The phones don't stop

I can barely bring myself to do my job, the reprimands are getting serious, my co-workers are getting fired. How did I get here? More important, how do I get out?

Published January 9, 2004 8:30PM (EST)

It's a Friday. I get called into Bonnie's office. She claims there's a customer who complained that I was too curt and hostile and wasn't very much help. "We can't have that ... We cannot have that ... " The old me would have offered to call the customer and apologize to them. But I can't do that anymore. I simply say that I remember the woman growing angrier with every "this one's not in stock and there's no due date" that I gave her. Bonnie nods wearily. Fire me. Fire me. Fire me. Fire me.

I am excused.

People here are now "written up" regularly, more last year than this. Being written up is tantamount to getting slapped on the hand. Allegedly the progression is "written up," being given a "warning," and then being "fired." But so far, I've never known anyone who's gotten fired.

Heather didn't get fired when she showed everyone her new nipple ring last summer. Or Shelly, who openly tells her tales of sexual debauchery to anyone who will listen. I learned my first week here what her favorite sexual position was, that she met and mated with her current husband while married to her first, that her two teenage daughters were unwed mothers, and other fun minutiae. Once you prove you can take a call, all is pretty much forgiven.

Complacency is the corporate philosophy here. There are hungry book retailers and Internet warehouses that ship books in 24 hours. Here, an order placed Aug. 1 will not arrive until September. This happens every day. Customers call every minute pleading for some information. They buy books as gifts. They ship books to relatives. Or friends in prison. And we simply cannot stay with the demand, the predictable, reliable, seasonal demand. "Where is my book?" I don't know. Once an exasperated man called to say that we ruined his daughter's birthday by not shipping her book (a present) for four weeks, way too late for the event. Sorry. Thank you for your patience.

I like servicing customers. I enjoy making people happy. When I hear relief in a person's voice after telling them something, it's a reward to me. Here's the line I use in interviews to get this across (please read aloud in an English accent):

"I put myself in the place of the customer. We may have hundreds of customers on a given day, but every one of them relies on us to make their ordering experience a pleasant one ..."

Sounds great. I don't believe it anymore.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Today, a temp agency called. Its cryptic message belied its advertisement, which was for a specific marketing position. The nice representative says that she got my résumé, and will call if she "finds something for me." This happens frequently. Temp agencies seem to advertise compelling, available positions that require less experience than I have, only to lump me onto their slag heap of disposable office staff.

The "queue" light is flashing again, this time there are nine calls on hold. There are three of us answering them.

The phones do not stop.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

I'm getting my morning coffee when I strike up a conversation with Joanne, who works "upstairs," in one of the dark recesses of the building. She tells me she's been here for four years, but has met very few people outside of her own department, production. I tell her it's because of the subliminal messages they pump out through the P.A. system, telling us to resist the urge to engage in interdepartmental conversation. She thinks that's funny, but there is a strange sadness to this truth for both of us.

When I was in orders, I worked next to Hanna. Hanna was educated, funny, literate and very different. She came in to work wearing what ostensibly were children's clothes, she was that small. Trendy shoes with harshly arguing striped shirts or flowered tops, and always a vast array of big barrettes clipped in a haphazard fashion throughout her boyish bob. But I enjoyed her company. So much so that I spent some time outside of work with Hanna and her husband, a computer consultant. He made enough money for both of them, which made me wonder why she stayed here as long as she did.

Hanna was sensitive. Too sensitive for this place. She would argue with customers on a daily basis, breaking out in tears after the more taxing calls. She took on the thankless task of answering mail. The mail was like the phones in that the mail never stopped coming in. She never got close to catching up. Neither did her predecessor, or the one before her. Hanna often argued with me, too, about nothing. She was too much like me for us to get along for long stretches. I miss her. She just decided one day that she should go. Why is it that they who go feel no pain?

Another aberration from the usual human fodder hired here is Gina. Gina defies the company norm in that she is astonishingly beautiful, in-shape, smart, funny, and hip to everything that goes on in the office. I get along with Gina better than anyone here because, to me, she's a link to the living. Unfortunately for Gina, she's an aberration to others, too. Particularly the warehouse workers who gawk at her body as she glides through the cafeteria. She sees them. One has offered to buy her flowers, but she declines, as she is married. That must be it, I'm thinking; we hire ugly people to prevent harassment lawsuits.

Gina is debating whether she should work in Customer Service. She'd certainly be hired immediately, I tell her. But she's wary about the hassles from customers. She also tells me that she's starting to realize how messed up our warehouse is, and that this is what's keeping her in orders. Secretly, I wish she would move over here, mostly because I'm selfish. When Hanna left, I felt like I had lost the only friend I had here.

The main problem in the warehouse seems to be the workers' inability to count. Most of my day is spent correcting short shipments, and other seemingly elementary functions. The wrong books going to the wrong address is a daily occurrence. There are salesmen shipping books to people who do not want them, on the assumption that if enough people keep the books they're sent, and pay for them, this strategy will pay for itself.

I'm called into Bonnie's office. As soon as she curtly dictates "I need to see you," I know I'm caught. It's evaluation time, and she's discovered what I'm doing -- the phone calls that I do not answer, the customers that I leave hanging. I am getting a verbal warning. Instinctively, defensively, I gripe about how none of my ideas have been given a voice, and how it's all well and good to point out what people are doing wrong, without the slightest modicum of positive reinforcement. She tells me that she'll try to be more sensitive to this. She's listened to four calls, and each one is an indictment of my integrity. She knows it's her word against mine, as I describe a problem I've been having with my headset. I'm wondering what the hell I'm going to do now. How many other people know? Will this be the end of the meaningless hallway "hello"? Right away, my entire plan for survival is crashing to the ground.

Gina has problems of her own. She has been getting verbal solicitations from the fellow in the warehouse who tried to give her flowers. He has written a note, unsigned, and given it to her. It is about how he dreams of her. She comes to my cubicle, visibly shaken. I tell her that she needs to go to human resources immediately and report him, which she does.

When she returns, she asks if I had seen him pass the note to her. I did not. The human resources department will, understandably, require evidence. I did see the guy. I should have interceded, but I could not be sure that this was the menace.

Ultimately, Gina will recover from this, even laugh about it in hindsight. She tells me the note was full of phrases like "sleepless nights," "you're my fantasy," and more of your typical Harlequin book-variety warehouse worker prose.

I'm still getting over the shock of being discovered. I'm naked. A fool. I go to smoke with Annie, who tells me that she's been warned about taking too many sick days. She's taken eight since she's been here. About six months. She's "sick of this place," but realistically, she's only 21, and this job is just a résumé builder. It's different for me. I'm 35, and to be cast adrift at this stage in my life means that I'll have to start over. Perhaps I need that freedom to motivate me to do what I really want to do. But I'm scared. I don't discuss my problem with anyone, lest it become a reality.

It's Friday, and I can't even lift my head up to murmur "hello" to people as they walk by. I am now instructed to say the company name, "customer service," and my name, for every call. I hate saying my name to customers. I'm ashamed of what I've done to my life. The hardest part is that I get discouraged so easily when I'm looking for another job. I read studies that say only 5 percent of people looking for jobs in the newspaper actually end up getting one. I've registered with every Internet headhunting site I can find, and I've begged friends to see if there's something at their place of work. I simply don't have experience in the fields that are looking for people. I'm hoping I can get in the back door, and learn as I go, using my inventive mind and creative ideas to prove my value. Advertising? Publishing? Public relations? Maybe that would be a stretch, since my love for my fellow man has eroded somewhat under the painful weight of an unrewarding customer service job.

But I keep picking the wrong places to work. Here, as I said, there are no real chances for a fast-track movement. I'm actually convinced that the better I do this job, the more likely I am to be here forever. I am subconsciously sabotaging myself here.

I'm digging this hole deeper. I don't know how to get out. Please, somebody.

Find me.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Human Resources is a constant sore thumb with all of us. Maryanne is the new head of the department, and she's a hardened New Yorker. Perhaps she was hired because of her caustic style and harsh dealing with employees. But nobody likes her. More than a few of us have been reprimanded for interrupting her when she was in the middle of a "thought." She treats us like the children that she supposes we are. Why else would we deign to shoot so low with our career goals? She explains details like she's in front of a kindergarten class, and runs meetings like we're prisoners who are privileged to be in her presence. Moreover, she's never there when we need her. I know it sounds like the old "terrible soup, such small portions" joke, but this is no joke. When interdepartmental résumés are forwarded to her, she decides who's worthy to go on to the next step. This week I've decided to apply for a vacant sales position upstairs. It's been three days, and I've heard nothing. I will hear nothing, and though there are new people sitting in the chairs, no announcement has been made.

Gary and Paula have both been fired for excessive absence. Gary's been with the company for 11 years. In fact, he moved here from New Jersey when the company did. Greg talks to him regularly on the phone. Gary did not expect to be fired. He did expect a reprimand. But Human Resources decided that enough was enough. Greg tells me that Gary has been wrestling with a severe drinking problem his entire adult life. He drinks alone, you see. So does Greg, and he tells me that's the only reason he and Gary have taken so many sick days. Hangovers. The shock of Gary's termination reverberates throughout the office for the week.

Not so the axing of Paula. Her termination has been a long time coming. It was alleged that she had shingles. But she stopped calling in sick after three days. She was out a good 10. Unlike Gary, her white-collar remains will be picked over with glee. Envelopes, White-out, assorted forms. All will find a new home as the contents of Paula's former desk dwindle to a few paper clips. Nobody misses her. In fact, while she's been out sick, people have been poring over what paperwork she'd left (to be done by others), laughing and joking like they were at an Irish funeral.

So there are once again positions to be filled, and Gina casually, really halfheartedly, decides to try. Lynne and Shelly have been here for years, and have applied for the same positions weeks before, but somehow Gina is the one they interview, the morning that she applies. At other companies, such bold unfairness would at least be hidden somewhat under some sort of token subterfuge, but this is as plain as day. It's embarrassing. And neither Lynne nor Shelly will try to stop it, instead making thinly veiled snipes at Gina, who's been forthright about the whole thing. They should go into Bonnie's office and ask why they aren't getting promoted, what they should do to improve. But instead, Shelly, in her way, makes sure that Gina hears her half-kidding aside, "She's getting promoted because of her looks." To her credit, Gina is unapologetic. She didn't create this system. She is merely living within it, and doing what she can.

People like Shelly and Mary are constantly complaining about getting looked over for promotions. Their lives are made that much harder by the fact that Gina gets hired almost immediately. There were two positions to be filled, and Gina is the only person promoted. And she fits right in. So now my department consists entirely of Caucasian men and women, and the order department is almost entirely young black girls.

Through years of unsuccessful job searching, I am somewhat wary when an opportunity does come along. I've got an interview next Tuesday with an advertising agency. It's a job involving trafficking out and monitoring different campaigns to various departments. I should be excited, because it means more money, working closer to home, and being much nearer to my ultimate goal of writing professionally. But something in the back of my mind is sending warning signals. It's a woman's job. It's for someone younger. It's demeaning. I snap back into perspective: It doesn't matter if it's any or all of these things. It's not this.

I wonder to myself, What have I been doing wrong? If I had the time, I guess I would follow up on every résumé I send out. There isn't always an address or phone number accompanying the ads I see (the ones that reveal the company name often state "no phone calls please"). Do I skirt around that technicality? Will it show me to be driven or obnoxious? I guess I get discouraged easily. I've been here almost two years, and have been trying to escape for most of that. I wonder what that says about me. Maybe it's not the company. But then, as if on cue, the managers pass out a note saying, "Thank you very much for your dedication. There are bagels in the conference room for you. We thank you again!" The bagels are actually from a managers meeting earlier that morning, and the ones that are leftover remain to be picked over by us. It might be me, but it's definitely not all me.

The day of the interview, I'm nervous. I don't get many of them, and each one must count. A woman who's probably five years my junior interviews me. I try to say all the right things, but it's difficult to remember my tenets, much less believe them. I leave feeling I've done a good job, and she tells me that the second interview (if there is one for me) will be next week. The next day, I send a thank-you letter from work, and hope for the best. Meanwhile, there are new positions being posted on the company bulletin board. I debate internally whether I should apply, knowing that the chances of being hired are slim, and I doubt I'd care to work for this company anymore, anyhow.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

It is the following Thursday. No call yet. How do I approach this? Do I call her? She said she would call this week, and there's still one day to go. Besides, I haven't received a rejection letter, so I assume they haven't decided who will get a second interview. I wait.

On Friday I decide to call. The bright, cheery, recognizable voice of my interviewer informs me that the company is "restructuring," and that "it may be a while" before I hear from them. I awkwardly inform her to keep me in mind and that I'm still very interested. My words sound as if they're coming out of a large balloon being deflated. We say goodbye, and I know I'll never hear from her again. (Note: I called a few times after that and never spoke with anyone directly. I got a polite "thanks but no thanks" in December.)

I'm going to be here forever.

Tonya has been here forever. She's been passed over, walked on, ignored, disrespected more than anyone here. After seven tries, and four years, she was finally promoted to customer service. She's a very big complainer. She's seen it all. When I would try to get meetings together, or suggest a new approach, or try to get a policy looked at, she'd just laugh and say that she's been there, done that. And she's right.

Today they're asking her to move her ensconced bunker to another open cubicle. She politely declines. They ask Karen, the new rep, and she also refuses. They come back to Tonya and inform her that she can start moving any time. It's funny. She knows that they know that she'll do it, too. Oh, she'll bitch and moan to anyone within earshot, but ultimately she'll relent. She has too much respect for authority. She tells me once to watch my numbers because if I'm on hold (for example) too long, they'll find out. Who? "The managers." Then what? "Well, you won't get promoted." Honey, there's nowhere to be promoted.

Because they need you on the phones.

And the phones do not stop.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

In desperation, I meet with a corporate recruiter in Cary for advice. He usually only deals with very high salaries. Nevertheless, he sits with me because he likes my résumé. He tells me three things. I should be making $1,000 a year for every year I've been alive, I lack focus on my résumé, and I'm overqualified. I am grateful, at first. It slowly dawns on me, though, that he is not giving encouragement. He is giving an indictment. Why are things as they are?

To be fair, I have been extremely negative. Mumbling epithets between desk poundings, I feel like I am coming apart. I have been disciplined a few times, and each time makes me angrier. I am giving it off. I must be. I am angry with my co-employees. I am angry with the company. I am angry with myself for not getting out. Why don't people like me? I probably would not like me either.

I go on another interview with an Internet business. I am excited. Two interviews later, and that old dance started again. It does not end in disaster. They were restructuring, true. However, they would know in two months what their status was. I will be first in line when the position is created. This news somehow encourages me. Work is a little easier this day. The hope (fake or real) makes things here easier for weeks. It's funny how those things affect you like opium. Good news. Self-esteem. The feeling that there might be an escape. A rebirth. Another chance to keep promises you made to yourself long ago, but failed to. You're still in jail, yes. Now, however, people are coming to visit you.

Then a friend gets me an interview for a copywriting position with his company. They are desperate. I am, as well. Therefore, I accept the contract position. It took me a good day to get over the fact that I was going to be leaving this job.

When my mother died, it was nothing like I imagined it would be. I had imagined my soul being shattered to the point of no return. The guilt eating my life from the inside until I decided to jump off a roof. It was nothing like that. I was stronger than I thought I could be. I miss my mom. I accept her life and death.

The reason I say that is that leaving the company was sort of the same thing in reverse. I had always anticipated ecstasy. Me, dancing around, giving the "finger" to my enemies, real or imagined. Dancing in the halls, throwing paperwork around. All I felt was sadness.

Management, Bonnie especially, had some right to be angry at the lack of a two-week notice. She understood. I had to do what I had to do. That reminded me of how truly forgiving she was when I needed time for this or that. She was not a wordsmith. She was not the best "people person," but she understood.

It was sudden and abrupt for all concerned. People wanted to like me. They wanted to be friends on their own terms. I was simply too negative. Too defeated. Too bitter. As I said my goodbyes, people gathered around like I was ... leaving! I figured they would be happy to see me go. They were not happy to see me go. Hugs passed around. Sadness. Handshakes. Shaking hands with Ron. Sadness. The only person to see the terror in my eyes as I left to see my mother for the last time (and the first to see me when I returned) was Annie. If I had had inner thoughts of haughty smugness before then, I lost all of them. We hugged. Sadness. Goodbye, Glen, Mary, farewell Penelope. Sadness. Goodbye, Gina.

Not one thing was as I imagined it would be. I almost wanted to turn around and say, "Please don't forget me! I'll be back ..." So finally, I walked out of the place. The new job seemed relatively daunting -- no excuses now. Long hours, but no phones. Closer to home, but leaving for work earlier. What I do would be seen by millions of people. No longer the anonymity of being one cog in a machine. No strict hours. Lunch when you go. Breaks when you want them.

The phones have stopped.

By Gilbert Neal


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