say, ‘Oh wow, that was a terrible experience for you.’”

It’s important to distinguish between a difficult customer, which all call centre workers should expect, and an abusive customer. Workers should receive training on how to de-escalate difficult situations and do so in practice, but when someone is being abusive, workers should simply be able to say, “Caller, I’m not going to take this abuse. Thank you very much and goodbye,” says Neumann.

“When you have someone that calls in and makes derogatory remarks like ‘What colour panties are you wearing?’ or ‘I hope you get cancer and die,’ those types of things, there’s no doubt that individual should not have to tolerate that and have the ability to hang up,” says Neumann.

When a worker is faced with an abusive call, managers need to support them, says USW.

“In many cases, the supervisor expects the worker to basically sit through this until the call is complete and in some cases, we have heard the worker may get a pat on the back from the supervisor saying, ‘Thanks for hanging in there.’ That’s inappropriate. That’s not a healthy work environment,” says Neumann.

USW is recommending call centre employers train managers on how to support workers who are verbally abused. Ravary agrees training outside of what managers receive during their orientation or when they are first promoted would be beneficial.

“I think not being on the phones you forget what’s happening when you’re on the front-lines of the phones, so I think it’s important for the managers to have training on that more than just once or twice,” she says.

While Admiral does not have specific training for how to support workers who have been victims of abuse, it does have stress management training for managers about how to cope with employees who are stressed in any situation, says Cable.

The USW is also recommending call centre employers issue a warning and flag callers who have a history of harassing workers. This is something Admiral practices. The company has had situations where it decided to only communicate with an abusive customer in writing, so no one had to be subjected to verbal abuse, says Cable.  

And at Rogers, some customers have been banned from calling in.

“While rare, there are instances where we’ve blocked customers from calling our call centres because of repeated inappropriate interaction with agents. It’s something we take seriously and monitor closely,” says Garas.

Admiral has also denied repeat abusers use of its services — something that USW is also recommending.

“In those extreme cases — and those typically tend to be the more aggressive or racist — we wouldn’t want that kind of customer on our books anyways. So we have, in the past, either cancelled or refused to renew them for that reason,” says Cable.

One example of this was about 10 years ago when Cable worked in the Admiral office in the U.K. A very difficult, aggressive and racist customer threatened to go to the office and physically harm a staff member.

“They were a couple hundred miles away but it was still technically possible for that to happen,” she says. “It ended up going to our CEO at the time and he spoke to him and told him we wouldn’t renew his policy and we would cancel him with immediate effect. So, we take it pretty seriously.”

But if this type of situation were to occur in Canada, the USW would like to see it reported to the police, as well as all instances of violent or sexual threats.

“I think it’s an obligation of the employer because this goes towards a safe environment in the workplace. They have to hand that over to the authorities. You just cannot condone being silent on that,” says Neumann.

As part of the Hang Up on Abuse campaign, the USW will be meeting with call centre employers to “ensure that each and every call centre in Canada” has a policy that lays out the union’s recommendations, says Neumann.

But there may be some pushback due to the common corporate motto: “The customer is always right.”

“I understand that every customer is important. I think that’s a business model they have. I can understand why: These are people calling in, they are a provider of some sort and the customer is obviously very important, but, having said that, they also have to take a stand and recognize their employees should not have to go through the abuse that is taking place,” says Neumann.

Having a strong, supportive corporate culture is key in eliminating the abuse call centre workers endure — something Admiral has figured out.

“One of our mottos is ‘People who like what they do, do it better.’ In order for them to like what they do, they need to feel safe in their environment. No one is really going to enjoy their job if they feel they are subjected to that type of abuse,” says Cable. “We, as a leadership team, will do whatever we can to make sure they feel safe, supported, secure.”

This type of work environment is something Ravary would like to see at call centres across the country. She is hoping employers will start making changes so things get better for employees who are dealing with abuse. As it stands now, a lot of people in Ravary’s circle experience abuse from callers and, as a result, are depressed, are on medication and need to take leaves of absences.

“You kind of just wake up in the morning and you just dread it,” says Ravary. “Depending on the day before, sometimes I wake up in the morning and I have to go to work and I start to cry before I have to leave, and my husband’s like ‘Why are you doing this to yourself?’ But you make good money and you have benefits and you have to think about your family.”

Amanda Silliker is the editor of Canadian Occupational Safety magazine. 

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2017 issue of COS.

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