The first time I was directly insulted while on the job was sometime in June or July of 2006. I had just turned, or was about to turn 21. My dog had just died, or was about to die. I was a year and a half removed from blowing my inheritance on a failed journalism education, and I was fresh into my new job working as a customer service representative in a call centre.
The guy on the phone called me an idiot. I don’t usually care about being called names. I really didn’t like being called an idiot though. I especially don’t care for my intelligence being insulted. For a long time I felt like it was all I had.
I stopped the conversation. My blood boiled. I felt that wave of anxiety that comes with confrontation, especially strong as someone who looks to avoid confrontation whenever possible. I’m not sure what I said. Maybe I said, “Excuse me sir but that’s not acceptable,” or “Sir please don’t speak to me like that.” Whatever I said, it was the most professional way I could muster “The fuck did you just call me?”
My body shivered in a state of pure alarm as the adrenaline rushed through me. I immediately put myself into break. They called this “auxing” because to be in break you had to be in an auxiliary state, just like you had to be for training, or meetings etc. They called being ready for a call “auto-in.” I have no idea why they called it that.
Once in break I rushed outside to smoke as many cigarettes as I could in the 10 minutes of break I had allotted myself. I had never been confronted so personally by a complete stranger before. The job was full of confrontation with the company, people saying their bill was bullshit, or that we fucked up a plan change or something. It was always easy to separate most of the conflicts though because their beef was with the company, not with me. This was different though. He called ME an idiot. I was furious.
It’s an initiation into service work that I imagine almost everyone who’s tried it goes through. Some people quit on the spot. Some people take it in stride. I wasn’t in one camp or the other, but if I could do it again, I’d be the one who quits on the spot, not for being unable to handle it, but for being unwilling. That’s part of the job though. They prep you for it while you’re being trained, giving special attention to keep people who don’t handle it well. Disrespect is just part of the status quo, an occupational hazard in the most literal sense.
It’s the sort of industry where people begin to take pride in their nastiness. I can’t think of a thing more unbecoming than bragging about how rudely or contemptuously you spoke to someone, no matter the circumstance. Nevertheless, it’s an easy trap in which to fall and I certainly did over the years I spent there. People would have cigarettes and tell their stories about what they said to this bitch or that asshole and so it went. The stories and the people telling them were mostly the same, just told over different cigarettes.
Over my time there I pursued promotions. It felt like something a little better, like I belonged to something, that I was accomplishing something. I didn’t think much of myself then and I decided that I should pursue the job to its greatest extents. I was promoted within a year, and then demoted within months due to restructuring. Then I bounced around a bunch of pseudo-leadership jobs. Some were better than others. I would be jerked around to work different shifts at different times. Once I didn’t want to take a job filling in for a supervisor on maternity leave, so one of the managers, named Pat, called me on my day off and asked me to take it again. I told him the hours weren’t great for me (it was an overnight shift). He told me if I ever wanted to be promoted again I should demonstrate that I was flexible. I should have asked him which of the 15 shifts in 16 weeks I’d just worked was inadequately demonstrating my flexibility. I went in the next day and my direct manager, named Jason, brought me into his office. He wasn’t a dick about it but pushed me in his own way. “I’ve tried everyone we can ask boss,” he said. He loved calling people “boss.” “I really need you on this one,” he said. I told him it was really inconvenient but I would do it for a couple weeks.
The next week on my second shift I was walking through the aisle around where the team sat. I bounced a tennis ball and would often start impromptu games of catch with colleagues or just use it for stress. On this day my tennis ball fell and this older guy on my team picked it up. He started playing keep away with it and I’m just standing there saying “dude, just give me the ball.” He reached up and pinched my cheek saying something about “the baby wanting his ball.” I should have punched him in the face. Instead I brought him to my desk and told him to never touch me again. I had a meeting with HR and the director about it. I told them how I was upset and the shifts were messing with my sleep. They told me I didn’t have to feel pressured to take them. I should have been quicker to tell them what their peers told me, but I was too upset to remember. They gave me $500 for my trouble. I should have quit when they offered me that.
I regret that path so, so much. Maybe I would have pursued my passions sooner. Maybe I wouldn’t have though.
One day a VP from Sprint named Travis Porter came to visit. It was a tough time for the site and lots of people thought we were in danger of being shut down. He listened to a call I took. I was friendly and knowledgeable and followed company policy to the letter. I cheerfully told the customer we couldn’t help them on this one. I did everything perfectly.
Later that day I went to a meeting with Porter and about 8-10 other supervisors and a couple managers. We all introduced ourselves, and this manager, Matt, told the VP that I said I had “awesome” written on my birth certificate. This was in reference to a day when Matt had given me some acclaim for my team getting consistently good customer satisfaction surveys. I guess I was feeling a bit proud so I said something like “I guess some people just have awesome written on their birth certificate.” It’s a dumb joke, but that’s all it was. Now without context, I just looked like a cocky asshole working at an office facing closure. The VP immediately focused his attention to me. He challenged me, saying he would have to take a look at some of my agents. I was steadfast and pleasant, saying I’d be happy to review my team’s performance. He made presumptions about my work ethic. He brought up the call he had listened to and told the room I had lost a customer, adding something about how I was an example of what needed to change. He berated me in front of my peers for what seemed like hours, but what was probably closer to 15 minutes. He made a comment about how red my face was becoming due to the embarrassment. A couple managers noted it was “goin pretty good” or something and laughed nervously. Other people in the room looked uncomfortable, refusing to look my way and cringing more than I’d ever seen in my life. They had no idea what to do. They just knew what not to do: tell him to stop. I don’t know if I can blame them. I don’t think I would have acted differently. I didn’t act differently and I was the one being berated. It’s always easy to tell someone what he or she should have done, but in the moment, you’re just frozen, and there’s no helping it. I guess I can’t blame them. I wish I could have found the strength in that moment to walk out though. That kind of humiliation is nightmarish, the epitome of what people fear and keeps them from being assertive and going after what they want. It’s tough to wake up from.
Later that day my manager tried to smooth things over, saying Travis wanted to make sure I knew he was just kidding around. I was in a daze. I said something like “sure Jason, whatever” and went back to work. I took a leave about a week later, and never went back.
If I think of the main difference in myself between then and now, it’s that situation and my response. It haunts me despite happening over five years ago, but I know I would leave that room if it happened today. If anyone offered me any number of dollars to be talked to like that, I’d refuse. Dignity is priceless, but is often given up at such little cost. I wish I’d known the extent to which mine was damaged when I took that job. I didn’t like myself much then, and sometimes I still don’t, but I like myself a whole lot more now. I wish I’d known that no matter how much you like yourself, you’re worthy of respect and all that comes with it, and you don’t have to put up with anything less from anyone, no matter how they’re juxtaposed within your life. As much as I wish I’d known then, I’m glad I know now.
Being exposed to a climate of fear like that can really mess with you, especially when coupled with an environment of entitlement and people having the tendency to power trip. You can become paranoid and think any little mistake in future work will cost you your job then and there, or that people are looking for reasons to detract from your record. I am not alone in experiencing these things. Lots of people have shitty jobs that come with shitty perks and shitty behaviour. Sometimes there’s an element of necessity, perceived or legitimate, to people enduring these places. I’m certainly thankful I was able to leave after that without putting people I care about in jeopardy. Not everyone is that fortunate.
Sometimes people do shitty things when they’re desperate. Sometimes they follow orders that conflict with what they believe, or sometimes they say nothing when they’d normally defend someone they call a colleague or a friend. Sometimes they unwittingly put someone they know in an awful situation just to placate to someone who can help them more. Life is hard sometimes and we don’t always do the right thing when it can put our survival at risk. Is that wrong? It feels like it is, but it’s not that simple, no matter how much we want it to be.