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.
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.