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When Terminations are Necessary

By John Carver

Jan 25, 2005
Originally appeared in ICCM Weekly

I have read, and I have written, articles describing call centre management issues, and of the strategies and tactics necessary for resolution of these ills. The focus is usually, if not always, positive. This is not one of those articles. The focus here is on the distasteful but real-life topic of 'terminations'.

* "Hire the Right Candidates and Keep Employees for a Longer Period"
* "Emphasize Training and Watch Your Service Scores Increase"
* "Good Management and Measurement Practices Will Lead to Higher ROI"
* "Motivate Successfully to Improve Morale," etcetera.

The authors of these articles, myself included, suggest that when you implement this or that solution your situation will improve noticeably. But read between the lines and you will find a common thread - most imply, while not stating so specifically, that all of your agents can be turned into efficient, effective, happy, customer-satisfying employees. Not so!

Anyone who has managed a call centre with (say) 100 or more agents knows the fallacy of this implication. It's very probable that you have had employees who are habitual poor performers and who, though they may or may not try to be productive, just don't have the ability to improve. It's also likely that you've managed a few to a handful of agents who might be described as "sourpusses," "attitudes" or "naysayers," who simply cannot or will not change their behaviour.

Your experience has taught you that, contrary to popular opinion, even with the best tools, training and effort; not everyone can be turned into positive and productive members of your team. Why is it that we sometimes find it difficult to say, accept and deal with this fact? It's because we want to believe that, with some investment and the best of intentions, everyone can be taught and encouraged to succeed, or even stretched to greatness. Yet we are willing to accept the truth when thinking of other professions. For example, most of us would agree that not everyone could be a mechanic, a football player, a dentist etcetera. We should also admit that not everyone can successfully handle the call centre agent position.

If you really want your centre to be the best it can be, as repulsive as it sounds, you must cleanse your centre of those individuals who are an impediment to your success. In addition to the negative effect they have on your bottom line, there is a significant morale impact to be considered. Productive employees know when dead weight is carried along by management indecision - and it isn't appreciated. In reaction to hearing "just give him a severance and let him go," a friend and colleague correctly responded "it's not going to happen that way." What he understood was that most companies are more compassionate than the "just pay them off" comment infers. A few years ago my article "The Agent, Your MVA" was published. I have not changed my thinking. The agent remains the call center's most valuable asset - only just not all agents.

You must have an ongoing, effective and supported termination process. Ongoing because no matter how proud you are of your hiring practices, some undeserving people will impress during interviews and be accepted for employment. Others who may have had a good history with your centre have burned out - it's not everyone who can answer 100 or more calls a day year in and year out and remain positive and productive. Many can and do, but not all. "Effective" doesn't require definition and, if your process is to be effective, it must be supported - by your executive and by your team leaders.

You might now be asking, "Just what is a termination process?" Like any process, it's one with an objective backed up by a number of tactics to be used as each individual situation dictates. The goal is to remove those agents, who are consistently not contributing positively (or worse, have a negative effect on results), from your centre. Some may be moved to other areas of the company where it is felt that with a change in venue they will be able to contribute. Others may simply have to be released outright. Regardless of the destination, they must be encouraged to move on and find alternate employment where they may be more successful.

Questions to Answer

If you're now thinking to yourself "we manage these circumstances well and don't keep unproductive and negative employees here," answer yes or no to the following questions. The more "yes" answers you have, the more you can be confident in your existing practices. Some of the questions may seem cold, blunt and tough, but they are designed to provoke thinking that will lead to a stronger commitment to what needs to be accomplished. To soften the impact on how you feel about yourself when asking these, preface each one with:

"When thinking of those who are habitual poor performers

and/or are a serious negative influence on others..."

* Are performance expectations established and communicated in writing to each agent at the beginning of the work year?
* Are performance strengths and weaknesses discussed with each employee monthly or more often?
* Do we have clear and convincing performance and/or behaviour related data to support the decision to terminate employment?
* Do we address attitude and behaviour as vigorously as we would poor results?
* Do we have an evaluation tool that allows us to look at this employee's overall contribution relative to other agents? overall contribution?
* Have we created a list of those employees the team managers have determined must leave - after all efforts at improving their results and/or behaviours have failed?
* Is every team manager comfortable with these decisions regardless of to whom the affected employee reports?
* Does the CC Manager meet regularly with the team managers to review the status of termination decisions - as he/she would with any other situation which requires updates?
* When an employee is let go or moved to another position in the company, does the CC Manager review the employee file to see what efforts at improvement the team leader has undertaken - and what has been documented following any disciplinary sessions?
* Do we have a formal remedial procedure to address misconduct (substandard performance, repeated tardiness, unauthorized absenteeism etcetera)?
* Do we have a formal process in place that allows employees to submit work related concerns to progressively higher management levels?
* If you were to randomly choose and question ten employees, would they all indicate knowledge of this process?
* Have your team leaders had formalized training on how to deal with performance and/or behavioural issues?
* Do the team leaders welcome a disciplinary session recognizing that it brings you one step closer to completion of the distasteful task?
* Does the CC Manager conduct a dry run session with the team leader before he/she handles a disciplinary action?
* A follow up - does the Manager occasionally attend disciplinary sessions?
* Do we offer career counseling and resume preparation?
* Do we offer a fair severance package to everyone who is terminated for performance and/or behavioural issues?
* Is there sufficient confidence in our process that the CC Manager has the latitude to dismiss an employee without referring the situation to a higher level?
* When an employee is released is he leaving with his pride and dignity intact?

If you answered "no" to the last question, regardless of the answers to all of the other questions, you would be well advised to get some help. Terminations are sometimes necessary, but unless it's for "cause," you must make every effort to complete the deed as humanely as possible.

I submit that your termination process is critical to your success. Unless you are able to remove those who are not contributing positively to your centre's results, every new initiative you implement will have returns that fall below expectations.