How to Solve the Agent Attrition Problem



By Tom Marsden

We all know it: call centers are a tricky place to work long term. Managing inbound customer complaints is no one’s favorite part of the job, and it contributes to the high stress levels often found in call center employees. This stress translates to high turnover; the average lifespan of a US call center worker is approximately three years, with a turnover of 33 percent. What’s wrong?

HR professionals would like to think they have employee attrition down to a science: measurements such as number of sick days taken, habitual lateness, and cohort analysis of average employee tenure can give managers a good view into exactly what is going wrong, but they don’t help explain why it’s happening or offer predictive insight for the future. The problem with these commonly collected data sets is that they rarely offer managers a real course of action and often actually make matters worse by confusing people with vast quantities of data.

Call center managers can use other information sources to get a better idea of how to prevent their employees from leaving so frequently. More and more business managers are waking up to the role social dynamics – often referred to as cultural fit – plays and how important it can be for achieving employee longevity.

Measuring Social Fit: When it comes to measuring the efficiency of workers, call centers have many data points readily available. Metrics such as number of issues resolved, customer satisfaction and average handling time (AHT) are widely used, but managers are much less familiar with the idea of measuring an employee’s social well-being in the workplace. This is a key mistake, as academics have noted that employees who fit in well with their job, team, and organization have greater job satisfaction, are more likely to remain in their organization, and show superior job performance.

Call centers have a reputation for being highly individualistic places to work. However, social connectivity is a fundamental and overlooked factor that can often lead to easily identifiable and desirable action. Social relationships formed in downtime underpin much of our mental well-being. Even in call centers – where employees are often alone while doing their work – if agents are socially satisfied with their surroundings, this is likely to influence their conversations with customers.

This is all fine, but how do hiring managers actually begin to measure social connectivity and fit? It starts by having open conversations with people from all levels of the organization about who is and isn’t successful at the company and why. From there you can start to build up a more thorough view of an ideal candidate. Practically speaking, it’s imperative that you take this information and use it to conduct cultural fit interviews with prospective candidates; a couple of minutes of chat on the phone is not enough.

You can make it more formal by bringing in social profiling surveys: data analysis of these results can form another “voice in the room,” aiding decisions over which candidate to hire. Surveys and algorithms have the benefit of being transparent; when a mistake is made, you can take a look at the process and find out what’s gone wrong. This is the opposite of the opaque, gut feel assessments that most hiring managers make when thinking about a candidate’s personal and social attributes.

Team Structure Shouldn’t Be Fixed: According to McKinsey, 40 percent of jobs in developed economies involve a high degree of collaboration. Teams give employees a motivational social foundation and an emotional support network for when situations get rough. It’s therefore important that call center managers put renewed emphasis on team dynamics – call centers aren’t as individualistic as people think.

Managers need to pay close attention to the day-to-day social functioning of their teams. This is easier than it sounds. It doesn’t require specialist qualifications or huge amounts of time. Managers can start by being socially observant, and they can use common sense to identify problem areas and potential socially acceptable solutions. Many companies are now choosing to take a more rigorous approach by incorporating data-driven personality testing into the mix, isolating potential problems before they appear.

Make the Most of Downtime: Your workers aren’t machines. They need some relaxation to get them through the day; otherwise their performance will suffer. Naturally this thought frustrates managers who would like their employees to be as productive as possible for as long as possible, so there is a growing number of companies that are now looking to utilize their employees’ downtime for good – or at least not let their employees’ inevitable breaks go completely to waste. One oft-cited example is Pixar. Steve Jobs insisted that all the office toilets would be located off the ground-floor lobby to increase the likelihood of chance interactions between employees in different teams and departments. Fast-forward a few years, and this thinking is present across much of the corporate world.

This same thinking applies to call centers: Managers should encourage teams of employees to take breaks together and socialize away from their desks. By doing this, employees will spend more time together, encouraging social bonding. A well-known MIT study recently tested this. By ensuring that everyone on the same call center team took a break at the same time, a bank’s call center AHT fell by more than 20 percent among low-performing teams, and fell by 8 percent overall. Canada and the EU have call center turnover rates of 25 percent and 15 percent respectively, lower than the 33 percent rate seen in the US. The work environment in Canada and the EU countries is more relaxed and flexible than in the US, which might be one reason behind the difference.

According to the Human Resource Institute, the average cost of replacing one frontline call center agent in the US can reach $15,000. There’s a clear business need to find the underlying cause of this problem. Attrition problems are unique to each organization; there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. However, with the right mix of innovations in HR, team structure, and more rigorous measurement, there’s nothing to stop call center managers from reversing the attrition trend and leading happier, more profitable teams.

Tom Marsden is the CEO of Saberr.

Enhancing Employee Engagement

By Donna Fluss

Employee engagement is an important topic to me. Prior to becoming a consultant, I spent fourteen years building and managing contact centers, customer service groups, and other operating departments. I’ve seen firsthand the power of engaging my employees. The most successful and truly enjoyable departments I ran were those where my staff was actively engaged in all aspects of the business; they came in every day knowing they made a difference to our customers and the company. (In one credit card shop, this was reflected by an annual attrition rate of less than 7 percent.)

Employee engagement is frequently viewed as a soft topic. It is often overlooked because there is always something more important to do. I may be a contrarian, but I believe engaging employees is one of the most valuable and powerful investments managers can make. And when it’s done well, it can have an amazingly positive impact on the operating environment, employees, customers, and the bottom line.

Consider Zappos. There is a reason they are number one in customer service. Their job isn’t just to sell shoes and other retail products. Their job is to thrill their customers with outstanding everything: products, service, and anything else the representative feels is necessary to help customers, and management leaves it up to them to decide the meaning of help. These employees are empowered, and that is the key.

Here are some proven approaches for engaging employees:

  • Listen to Your Employees: Invite employees to share their recommendations, and really listen to what they say. These are the people who are doing the job every day, and it’s likely that they’ll come up with ways to do it better. Create an environment that welcomes new ideas and demonstrates this by applying staff input and giving credit to the people who made the suggestions.
  • Involve Them: Invite staff to get involved in activities that go beyond their primary job function. This encourages people to do more than just the basics, which is desirable in employees. Create an operating environment that welcomes innovative ideas and actions.
  • Support Them: Be there for your employees, just as you want them to be there for you and your department. This means everything from just listening to them when they need a friend to supporting them when they come up with new business ideas. Help them succeed.
  • Excite Them: Communicate your department’s direction and plans to your employees. Share what is happening and get them excited about the changes; help them see the opportunities that change and innovation can give them.
  • Invest in Them: Give of your time, just as you want them to do for your department.
  • Develop Them: Create a warm and welcoming operating environment that gives employees an opportunity to grow professionally and personally.
  • Challenge Them: Give employees new opportunities; help them succeed and grow to the next level.
  • Recognize Them: Recognize, thank, and reward employees for doing a great job; show your appreciation when your staff does outstanding work or comes up with a great idea.
  • Celebrate Them: Celebrate every employee success, and create a positive and fun operating environment so that your staff enjoys coming to work.
  • Respect Them: Show employees respect for the work they do.
  • Compensate Them: Pay people for doing their jobs; use pay-for-performance to motivate and recognize staff for doing more than necessary.
  • Promote Them: Whenever possible, promote from within the department; this goes a long way in demonstrating that your department and employees are appreciated by you and your senior management.

This is a partial list of proven best practices for engaging your employees. I invite you to send me ideas and suggestions you have used to engage your staff and create an outstanding work environment. Please email your suggestions to me at donna.fluss@dmgconsult.com.

[From Connection Magazine Jul/Aug 2014]

Is Your Agent Incentive Program More Like Applebee’s or McDonald’s?

By Robert Cowen

Two popular restaurants, Applebee’s and McDonald’s, both offer incentives to their customers. Applebee’s wants customers to complete a survey indicating how they enjoyed their meal. McDonald’s wants customers to eat at their restaurants more often. Speaking strictly from personal experience, the two restaurants take entirely different approaches to incentivize their customers, and I have two vastly different opinions based on my experiences. To me, one is definitely much more successful than the other. This can serve as a relevant lesson for contact centers and the incentives they offer their agents.

When your Applebee’s server brings your bill, it may include a request that you complete an online satisfaction survey. You will also be entered in a prize drawing as an incentive for participating. My recollection is a daily $1,000 prize or other items – an iPod, for instance. Often the Applebee’s manager visits your table to reinforce the request for you to complete the survey, almost pleading for your participation. I completed my first three survey requests (five to ten minutes each), didn’t win anything, and have not completed any more.

McDonald’s wants you to eat their food more often. They conduct an annual incentive program using the game Monopoly as the centerpiece. With orders of fries or other items, a peel-off tab may reveal a Monopoly property or an instant winning ticket for food or other items. It’s fun and a bit exciting to open the tab. McDonald’s claims that each player has a one in four chance of winning something. I have never received Vermont Avenue or the Short Line Railroad, but I have won fries and soft drinks.

Note the different approaches to incentives: Applebee’s uses a small number of large incentives. Based on my experience, I feel that my chances of winning are zero. There is no incentive for me to participate, regardless of the manager’s pleas. McDonald’s uses a large number of small incentives. I’ve won before; my chances of winning a small item are acceptable. I will continue to participate.

In the lobbies of call centers, I’ve seen displays of employee incentives that included a Jet Ski, a huge HDTV, a dirt bike, a Hawaiian vacation, an Xbox 360, and numerous expensive items. The next time you structure your agent incentive program, decide whether you should follow the Applebee’s or the McDonald’s model to elicit the maximum participation and KPI improvement from your agents.

Snowfly automated gamification and offered it as a cloud service in 1999. Snowfly improves KPIs by at least 20 percent (sales, availability, retention, adherence, attendance, call quality, turnover) and reduces administrative burden and costs. For more information, contact Snowfly president Tyler Mitchell at 307-745-7126 x707 (tmitchell@snowfly.com) or Robert Cowen at 248-324-1161 (rcowen@snowfly.com).

[From Connection Magazine May/Jun 2014]

Playing Games with Customer and Employee Satisfaction

By Jeff Canter

Gamification – the use of game elements like an organized system to accrue points, well-defined rules of play, and leaderboards in non-traditional contexts – has become one of the hottest trends in business, including call centers. A report from respected analyst group Gartner estimates that more than 70 percent of Global 2000 companies will have at least one gamified application by the end of this year.

The entry of the game-focused Millennial generation into the workforce is one reason the trend is catching on so quickly. Gen Y consumers are digital natives who grew up playing interactive games. Wise advertising and marketing companies have used the Millennial focus on games to create incredibly successful promotional campaigns. Now companies are turning to gamification to help improve employee performance.

Picture a call center where team members are busily handling incoming customer queries. They have performance quotas – indicators such as a target number of contacts to handle per shift, customer satisfaction goals, and quality ratings.

Managers monitor their business unit’s performance indicators and circle back with employees on their individual results to continuously improve outcomes. They review reports to analyze side-by-side comparisons of staff members to get a big picture view. But individual employees operate in a silo.

Gamification can change that. When a call center management team gamifies the operation, they automatically make everyday tasks more fun and exciting. Software solutions that support gamification can amp up employee motivation by establishing friendly competition and providing real-time statistics to let team members know where they stand as individuals or as part of a larger group.

Not only can this approach provide extra incentive to employees, it can measurably increase customer satisfaction. Introducing game elements, such as points for prizes and recognition, motivates employees to perform at their peak capacity. It can also significantly increase employee satisfaction, engagement, and retention – all while delivering superior customer satisfaction. Managers who use a gamification approach can get individuals and teams alike to perform better.

That said, to successfully apply gamification to contact center operations, managers need to make sure they select the right solution and design an implementation strategy that works for their unique circumstances. Managers who oversee complex contact center operations are typically extremely busy, so the gamification solution should be intuitive and automated.

The gamification system should also be highly customizable so business unit leaders can tailor games and recognize accomplishments in a way that aligns performance with company objectives. A gamification system could include rules crafted to award points based on meeting quotas, quality and customer satisfaction standards, and training program retention. The system should be designed to enable managers to assign points and encourage achievements that link back to individual, team, and company performance objectives.

In addition to incorporating company goals, the gamification system should be easy to use, providing a simple employee interface and an at-a-glance summary of performance, with stats displayed on a leaderboard and a quick overview of potential point-scoring opportunities readily available. This is essential to ensure that employees get into the competitive spirit of the game and keep a close eye on their standings.

Ideally, the system would work seamlessly with company, team, and individual performance reports. Integration with performance reporting makes it easier for managers to monitor standings, not only within the context of the game but in terms of broader company objectives.

Another essential element of an effective gamification strategy is awarding prizes. Managers can select prizes and develop the system for handing out rewards that best fits their workforce: Some staff members enjoy public attention and find recognition in a meeting highly motivating, whereas others might prefer a less public reward; the choice is up to the manager.

Gamification has been rapidly adopted by businesses on the consumer-facing side, as advertisers and marketers recognized the strategy’s potential to improve customer engagement and inspire brand loyalty. Now it’s changing the way companies motivate and retain employees, using gaming elements to deliver positive reinforcement and foster healthy competition. As gamification advocates have discovered, playing games with customer and employee satisfaction can be a win for everyone.

As chief executive officer, president, and one of the founders of Uptivity, Jeff Canter oversees all facets of the company and makes sure all aspects of the business are positioned for growth. Under Jeff’s leadership, Uptivity has grown to become a leading provider of innovative workforce optimization solutions.

[From Connection Magazine May/Jun 2014]

Conducting Effective Harassment Investigations

By Abena Sanders

Harassment in the call center is disruptive to both employee morale and an employer’s bottom line. While sexual harassment has assumed a prominent position in the human resources lexicon – in part because of its overrepresentation in popular culture – keep in mind that illegal harassment may be based on any category protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, including race, national origin, disability, and age. At this point, nearly every employer has some version of a “no-harassment” policy or reporting procedure. However, merely featuring such policies prominently in an employee handbook is not sufficient protection under the law.

An employer may be held liable for harassment that is perpetrated by supervisors, co-employees or even by non-employees, such as customers and callers. According to the Supreme Court, general agency principles will determine whether an employer can be held liable for harassment, even by a non-supervisor. However, many courts have ruled that if an employer takes prompt and effective corrective action in the face of a harassment complaint, the employer will not be held liable. A thorough investigation is a key component of this process.

When an employee comes to a supervisor with a harassment complaint, it must be handled quickly, objectively, and effectively by the employer (typically by a human resources manager or office manager). While it would be impossible to address every fact pattern that could arise in a harassment investigation, an employer may be insulated from liability by adhering to five broad investigation guidelines.

Interview the Accuser: Above all, the investigation should begin almost immediately after notice of the complaint is provided to the employer. In a private place, a designated investigator should interview the complainant to obtain clear details about what occurred. He or she should determine the identity of the accused employee and ask objective “when, where, how, what” questions to flesh out the details of the incident. Whether the complaint involves offensive comments or physical contact, it’s important to obtain details about the nature and frequency of the occurrences, determine if there were any witnesses to the incidents, and find out whether the complainant has spoken to anyone else about it. The complainant should be assured that the matter will be investigated thoroughly and handled confidentially, without any retaliation (punishment or embarrassment) for coming forward.

Interview the Accused: Again, in a private place, the appointed investigator will conduct a similar interview with the employee accused of harassment, explaining the nature of the accusations against him or her and determining if the employee is familiar with the allegations. If so, the investigator should get specific details about the incident from the accused employee’s point of view and obtain specific admissions or denials of each allegation set forth by the accuser in the previous interview. If the accused employee asserts that the complainant is lying, the investigator will question him or her to find out if there is reason that the other party would make untruthful allegations. It may be useful to discover whether the parties had any romantic or social relationship outside of the employment setting. The employer might consider suspending the accused employee while the investigation is under way, particularly if the complainant feels threatened.

Review the Facts: In concluding the investigation, witnesses to the incident should be interviewed, as well as the supervisors for both the complainant and the accused. In particular, an employer should determine which supervisors, if any, have been alerted about the incidents. Once all of the relevant interviews have occurred, an employer should analyze the facts – including any investigation notes and documentary or physical evidence – for any inconsistencies or vague areas. The employer might consider visiting the physical site of the incident (if applicable) to see if there are any narrative points that do not “fit.” At this point, the employer will be in the best possible position to determine what actually happened, although this process can never be an exact science.

Determine the Appropriate Corrective Action: After the investigation, an employer must evaluate the facts with an eye toward effectively stopping any future harassment. Therefore, consider the severity and frequency of the conduct. For example, to a judge or a jury, any conduct involving physical touching will likely be seen as severe even if it only occurred on one occasion. Review the accused party’s file to see if he or she has engaged in any similar conduct in the past, which could be an indication it could happen again. In general – and in the eyes of the law – supervisors should be held to a more stringent standard than agents. In less serious cases, a brief suspension, demotion, re-assignment, or sensitivity training may be appropriate. However, if the conduct is serious and likely to reoccur, immediate discharge could be the only feasible remedy. Any corrective action taken should be thoroughly documented and include a summary of the investigation.

Follow Through: Employers sometimes believe the corrective action itself concludes the investigation along with the employer’s responsibility. This is not the case. Employers must also inform the complainant and the accused of the steps taken following the investigation. Furthermore, the investigator should periodically check in with the complainant to ensure the misconduct is not continuing. An employer should avoid any implication of being willfully blind in the face of potential future harassment.

Abena Sanders is with Fisher & Phillips LLP.

[From Connection Magazine November 2012]

Boost Your Bottom Line with a Wellness Program

By Sherry Leonard

If I hadn’t experienced it, I wouldn’t have believed our wellness program could reduce attrition by 50 percent, absenteeism by 80 percent, and increase our insurance premium by 50 percent, while improving our overall company’s performance. Our program saved us $380,000 in the first year – that’s almost $2,000 per employee!

These fantastic results are exactly what we experienced over a nine-month period. As the president of a lean call center company, CaLLogix, in New Hampshire (an expensive part of the country for a call center to be located), my focus is on being highly responsive to our clients’ changing requirements, delivering exceptional service, and managing a profitable company.

Attrition, absenteeism, and rising healthcare costs negatively affect both service and the bottom line. Our ability to provide superior service depends upon our staff being ready to take the important calls coming into our center. When fifteen people are absent on a single day in a 200-person call center, we have to scramble to cover the calls those agents would have taken. We used to average fifteen absences, but now we average two; that’s much easier to manage.

We initially designed our wellness program to address a few big challenges for our employees: smoking cessation, weight loss, and stress reduction. Our goal was to help our employees become healthier and happier by reducing smoking, eating healthier, and better managing the stress they face in their personal and professional lives.

Employees are better able to serve customers when they are healthier and their stress is managed. Not only has our wellness program increased the health of our employees, but it has also solved some of our key management issues. Here’s how we’ve designed our program:

Smoking Cessation Program: We offer this two times per year. More than half of the program participants stopped smoking initially, and 7 percent are smoke-free one year later.

Conscious Success: This program teaches employees how to quickly reduce stress through easy-to-use mindfulness techniques that can be implemented at any time to immediately calm the nervous system and increase effectiveness in the present moment.

  • Monday Minute: Conscious Success sends out a weekly newsletter with stress-reduction tips, and we also post this on our internal site.
  • Meditations: We hold brief stress-reduction meditations a few times a week, using recordings provided by Harvard Pilgrim and Conscious Success.
  • Webcasts: Conscious Success offers a monthly webcast where techniques are discussed and taught and questions are answered.
  • Awaken Your Inner Radiance Book: We bought this book for our supervisors and administrative staff to help them learn how to reduce negative thought patterns and live a healthier life.
  • Conscious Success Program for Leaders: Our supervisors participated in a variation of the Conscious Success program that focuses on reducing negative thought patterns and stress that affect leadership and management abilities. A 360-degree assessment of participants’ emotional and social intelligence was conducted at the beginning of the program, and they will be evaluated again a year later. We are coaching our supervisors on the results of the assessments to help them further develop their emotional and social intelligence competencies.

Healthy Eating Programs: We organize and run this program internally. It includes:

  • Healthy Recipes: In celebration of National Nutrition Month, we research and post a week’s worth of healthy recipes and healthy dietary guidelines and tips on our internal website.
  • Healthy Start: To encourage a healthy start to the day, during Customer Service Week we offer a snack each morning consisting of apples and peanut butter, granola bars, yogurt, or orange juice.
  • Happy Healthy Day: On Valentine’s Day we wish employees a happy day and introduce them to the delicious health benefits of oranges and dark chocolate.
  • Summer BBQ: At some point during the summer, we offer a relaxing, team-building lunch outside.

Theme Days: To encourage a relaxed, enjoyable, motivating, and happy atmosphere at work, this gives our representatives a fun break, since their home lives are often quite stressful. Some themes are: 50s Day, Patriot’s Day, Celtics Day, Red Sox Day, Ugly Sweater Day, Hat Day, Super Hero Day, and Halloween (with appropriate) dress up.

Customer Service Week: Many of the above-mentioned programs are offered during Customer Service Week. Our most recent theme was Refresh – Recharge – Reconnect. During this week we offered Healthy Start, “Souper” Heroes soup-and-sandwich lunch, puzzle challenges each morning, blood-pressure screening, smoking-cessation programs, flu shots, mini-office yoga classes, and opportunities to reconnect by having supervisors write compliments about their employees on paper leaves that decorated big paper trees on the walls.

+500-Step Challenge: A few times a year, we give pedometers and a log to all employees and encourage them to record the number of steps they take each day. Each time we offer this challenge, we get greater participation from our employees. In addition, many employees participate in our walking club, which meets three days per week at lunch. Our employees are now aware of the number of steps they take each day and have become more active. During Customer Service Week, we have a twenty-four-hour step challenge that gets the whole office moving.

Incentive Program: Agents who consistently meet or exceed goals in key areas – such as attendance, call quality, and up-selling – receive tokens they can redeem for cash and other rewards. Agents can also earn tokens for active participation in key programs and initiatives. Examples include the call center’s walking program, peer-mentoring program, and the wellness program’s kick-off survey.

We fully believe in walking our talk. Our management team participates in the wellness programs, dresses up for theme days, and creates much of the content for our employees. We also celebrate our achievements with our staff. In celebration of our sixth anniversary as a company, we gave each employee a chocolate-dipped strawberry, a glass of sparkling cider, and a note thanking them for their commitment and outstanding support in fulfilling our promise to our clients and their customers.

We’ve noticed some interesting results of this initiative:

  • Employees are more likely to participate in smoking cessation and eat healthier once they’ve participated in the Conscious Success program.
  • Each time we offer the +500-Step Challenge, participation has grown – and the group has become competitive. Now, during ten-minute breaks on rainy days, we see groups of employees walking the halls rather than sitting in the break room. In total, during our step challenge weeks, our employees have walked 2,710 miles and taken over 5,420,000 steps.
  • The number of employees asking for meditation breaks has grown, and attendance keeps rising in these sessions.

Here’s a specific instance where we’ve seen the program improve our customer service:

An irate customer, who tried to place an order online, called in and was not pleasant to our representative. The agent, who had been in our Conscious Success training that day, did everything right: she apologized to the customer, did not make excuses that may have frustrated the customer even further, didn’t become defensive, showed incredible patience with the caller, maintained a positive attitude throughout the call, and turned what could have been a horrible call into a great experience for the customer!

The provider for our smoking cessation program is Harvard Pilgrim Health Care; the provider for our stress reduction program is Conscious Success LLC, and the provider for our incentive program is Snowfly.

Sherry Leonard is president of CaLLogix and has twenty-two years of experience in call center outsourcing.

[From Connection Magazine September 2012]

How to Fire Employees Within the Call Center Context

By Abena Sanders

In today’s overly litigious workplace, the act of terminating an employee has become a high-risk proposition. As the employment landscape grows bleaker – and the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) gets busier – employers must be careful to manage liability associated with a these stressful decisions by terminating employees the “right” way.

Discipline with Consistency: On a call center floor, the need for consistency in the application of policies can be amplified dramatically. Unlike organizations with mostly enclosed offices, on a call center floor every employee has a clear view of who does what, where, and when. For example, if your policies prohibit the use of mobile devices on the floor, employee X will likely have a keen sense of when employee Y is getting away with a rule violation.

Unfortunately, employees who observe favoritism or the inconsistent application of policies will consider the possibility of discrimination in the workplace. In a discrimination case, even if an employer’s reason for disciplining or terminating an employee was completely legitimate, the employer can still lose the case if he or she applied company policies unequally and in a manner perceived to disfavor members of protected categories (race, gender, religion, disability, age, etc.). When an employee violates a policy, investigate the alleged infraction, ensure that the employee is aware of the rule, and issue discipline consistent with previous similar situations. Training may be necessary for managers who are not familiar with the need for consistent application of company policies.

Document Your Decisions: Protect yourself in the context of an investigation or lawsuit by establishing a paper trail easily decipherable by a judge, jury, or investigator. While you may be convinced that your reason for terminating an employee is perfectly obvious and justified (“She committed time-card fraud seventeen times”), keep in mind that oral testimony after the fact is never as convincing as evidence of warnings and written documentation prepared at the time of the events. Prepare warnings, counseling records, evaluations, manager narratives, and unemployment benefit documents as if they will be attached to a brief as trial exhibits. Even oral warnings should be memorialized after the fact in a clear, concise narrative. During the course of your termination investigation, if you find that your documentation appears to be lacking, weigh the potential legal challenges against the documentation available.

Terminate with Respect: Kindness matters. Employees often approach the EEOC or an attorney less because they have identified actual discrimination in the workplace and more because they feel that their employer has treated them unfairly and ungraciously. The risk of further angering an employee in an already stressful position – thereby increasing the risk of an EEOC investigation or lawsuit – can be minimized by observing a few best practices. Choose a private time and place to meet with the employee and deliver the message with dignity (a termination on the call center floor or within earshot of other employees is almost never appropriate). Try to schedule the meeting during the last day shift at the end of the workweek, as this is often the quietest time. Have a manager or human resources department representative attend the meeting as well. When you meet, resist the urge to recite a “laundry list” of the employee’s shortcomings.

Many states require that an employer pay the departing employee all wages then due shortly after the termination. Determine how long you have to prepare the final paycheck under your state’s laws, and be prepared to deliver the payment on a timely basis. Communicate your intentions to the employee to minimize some of his or her anxiety. It is often advisable to have the final paycheck available on the final day, and most states require that accrued vacation pay be included in the final paycheck.

Particularly in the case of “problem” terminations, consider offering a severance package in exchange for the employee’s release of claims against you. While such waiver agreements cannot guarantee that that the former employee will not sue, they increase the probability that any such lawsuit will be dismissed expediently. Do not hesitate to consult legal counsel regarding your situation and any specific legal questions you might have.

The Aftermath: Post-termination, employees who have trouble obtaining other employment may blame you for hindering their job search by giving negative references to their prospective employers. Disputes related to negative references may turn into lawsuits under theories of discrimination, defamation, or intentional infliction of emotional distress, among others. At the same time, categorically refusing to say anything about the employee bears its own risks. Employers can protect themselves from future proceedings by writing a neutral reference policy to be uniformly applied. Where possible, management should consider designating one person within the organization, preferably in human resources, to handle all reference requests. In general, limit discussion of the termination to personnel with legitimate business interests in the information as opposed to gossip-seekers.

There are many factors to evaluate when deciding to terminate, executing the termination, and responding to inquiries post-termination. While it is impossible to create an inclusive list of everything an employer must consider, these tips should help you to execute and defend your termination decision with a measure of confidence.

Abena Sanders is an associate in the Atlanta office of Fisher & Phillips LLP. Her practice focuses on the representation of management in employment litigation and administrative proceedings arising under Title VII. Abena also counsels clients as to preventive measures aimed at reducing discrimination claims.

[From Connection Magazine November 2011]

Mind Your Business: The Employee Non-Compete

By Steve Michaels

Q: “If an employee signs a non-compete agreement and the company is purchased, is this agreement passed on to the new owner?”

A: The answer would really depend upon how the business was sold. If the business was sold as an asset purchase/sale (which is typical), the agreement would not automatically be assignable to the purchaser, even if the goodwill was sold as a part of the asset purchase/sale; the parties to the original agreement would change. (Please note that the seller could add language to the current agreement saying it was “assignable to a purchaser of substantially all the assets of employer’s business.”  That would generally allow such assignment to the new asset purchaser as part of the business sale.)

If the business sale was a stock/ownership interest sale (i.e., a stock purchase agreement or similar agreement where the ownership interest was being sold rather than the assets), the agreement would automatically follow through and be operative to the same lawful extent. In this case, the contracting parties do not change, and the agreement remains enforceable between the two parties (employer/company and employee).

A copy of an employee non-compete agreement is available free of charge from TAS Marketing.  This agreement was drafted by our attorney; however, you should consult with your legal counsel regarding any state law adjustments.  Just give us a call for your free copy.

Steve Michaels is a business broker with TAS Marketing and can be contacted at 800-369-6126 or tas@tasmarketing.com for questions.

[From Connection Magazine May 2011]

Improving Agent Retention

By Kelli Massaro

Retaining top performers is essential to call center success. The challenge is to create a positive work culture that sustains, nurtures, and engages employees – both as part of a team and individually. Retention is a multifaceted issue that is affected by both intrinsic factors (individual employee needs) and extrinsic factors (organizational or departmental systems that support employees). Retention strategies need to address both.

Intrinsic Factors

Individuals have several basic, intrinsic needs that must be met in the workplace to feel satisfied. As a manager, if you can meet these needs for your staff, you can positively influence retention. In many cases, nurturing good relationships with your employees can override the negative effects of extrinsic organizational factors.  Different things motivate different people, and you may need to use multiple strategies to achieve individual employee satisfaction and improve performance. In general, agents seek a mutually supportive relationship with their supervisor, a sense of belonging and security, a feeling of contribution, control over or input into decisions regarding their work, and appreciation.

Good Relationships with Supervisors: Employees desire good, fair supervision. After job fit, this is the second biggest factor in employee retention. Supervisors and managers who use a constructive “coaching” style when delivering feedback nurture growth and learning among their employees. Conversely, supervisors that “police” for infractions and shortfalls create fear and inhibit employees’ growth potential. Feedback should be timely and include both praise for things done well and suggestions for improvement.

Belonging to a Team is more than working together with a group of people. A sense of belonging is created when an individual feels a personal investment in the organization’s shared vision and works to better one’s self and the department. In a collaborative culture, team members participate in call center decision-making. Trust your employees enough to delegate projects and explore their ideas. Promote the feeling of “our” call center. Stay open-minded to new ways of looking at things, and take advantage of networking with other call centers to explore alternative solutions. This will push your program and your employees to new heights.

Contribution: Employees enjoy the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to their workplace. Pooling the unique talents, gifts, and interests of team members creates an opportunity for each employee to excel and have unique ownership for a project or for the work itself. You should seek opportunities to specifically engage and recognize your employees in this regard.

Security is an individual perception regarding “safety,” whether it’s financial, physical, emotional, or a combination thereof. When security feels threatened due to lack of managerial support, lack of communication, or a number of other factors, employees begin to experience anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction. Communicating regularly – and even more often during times of change – promotes trust and provides a sense that there is more within each team member’s control.

Control: Employees don’t like change when they feel it is “done to them.” Poor change management skills is a frequent cause of job dissatisfaction among call center staff. Change is much more palatable for employees if they have some input regarding decisions that affect those on the front line. Implementing change with staff suggestions in mind will achieve better staff support and results that are more positive.

Recognition and Appreciation: Recognizing a job well done and showing appreciation to employees on a regular basis goes a long way toward keeping employees satisfied. This can be done in small ways, such as a verbal “thank you” or a written note.

Although a powerful motivator, no incentive program can replace good leadership and management practices. The key to retention is attending to the basics: hire right, provide a fun and engaging “team” workplace, provide opportunities for employees to stay challenged and make a contribution, involve staff in decisions, communicate effectively, and coach with timely feedback. No amount of praise or rewards will keep and attract staff if the basic intrinsic needs of employees are not met.

Extrinsic Factors

To achieve a positive work environment, managers must purposely deploy a range of strategies that address retention’s multiple factors.

Hiring Right: Most call center turnover occurs with the first three months, so hiring well from the start is of utmost importance. Assessing job applicants for job fit and essential skills is crucial to help ensure that new employees are positioned to succeed. In addition, providing new hires with realistic job expectations, consistent training, ongoing mentoring, and social integration helps to support them through their development phase.

Addressing Extrinsic Retention Factors: A number of organizational and system factors influence your ability to affect employee satisfaction and retention. Considering how to maximize each element (as listed below) for your call center setting may increase overall satisfaction. Some items may not be within your control; however, many can be implemented without additional cost.

Compensation: Call center staff should be paid comparably to their counterparts in other departments. When call center staff are paid less, the workforce feels devalued. Also, perform marketplace surveys to insure that salaries are competitive with similar community organizations.

Opportunities for Professional Development: Encouraging staff to take advantage of continuing education can boost motivation. It can also help employees stay challenged at work. Positioning education and training as a privilege or benefit (not a mandatory obligation) will stimulate interest. If allowed to earn their way toward advanced training and awarded a chance to participate, staff will be more likely to attend and share what they’ve learned with their colleagues.

Career Ladders are useful for attracting new staff. The perception of advancement opportunities to positions such as team leader, senior agent, shift supervisor, trainer, or middle manager is important for retention. Rewarding top performers with a promotion, even if it’s not monetary, may be just as crucial to employee satisfaction as appropriate pay. In smaller call centers, the organization chart may be relatively flat. If advancement opportunities are limited, you may need to be creative in offering a lateral career path. Horizontal advancement that promotes employees to positions with new titles that offer new responsibilities, certification, or additional training (such as in computers, software, customer service, communication, or accounting) can be developed and used as part of an incentive and reward program.

Alternative Work Environments and Job Diversity: Telecommuting, or working from home, is an opportunity many call centers are eager to explore (or already have in place). The benefits are greater staffing flexibility and employee satisfaction, increased productivity, and decreased turnover. Another satisfier, as well as a burnout-prevention strategy, is exploring options for staff to work outside of the call center. Offering paid time for completing call center projects can unveil and highlight a staff’s individual talents. For example, a call center manager in Michigan stocks a drawer with one- to two-hour projects for staff to work on during lulls in call volume. The project materials and instructions are in a sealed envelope, along with a project “thank you” gift, such as gift certificate or movie tickets.

Schedule Flexibility: Call centers that help employees balance their personal and business lives with schedule flexibility positively influence staff satisfaction. Exploring alternative schedules – such as split shifts with telecommuting, creative weekend shifts, or working a “nine months on, three months off” schedule – can offer family-friendly choices to the employee. Customized schedule rotations and self-scheduling with a staff committee are other innovative ways to give employees input and promote positive morale.

Call Center Environments: The call center environment also affects staff satisfaction. Optimizing the physical environment based on employee feedback (noise level, workstations, ergonomics, lighting, and temperature) can help employees to be more productive and efficient, as well as preventing work-related injuries. (In one call center, the staff opted for “low-light days” for stress reduction. The center’s overhead lights are left off one day per week. Team members have individual desk lamps to use if they prefer a well-lit work area.)  Break rooms should be amenity-rich, convenient, and promote a “homey” feel. Many centers have quiet rooms (“No talking, please!”) for reading, thinking, or napping.

Promoting a relaxed work atmosphere also promotes positive morale. Do people have fun at work and enjoy being there, or is the stress and negativity palpable? Creating a fun atmosphere with perks like Pajama Day, Jeans Day, Ice Cream Sundae Day, potlucks, and birthday celebrations can contribute toward making the workplace environment a lot less stressful. And sharing humor on a daily basis reminds everyone to smile at work!

Recognition and Appreciation: Recognition for hard work is nearly as important to employees as receiving better pay. This illustrates that recognition can be a powerful motivator, and employees like to work for organizations that appreciate their contributions.

Incentive and award programs may be organization-wide, departmentally created, or a combination of both. Acknowledgment for an individual’s contribution can range from verbal recognition and small gifts (including nonmonetary awards and gift certificates), to pay-for-performance incentives or bonuses. Rewards can be tied to meeting individual, team, and/or organizational performance targets.

Call center manager Belynda Delgado describes her company’s incentive program that was started several years ago. The incentives tie into both individual and team performance goals. Monthly, she presents a gift certificate to the individual who best meets a specific performance goal, and she rewards the team for meeting team objectives. She sees the reward program as offering three main benefits: 1) a healthy competition between individual staff members, 2) a report card for team and individual performance, and 3) a means to improve teamwork and promote the team mentality. Each year, she also offers an employee bonus that is proportional to meeting both individual and call center goals.

She believes in showing her staff that she values them; she says “thank you” to everyone at the end of the day for the work they’ve done. This simple gesture shows that she is grateful for the many small acts that her staff performs every day. Sometimes the most valuable things in life are free!

Conclusion: Call centers should employ a range of strategies to create positive, fun, and stable workplaces. To foster optimal retention, the organizational culture should recognize employees as its greatest asset. By using tools such as employee-satisfaction surveys, exit interviews, and organizational culture assessment surveys, call centers can glean valuable insight into factors influencing employee retention. Implementing creative methodologies that address both system and individual factors involved in retention yield positive results and result in a more engaged staff. In turn, your staff will treat callers and patients in ways that positively influence customer service.

Kelli Massaro works as a triage nurse and is the communications director with LVM Systems; she may be reached at kelli@lvmsystems.com.

[From Connection Magazine May 2010]

Mind Your Business: The Value of an Employee Non-Disclosure

Steve Michaels

Q. I am selling my business and have been asked by the buyer if my employees have a nondisclosure on file. What is the purpose of this, and is it enforceable?

A. This is a tough one. Some employers feel that a nondisclosure is not worth the paper it is written on, while some buyers will not purchase a business without having the employees sign one. There has been much debate about this, but here is my viewpoint.

The agreement that I recommend is called an “Employee Nondisclosure, Non-Solicit, and Confidentiality Agreement,” which covers all of the bases as an employer. It is illegal to prevent an ex-employee from finding work elsewhere in the industry or to prevent them from starting their own competing business, but it can slow them down a little by having them sign this agreement.

Basically, it contains a non-solicit clause stating that your employees cannot solicit your client list, customer by customer, nor give your list to someone else for solicitation. You cannot prevent them from sending out a broad marketing letter, but if they single out your clients, state that they are starting a competing business, and refer to your call center in any way, this signed statement or the account being solicited could be used against them in court.

Additionally, the agreement contains a nondisclosure clause, meaning that the employees need to keep private any confidential information concerning any of your clients. It is also includes a confidentiality agreement, meaning that all information learned at your business must remain confidential, including vendor information.

If you are selling your client list only, we like to include a clause in the “Asset Purchase Agreement” stating that the call center equipment cannot be sold within a 100-mile radius to an employee, a former employee, a current client, or a former client. This makes the buyer feel more comfortable knowing that an ex-employee won’t be able to purchase your equipment and solicit any clients for his or her own benefit – which I have seen happen.

This agreement is governed state by state so you should consult with your attorney regarding your own state’s appropriate laws. If you would like me to provide you with our boilerplate agreement, please email me.

Steve Michaels is a business broker with TAS Marketing and can be contacted at 800-369-6126 or tas@tasmarketing.com for questions.

[From Connection Magazine April 2010]