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Career and Confidence Development for Women Call Centre Workers
Vivienne Hunt and Erling Rasmussen
Full Paper for Consideration
ILPC 2010 New York 15- 17 March 2010
Dr Vivienne Hunt1
University of Auckland Business School
University of Auckland
Grafton Road, Auckland
New Zealand
v.hunt@auckland.ac.nz
Professor Erling Rasmussen
Professor of Work and Employment
Faculty of Business
Auckland University of Technology
Wakefield Street, Auckland
erling.rasmussen@aut.ac.nz
The international research on call centre employment suggests that careers are limited for female call
centre workers despite their numerical dominance of these contemporary workplaces. Traditional
barriers are seen as preventing women from making career steps beyond team leaders or staff roles.
This paper is written to contest this claim and it reports on the experience of women working in call
centres located in New Zealand. The research is based on two types of data: interviews of women who
have experienced career progress and survey responses from entry-level workers across multiple call
centres. Mixed methods explore the key influences on employment outcomes in the call centre
environs. The findings highlight the importance of skills acquisition and confidence development for
women in their career progression. They also suggest that labour market conditions, employment
relations legislation, sector, and firm size can influence employment outcomes.
The fieldwork involved two major projects undertaken between 2003 and 2008. The first project used
case study methodology involving call centres in six different industry sectors in which interviews
were held with thirty-two women who had experienced career progress. Interviews of senior
management representatives, a focus group and survey of entry-level workers (n=60) ensured a range
1
Corresponding author
Page 1
of perspectives was included in the findings. Non-participant observation at three of the case studies
provided additional insights. The research findings from the first project are presented in this paper in
summary. They informed the second project, initiated by a large public sector union in 2008 to
determine whether call centre work represented decent work. Three focus groups of Union Delegates
identified the issues of concern, contributing to the development of an internet-based survey which
was circulated to call centre workers in 25 public sector call centres. This survey was completed by
845 entry-level call centre workers from 17 call centres. The findings from the second research
project corroborate the exploratory findings from the first project and provide new insights about call
centre work in the public sector in New Zealand.
A key finding from the two pieces of research is that workers consider call centre work to be career
enhancing. The importance of confidence development is highlighted in both studies particularly for
workers at entry level positions. The majority of respondents report there are many benefits to their
employment in these workplaces. Some talk about their enjoyment and passion for the job, how it
assisted their meeting new people and developing additional skills and competencies. For many
workers call centres are seen as providing opportunities to get first-hand experience of employment.
In both projects the call centre work experience has enhanced career prospects. The labour processes
are considered helpful for enabling workers to become more competent, connected and confident and
this has assisted career development. The employment relations approach and the tight labour market
in New Zealand may have contributed to results that differ from the international resesarch,
highlighting the need for research to link outcomes to the employment context. Contrary to the bleak
portrayal of call centre work with limited career opportunities, this paper concludes that more
traditional organisations could benefit from some of the call centre practices that build career
enhancements that accommodate the needs of their mainly female workforce.
Key words: Women and work in call centres, call centre careers, labour processes, connection,
competence and confidence development in career progress.
Page 2
INTRODUCTION
Call centres have been part of the changing landscape of work since the 1990s and the growth in their
numbers has been both significant and exponential. One of the problems, however, with researching
call centres is their wide application across a large number of industry sectors, which makes finding
statistical data on them difficult. The sectors can include financial services, public and emergency
services, market research, telecommunications, manufacturing, hospitality and tourism, the utilities
and the not-for-profit sectors. The range of services offered can include arrangements for travel,
clothing, furniture and household purchases, after-sales services, healthcare and the diagnosis of
medical problems, as well as computer support. A growing number of enterprises offer free telephone
services for consumers, and these are often accessible seven days a week and 24 hours a day. It is this
diversity of call centre applications that means research on employment in call centres is not always
comparable and the attempt to classify or develop typologies for call centre practices can be
problematic.
While it is recognised that there has been extensive research on call centres internationally and some
research in New Zealand, further research on these new workplaces is important for a number of
reasons. The most obvious one is that call centres have become a major source of employment and
thus, in depth analyses of employment patterns and outcomes are vital. Unfortunately, much of the
call centre research does not sufficiently take into account the macro environment in which the call
centre is located. While there have been many national and cross-national comparisons (Deery &
Kinnie, 2002; Holman, Batt, & Holtgrewe, 2007; Holtgrewe & Kerst, 2002; Kinnie & Parson, 2004)
and there are many generalisations about call centre practices and work outcomes, these comparisons
and generalisations have not been linked sufficiently to the broader employment situation. This paper
seeks to widen the debate about whether call centre work provides ‘decent work’ or ‘career paths’ by
reporting the results of research that explore employment conditions in New Zealand call centres. We
suggest that legislative frameworks, labour force demographics and other socio-cultural influences
will affect the employment experience and outcomes.
A second reason why further research on employment in call centres is important is that there has
been a pessimistic portrayal of work in call centres in the international research. Academic researchers
have questioned the use of Tayloristic principles to manage the service encounter and use of
emotional labour, and the stress or tedium associated with call centre work has been widely reported.
Recognising the excellent contributions made by labour process academics we do not seek to
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contradict this understanding and analysis of call centre work and refer readers to other papers (Bolton
& Houlihan, 2005; Brannan, 2005; Burawoy, 1979; Burgess, Henderson, & Strachan, 2005;
Callaghan & Thompson, 2002; Holtgrewe, 2001; Holtgrewe & Kerst, 2002; Jaros, 2001; O'Doherty &
Willmott, 2001; Poynter, 2000; Russell, 2002; Sederblad & Andersson, 2006; C. Smith & Wise, 2006;
Taylor & Bain, 2005). However, our focus is on the description of more positive aspects of call centre
employment, which have received little attention in the international research to date. It is one of our
contentions that traditional work organisations can learn from call centres about how to manage their
contemporary workforces.
The third reason why this research is important is its particular focus on female workers who
numerically dominate these workplaces. In total, five studies have considered the position of women
in call centres. These have shown that traditional organisational barriers prevent women from getting
the top job in a call centre (Belt, 2002; Belt, Richardson, & Webster, 2000; Buchanan & KochSchulte, 2000; Durbin, 2006; Pandian, 2006). Despite the dominance of women in the sector there has
been little other research on the position of women in call centres and few feminist or gendered
analyses undertaken. This present research draws on the career literatures and how these relate to
female career paths and link findings on call centre work to New Zealand’s unique compact
geographic, social and political context. Using the primary researchers’ knowledge of New Zealand
call centres, the research process has used mixed methods to triangulate data and provide rich findings
about work experience of female workers in call centres. The following section describes the methods
used to collect data.
METHODS OF DATA COLLECTION
One of the challenges of call centre research is gaining access to call centre employees and getting
their free and frank opinions about call centre work, their work situations and associated employment
outcomes. Call centre management can be reluctant for staff to take time out to particate in a focus
group or in depth interviews, or to complete surveys during work time. For this reason mixed methods
were used to collect data from workers across both projects. In the first project this included
unstructured, in-depth interviews of women who had achieved career development, surveys of entry
level worker and a focus group. Senior management representatives were interviewed and entry-level
workers completed an email survey (n=60). Non-participant observation at three of the case studies
provided additional insights about the nature of call centre employment. The key themes from the first
study are presented here in summary form. (For full discussion see Hunt, 2004; Hunt, Rasmussen &
Lamm, 2006; Hunt & Rasmussen, 2010).
In the second project focus groups were held with Union delegates from a large public sector union in
the early evening. The first focus group in Auckland had a turnout of over 20 delegates which made it
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difficult to manage the discussion about call centre work conditions in the public sector. Smaller
more manageble focus groups were held in Hamilton and Auckland and the findings helped develop a
survey instrument. An internet-based questionnaire link was emailed to the delegates across 25 call
centres and delegates encouraged members to complete the questionnaire. This helped achieve 845
completed surveys from mainly entry-level workers at 17 different call centres. Using a combination
of manual analysis and Nvivo software for the analysis of the qualitative responses, the findings from
the survey are presented. Preceding this there is a brief discussion of the literatures and the New
Zealand employment relations context for the period of data collection.
C ALL CENTRE LITERATURE
The international research on call centres suggests that call centres are not particularly helpful for
women developing career paths in the industry. Work undertaken in Europe to investigate the careers
of women in call centres suggests that their careers are restricted by ‘glass ceilings’ and women not
receiving management training to advance their careers (Belt, 2002; Durbin, 2006). Other research
conducted in Canadian, UK and Australian call centres report that the work experience for women is
poor. Call centres appear to be just another example of a ‘bad job’ with women concentrated in the
sector (Buchanan & Koch-Schulte, 2000; Collin-Jacques & Smith, 2005; Deery, Iverson, & Walsh,
2002; Deery & Kinnie, 2004; Economic Council of Canada, 1990; Korczynski, 2003; Maitra &
Sangha, 2004; M. D. Smith & Morra, 1994; van den Broek, 2004; Wallace, Eagleson, & Waldersee,
2000). The context for many of these research studies is large call centres (up to 1200 workers), often
in the financial and IT sectors. In some cases the call centres have been located in areas of high
unemployment.
CAREER THEORY LITERATURE
Much of the career theory literature is based on male models of success and work supporting the idea
that the centrality of work is fundamental to identity. Females develop differently to males and may
construct a different vision of what is important in their lives (Gallos, 1989). The word ‘career’ can
mean a specific path toward a certain outcome and in the career literatures, this more often fits a male
rather than a female option and experience. Careers link the inner subjective world of self with the
outer objective world of institutions and society (Parker, 2004), but the career choices women are
often required to make revolve around what is important in their personal lives, i.e. family, children
and relationships. These choices or forced constraints can be framed as ‘women taking a career
break’, stepping off the career ladder or accepting less challenging jobs (Presser, 1999). Often they
imply that the women, who take these options, are ‘not serious’ about their careers anyway.
Hakim’s (2000) use of preference theory goes some way toward providing answers as to the different
motivations of women to work but she does not adequately consider the different meaning of ‘career
Page 5
and work’. The attitude of women to their ‘careers’ is more likely to shift considerably as their life
context changes, for example: as they give birth; raise children; care for dependents; or as their work
is impacted by other constraints over a lifetime. For these reasons, women often do not have genuine
choices about the work they choose as their unpaid work, caring for their family or other
commitments, is equally important. However, such unpaid work is not seen as enhancing their human
capital in organisational terms and their career prospects. The absence from full-time employment or
even working part-time can be costly in terms of career path development. ‘Family and personal
relationships can provide a great number of reasons for women to pace their professional life
differently from men’ (Gallos, 1989, p. 126). New theory is required to accommodate the different
career perspectives of women in the context of new organisational types. Call centres, which have
emerged as an example of these, provide an ideal research setting to explore how women fare in these
workplaces.
EMPLOYMENT RELATIONS CONTEXT IN NZ
The call centre industry in New Zealand began to evolve during the period of the Employment
Contracts Act (ECA) 1991, and, in sympathy with the legislation, was characterised by legalistic
employment relationships, which used legal contracts to employ staff on a short- term or casual basis.
The use of legal contracts to employ workers was a new phenomenom in New Zealand and the role of
unions was reduced significantly as workers opted to negotiate conditions and terms with their
employers individually (Rasmussen, 2009). In 2002, the Committee for the Convention on the
Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) noted “there is an insufficient
number of full-time jobs for women” and that “the legislation, the ECA had constituted a major
disadvantage for women in the labour market due to their dual reponsibilites of work and family
commitments” (CEDAW, 2002, p15 ). The introduction of the Employment Relations Act in 2000,
the Labour Coalition Government’s push for a return to a tripartite approach and a tight labour market
demanding flexibility and skills, led to changing employment practices that were more ‘employeecentred’ and focussed on retaining good staff via career development (Hunt & Rasmussen, 2007). The
Labour – Alliance Goverment led by Helen Clarke had the aim of encouraging more women into
work as New Zealand had a large proportion of mothers who did not participate fully in paid
employment. A number of measures were introduced to improve this in the years 2000 to 2007. These
included paid parental leave, out of school subsidised child care, legislation providing the right to
request flexible employment arrangements to suit family needs, a minimum of four weeks’ holidays
and a ‘working for families’ package to provide income support for single parents. The measures
helped contribute to greater labour market participation of women in the 2002-2007 period.
PROJECT ONE: CONTEXT
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The context for the first research project (conducted between 2003 and 2006) was a tight labour
market with unemployment declining to 3.3%, small call centres (mean of 30) and six different
industry sectors (banking, telework outsourcing, market research, public sector, private sector
exporter and a multi-national manufacturer). The research focus was an exploration of female career
progress. Thirty-two women selected for the interviews had a range of positions as noted in Table 1,
the mean age was 39 and on average, they had had 8 years’ industry experience. Some of them were
earning substantial salaries (over $150,000) and the majority had no tertiary qualifications.
TABLE 1: SUMMARY OF ROLES OF WOMEN INTERVIEWED AT SIX CALL CENTRE CASE STUDIES
Total Women Interviewed
Call centre sites
Positions:
GM Operations
Call Centre Mgrs, GM Ops
Team Leaders
Marketing Mgr/HR Mgr
Project Managers
Technical Engineers
Average age
Salary Range
Bachelors Degree
No Tertiary Qualifications
Trade qualifications/Diploma
Average Tenure
Average industry experience
32
10
2
15
10
2
2
1
39
50k to $175k2
3
25
3
5.3 years
7.7 years
In contrast to the promoted women, entry-level workers, customer service representatives (CSRs) had
demonstrably higher levels of tertiary qualifications (see Table 2). Analysis by gender suggests the
female entry-level workers are more qualified than the males. Half of the females have degrees
(including two people with Masters degrees) compared with 34% of the males having University
degrees.
TABLE 2: QUALIFICATION OF ENTRY LEVEL WORKERS WHO COMPLETED SURVEY (N=60)
Frequency Percent
28
8
University
College
2
47%
13%
Salary data was not available from each participant and covers a three year period (2003 to 2006). The 2007
annual income survey had a national average for male and female earners as $34,684; for males it was $43,264
and females; $26,520 (Statistics New Zealand, 2007).
Page 7
Trade Certificates
Uni Student
School
15
3
6
60
25%
5%
10%
100%
PROJECT ONE: DISCUSSION OF FINDINGS
The exploratory research from project one demonstrates that employment practices in the selected call
centres contrasted with those reported in the international research. Women were reporting very
positive experiences of their work in call centres with some making significant career progress to
positions as high as General Manager in charge of five call centres. The three main themes identified
are summarised as follows.
THEME 1: CALL CENTRE WORK PROVIDES POSITIVE LABOUR MARKET OUTCOMES FOR WOMEN
The career paths women were developing seemed to be breaking traditional patterns with many
women getting the opportunity to start at entry level, gain experience and work their way to the top,
often in very short periods. The language used by the women interviewed was very positive and
upbeat and words commonly used in the interviews included: passion, energy, fun, and teamwork. For
example, using Nvivo software to analyse 17 interviews (chosen randomly) there was 81 mentions of
the word ‘passion’ while in 19 interviews there were 82 mentions of team or teamwork. Theme one
highlighted too that women felt the call centre environment and systems helped them develop
competence, connection with team members and confidence that enabled them to take on bigger roles.
This theme also highlighted the role that flexible work practices played in women reporting positively
about the call centre workplace.
THEME 2: CALL CENTRES CHANGE THEIR HUMAN RESOURCE DEVELOPMENT PROCESSES
Theme two identified the changing management practices. These included; diversity management of
an often multicultural workforce; flexible practices for different labour market needs; skills and
leadership training; the creation of learning environments to assist competence development and the
development of a culture of fun to encourage teamwork.
THEME 3: MIXED FINDINGS DEMONSTRATE THAT CONTEXT COUNTS
The third theme reports on the mixed evidence, which included salary and pay levels varying from
below the New Zealand average wage, $24,960 to $175,000 per annum. There was too some evidence
of organisational practices and politics creating stress – in particular competition between females for
the top position and the use of monitoring in centres. An open question is, however, whether call
centre employment was the ideal work choice as it seemed most of the women who had been
successful had not sought to work in a call centre. They had taken a job in response to changed
circumstances such as moving country or following a partner who had been transferred for his career.
Page 8
The above exploratory research themes helped develop the research for the public sector union
research project. The findings from this study are discussed in the next section.
PROJECT TWO: CONTEXT
The second research project was initiated in 2008. The distinguishing context for this research is its
location in the public service sector, which following reform of the 1980s had been an early adopter
of call centre technology. The Government at that time moved from providing ‘face to face’ public
service via regional offices to a centrally located one mediated by telephone. A higher proportion of
women work in the (59%) and women are well represented in senior roles within the public sector
with 45% of directors being female compared with 11% in the private sector (Vinnicombe, 2009)
Many of the larger public service call centres are located in Wellington and on average these call
centres are larger (100 seats) than those featured in the first project. Staff from seventeen different call
centres responded to the survey. The questions sought to explore call centre work conditions and
whether they represented ‘decent work’.
DEMOGRAPHICS OF RESPONDENTS
TABLE 3: GENDER BREAKDOWN OF RESPONSES (N=845)
Frequency
Percent
Valid Percent
17
2.0
2.0
Female
620
73.4
73.4
Male
208
24.6
24.6
Total
845
100.0
100.0
Missing
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TABLE 4: POSITION OF RESPONDENTS
Frequency
CSR
Other
Professional/Technical
Team Leader
Case coordinator
CC Manager
Helpdesk
Representative
Social Worker
Missing
Total
679
71
40
34
1
1
1
1
1
16
845
Percent
80.4%
8.4%
4.7%
4.0%
0.1%
0.1%
0.1%
0.1%
0.1%
1.9%
100%
Seventy five percent of the CSRs were female. Seventy nine percent are employed full time (see table
5) and seventy four percent of the call centre workers who completed the survey belong to the largest
union. This may reflect distribution of the lists via union delegates. Nineteen percent (159) recorded
that they do not belong to any union, and 2% (16) reported they belong to an ‘other’ unspecified
union. A cross tabulation of union membership by employment contract type shows that 23% of the
159 who do not belong to the union are employed part time with 77% employed full time.
TABLE 5: EMPLOYMENT CONTRACTS
N
671
143
5
26
845
Full Time
Part time
Fixed Term
Missing
% of Total
79%
17%
1%
3%
100%
Qualification levels
Similar to the results of project one the entry-level respondents to the survey in project 2
demonstrated that they were reasonably well qualified with 32% having university-level
qualifications, 21% having college and polytechnic diplomas and 11% having trade certificates (see
Table 6).
TABLE 6: QUALIFICATION OF RESPONDENTS TO SURVEY
Frequency
Percent
University
College
274
176
32%
21%
Polytechnic diploma
Other trade certificates
Missing
179
21%
97
119
11%
14%
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845
100%
PROJECT TWO: DISCUSSION OF FINDINGS
In the survey for project two, employees were asked to agree or disagree with a series of statements
about what was important to them in their call centre jobs. A scale of 1 to 5 was used with 1 being
strongly agree and 5 being strongly disagree. The strongest negative reaction (disagree) was
demonstrated in response to the statement that “being time efficient is more important than fully
addressing the customer query” . The mean response was 4 (see Table 7). The strongest positive
responses were to the statement that “call centre work is strategically important”
and “the
supervisor is helpful.”
TABLE 7: WHAT IS IMPORTANT IN THE CC JOB
Statements that workers were asked strongly agree (1) or
strongly disagree (5) to:
N
Mean ratings
Being time efficient is more important than addressing customer query
827
4.02
Outsourcing is a concern
825
3.77
Pay rates are good
822
3.25
Rest of Org is positive to the call centre
825
3.09
Managers listen to my concerns
828
2.97
I have control over my work
826
2.90
Monitoring is meaningful
822
2.89
HR staff are helpful
823
2.64
I enjoy my work most of the time
828
2.48
Unions are important
828
2.41
Environment is good
825
2.41
Technolgy enables me to do my job
831
2.29
I have learned technical skills
825
2.21
Collective Bargaining is important
821
2.14
Supervisor is helpful
830
2.06
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Statements that workers were asked strongly agree (1) or
strongly disagree (5) to:
N
Mean ratings
Being time efficient is more important than addressing customer query
827
4.02
Outsourcing is a concern
825
3.77
Pay rates are good
822
3.25
Rest of Org is positive to the call centre
825
3.09
Managers listen to my concerns
828
2.97
I have control over my work
826
2.90
Monitoring is meaningful
822
2.89
HR staff are helpful
823
2.64
I enjoy my work most of the time
828
2.48
Unions are important
828
2.41
Environment is good
825
2.41
Technolgy enables me to do my job
831
2.29
I have learned technical skills
825
2.21
Collective Bargaining is important
821
2.14
Supervisor is helpful
830
2.06
Call centre work is strategically important
827
2.00
M OTIVATION FOR S EEKING W ORK IN THE C ALL C ENTRE
In order to understand more about the perceptions of call work and the likely experience a prospective
worker might have in a call centre, a question was included in the survey asking respondents to rank a
number of statements that could have attracted them to seek a job in the call centre. The four ranked
more important or important (1,2) are noted in Figure 1 below.
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FIGURE 1: MOST IMPORTANT REASONS FOR SEEKING JOB IN CC
Ranking of reasons for Seeking Work in CC
% of respondents (n=815)
70%
most important, important (1,2)
60%
50%
40%
30%
20%
10%
0%
Enhance
career
Hourly rate of Need to learn Flexible hours
pay
skills
One open-ended questions asked respondents to describe the key benefits of their working experience
in the selected call centre. This generated 756 written responses (88% of all respondents). Analysis of
these using Nvivo software is being completed, however manual sorting and categorising of 463
responses (61%) identified that skills, people, pay and flexible hours were common themes (Figure 2
below).
FIGURE 2: BENEFITS OF CALL CENTRE WORK
% of Responses catergorised
RESPONSES TO QUESTION ABOUT THE KEY BENEFITS OF CC WORK
18%
16%
14%
12%
10%
8%
6%
4%
2%
0%
N=462
15.6%
8.2%
6.3%
4.8%
3.9%
2.2% 1.9% 1.7%
1.1% 0.9% 0.4%
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Further analysis of these open-ended questions found similar patterns to the exploratory research
identified in project one, among these, development of skills, competencies, being part of a team and
growing confidence. The themes and some of the written responses are presented below.
1) Competence, Capabilities and Skills Enhances Confidence Development
The question asked “What are the benefits of working in a call centre?” and amongst the 756
responses, many describe how the job has helped grow their competencies and confidence.
Experience & creating a work history, this entry level position will allow me to use my Uni
qualifications to apply for better positions, learning to think on my feet and be more verbally
assertive as this will help in job interviews, finding my own voice as I'm not a verbal communicator
normally (study = writing mostly).
Great work environment, get to know different people every day. learn how to deal with grumpy
people and friendly people as well at the same time
I have become more confident, and more knowledgable about working in a professional
environment
Systems enable skills development of capability to manage emotional labour
Training, HR practices that develop and enhance innate talent (Female CSR)
Remuneration, people I work with, most of the time I enjoy the work (Male CSR)
Education on tax, learning how important it is for everyone to be educated enough so that they
don’t get themselves into a tough situation.
I think the on-the-job training is absolutely fantastic and the fact that is always evolving and
changing to meet the needs of staff is brilliant. While customer service can be challenging it is
extremely enjoyable especially when you feel that you have helped a customer understand their
obligations or entitlements. I really enjoy talking to people on the phone and assisting them as
much as possible within the bounds of legislation (Female CSR)
I think working in this call centre is great for my work skills and other work opportunities and I
also think I have a wealth of knowledge thanks to this job (Female CSR)
2) Connection
The question about the benefits of call centre work finds too a number of themes around diversity
management practices and inclusiveness. This picks up on the findings of the exploratory research of
project one where the opportunities to develop social capital were seen as important for new workers,
especially new immigrants, students, return to work mothers or older workers seeking lifestyle work.
In project two, teamwork is mentioned more frequently by female respondents.
Great team mates and team leader. More than adequate remuneration. Flexibility in hours when
required (female CSR)
It is a very friendly supportive atmosphere. Team Leaders are exceptional and someone is always
available for extra coaching and support (female CSR)
Page 14
The benefits of working at this contact centre are the friends you make, sharing knowledge and
know that at the end of the day you have helped people in need (female CSR)
A key benefit of working here has been meeting a wide range of lovely people, learning invaluable
knowledge of something that affects us all but isn't very well understood (TAX), pay is fair, hours
are very flexible, able to do full time during Uni holidays was of upmost importance, we are well
cared for in the call centre - for example we get our eyes checked and have ergonomic type nurses
(I broke my spine so am unable to do physical employment such as hospitality which has harsh
working conditions and no provisions made for employees), working in government department
will be good for my CV, lovely work environment with sea views (female CSR)
Being a working Mum, the hours suits me because I can take care of my youngest child, but at the
same time be able to work. It has developed my personality, my confidence, it enhanced my
problem solving skills (female CSR).
We have a lot staff in the cc who can speak lots of languages – i.e. they are multilingual who can
talk to a lot of these customers…We have a manager who is encouraging diversity and its really
good as she is trying to get a range of people from different walks of life and different age groups
which is good as we have high turnover and she is getting older staff who are more stable. We have
got quite a lot variety in our call centre… we have Arabic, Hindu, Samoan (Union delegate)
Personally I have made a lot of friends and connections. professionally it has opened a lot of doors
for further skill development which I thrive on and also opportunities in other departments.
As a return to work mother it allows me part time work with school holidays off and to learn new
skills with people and tax each day (female CSR)
3) Career Enhancing – ‘meeting my needs’
In project one, thirty-two women provided evidence that they had been promoted on merit,
encouraged through training and leadership development, workplace and/or tertiary training. For
project two the majority (85%) of respondents feel their careers are enhanced by the call centre work
experience.
Career advancement, started as a customer service representative and have progreesed onto Help
desk and then to a Team Leader
Career prospects, decent remuneration
Helps career prospects, good pay,
Better communication skills with strangers, better conversation management, ability to decrease
hours to return to study, ability to take a year off to travel then return to job, internal promotion
opportunities, work experience that is highly regarded within other govt/business entities, blended
work provides escape from the high pressure of phones
Gaining people skills and organisational, time management skills.
Working in the call centre allowed me to further develop customer relations skills and further
develop in my career. I have been able to transition from my role as a customer solutions advisor
to a sales training and development consultant.
Page 15
A whole new career opportunity, plenty of room for promotion, range of roles, international
opportunities.
Good rate of pay and flexible working hours.
The above quotes are indicative of the opinion that call centre work is career enhancing. This supports
the earlier research that demonstrates women workers achieving considerable career success in the
call centre environment. Sixty two percent of the call centre workers who responded to the statements
about their motivation to work in a call centre ranked enhancing their careers as most important. In
general workers are positive about their jobs in the public service call centres, they feel their work is
strategically important to the organisation for which they work and they feel positive about the
training and systems used including the quality of the supervision. However, the next section
highlights a less positive image of their call centre employment with almost half of the respondents
noting that there are health concerns associated with the work they do in the call centre.
4) Mixed Evidence - Health issues
The exploratory work with the delegates at the start of the research suggested that there were health
concerns at some of the call centres. This led to a question being included in the survey about health
and safety and 363 (43%) reported that they had concerns. An open ended question asked for specific
detail. While the analysis of these qualitative responses is still being completed with Nvivo qualitative
software, the manual analysis of 243 responses shows there are five main categories as follows:
1. Over Use Syndrome - repetitive strain injury
2. Stress
3. Air-conditioning
4. Sedentary nature of job
5. Eyesight problems
This research finding was surprising and was not seen in the first project. The research has yet to
engage with the various occupational health and safety literatures but the strong reaction from
respondents (who otherwise report positively about their call centre jobs) warrants further research.
Table 8 demonstrates the manual grouping of 243 responses to the question about whether there were
health and safety issues in the call centre environment and the descripton of these.
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TABLE 8: BREAKDOWN OF HEALTH CONCERNS IN CC
Health problems
OUS – Repetitive strain injury
Eyesight problems
Back and neck pains, vision gets blurry, desks not high enough
Shoulder pain/other aches
Weight gain
Hearing problems
Nature of Work
Stress
Sedentary
Repetitiveness
78
17
12
4
3
2
35
23
2
26
Physical Environment
Air conditioning
Headset hygiene
Fleas/Carpet
Chairs
Desk set up
Lighting
Radiation ex PC
Management processes
Music playing
Micromanagement/training
Shift patterns/rest breaks
Safety at night
Other
Parking issues
Bullying/harassment
Spread of sickness
TOTAL
4
2
2
2
3
4
1
1
2
6
3
2
2
5
243
CONCLUSION
The career theorists have suggested that the career concept needs to be revised to accommodate more
female values (Gallos, 1989; Greer, 1972; Marshall, 1989) and the first research project provides
qualitative evidence of different career drivers and success for women in selected New Zealand call
centres. While some sought balance and control in their lives by using what the call centre
organisations offer, others have taken the opportunities to learn, develop new human capital and their
career prospects. Many of the promoted women had taken work in the call centre because of their
personal circumstances. This may mean they had lower expectations about the work and where it
could lead but it was clear that their development of core competencies had enhanced their confidence
and career opportunities. The second research project, the focus of this paper found that the majority
of respondents had taken a job in the call centre because it would enhance their career prospects. Over
80% felt there were a number of benefits to call centre work. The benefits included family-friendly
Page 17
practices with flexible working patterns, job experience, language and skill development and
connecting with people in a team.
Contemporary career theories about boundaryless and portfolio working do not quite fit with the
career patterns seen in this research (Arthur, Inkson, & Pringle, 1999; Giurleo, 1997; Kanter, 1989;
Mallon & Walton, 2005; Pringle & Mallon, 2003; Purcell, 2005). While they may explain the careers
of women who have developed senior positions in the call centres and subsequent bargaining power,
they are less useful for explaining how less qualified workers or workers with undeveloped human
capital become attractive to employers. They also do not explain the career patterns of the tertiary
qualified, ethnic migrant workers who have to work at entry-level positions until they develop social
capital and/or improve their English.
The research for project one was initiated to determine how women were faring in new types of
organisations. The call centre sector, which has developed since 1990, provides a classic example of a
new ‘industry sector’, emerging in response to changing consumer needs and the development of
Integrated Communications Technology (ICT). It seems this sector is contributing to new ways of
working and the personal life histories and career journeys of the women workers in project one give
testimony to this. Project 2 picks up on some of the themes identified in the first research and finds
that workers are using their work experience in call centres to get precious employment experience. It
finds too that workers, especially females like the teamwork aspect of call centres and the
opportunities to develop their human and social capital. Since 2000, the employment relations
legislation in New Zealand has encouraged employers to take a co-operative approach to managing
employment and consider the diverse needs of their employees. In the public sector, the Government
has been an exemplar of such an approach, in part because of a strong union presence and agreement
to use collective bargaining. This, together with low levels of unemployment, seems to have benefited
workers operating in the public sector call centre environment.
The negative findings about the health and safety concerns contrast the otherwise positive images
portrayed about call centre employment in the public sector. This confirms the need to be careful
about drawing conclusions about the nature of call centre work. While these findings may be specific
to call centres, many traditional organisations could learn from the workplace practices used in these
contemporary organisations. These include employment flexibility, training systems to develop core
competences and responding to diverse needs to create positive inclusive teams. All can assist both
female and male workers to become connected, competent and confident workers with more choice in
their future careers.
Page 18
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