I remember a late 80s punk rock  song. There’s a heavy, eerie bass in the background. A guy is shouting, over and over, “Dad, I’m in jail!”, “I’m in jail !, Dad!, jail”,. Then, assertively ”  I’m in jaaaaiiil Dad, jaaaiiillll!  and  you know, I LIKE IT HERE !” I’m in JAIL and they’re throwing away the key!!”
A guy trying to assert himself against an overbearing father. An oedipal complex played out though self destruction. Anyway, that’s not what I’ll be writing about here, but still, I GOT FIRED!

callctr

Three weeks ago now I got fired from my job as a telemarketer/fundraiser. I’m extremely happy about this ,although I now have much work to do to go on to the next stage of my life. To clarify, some background is in order. I worked at a call center for something over three years. A scary amount of time for a job I could barely tolerate.  The company was called Share (or more formally, “The Share Group, Inc.”) The job was calling people, on an automated calling system, and asking them to give money to various non-profit organizations. It was never my kind of job. I always saw it as a primitive semi-skilled survival job (in a time and place where its difficult to get any job), strictly a means to an end,  which ended up lasting much longer than it should have. This is of course  another way of saying that I had been there for far too long.

Okay, the work conditions; monotonous; repetitive work which I found to be utterly unrewarding except for the rather small weekly paychecks. Having to call people during dinner or times of the day which most people regard as private time and feeling guilty about it. Having to ask (actually manipulate) money from nice people to support “charities” I didn’t believe in myself. Despite all this for me the worst part of the job was getting yelled at  by increasing numbers of people. Again, some background is in order;

Callers are assigned “campaigns”, for a specific charity. Each “campaign” , say  ACLU 1201, or Humane Society 2008, or whatever, would be attached to a certain demographic target in the database. A potential donor’s name and phone number would be put into the campaign database based on their frequency of past giving. Donors would have given once before, twice before, or many times before. Obviously because of this some “campaigns” were more difficult than others to raise money on.  There was also a fair amount of disguised “cold calling” . For example, “Out Magazine” a periodical targeting to  trendy gay men, unknown to their subscribers, would sell their subscriber’s names to the HRC, a gay rights organization. The HRC would in turn would give this list to Share. The subscribers would then be hit with calls (Interestingly a fair number of “Out” subscribers originally subscribed or got a gift subscription  to “Out Magazine” thinking it was an outdoors magazine..they would be flabbergasted to be asked for contributions to several gay rights organizations) The ACLU and other organizations also would sell their donor’s names from time to time. People would usually be very angry if they  found out about this. “Where did you get my name from?” We weren’t supposed to tell them.

Regardless of how Share got the phone numbers, and regardless of whether the people being called were “prospects”, or were long time supporters of a specific organization, the calls would be relentless. We would not stop calling people on our lists. When I first began work at Share  on the average about a third of everyone called on each campaign would be  angry at being called. “I asked you to please stop calling! You people are hounding me”, or , more rudely, “Stop fucking calling me!” There would be the constant hangups after we identified ourselves. From the time I started to the time I ended the “dialer”, that is the software generating the calls, had been dramatically sped up. A massive work speed up. At the end of my “tenure” at Share people were being called two or three times as often as at the beginning. This increased exponentially the number of angry callees. By the time I left Share on the average two thirds of everyone called was angry about being called. I can’t blame them at all for their anger.  It was depressing though. Even if one thought oneself impervious to the hostility and abuse, it did have its effects, if only on a subconscious level. We were doing something which most people didn’t want us to do.

 

“Isn’t Share shooting itself in the foot this way?,” you may ask. Well, yes and no. Share got paid by the “contact” that is the particular organization we solicited funds for would pay according the number of people who had been called, regardless of whether they gave money. In this sense a refusal was just as good as a donation. It was in Share’s interest to get as many calls made as possible. Hence there was increasing pressure on the callers. People were disciplined for going to the bathroom for too long, talking to friends for too long, taking long breaks, etc. Some of this would be formal disciplinary measures, a person would be “written up”, with too many write ups leading to “termination”. Virtually every caller there had been written up for something or other. Other pressure would be less overt. People would be “logged out” of their program (leading to the loss of a few minutes pay) at the whim of the managers. For a while the “logging out” was getting to be extreme. At one point people were  logged out after spending more than two minutes in the bathroom. A few specific  managers would constantly threaten callers with being “written up” for insubordination for minor things. Talking back to a manager, changing seats without permission, asking for a second opinion from a different manager. The situation was not constantly like this, the pressure would ebb and flow, but was overall becoming increasingly severe.

Despite the fact that the number of contacts was the most important issue, “quality” ,that is raising money ,also was important. The telemarketing/fundraising industry is one of cut throat competition. There was intense  (and increasing) competition between Share and its rivals in the industry. Each company had to look good to remain competitive and maintain and attract “clients”. The huge irony was that  while the clients were “progressive non-profits”,organizations supposedly working for worthy causes like civil liberties, animal protection, saving the environment, gay rights, and, yepppers, the Democratic Party, the workers raising money for them were subjected to sweatshop like conditions.

Many, although not all, of the managers were outrightly abusive. There are many stories and the background would take pages and pages. A few events stick out in my mind.

There was a manager named Steve Anglin. Steve was an African-American guy in his thirties. He started as a caller the same time I did. He originally seemed like a very friendly, outgoing person. Then he became a manager. His attitude now abruptly changed. He was extremely strict, with behavior increasingly verging on abusive. He was in charge of the morning shift. He insisted that people get to work exactly on time (although he was often late himself). If someone was even 30 seconds late (the morning shift shift started at 9AM) they would be sent home, without pay. Well, the Boston public transportation system isn’t all that it might be. The Red Line, going to that part of the Boston area where Share was located, was often late. Because of this one morning about eight people showed up a few minutes late. Steve said none of them could work. This group, most of whom had traveled quite a distance and all of whom were good workers, decided to have a “sit down strike” in front of the office of the call center director. They would sit down and block the guy’s office until they were allowed to work.  The call center director finally gave in, out of embarrassment and  allowed these people to work. On other occasions though Steve would continue to turn people away  for even being a few seconds late if he could get away with it. At these times he would smile with a sadistic smirk. Essentially he was a psychological sadist. One time Steve targeted me;

One morning I was on a very slow call. I was literally getting less than one call per minute. This was strange but not unusual, Share had many software glitches. I was attentive, I stayed on the phone, (my call time was 80%, which was good) but I missed a few calls. No big deal, actually. Anyway Steve was the manager and he set me up. He noticed that I had missed some calls. Rather than coming to me directly and mentioning this, even scolding me which at least would have been more appropriate, Steve went directly  to the call center director. The director was a guy named Lee Bradford. Lee was a white guy from Tennessee. He was, frankly, a jerk. He enjoyed verbally assaulting women employees. He would call women callers into his office and begin yelling at them for poor performance. Four of my co-workers said they started crying in his office because of his treatment. Steve and Lee were drinking buddies, they went out to clubs and bars together. When Steve spotted something I could be disciplined for he went and got Lee. Lee unexpectedly pounced on me. “I need you to do what we pay you for”, he yelled. I  had heard many stories of what Lee was like by this time and I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of crying or even acting sad. I yelled back at him. “You’re harassing me!”  Lee was shocked that I yelled back at him. e was a guy used to bullying people . This made him even more enraged.  It was unheard of to yell back at a manager .Fortunately This time I got away with a dirty look. 

A few days after this incident Steve again pounced on me. This time it was for an utterly trivial reason. He was monitoring my calls very closely, looking for a reason to discipline me. (It wasn’t just me he did this too, it was almost everyone, at different times). He overheard me talking to the guy sitting next to me. Random chat. On this particular Saturday morning Steve decided he wanted everyone to remain silent except for making the calls. This was not in the union contract or was ever stipulated in any official rules. It was Steve’s power play that particular day. Steve  brought me up to his desk and started yelling at me. I yelled back. It began escalating. A union steward was brought in (who happened to be a friend of Steve, I found out later). It got really nasty. Steve than brought me into director Lee’s office. Now Lee could have his revenge for being talked back to.  He signed some scrap of paper threatening to fire me. Then he yelled, “And you should be grateful if someone scolds you for not doing your job”. I just said, “Thank the gods we have a union”, and left. There wasn’t anything else that I could think of to say. Later I heard Steve was on a rampage that morning-four other people were “brought into Lee’s office” for discipline.
One more run in especially sticks in my mind. There was a woman named Susan Santorian who was in the Share management. She had been there for years. Supposedly she originally had a background as a costume designer. She was in charge of hiring, training, and discipline. She was extraordinarily obese-when I first knew her she had to use a motorized cart to get around. .She was regarded as something of a hard  nose, although most of the time I didn’t have much to do with her. Until…

Once I was wearing a skirt which was probably too short. Apparently a few of my  (post menopausal) co-workers were complaining about it. I don’t mean to sound judgmental here but..

Susan called me into her office. She told me about my skirt. Okay, I can take helpful criticism. She told she had a background in theater, costume and stage design. She knew I’m trans. She said she wanted to go shopping with me sometime, help me pick out some clothes. She also wanted to help me style my hair. Great! I told her I would appreciate this very much. She said right now she was in the process of moving and I would have to wait a little while. Okay. I would still appreciate the help.

Weeks and months passed and I didn’t hear anything from Susan. I didn’t think about it too much, being involved in things in my own life, but sometimes I wondered what happened.

About seven or eight months later one evening I was calling for the Human Society (HSUS). The Humane Society of the US is widely regarded by most of the people who call it as a scam. It has very low ratings on websites which rate non-profits such as Charity Navigator. They may actually do something to help animals, but they’re essentially a vast money-making  scheme. At least that’s what it seems like to many people who make the call . Its led by a guy named Wayne Pacelli, a six  figure CEO who worked his way up though sales. The donors are elderly people, mostly from “Middle America” who are not far from destitution. These people are targeted by adverts on TV or radio showing animals suffering. These people begin contributing to HSUS. Once one gets on their donor list its impossible to get off. Phone calls from Share and other telefundraising firms are relentless. The HSUS aggressively milks these people for their very last kopeck. I quickly began to feel guilty for calling for them. I’d never give HSUS any money my self. Anyway I was calling for them one evening. I was making the call seriously and professionally and doing fairly well on it. I was sitting next to my friend Sean. Both of us were pretty cynical about the place by then. We were goofing on the Humane Society. The issue they were working on at that time was stopping the annual baby seal hunt on Newfoundland. The HSUS was sponsoring a boycott of Canada to stop the hunt. Sounds great in theory but..there are some big “buts” here…
Any thinking person should be against the clubbing to death of baby seals. BUT..what about the livelihood of the dirt poor Newfie fishermen? What about an alternate means of employment for these people? Animal protection is often the luxury of smug spoiled Americans who like to tell other people what to do. Also-a boycott of Canada? The US has killed over a million people in Iraq and destroyed that country for centuries to come. A certain country in the middle third of North America is a much better candidate for boycotting than the Dominion of Canada, despite its faults…

Sean and I were goofing. The idea was that the Humane Society was staging the Canadian seal hunt as a fund raising gimmick. Wayne Pacelli and the HSUS board of directors were up there right now, clubbing seals with all their might. Knowing the HSUS that idea  probably isn’t as bizarre as it sounds. Anyway Sean and I, off the phone, goofed on what we might say to HSUS donors..

“I’m up here with Wayne Pacelli in Newfoundland trying to kill as many seals as we can, so you, the donor, will keep on giving and giving…  That’s why we need your support now!”

On and on like that. It doesn’t sound funny now but in the context of a high pressure but mind numbingly boring job it was hilarious. At least Sean and I thought so. I’m afraid both of us were getting more than a little boisterous. We kept cracking up. We didn’t say this routine or laugh when we called  the donors, mind you, but just to ourselves. Susan Santorian must have been monitoring us, though ,listening in to our calls. Its possible for a manager to hear a caller talk to their “neighbours” this way, even if they’re not connected to a donor.

Susan (though a subordinate intern, she was not capable of mobility) called me into her office. She yelled at me. “I need you to make the “traditional Share call” (that’s a slogan they used. Te “traditional Share call” was never really defined, it seemed to mean going exactly by the book). “If you can’t make the traditional Share call, then don’t come in”. She glared at me. She said she’d be monitoring me for a week. I went back to my seat, after slamming the door of her office. Sean and I were much more subdued after that.

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All the next week it was obvious she was monitoring me. I did everything exactly by the book. Except for one thing. Share has never disciplined anyone for using a made up name. That’s what I did. I used names of revolutionary women. I was Emma Goldman, or Rosa Luxemburg, or Nadazhda Krupskaya, or Jenny Marx, or Helen Gurley Flynn, or Soong Ching-Ling (I did this without a Chinese accent). I even tried Frida Kahlo for a few times that week. I was calling on “campaigns”  (like the Humane Society) where the donors most likely would not have heard of any of these women. It was my form of subtle intellectual revenge against this woman, on several different levels. I don’t think she had much of a background in history or radical politics, I doubt she ever heard of the people whose names I used, but she must have realized something was going on. One day she passed me and gave me a very quizzical look.

On Friday, the end of the week of  I was being monitored,  I worked the late shift-6-10. I could see Susan was still in her office for the whole evening. This was very unusual for her. She almost always left in the early evening. I was plugging away, making calls. At ten of ten she summoned me into her office (again though an intern). I became apprehensive. I opened the door. I asked her if this was something I would need a union steward for (in cases of discipline employees have the right to have a steward present). She gave me a strange look. “Yeeess..I kind of think so” she said in a very sarcastic sounding voice. I went to get a  union rep, a woman named Ruth. Ruth was one of the most militant union stewards. Ruth liked me, she was  also one of the people “watching out ” for me. Ruth smelled something fishy. She said to me,


“Kate, get out of the building NOW. Tell Susan you have to catch a bus, anything..just get out”.

I was nervous about this but I went to tell Susan that I had to leave. It was almost  10 PM. The shift ends at ten. I told her I had to catch a bus. Susan was very angry. “Its 10 of 10″, she yelled, I called you in ten minutes ago”. I corrected her. “It’s now 10, you called me 5 of 10”. Ruth came and told her I had to leave. I ran out of the building. Whew!

I took the weekend off and came to work on Tuesday. Ruth told me what she thought was going on. Susan wanted to fire me. That’s specifically why she stayed late. She was going away for a long weekend . She might fire me when she gets back but this would at least buy me a few days.

A week later Susan came back. For the next two weeks I was expecting to get fired . I was pretty nervous. Nothing
happened though. I was never sure if Ruth was right and I was in her sights that night. I think I probably was. The director, Lee, was in DC for a few weeks. Presumably during that time Susan would have the discretionary power to fire people. Ironically Lee coming back saved my job. At least that’s what I think happened.

Around that time another  caller, Dennis O’Malley, was fired by Susan. Dennis was a really nice guy. He was a boxer, a tough Irish kid from Southie (Southie is the traditional tough, Irish working class area of Boston) I got along with him really well. Dennis was a good caller. One time (during my monitoring by Susan S.) Dennis was calling for the Holocaust Museum in DC. Most of the donor base of this organization are elderly Jewish people. There are a fair number of Holocaust survivors. The call does require an amount of sensitivity. Dennis obviously wasn’t Jewish. One time a donor asked him if he was Jewish. Dennis joked , “Well, I’m a Jewish-Irish kid from Southie” . The donor wasn’t offended at all by this. He took it as a good natured joke. Susan (who had an Armenian name and was a very religious Catholic) was offended though. She happened to overhear this on her random monitoring and fired Dennis on the spot. I felt bad about this. I last saw Dennis about four months ago, in downtown Boston. This was about four months after he had been fired. He was still unemployed, desperately looking for a job, and close to homelessness. What a great system we live under!


There were many other cases like the several I’ve mentioned. It would take pages and pages to describe. I can’t believe I lasted there as long as I did.

Afterward: Its interesting what happened to the managers I’ve mentioned in the time since these events. About six months after the major blowout I had with Steve Anglin, he himself was fired. No one knew why. There was a story that a date rape had occurred at a club or an event that he had hosted. Everyone allegedly involved were supposed to be Share employees. So the rumor mill had it.  Sometime after  this Share got a new CEO. There was a major management shake up, as is common among new CEOs trying to prove themselves. Lee Bradford abruptly quit. Not really fired, but the story is  he was pushed out. He was given a make work job for a month (“head of IT implementation”), i.e. Share carried him till he could find something else. Susan herself was abruptly fired soon after this . I heard she was very bitter and angry about being fired. Four months after that she died of a heart attack.