Break Room to Rest Room: Bad Behavior and What You Can Do About it

By Jean Marie Johnson

I'll just come out and say it: I'm passionate about call centers. And I know that I am not alone:  you are out there, reading this and thinking: I am, too. If that makes us part of a tiny percentage of the American workforce, then so be it.

A call center is a microcosm of life at work, in all of its triumphs and successes, and shall-we-say, its distinctive humor?   A call center embodies a fair share of its infamy (or, ignominy) as well. For those of you who think that my fellow enthusiasts and I have lost our heads, I really do understand. But bear with me for a moment, please.  There's a very good reason for my respect and enthusiasm for the workplace we commonly and sometimes with affection, refer to as a "call" or "contact" center.

Call Centers Present a Unique Set of Challenges

A call center is often the epitome of technology's cutting edge, capable of orchestrating a mind-boggling number of customer contacts through a remarkable variety of channels. Every day, that is. Viewed through the lens of technology, process and efficiency, a call center is something to behold.

But a call center is far more than that.  It's got a pulse that beats to the rhythm of the people who work there, to their commitment to providing service, offering support, and being collaborative. At the same time, working and thriving as a call center employee presents an utterly unique set of challenges. I know, because I've been there in one way or another, since the 1980's.

I also know because I've asked associates in many organizations: "What's the hardest thing about working in a call center?"  And while mine was by no means a formal survey that could tout statistical accuracy, what I heard rings true. It resonates with my experience—first-hand, and observed, and with my heart.

The Hardest Thing...?

As you might expect, many employees cite the pressure of time, because there's never enough. Or, they mention metrics and the expectations around them. Others talk about difficult calls and difficult customers. Some say it's "life in a fishbowl," or management that "just doesn't get it."

And a surprising number simply but poignantly say "other people." We all know that's where it can get awkward and more than a little sticky. The vast majority of people I've spoken with are hesitant to bad-mouth. That's worth a pause. They are hesitant to point fingers, denigrate or, shall I say "dis" their co-workers.

That said, there is no mistaking the wariness and the frustration that result from the actions and behaviors of those "other people." Getting to the heart of what the reference really means has been both sobering and downright encouraging. 

Thirteen Vexing Behaviors

As you and I both know, those "other people" are of course our co-workers.  They're the folks with whom we resolve customer problems, exchange ideas at team meetings, and collectively, "make our numbers." But in a more immediate and personal way, they are also the people we say hello to on our way to our cube and sit across from in our pod. And, in most cases, they are also the fellow human beings with whom we share a Break Room and a Rest Room. Hmmm…

So, what in particular is bugging us about them?  It's the little things…and a lot of them. It's behaviors that create the impression of disrespect for co-workers or a disregard for the workplace itself. That's a pretty strong interpretation, wouldn't you say? What "bugs us" is the message these behaviors appear to send. 

I collected the most vexing of these and landed, alas, on 13:

  1. Coughing without covering your mouth

  2. Yelling things out over everyone's head

  3. Leaving your chair in the middle of the aisle

  4. Taking other people's coffee creamer from the communal fridge

  5. Talking on a cell phone while using the bathroom facilities

  6. Not cleaning up after yourself—leaving crumbs on the counter, etc.

  7. Taking up more than one parking space

  8. Having loud, personal conversations where others can clearly overhear

  9. Lack of personal grooming, personal cleanliness

  10. Sloppy, overly-casual dress, or over-exposed skin

  11. Plucking, clipping or otherwise conducting personal grooming at your desk

  12. Burping, belching and yawning when looking at another person

  13. Using vulgar language or profanity

Empathy Paves the Way for Awareness

It's not a pretty list, is it? And it runs the gamut from the things we do and those we fail to. At the same time, not one of us is perfect. That empathic recognition may explain the hesitation on the part of my "respondents" to call others out. And who needs to really, when each one of us controls our own actions and responses?

So I put myself to the test. I tagged myself on at least four of the thirteen. That's over 30 percent. And, who I am I kidding?  I haven't asked my co-workers, so I shudder to think what a more realistic percentage might be. Not perfect, I remind myself…as if I need further reminding. I'll settle, quite contentedly, for being responsible.

Take another look at this list of behaviors that most of us interpret as disrespectful. Which have you noticed in your own workplace? And, more to the point, which of these have you demonstrated yourself?

Take Control of Thyself

The point here is not to be judgmental or petty about those "other people" or to find more reasons to beat up on ourselves.  It's to heighten our awareness about what's in our control, and the type of workplace we want to create. As one person I spoke with observed: "Bad behavior may be contagious, but so is showing respect. A little consideration goes a long way." 

I think she is correct, and that's what is so encouraging about creating the type of call center culture we want to call ours. You may influence many things that affect your work experience and the experience of your callers, but you have control over just one: You. As for me, I am working on shrinking my list.

In the spirit of empathic recognition, may I ask "How about you?" 

Jean Marie Johnson is a Communico facilitator and has helped clients with their MAGIC initiatives. And for 20 years she has specialized in cultivating the customer experience as a key competitive advantage.
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