Intolerable call centre abuse

Conference hears that energy members should not have to face aggression and abuse at work

“If you worked in a hospital or library or other public place, people would be prosecuted for the abusive names and personal attacks we have to deal with. Yet because we work in a call centre, we are just expected to get on with the job,” said Nick Coyne of British Gas, Yorkshire-Humberside branch.

“While most callers are reasonable, there is always a proportion who are unreasonable and some who are extremely abusive. In workplaces with already generally high levels of distress, this can be intolerable.”

Within the NHS and many other organisations dealing with the general public, there is a zero-tolerance policy toward abusive and violent behaviour. However this is not the case in call centres.

If a worker is abused in a place where zero-tolerance policies are in place, the abuser is threatened with prosecution and interaction can be halted. However this is not the case in many call centres. Few penalties are used against customers, many of whom owe money to the energy companies.

This is because the majority of offensive calls (around 70%) occur when workers are calling customers about outstanding debt. There is no support for staff working in these difficult situations.

“Customers feel it is their right to be very derogatory or use offensive language,” explained Mr Coyne. “If these conversations were happening face-to-face, it is highly unlikely that the same actions would be taken by that customer.”

Tracey Wainwright, from EDF and co-opted from the energy sector committee, agreed with the motion to carry out research across branches to identify examples of good practice and to ‘name and fame’ employers implementing zero-tolerance policies in call centres.

“Too often we’re told by service managers to ‘just forget about it’ or ‘what do you expect, you work in a call centre?’ Abuse and violence must not be tolerated and require more determined action than managers referring us – yet again – to the company’s physical and verbal abuse policy.”