Good jobs, parts I and II

Good jobs

By Ben Teehankee

November 5, 2007

Managing For Society column, The Manila Times

Do you have a good job? Since you spend most of your waking time at work, the goodness of your job should be a concern because it can greatly influence the quality of your life. Employers, on the other hand, need to be conscious about the human impact of the jobs they design for workers. Workers are not machines, after all, and their well-being at work should be given due attention.

But what is a good job? The International Labour Organization (ILO) has proposed a concept of “decent work” which gives a comprehensive list of desirable job characteristics from the point of view of workers’ human rights and life goals. Psychologists, for their part, have recommended features of a well-designed job that inspire worker commitment and well being. Both approaches are useful in evaluating the goodness of jobs.

The ILO explains that “decent work sums up the aspirations of people in their working lives. It involves (1) opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, (2) security in the workplace and social protection for families, (3) better prospects for personal development and social integration, (4) freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and (5) equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men.”

The ILO’s ethical criteria for evaluating work can be easily applied to any job. For example, sales or fast-food jobs on perpetual short-term contracts which deprive workers of an organized voice in company work policies would not qualify as good jobs. Likewise, jobs which discriminate in favor of certain religious denominations when giving regular status because of the latter’s non-union stance would not qualify as good jobs. ILO’s reasoning is simple: jobs which violate basic human rights or stunt natural human aspirations for personal development are not good jobs.

Psychologists Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham have identified five job characteristics which result in higher motivation and well-being for workers. Skill variety looks at the extent a job requires a worker to use a number of different skills and talents. A job which entails only photocopying for eight hours a day would be missing this important job characteristic.

A job which requires completion of a whole and identifiable piece of work has the characteristic of task identity. If this piece of work output has a substantial impact on the work or lives of others, then the job has task significance. A janitorial job which entails being called at random to sweep floors at different parts of a hospital would have low task identity and task significance. Assigning the worker to a particular area of the hospital and including disinfecting functions would improve the job.

Autonomy is the amount of discretion a job allows a worker in choosing a schedule and an approach for doing the work. Feedback is the degree to which the worker gets direct and clear information on how well he or she is performing a job. A manufacturing job which requires simply following a fixed schedule and procedure for assembling a component to be checked and adjusted by another worker would be low in both autonomy and feedback. It would be better to allow the worker scheduling discretion as well as training in checking the quality of his own work through measurement instruments.

Next week, we will apply the above criteria on the fast-growing call center industry. Are call centers giving good jobs?

Good jobs (2)

November 12, 2007

Last week, I discussed, based on the ILO and psychological theory, that good jobs enable people to be productive while doing meaningful work which supports employee participation, personal development and security. Let us examine whether call centers are giving good jobs.

Wikipedia defines a call center as “a centralized office used for the purpose of receiving and transmitting a large volume of requests by telephone [which is] is operated by a company to administer incoming product support or information inquiries from consumers [as well as] outgoing calls for telemarketing, clientele, and debt collection ….”

The call center industry is one of the fastest growing job sectors with a growth rate of almost 10 percent in the Asia-Pacific region. While relatively high pay attracts many applicants, the qualified manpower pool is steadily dwindling. Companies report low applicant hiring rates of around 5 percent. Worse, the sector has an average employee attrition rate of about 20 percent.

Researchers have traced the attrition to a number of emotionally straining characteristics of typical center work, namely, low job discretion, target times and performance monitoring. These characteristics tend to diminish the “goodness” of call center jobs. Highly standardized scripts are used to bring employees quickly up to speed for consistent handling of calls. Supervisors closely monitor calls to check for legal compliance, consistency and politeness. Quantitative targets for call handling times are set for employees to maximize operational efficiency. It is easy to see how the job strain that results from lack of autonomy and efficiency pressures can lead to high call center turnover, especially given the profile of well-educated and highly literate employees hired.

Catriona Wallace and fellow researchers, writing in the International Journal of Service Industry Management, have observed that the high turnover can be the result of a deliberate company strategy of “frequent replacement of employees in order to provide enthusiastic, motivated customer service at low cost to the organization.” I don’t know if this is the case for local call centers but such a strategy would certainly not be consistent with giving good jobs and developing people.

Innovative companies have addressed call center job problems. Recently, the Personnel Management Association of the Philippines (PMAP) awarded eTelecare its coveted “Employer of the Year Award”. The company reportedly invests heavily in talent and leadership development. It actively involves employees in company decision-making through town-hall meetings and even solicits their inputs for the design of new call centers. The result: day care centers, game rooms and resting lounges.

In England, Allison Widdup of arété business services has approached the challenge by redesigning call center work. She was bothered by the low employee job satisfaction and the high dissatisfaction among customers of UK call centers. Using quality management principles from W. Edwards Deming, arété avoids monitoring systems which do not add customer value and tend to demotivate employees. Managers concentrate on removing blockages and facilitating the progress of quality work. The company also avoids motivational competitions and instead focuses on building an environment of collaboration and mutual support.

Most tellingly, arété does not utilize call handling time targets or scripts. The company hires and trains good employees and then gives them as much time as they need to satisfy a caller. Repeat phone calls and complaints about poor service are avoided and employee morale improves. Not surprisingly, attrition at the company is very low.

Can call centers give good jobs? They can if they balance the concern for efficiency and profit with job designs that bring out the best in employees and promote the latter’s well-being.