toxic jobs

Personal stories about toxic jobs and workplace woes.

December 18, 2006

telephone food chains

Doris is 46, married with two teenagers, and she has reached that stage in her working life where she is earning good money and expects to be treated with the respect that her position confers upon her. Being required to answer everyone's telephone is not in her job description and she refuses to do it.

"When a job title does not read receptionist, telephonist or customer service representative," says Doris, "one would expect that answering telephones is not going to be a major part of one's job, right?"

"I'm an executive secretary," explains Doris, "and while I realize that many unscrupulous employers suck you into positions with wonderful titles and job descriptions that, when you start the job, turn out to be little more than answering telephone calls that nobody else wants to answer, I did not expect this sort of thing to happen to me."

Being glued to a telephone all day is not Doris’s idea of fun. In fact, it is the most stressful work she can think of. She is quite happy to answer some calls, some of the time, but she most certainly does not want this type of work to monopolize her day.

"Answering other people's telephone calls wasn’t in my job description," says Doris, "and I'm annoyed that I find myself in this situation."

Doris has come to the conclusion that nobody likes answering telephones at work.

"I've worked at some places that have clever systems that put calls on voice-mail after three rings," says Doris, "but where I work now the preferred system is to transfer calls from phone to phone until somebody answers."

"Nobody does," laughs Doris. "They pretend they’re deaf."

Some workplaces have solved the problem completely by using Call Centers to take calls, leaving the workers to do their work in peace, and Doris wishes her employer would adopt this system.

The type of telephone call Doris fears most is from an irate client.

"They are irrational to start off with," sighs Doris. "And they get progressively worse. Nothing I can say will placate them."

Doris is usually the final resort for this type of call after the receptionist and junior secretary have had their patience worn thin by the caller.

Doris usually answers with the following spiel: "No, sorry, sir, you cannot speak to the CEO. He is playing golf. Oops, he is at a conference. Yes, sir, I am the CEO's executive assistant but I do not have the facts of your case at hand and I am not at liberty to advise you in this matter."

Often Doris ends up with the caller slamming the telephone down, resulting in poor Doris' ears ringing for the rest of the day.

For some people, of course, answering phones is a career choice. Doris’s eldest daughter is a receptionist and earns very good money for seemingly doing little more than looking pretty and answering telephones, but actually her role in the company is quite pivotal.

"My daughter provides the image of the company as well as the first point of contact for all visitors and telephone callers," explains Doris. "And, being young, perfectly groomed, good looking, patient and a skilful communicator helped get her the job."

"Technical support and customer service representatives are also a special breed," says Doris. "My two boys work in this field and they received not only excellent training in their company's product but also in the art of communication."

"The boys actually enjoy their jobs because they can actually help customers with their problems," says Doris. "And let's face it, nothing is more satisfying that solving a problem for someone. I wish that I could be more help to the people I have to speak to."

"At the bottom of the telephone call food chain," says Doris, "is Call Center employees. They have the highest turnover employment rate of any industry, and that’s where my children got their start but, of course, a lot of these Centres have moved offshore now."

Doris says that most Call Centre employees are itinerant workers, travelers and students filling in a bit of spare time to earn a few dollars. They receive very little training, their natural communication skills are often woeful and they are basically doing a job nobody else wants to do.

"I pity them," says Doris, "yet I appreciate that the experience itself is valuable to any young person."

"Not only do the hellish Call Center jobs teach kids to deal with stress," says Doris, "but they also improve communication skills."

Because of the problem of nobody wanting to answer calls in her workplace, Doris has become an expert on tricks to avoid answering everyone else's telephone calls.

Some people in Doris’s workplace shamelessly divert their telephone calls to another extension without the person at that extension knowing.

Doris, on the other hand, chooses to turn down the volume on every telephone within earshot, on the basis that if she cannot hear the ring it doesn’t bother her.

Most of the time the calls that come in are personal and she refuses to spend her working day taking personal messages for other staff members.

"If the message is important," says Doris, "the caller will either call back when the person he or she wants to talk to is back at their desk, or they will do what I do -- send an email."

As Doris says, an email annoys just one person, the recipient. A telephone call annoys and disrupts the whole office.

Another trick Doris has used to avoid answering her calls is to unplug the telephone at the wall when she needs absolute peace to complete an urgent task.

Sometimes she just tunes out completely using a Walkman or uses earplugs.

"Telephone trauma is a very real malaise, and I don't think I'm being unethical in unplugging my telephone when I've had enough," explains Doris. "I was put off answering telephones at work by the very first office job I ever had."

"It was one I took on during a summer school vacation, a very long time ago," explains Doris. "I worked on a busy switchboard with a panel of flashing lights."

"I was given mumbled instructions by a woman who sounded like she was drunk - and probably was by the smell of her breath," laughs Doris, "and as you can imagine, I made a total mess of the job. I lost every call that came in. I was flicking switches and pulling plugs and crossing wires and getting abused by callers who wanted to know why I had disconnected them!"

After a day of this Doris could not take any more. Her employer gave her some typing to do instead. Bearing in mind that this was also the time before word processors, that task turned out to be a disaster, too.

"I used so much white-out on my typing errors that the letters I typed looked awful!"

Anyway, that first brush with office telephones was so traumatic that Doris has avoided taking jobs with heavy telephone work ever since.

The perfect office for Doris would be one where all communication with the outside world was done by email. Not only is email a quiet mode of communication but it also has the added bonus of providing a written record of transactions.

"I'm amazed that in this era of electronic communication that telephones are still used as widely as they are," says Doris, "and I can't be the only person complaining about the amount of telephone work I have to put up with."

"The trauma with telephones at work has also changed my attitude towards answering the telephone at home," sighs Doris. "Thankfully, my husband and children like answering the phone, otherwise I wouldn't bother."

"After listening to phones ringing all day, I want peace and quiet when I get home!"

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