Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Does Getting Fired From a Crappy Job Make Me Unfit to Practice Law?

One of the questions on the character portion of the bar application asks if you have ever been terminated from a job, or permitted to resign in lieu of termination. I had to answer that one "yes".

See, one of the crappy, crappy jobs I held in college was one working as a customer service representative for a certain makeup company lampooned in Edward Scissorhands. They opened a brand new central phone center just north of my hometown, offered "flexible" scheduling, full benefits, and started at $10 per hour, which sounded like a princely sum after two years of working at the cemetery for $8 an hour. This was around the time that I needed a full time job that would have evening and weekend hours so that I could start knocking out some of my gen ed requirements, many of which met in the middle of the day, making it difficult to schedule my classes and continue to work at the cemetery without getting fired for excessive absences.

At the interview, I was assured that, because the center was open from 6 am until Midnight, six days a week, as well as from 9 am until 6 pm on Sundays, I could schedule my work hours around my classes, no problem. That was only the first of many, many lies the Company From Hell told.

The stress of that job was unreal. Looking back on it, I can't believe I stayed there more than two months-- and the only reason I'd have stayed that long is because we had six weeks of training, then two weeks of supervised call taking on the floor before we were turned loose. I regularly went home in tears, cried more than once while on the phone (this was where I learned how to cry silently; I doubt any of the customers who made me cry or got me on the phone after a bad call ever knew.), developed an honest-to-god ulcer, started taking Prilosec, started having anxiety attacks, and ended up on Prozac for a while.

Our customers there were not the people who actually bought the products, but the saleswomen (and a handful of salesmen) who sold the product. And the callers fell into three groups: the good, the mean, and the stupid. The good ones were perfectly normal people who had legitimate problems with an order or a product and needed our help to fix it. They were patient and did not yell at us for a UPS driver who left a box at the wrong house or a product that looked different in the catalog than in real life. They had their ducks in a row, gave us the information we needed to fix the problem, said please and thank you, and were less than 10% of the callers because The Company makes it very easy for their salespeople to resolve most problems without needing to contact the customer service center.

The mean ones were the ones who needed to scream and yell and call us names and be abusive for one reason or another. Sometimes, I'm sure, it was out of simple frustration. Most of those people could be turned into "good" callers quite easily by listening to their problem, apologizing, then doing whatever you could do to make it right. Most of these, the quasi-mean, ended up apologizing by the end of the call for being mean. But many of the mean were looking for someone to blame, other than themselves, for a screw up. Or they were on a power trip, feeling that we lowly customer service reps should be kissing their feet because they were in the "Inner Circle" level of sales. Or they were taking out their frustration with their children or with their husband, or with their neighbors, or their customers on us. A few of these were so bad that they actually had their accounts flagged to warn the representative.

A subcategory of the mean callers is the scammers. These either start off sweet as pie, trying to sweet talk you into doing what they know they aren't allowed to do, or they start off yelling, trying to bully you into doing what they aren't allowed to do. These included people who would call and claim not to have received items, so that we would ship them out again, people who would try to get late fees and return fees refunded, and people who called with crazy stories, presumably hoping for some sort of big payoff. For example, I had a woman claim to have found a used condom in her box of lipsticks and perfumes. We offered to ship her a whole new box of stuff and she threw a tantrum, saying that that couldn't possibly compensate her for the trauma of seeing the condom in her stuff. Now, first of all, most of the boxes are packed by machine. Machines don't use condoms. And second of all, if she found anything in her box, she probably found a finger cot, which were used by the people who spot check the orders for accuracy and bears a passing resemblance (but no more than a passing resemblance!) to a condom, but would not, ummmmmm... show evidence of having been used.

Then there were the stupid callers. I feel perfectly comfortable using this description on the basis of the training we received at the beginning. We were not just trained on how to take calls. First, we learned about The Company and its products. Then we were trained on how the sales program works. We also toured the plant and the returns facility before finally starting to be trained on how to take calls. I'll get back to that part.

Anyway, the sales program could not be simpler. It is structured so that anyone can do it, at least in theory. The ordering process is incredibly simple, as is the returns process. New representatives are given a step-by-step guide that tells them how to handle various situations, and it is a marvel of flow chart simplicity. Really, any sixth grader could do it. The thing that makes it not easy is the fact that not everyone is cut out for sales. I know I'm not. But the actual process of being a sales rep for The Company is child's play. The stupid callers were incapable of handling it.

I can't begin to tell you how many calls I took from people who couldn't understand that they had to pay for the items they ordered, whether they sold them or not. Other callers would be upset at the $4 shipping fee to return non-defective products, claiming that no one ever told them that they'd have to pay to return the products, despite the fact that the manual AND the return form both advised of this fact in bold face type. Other callers didn't get the concept of ordering to begin with, calling to ask us why they hadn't received any items for that sales period only to have it become clear that they'd never sent an order to us, only written it down in their book-- and yet still be upset that we hadn't shipped it on out anyway.

The callers weren't the worst part of the job, though. That was The Company and its policies. To start, we were required to follow a very, very strict phone script. The scripts were organized as flow charts with certain phrases "required" and others "suggested". If you were audited on a call (and everyone was audited for a certain number of calls, depending on how many hours a week you worked), and you deviated from the chart or left out a required phrase, you failed the call, no matter how well you did on everything else. The scripts and a handful of quick reference guides were kept in three inch binders. I took mine home and tabbed it all to hell and back, just to be able to find the proper scripts.

In addition to the phone scripts, we were confined by a set of rules as to what we were allowed to do. For example, I could remove a late fee, provided that no late fees had been removed in the previous four months. Otherwise, I had to get supervisor approval. But I could also refuse to remove a late fee for certain reasons, such as an account that had been flagged for possible scamming. But I wasn't allowed to give a reason why to the caller. All I was allowed to say (and this was a required phrase) was "I'm sorry, I am not able to remove the fee at this time". I really, really hated that, first of all because it meant that the customer would just call back again, and hope to get someone who didn't know any better or just didn't care, and also because the use of the phrase "at this time" meant they'd keep calling to try again.

They also treated us like really stupid sheep, or maximum security prisoners. Whenever you left your desk, you had to put your phone in a "rest state"-- that is, take it out of the system for answering calls. If you went on break, you hit "Break", if you went to lunch "Meal Break", if you went to the bathroom "Comfort Break". If you went even one minute over, you got a notice. If you didn't take your break within five minutes of the time you were scheduled to take the break, you got a notice. Often, you would find yourself working a really crappy schedule with no recourse: Six hours straight on the phone, your first 15 minute break, then half an hour back on the phone before you go to lunch, and maybe your last break would be scheduled for the last half hour of your shift. And as for comfort breaks (aka potty breaks), if you took more than four minutes per shift, you got a notice.

If you got so many notices in a certain time frame, you got either a half or a full demerit. If you got more than two demerits in a rolling year, you were ineligible for merit raises or promotion. More than four demerits meant you were ineligible for all raises. More than six meant you were on probation, and eight could (theoretically) get you fired. In reality, the standard was applied rather haphazardly, with the supervisors' friends not getting demerits applied to their records, and those who the supervisors disliked being watched like hawks for any minor infraction. You also got demerits for failing a call audit, for being even one minute late for your shift, and for a myriad of other things.

In addition to the threat of getting demerits, you had to meet an arbitrary set of quotas to be eligible for raises or promotions. For example, you had to have an average call time of just over four minutes, you had to take a certain number of calls for every ten hours worked, and so on. The quotas were set so high that it was almost impossible to meet them if you actually did your job right. Many of the less scrupulous reps would do anything, up to and including faking a disconnect, in order to keep their average call time down. More than once, I found myself on a particularly long call, working on something particularly complicated, and felt my stomach tightening at the thought of what was happening to my call time.

And that flexible scheduling? The first time I tried to change my shift, I was told that I must have made that up because obviously if they hired me for that particular shift, that was when they needed me and I couldn't possibly change shifts. There was a long, complicated process to trade individual shifts, but there was a limit as to how many shifts you could trade in a certain period. Also, within a few months, staffing had become so precarious that they began scheduling us for mandatory overtime. At one point, I was working an average of 70 hours a week at The Company, as well as carrying a full time course load. Turnover was insane. Within two months of leaving training, I was the only one of our class of twenty or so who still worked at the Company.

I stuck it out for almost two years. The health coverage was excellent and paid for by the company, plus I got paid leave and stock options. During my second year there, I requested and was approved for a few days between Christmas and New Year's so that I could fly to Buffalo to visit Finbar and his family. I booked and paid for non-refundable tickets. Then I was transfered to a different supervisor's group. Maybe four days before I was due to leave, after several months of working mandatory overtime, the new guy informed me that I wasn't allowed to go because they needed me to work. I raised a bit of a stink, pointing out that the time had already been approved, all to no avail. I can only be pushed so far before I snap, and snap I did.

I took the vacation anyway.

When I got back, there was a letter in my mailbox, informing me that my employment at The Company was being terminated as a result of my failure to show up for my shift. I should have been frightened or upset at my sudden unemployment, because I had NO money and NO savings. Instead, I cried with relief. I'd already paid my rent for the month, and my parents bought me some groceries, so I just went out and found a job waitressing, which turned out to be a great job for me. I was very good at it, and made lots of money in far few hours, with much less stress. The ulcer healed, I stopped taking all of the medications, and I was able to finally enjoy being a college student for the last two years of my education.

A funny coda: Two weeks or so after being fired, I received another letter, informing me that I was being fired for failing to show up for my scheduled shift on January XX (I can't remember the actual date)-- the day after I was fired the first time. In other words, I was fired for not coming into work after I was fired.

Now, however, I find myself facing a bit of a dilemma. The Board of Law Examiners wants supporting documents to prove my version of events. What on earth am I supposed to send them? I guarantee that I don't still have the approval form or even the termination letters. That was all seven years and several moves ago. Do I have my parents sign sworn affidavits that this actually happened? Does my best friend write a letter on my behalf? I don't know who at The Company I would even contact to try and get documentation of such a thing. What will happen if I am unable to provide this documentation?



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