Cultural shift: euphemism for fascism

Quentin McDermott’s Four Corners report on Telstra’s management practices and their effect on employees was powerful and polished. I found it useful for several reasons.

First, it revealed the secret of a large part of the productivity miracle of the 1990s. Of course this is not just a Telstra issue. McDermott spoke of Telstra being a national icon, ‘one of our biggest and most powerful companies’ and so on, but the real point is that its new culture is probably representative of how many big companies operate. It adds flesh to the bones of John Quiggin’s argument that much of what has passed as productivity growth in th last fifteen years is not productivity growth as properly understood, but merely a raising of the intensity of work. This has been achieved through the implementation of sophisticated bullying methods in the interests of extracting greater surplus value from the workforce.

Replying to a commenter (called ‘stressed’) on the on-line forum, John Buchanan, from the Workplace Research Centre at Sydney University, puts it like this:

You are exactly right. There is a large literature on the problem of modern day management that refers to the widespread fashion of ‘management by stress’. Many companies explicitly push their staff to the limit – and then pull back. Unfortunately as market pressure increases they are reluctant to pull back. It is only if there are effective unions decent labour standards that this problem can be overcome. Unfortunately we are living in an era of weak unions and declining labour standards. But this is not necessarily the way it will be forever. The union movement was badly beaten in the 1890s and came back from the dead. The same is possible in the future.

There’s more on ‘management by stress’ here and here, but I’m sure that sociologists and industrial relations experts reading this will know of more substantial references.

The comments on the forum are as revealing as the story itself. Here’s one from another Telstra technician on the forum:

As a worker of around the same vintage as Leon I can guess what he was going through. The story just touched the tip of the iceberg. They monitor everything we do in the field, either by having people going around checking our work, ringing customers or dozens and dozens of electronic/computer generated statistics. All the time raising the bar higher and higher but putting more stupid processes in place so they can monitor what we are doing but in so doing making the job actually harder to do.

Other comments on the forum show that the culture is not confined to Telstra:

I also became a union member when I worked for a major bank because I could see the bullying that was happening. I ended up being the one bullied to the point where I had a nervous breakdown in 2001. Companies don’t care anymore, they all have the same attitude, if you don’t like it, get out, there is always someone more desperate for a job.

This raises the second issue, which is that the story starkly shows the consequences of the erosion of union representation in workplaces, making nonsense of the free marketeers’ assurances that the pressures of the marketplace will by themselves weed the bad employers out of the labour market.

Third, it’s not just about producing more widgets, but about selling, which doesn’t create any output, but merely raises Telstra’s market share, or causes consumers to shift their preferences away from one product toward another. It adds nothing to GDP, but merely subtracts from the psychological well being of the staff, who feel that they are using and manipulating customers. From a call center worker:

I worked at the Como call centre circa 2001, I always felt under immense pressure to achieve the sales and other targets. Some pressure in a workplace can be good, but to feel sick in the car on the way to work,to be penalised for going to the toilet, to see people crying in the tearooms, for staff to be on edge or god forbid have wrap time to help a customer is disgusting. I left because I felt so undervalued. The people in the team are the ones who made it bearable…Its really sad to see that all these good people and their families have been affected. Good on those who spoke out in this story.

Finally, in the answers of John Rolland, Telstra’s Executive Director of Customer Sales and ‘Service’, we were treated to a glorious exhibition of the repertoire of your modern corporate spin master.

McDermott takes the title of the story from a general comment by Rolland: ‘In that cultural change you do need to make some very tough calls.’ This is already a classic manouevre from a manager trying to portray himself as a brave navigator steering a course through stormy seas, doing his best to please everyone while knowing that, tragically he can’t — when the self-evident reality is that he is a willing tool of a merciless predatory organisation.

Here are some other highlights (not really, because I could hardly bear to leave anything out), in each case introduced by a bit of background, and the relevant spin technique in brackets:

An early quote, with no specified context (emphasising or inventing the benefits of the practices):

ROLLAND: ‘We are making huge strides in how our employees feel about the organisation and the kind of forward progress we’re making and certainly we’re getting huge accolades from many of our customers who can really feel the difference in the way the company’s heading.’

On why staff have to flog new products when people ring in for help with their current services (misinterpreting the question):

MCDERMOTT (to Susan Dousset): If someone rang up with a a problem with their international roaming for example and they were standing in the middle of Trafalgar Square, did you feel that you had to sell them a plan?

SUSAN DOUSSET, FORMER CONSULTANT, TELSTRA COMO CALL CENTRE: Absolutely. It changed when the new training program came in. Even if they were in the middle of the night in any country in the world, we had to ask them could we look at your plan?

And all the people wanted to do was get their telephone working and personally I thought it was totally inappropriate. We’re an inbound call centre, we’re not an outbound call centre and that’s not what the people are on the phone for, they want customer service.

ROLLAND: It has moved to a sales and service program because our customers have been telling us for years that when they call in they want to deal with one person. They want to deal with someone who can solve all their problems and that includes not just the service element but whether we’ve got new products and services that might benefit them.

On why staff are punished (brazenly evading the question):

PAUL GIRDLER, COMMUNITY AND PUBLIC SECTOR UNION: What that means is that, say for example you’re on a total remuneration package of $40,000, about 10,000 of that is at risk and in order to get that $10,000 you have to meet targets which are ever increasing.

ROLLAND: Under the AWA program they have an uncapped opportunity to earn more if they make and exceed their targets.

MCDERMOTT: But only if they make those targets and if they don’t then 20 or 30 per cent of their base salary is at risk.

ROLLAND: They have the opportunity to earn much more than their base salary if they exceed their targets.

On firing people who don’t reach their sales targets (unblushing euphemism):

MCDERMOTT: What happens if they don’t achieve the targets?

ROLLAND: We continue to work with them.

MCDERMOTT: And what happens after that?

ROLLAND: If a person who joins us over time is not able to achieve the balanced scorecard that we’ve got and it’s not just about sales; it’s about customer service and other issues then we will have a discussion about them finding other opportunities outside Telstra.

On the need for monitoring (transparent bullshit):

MCDERMOTT: Why does Telstra monitor every minute of their employees’ days?

ROLLAND: A call centre environment is an environment where we need to make sure we’ve got all the staff available to take the calls our customers are making, and so to do that with 10,000 staff it requires us to have a pretty rigid approach to who’s on a phone to take a call.

On the need for bullying managerial language implemented at an institutional level (blaming the victims for ‘not getting it’):

MCDERMOTT: Savages, submarines and dragons. What are they?

ROLLAND: Dragons in particular are the things that hold us back from achieving what we want to achieve as leaders.

MCDERMOTT: The way the team leader described it, they referred to people in her own team, or they might refer to people in her own team. That’s a profoundly negative way of talking about members of your own team isn’t it, to call them a savage?

ROLLAND: I agree.

MCDERMOTT: Well, why is Telstra teaching that?

ROLLAND: We had a program put together and the vast majority of those people that went on that course found it very beneficial. I understand there’ll be some individuals that didn’t get it, didn’t understand it and didn’t accept it.

On training managers to bully (trying to somersault to the moral high ground):

MCDERMOTT: Isn’t it teaching team leaders how to bully their staff?

ROLLAND: No, absolutely not.

MCDERMOTT: To talk about their staff as savages?


MCDERMOTT: Or dragons?


MCDERMOTT: To tell them not to mother them.

ROLLAND: Well not mothering staff is probably a good thing. Most people want to be treated as adults.

On what happens to staff who defy the order not to talk not talk to Four Corners (bare-faced lying):

MCDERMOTT: You just don’t want them to speak out.

ROLLAND: They can speak out.

MCDERMOTT: What will happen to them if they do?

ROLLAND: We’ll respect their views.

MCDERMOTT: They’ll be fired, won’t they?

ROLLAND: No, they won’t be fired

On the meaning of Gregg Winn’s (Chief Operations Manager) advice to managers that if staff won’t cooperate ‘then you just shoot ’em and get them out of the way’ (audacious airbrushing):

ROLLAND: Colourful language. It’s not like that. I work in that quote, dictatorship, and I can tell you it’s not like that.

MCDERMOTT: Metaphorically shooting people who can’t get with the reform program.

ROLLAND: Greg’s language, in reality we work with people to help them understand where we’re trying to head. In the end though, if a person doesn’t believe in what we’re really doing, then to be quite frank, you know, they’re probably people that don’t want to work for this company anyway.

Interesting use of the word frank.

On the accusation that work stress drove technician Leon Dousset to suicide (shameless resort to technicalities):

MCDERMOTT: His treating doctor has written this in a letter.

She says, “I have been looking after Leon who had been suffering depression related to stresses at work. He never mentioned any problems at home but did tell me he was upset at finally being forced to have a GPS in his work vehicle to track his movements. Unfortunately he committed suicide as a result of his severe depression.”

Do you accept her view?

ROLLAND: We were not aware of Leon’s depression and so therefore for us to be aware therefore and take action was very difficult.

On the accusation that work stress and work stress alone drove Sally Sandic to Suicide (making another desparate charge for the moral high ground, this time invoking the privacy of the victim):

MCDERMOTT: Do you accept that she was under great pressure at work?

ROLLAND: We do accept that Sally had a number of issues in her life, which was causing her distress.

MCDERMOTT: What were those issues?

ROLLAND: I’ve got no interest in going into the details behind Sally’s issues. We were aware of them, we were working with her on them and out of respect for everybody I don’t see any benefit in going into that.

MCDERMOTT: Well, we’ve spoken at length with her family, with her parents, with her sister, with her friends. They say there were no issues in her life, apart from the pressure she was undergoing at work.


MCDERMOTT: Do you accept that?

ROLLAND: I understand that Sally had a number of issues going on in her life, some which were work-related, which we were working through with her.

The pièce de résistance, making sense of Sally’s suicide (euphemism, but this time heroic euphemism):

MCDERMOTT: Natalie Sandic says Sally resigned because it just became a horrible place to go to work and she used to dread it. Given that she was one of your star performers, that’s a terrible indictment of Telstra, isn’t it?

ROLLAND: The call centre business is not for everybody and we respect people’s choices if they no longer find that work compelling, to make the choice to leave, and Sally made that choice..

And apparently in response to a questiin about the high staff turnover (when all else fails, invoking confidential data):

ROLLAND: The union, bless their hearts, have a particular point of view and when we look at the employee opinion survey, the vast majority of staff are telling us something different

My only disappointment with the program was that McDermott didn’t ask to see the surveys. They would have been very enlightening, I’m sure, if the ’employee satisfaction’ surveys I’ve seen elsewhere are anything to go by.

There’s some follow-up in the SMH, The Australian and The Daily Telegraph.

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Mark Bahnisch
16 years ago

Very sorry to have missed this program. I gather it’s repeated and I’ll try to catch it. There’s no doubt the issues raised go beyond Telstra, though whether Telstra has a particularly blatant American style of aggressive management might be worth pondering.

16 years ago

This is really disturbing.

When I still worked in hospitals 15 years ago the micromanagement monitoring systems where we had to keep track of all our work during the day were just coming in. We essentially had 15 minutes of paperwork per day added to our schedule, and by the time I left it was creeping upwards. All in the name of productivity, but there obviously is an optimum point of time spent per patient that delivers an effective outcome which can’t really be further modified much, so what was the point exactly?

I’m sure virtually every other industry has a similiar optimum point of service delivery beyond which efforts to increase work rates end up in customer dissatisfaction. I really don’t understand why so many companies don’t seem to care about that, they’d rather increase their control over their workers through bullying.

16 years ago

The noticeable point is the stratification of those whose performance
can be simply measured and those whose work cannot. My brother works for Telstra in IT – he was keen to see the programme. His comment was his work was much more
subjective and that he hadn’t written his performance plan for 06/07 yet and would probably get his bonus (based on the fact that his manager thought his work was good).

16 years ago

Rolland’s performance ensured that I will never contemplate a purchase from Telstra. Not that it’s going to make much difference to him, mores the pity.

16 years ago

“It adds flesh to the bones of John Quiggins point that much of what has passed as productivity growth in th last fifteen years is not productivity growth as properly understood, but merely a raising the intensity of work.”

Hmmm! You’d reckon after 15 years of all this increasing ‘stress’ in the workplace, that productivity would be taking a big dive by now. That’s not to say that call centres are the most relaxed and comfortable places to work. Outsourcing them to India might make as much sense as outsourcing our dark satanic mills to China perhaps?

16 years ago

While I am by no means a fundamentalist free marketeer, I still think that the people ought to have simply left Telstra. What’s lacking these days is real balls by people to say “fuck you” to their manager. Seriously, how desperate can one be for a job to let themselves in for that?

16 years ago

I think that it sounds like Telstra has a fairly serious problem, although I disagree about what it is. I agree with Observa about the bullshit factor in the overall theme – I think Telstra’s problem as exposed by the program is perhaps taking a high-performance approach too far down the value chain.

And there is a lot to be said for letting your employees know you love them, and I am sure Telstra do that (ok, in some areas I know they do).

But, but, butall those high-paying productive value-added financial services-type jobs lefties seem to think are the only kind worth encouraging in Australia? Do you know what the dirty little secret is?

They are high-stress. Life is stressful, it always has been and always will be, and we have evolved (like every other animal) to be stressed. Leadership is not about removing or alleviating stress, it is about channeling it productively into adrenaline, camaraderie, and (as a result) results.

16 years ago

Elijah, Whats lacking these days is real balls by people to say fuck you to their manager.

It is called becoming a consultant.

Robert Bollard
16 years ago

Saying “fuck you” and leaving is the main response these days. It’s one of the reasons why workers, on average, change their employment more than they ever did. But, quite apart from the fact that it isn’t always an option, most of the leavers find that any new job they have is subject to the same culture of corporate psychopathology. The real answer isn’t to leave but to stay and organise.
There is nothing new about micromanagement. The biggest strike in Australia’s history – the Great Strike of 1917 – began as a response by management in the railway workshops in Sydney trying to introduce a “card system” to microscopically monitor the work of the skilled tradesmen who made and repaired locomotive stock. The system was based on the new US craze of “Taylorism”.
The answer of one of the union officials to the Royal Commission which followed could just as easily apply today:
“The [Railway Commissioners] officers were reading American literature, and they (the society) read a certain amount of that, too, that in many of the shops where the Taylor card system was worked in America that a man was not required after he was 40 years of age.”
The main difference was that they were talking about physical exhaustion. In today’s workplaces – it is more a question of psychological pressure.

Fred Argy
Fred Argy
16 years ago

Thanks James for a terrific piece. Like you, I was horrified but not a bit surprised at the Four Corners revelations. It’s a hard world out there. I am retired, thank goodness.

The effects of deregulation and reduced union power can be seen not only in the reduced quality of life of workers but in the increasing inequality of gross earnings (pre taxes and transfers) and the rising share of profits in GDP (meaning a higher share of productivity growth is being captured by proprietors, shareholders and managers). As yet, rising earnings inequality has not been reflected in final income inequality. This is due to (a) falling unemployment and (b) Howard’s family benefits reforms (which leave out many low-income single or childless workers). But there are lags at work. Inequality of final incomes is bound to increase in the future unless (a).Howard uses the transfer system to further redistribute (b)does more to equalize opportunities in employment, education, training and housing and (c)unemployment continues to fall,

Observa, the factors highlighted by James, including the increased stress, show up as increased output per hour worked. People who are too stressed and less productive just get the boot or are demoted or transferred. The effect of Telstra-style practices is not on workplace efficiency but on family happiness.

Joshua Gans
16 years ago

Some first class platitudes in that last paragraph, Patrick. You’re not angling for an executive job at Telstra, by any chance?

Gummo Trotsky
16 years ago

“… all those high-paying productive value-added financial services-type jobs lefties seem to think are the only kind worth encouraging in Australia? Do you know what the dirty little secret is?

They are high-stress.”

Bullshit. The highest stressed jobs (as noted by one of the interviewees in the Four Corners program) are those where the worker has minimal control over the demands that are placed on them – the ones at the bottom of the corporate pecking order, not the top. There’s plenty of research – dating back to the 1980s – which has shown this time and again.

“High achieving” corporate top-dogs (like Rolland) are happy as pigs in sh*t with their lives – they pretty much set their own goals and their social lives and work-lives are seamlessly conjoined under the rubric of “networking”. These guys are having fun and getting paid well for it. They’re in business because it’s their idea of a good time, plus you get all the rewards – money, status, conspicuous consumption.

derrida derider
derrida derider
16 years ago

What Gummo said – the main motive for seeking promotion in these sort of organisations is that the ratio of shit given out to shit received rises, so you’re wearing less stock of it at any given time.

If Telstra is running this sort of culture (and I’d believe it – they have a track record of shocking incompetence) they are incredibly short-sighted. Unemployment is at 4.2% now – people really can happily say “fuck you” to this stuff even without a union behind them. And staff turnover, even for so-called “unskilled” jobs, is very expensive for both parties.

Of course we know what follows – Telstra will groan about “skill shortages” and demand 457 visas or government-subidised training courses for their call centres.

16 years ago

We need to separate some issues here. Firstly it would appear many call centres are now the dark satanic mills of white collar industry and face stiff global competition, in what is now an import/export competing sector. Telstra are caught by the chill winds of globalism here as much as their workers are. They would need to drive call centre costs down to comparable international levels. Any collusion (unionisation) by the workers to defy this trend would simply be thwarted by offshoring, or indeed moving to take advantage of a more amenable domestic workforce(say regional areas of high unemployment) Basically like the clothing, textiles and footwear industries of old, no amount of unionisation could drive wages and conditions higher. Short of protectionism, all unionism could do is fight a rearguard action in this respect. In the final analysis, it may be with lower and lower levels of unemployment, finding enough call centre workers to compete with India is just too hard and Telstra join the great exodus.

The specifics of call centres aside, what can we say more generally about some of the issues raised here. Floating the dollar certainly had the inevitable effect of honing competition and cutting fat and that may well have been inherently mixed up with computerisation and the trend to longer and longer tentacles of business, which has some remoteness/aloofness ill effects, service wise. I can remember working at 16 after school on Thurs, Frid arvos and Sat mornings till 1.00, pulling petrol, checking oil, water, tyres and washing windscreens, etc. After 6.00 pm weekdays or 1.00pm Sat, it was 2 bob in the slot at selected coin operated outlets. Seems positively quaint nowadays, along with the 2 airline policy and my TAA Junior Flyers Membership earlier on. As kids we flew down annually from Darwin to Adelaide (14 hour flight)compliments of dads govt job conditions. We were rare beasts indeed to be flying in those days. They’d hold the plane for a family of six if you were unavoidably detained and treated you like royalty on board. Now my 23 yr old son is in South America, compliments of a 1 yr, round the world ticket for $3k all up, which he can save for in a week, subbing as a sparky. Who do you know who hasn’t been on a plane nowadays, compliments of Virgin, Jetstar and soon Tiger? Qantas slowly slips into a smaller market niche, albeit in a much greater industry. Increasingly the consumer cuts out the middleman by self service at servos and hunting and booking cheap flights on the net, squeezing more from less every day. Oh yes, the punters always say they want more service, but try charging them to pump their petrol, check the oil, etc and see how you go. Are there any such servos left in Oz? Same with airline seats and the myriad of other goods and services. Truth is 99% of what we buy is hassle free and bloody cheap. It’s only when things go wrong and we want some action, we get peed off with ‘Press button 1, etc, etc.’ That’s when we’re simply a cost on the bottom line, at the end of a very competitive and ruthlessly selective process, driven by us. It’s a bastard when we get kicked so hard at work, by the same process though. When I was pulling petrol we had 6 of us on the forecourt on a Sat morning, but every servo in town had the same 2/6d per gallon on the bowser and if you rolled up 1 minute past 1, you were outta luck and outta petrol till Monday boyoh. Welcome back to the land of the long weekend!

Stephen Hill
Stephen Hill
16 years ago

The Four Corners was excellent, no there wouldn’t be any submarines amongst the Telstra management (there all to busy playing battleships with the ACC), are the Federal Government the new dragon (there’s definitely some savages amongst them too). Or do management fall into another category the shapeshifting magicians passing off as the knight in shining armour where any individual that doesn’t fulfill their magical standards is suddenly a hobgoblin. I bet ya Sol Trujillo isn’t monitored for surpassing the two dunny break rules.

I’ve heard of this happening in other industries, I have a relative who is supposed to visit the supervisor each time she goes to the toilet (and to fill-out the details in the toilet-break log-book while picking up the “toilet-break #1 and tiolet-break #2 tag.” It’s pointless and probably the whole thing wastes more time than it saves, it also is so demeaning, and makes the staff feel about as valued as the road-kill they driveby on their way to work. I also think penalising staff for targets that are rarely achieved is actually counterproductive, instead of incentivising it actually detracts from performance and probably results in more cynicism and slacking off than it saves, plus as someone mentioned the revolving door is expensive in needing to always train new staff.

Just Me
Just Me
16 years ago

“Life is stressful, it always has been and always will be, and we have evolved (like every other animal) to be stressed.”

That is an ignorant and callous comment.

Some kinds of stress for short periods is good, or at least benign, but lots of open ended stress is very bad. The science on that is absolutely clear. No species can deal with sustained high levels of stress. Indeed, excessive stress is arguably the second biggest cause of poor human health the world over, after lack of clean drinking water. Stress maims and kills, and very effectively.

With respect, sounds to me like you don’t know what real stress is.

(Cue Patrick’s version of the ‘I did it real tough, started at the bottom and got to where I am entirely through my own efforts, so why can’t everyone else?’ routine.)

16 years ago

Actually, cue Patrick’s I don’t think we are talking about the same thing here routine. Sure, ‘stress’ as in flashing strobe lights and sleep deprivation is all that you are going on about.

Stress as in accountability for your targets, being obliged to commit to and demonstrate constant improvement, and being constantly assessed, is all of what I said.

As I adverted to, there is a debate about whether the management might not be doing the right thing, or one of the possible right things, with the wrong people. That in itself is of course a management failure – and DD, amongst others, points out how they will pay for it.

But Observa’s comment points out one reason why they might be making that mistake (if they are).

16 years ago

…And when we got home, our Dad would kill us all and dance on our graves, singing Halleluljah. If we were lucky.

Gummo Trotsky
16 years ago

“Sure, stress as in flashing strobe lights and sleep deprivation is all that you are going on about.”

No Patrick, we’re talking about stress that results from poor management practices and bad workplace organisation. You can learn more about the subject at the US National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health ( and the UK Health and Safety Executive web-sites ( Then you might be in a position to offer an *informed* comment.

Just Me
Just Me
16 years ago

“Stress as in accountability for your targets, being obliged to commit to and demonstrate constant improvement, and being constantly assessed, is all of what I said.”

That is a very open ended, unqualified, and context free statement, so full of assumptions and management speak, I really don’t know where to start.

But the problems include:

What kind of accountability?
How are targets determined?
How far does this obligation to commit extend?
Who decides an employee has met their targets, and demonstrated constant improvement?
What form does this “constant assessment” take?

And so on.

These are not trivial games with words I am playing here, Patrick, it is the guts of the problem. The vague abstract language and concepts you use (standard management-speak) IS THE PROBLEM. It leaves the door wide open for seriously unrealistic work conditions. The devil is in the detail, which you haven’t provided.

Sure, stress as in flashing strobe lights and sleep deprivation is all that you are going on about.

No, I am not talking about overt torture. Your glib statement simply proves that you don’t understand what stress is and how it works.

Helen, just you try to tell the kids of today that, and they won’t believe you, they won’t!