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Employee Harassment: And How to Support Your Agents Through It

Charnele Williams

This is the third blog post in a four-part series about employee experience. We encourage you to review the previous blog of this series entitled, Understanding The ROI of Agent Wellness in Hybrid Call Centers.

Call center agents have some of the most stressful jobs around. Constant calls, long customer wait lines, and endless requests (which are often highly negative and urgent in tone) are some of the factors that make this career choice more demanding than most. Recently, there have been numerous stories and reports publicizing the rise in call center employee harassment. A Business Standard study featuring contact centers across both America and India stated that 81% of call center agents in 2021 reported customer abuse, 36% of agents reported customer threats of violence and 21% of the female agent population reported sexual harassment by their over-the-phone customers. With the number of cyber-attacks and virtual bullying increasing within our ever-expanding digital world, it is dire for us to seek ways to combat this growing trend. Let’s take a look at some ways in which employee harassment is affecting the well-being of the call center agent and how operational leaders can help show their support.

Happy Call Center Agents…

…Are the faces of a successful brand. These employees directly interact with customers, set the company’s customer service tone, and single-handedly impact customer loyalty. Front-line agents also drive sales and have the power to affect a company’s bottom line of revenue by merely conversing with patrons. 

Although businesses often tend to view employee retention as an ever-revolving door, it is time for a reshaped mindset to take over. Especially today, when “cubicles” (theoretically speaking) are becoming increasingly harder to fill; companies simply cannot afford to take passive stances toward workforce retention any longer. Not only will these brands lose money on revolving agent training initiatives, but ultimately, their brands will be impacted by negative customer experiences resulting from their fleeting workforces.

The Future of Employee Experience

You may have heard of the recent news surrounding “The Great Resignation” and employee attrition as of late (i.e. throughout 2021, an average of 3.98 million workers left their jobs every month). Call center employees are no strangers to stats such as these. The turnover rates of contact centers are among the highest in the country, at 30 – 45% – more than double the average rate for all occupations. Not to mention, the average tenure of a single contact center agent is reported to be approximately 3 years according to ContactBabel’s Contact Center Industry Research

This should be of little surprise to readers given the stressful nature of the call center industry. Agents can average up to 10 hostile encounters each day in which they are subjected to vile insults, screaming, cursing, and threats. Abuse in itself takes a significant psychological toll on individuals, let alone individuals at work. Buzzfeed, a popular online entertainment and media publication source published a call center piece in 2021 featuring various stories from call center workers who shared some of their most hostile contact center experiences. These stories varied in severity, but all included several examples of agents being berated, bullied, sexually assaulted, yelled at, mocked, racially attacked, and reduced to tears as a result of customer experiences.  

How Can Operations Leaders Support Their Employees?

Although it is impossible for businesses to control the negative behaviors of call center customers, they are more than capable of managing their responses to their employee’s attacks.

1. Human Aware AI to Protect Your People  

With artificial intelligence, call centers can identify their employees’ conversational strengths and areas for growth while helping employees predict customer sentiment, de-escalate heated exchanges and even track negative interactions. Intelligent models can be used to provide agents with a sense of support and backup during their more difficult customer calls.

2. Empathy Never Fails

Call center leaders can practice being more empathetic to their staff. In a January 2022 article featured in the UK-based magazine, Hukmag, various private call-center agents reported several stories that highlighted the scarce support they were offered after facing verbal customer attacks. They mentioned the limited, heavily managed (10-minute) breaks (for bathroom use, eating, praying, composure maintenance, etc.) they were allowed to take during their stressful 6-hour shifts. And some agents even reported a refusal of manager intervention when conversing with highly aggressive customers.

Intervening on your staff’s behalf, and/or providing additional breaks and “timeouts” can substantially increase employee well-being for the better. Put yourself in your employee’s shoes and consider the treatment you would want to receive from your employer if you were them. Then use this POV to help you create a healthy and empathetic work environment for your staff.

3. Better Mental Health Resources

Companies can offer a larger variety of mental health resources & programs for employees to leverage when feeling burdened by high-stress labor. Employees will benefit from offerings that can improve their mental well-being and extinguish work-induced stress. Employees want to feel acknowledged by their employers, especially when facing burnout. Show that you care by equipping them with various high-quality tools and resources that can be used to mentally recharge them. Just remember the reciprocity principle: when you support and care for your staff, they will support and care for your business in return. 

All in all, call centers that encourage, enable, and support their employees are more likely to achieve sustainable outcomes. With the increasing rate of violence and employee harassment, employers are expected to work harder to protect their staff members’ mental and physical well-being at work. Whether that means conducting more quality-of-life check-ins, providing more breaks and PTO, showing more empathy, distributing more “perks,” listening to and assisting their staff more frequently, etc, it is prime time to take a deeper look at how the people who stabilize our businesses are treated within the workplace.

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