Outsourcing rejection

I screened job applicants over the phone for a company I didn't work for. My favorite part: Arrogant middle managers who suddenly began to grovel when they realized I wasn't the receptionist.

Published February 4, 2003 8:30PM (EST)

I started working at the Phone Center because, as an actress, I needed a crappy day job. I had found work bartending, but as the least senior person on the schedule I wasn't getting any hours, and I seem to be constitutionally unsuited to temp work.

The Phone Center seemed like a good alternative. Less-brainless-than-usual work, steady part-time hours that meshed well with the bartending, and a casual dress code. The basics of the job were simple: We screened job applicants for companies that didn't feel like doing it themselves. The applicant would see an ad and call a number, thinking they were calling Company X but really getting us. I answered the phone according to whichever company name popped up on the display: "Thank you for calling Company X, may I have your extension number, please?" (The Phone Center higher-ups always claimed that as of that moment I legally worked for Company X, but I never quite believed them.) Then I used the extension number to pop up a script in my computer about the position. The lucky applicants who met the company's standards were sent on to interviews with people who actually worked for Company X, as opposed to just on a per-call basis.

We never told someone that they hadn't met Company X's standards. We just quietly hit the F7 key that aborted the interview and popped up a polite little blow-off speech, then trusted the computer system to fire off a rejection letter. The letters were usually dumped out in batches every two weeks, and every now and then an F7 would call to check his status. "You didn't get a letter yet? You should be getting one very soon..." was the most I was supposed to do, but it was still awkward. The worst to deal with was an F7 who had called back because her friend had called the same day and gotten an interview. Why was she only getting a letter? There was nothing I could say in those situations that didn't make me sound like a complete weasel.

Most of the scripts were pretty easy. Factories, apparently, are in a constant state of hiring and don't stand much on ceremony. The questions pretty much stuck to "Are you willing to lift heavy loads that may cause back strain?" and "Are you legally allowed to work in the United States?" Yes and yes? Bingo, you're in.

Some of the factory jobs sounded pretty terrible. "Your work week will consist of three twelve-hour shifts a week, and you will be constantly lifting loads of 35 pounds or more during your entire shift." I began to understand why the factories always needed to hire more workers. If the person on the other end sounded really nice, I'd silently root for them not to take the job. "C'mon," I'd think, "wouldn't you rather join the customer service industry like me?" But nice people, as a rule, want jobs so they can pay their bills and support their families, so the nice ones always took the job.

Not all the applicants who called were nice, and that's where the ratings came in. Employment recruiters, as we were called, were so thoroughly screened ourselves that we were both trusted and encouraged to give our input on the applicants. (Admit it: You just got a little jealous, didn't you?) The quick-and-dirty rating was a simple 0-9 that we filled in at the end of the interview, but there was also a comment screen that we could flip to. It was important to note why the applicant had been rated a 4 or a 9. I was astonished at how many people didn't know you're supposed to Eddie Haskell it up a bit during a job interview. People ate their lunches during the phone call. They swore and insulted me. A few guys decided to go for broke and hit on me. I always told them that we were in different states, but it never bothered them.

It was an interesting skill set to develop. I learned 10-key data entry, and how to read instructions without missing a beat of my speaking script. I got good at taking notes on both what the applicant was saying and how he was saying it. I learned that no matter how strong a dislike you've taken to someone, if you force your mouth into a smiling position you still sound friendly on the phone. Most important, I learned to sum up people's personalities in three words and a number so I could get to my next call. And when I got bored, I practiced my Sultry Receptionist voice.

After I'd gained a little seniority and trust, I was put on the trucking company's calls. This was a special contract and took a weekend of training and a whole different series of screens. We even sat in a special section of the call center. It also meant a raise, so I was game for it. It was a long script and calls took 20 minutes or more. We had to guide aspiring truckers through several hoops involving their driver's licenses, training, employment history, and safety record.

The big question, the make-or-break one, was "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?" The guys -- and it was almost always guys -- knew we were going to check it out, so they were surprisingly candid. My favorite exchange that I had was this:

"Have you ever been convicted of a felony?"

"Uhmmm... I'm gonna need to switch phones."

Once he'd switched to a phone in a quieter room, he brought up the Murder 2 conviction.

The truckers had the widest range of personalities of all our applicants. Some were the nicest people I'd ever talked to -- friendly, genuine, and with manners that I can only describe as courtly. They had citations for helping stranded motorists or otherwise going above and beyond the call. On the other end of the trucking spectrum were absolute scum, guys I was sure were just trying to get a trucking job as a hobby to supplement their serial killing.

The very dangerous were rejected, of course, but the trucking applications did not use the F7 button and there was no way to abort the interview. Even if the guy blew it on the first question, once you were in it, you were in it for the long haul, as I used to say with my newly acquired trucking lingo. You just had to keep going as though everything was perfectly fine. One guy, on being asked if he'd ever been convicted of a felony, said, "Aggravated sexual assault of a minor." Not just sexual assault of a minor, mind you -- aggravated sexual assault of a minor. There was no way to abort the interview, and I had to talk to him for the next 20 minutes. And once he'd slid his conviction by without any apparent reaction from me, he became downright chatty, even cracking what he thought were naughty little jokes. By the time I got off the phone I wanted to douse myself with bleach and burn the headset. I went to the supervisor's desk and explained that I'd just spent 20 minutes talking to a convicted child rapist. They said I could take a 15-minute break.

A few months before I left the Phone Center, one of our clients started an experiment: using us to screen for middle-management positions instead of just their blue-collar jobs. These applications were particularly fun. It wasn't just that the interviews were more complex; it was the peculiar sadistic thrill that most of them provided. Like all of our callers, the aspiring middle managers dialed a number and were put directly through to a recruiter. But the middle managers were different in that many of them made two disastrous assumptions. The first was that anyone who answers the phone must be the receptionist, and the second was that it's OK to be rude to the receptionist.

The fun started almost immediately. The first thing the middle managers had to do was give their basic information: name, contact numbers, things like that. Problem callers would already be impatient with this process. They rattled things off as quickly as possible, deeply resentful that they weren't talking to the important person yet. Next I asked them for some basic résumé information. This was usually answered cryptically, accompanied by testy little exhalations and I'm pretty sure eye-rolling, though that's only an educated guess.

When I launched into the actual interview, it really pissed them off. They'd get furious that the freaking receptionist had the audacity to waste their time by ... And then round about question 5 it would dawn on them that this was the interview. I could hear the quick catch in their speech as it hit them, and the sick pause as they thought back over how they'd been behaving for the past several minutes. It was the attempts at damage control that I really found hilarious. Suddenly, we were best pals. They almost always thought that using my first name as much as possible might somehow make up for their earlier suggestion that I make it snappy. Too late, Mr. Jenkins. You were an F7 back at question 2.

Interviews like these made me decide that, like the Swiss, United States citizens should be required to do a year of national service before starting their careers. But instead of the Army, it should be a year in the customer service industry. I'd think we'd have a lot fewer jerks in the world if everyone had to pull a tour of duty at a counter or behind a help desk.

What I learned at the Phone Center was that people don't really use middlemen like me out of necessity; they use us to keep their hands clean and their offices tidy. When I started working at the phone center, I thought of my job as helping other people find jobs. It took me awhile to realize that that wasn't really it. The companies that used us didn't want us to do their hiring for them; they wanted us to do their rejecting for them. It's messy and uncomfortable to tell someone you've decided he's not qualified for a job he really needs, especially when the job itself already sucks. It's so much easier to have a lackey in another state do the screening and a computer fire off the bad news. Then you just get to be the swell guy who hands out the trainee hats.

I don't regret my time at the Phone Center. I talked to a lot of wonderful people, a few of them so terrific that I risked getting fired by urging them not to take that satanically bad job in the cigarette promotion van. I was a small step in getting good people to OK jobs, and I slammed a computerized portcullis down in front of the evil.

Most important, I made a solemn vow to always, always be polite to the receptionist.

By Ali Davis

Ali Davis is a writer and performer in Chicago. She is currently working on a screenplay based on "True Porn Clerk Stories."


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