StarTek - Capitalism
Without Conscience

By Lea MacDonald

After several people provided dismal reviews about their employment at Canadian StarTek call centers I decided to become an employee to investigate.
At the time of my employment StarTek was handling calls from AT&T wireless customers. StarTek makes money based on the spread between what providing such a service costs AT&T and what StarTek says they can provide the service for. By any other name StarTek is an out-sourcing company used by AT&T to thin costs associated with their wireless operation before Singular eventually bought them out.
An initial impression of being employed by a corporation harboring deep concern for its employees was short-lived. It took less than two months to conclude that StarTek personifies capitalism without conscience. Despite being staggered by the indignities people were subjected to in order to collect a paycheck I decided to walk lockstep with the StarTek training program in an intrepid effort to understand the dysfunction that contributes to a 137% attrition rate every five months.
The first week of training consisted of classroom learning continuously interrupted by impromptu visits and introductions by Human Resources personnel, Local Resource Procurement staff (LRP), and others who in relentless Stepford style perpetually pontificated about the opportunities StarTek held for them if they'd "just hang in there." Incessant talk of "team" and "the StarTek family" took on an ominous, cult-like pretense leaving one with the impression something was wrong. That uneasy suspicion was justified in week two.
During week one trainees were told by an LRP representative they would be working for thirty-seven and one half hours each week of their one-month training period, but they would be paid for forty hours. That promise held true for less than eight days when it was summarily withdrawn without satisfactory explanation in the middle of week two. The arbitrary withdrawal of that promise did not coincide with a StarTek handout: Corporate Code of Ethics and Business Conduct, effective January 1, 2004, wherein integrity and accountability are two of seven words used to define StarTek's corporate values. Evidently, like beauty, StarTek corporate values run only skin deep.
As trainees moved closer to their first day of call-taking on the production floor, they were trained in' at best, obfuscation' at worst, lying. For instance, should a Customer Care Agent be unable to assist a client they are instructed to tell the hapless caller: "Our system is currently updating and it will take a few moments to access your information. May I put you on hold?" The actual situation is one of poorly trained Customer Care Agents being unable to address the customer's request. Such a circumstance requires the agent to place a red cup on their cubical wall to signal a Red-Hat thereby eliciting instruction for resolving the issue at hand. During my tenure not only were Red Hats, in very short supply they were only marginally better trained than the lost and frustrated agents seeking their help. It was common to count as many as twenty-five cups signaling help from one of only two Red Hats assigned to our group. Customers often found themselves on hold for hours rather than risk hanging up to be once again incarcerated in Muzak jail.
It is not the employee's fault. Training consists of little more than a cursory overview of several wildly complex software programs with several more sub-programs housing hundreds of information pages and tools to help, define, instruct, and resolve customer issues. One system, called CCNET, is non-intuitive leaving employees discouraged, confused, and in may cases, defeated.
Julie, my training partner, was a cheerful hard-working woman possessing an eclectic professional background. She lasted two days on the production floor. Julie, in a courageous effort to serve customers better did the unthinkable, she asked for more training after realizing she could not help customers in any way. Further training was refused. Her supervisor simply told Julie, "You'll catch on." Apparently, Julie did catch on and headed out the door.
Agents are instructed to take ownership of their calls by resolving all customer issues, but then there is compliance - a seemingly innocuous term used to grade employees as they perform their job. Spend too much time handling a call and the agent falls out of compliance. Spend too much time wrapping up a call by documenting call issues in the customer's account notes, you fall out of compliance. Log onto your system late and you fall out of compliance. Stay on your system a little long and you fall out of compliance. Don't take your scheduled break at the prescribed time, you fall out of compliance. Fail to address or ask if you addressed all the customers, issues, you fall out of compliance. Fall out of compliance and you can be warned, written up or terminated. "It's hell and purgatory rolled into one." Commented an astute LA reporter.
Employees who made it through their first 90-days with StarTek were promised a fifty-cent raise - a raise which never materialized for the group I trained with. One employee wrote: "The newcomers that joined this prisoner camp a year ago September were told that once they reached their 3-month probation they'd receive a 50-cent raise with their performance review. Now, when the time has come, they are being told, No, not until after a year,. Unfortunately, nowhere in their agreement does it state this, but I have proof that they did state it because my hire group and everyone up to this hire, did get a raise. A friend of mine has had meetings with Laurie Hutchinson' the HR Manager, who frankly said they are not going to give it to him. They said that there will be an internal investigation and, no doubt, as with all internal investigations conducted on my behalf they will sweep it under the carpet. They made a verbal promise to these people and they are not following through with this. I was hired then received my 3-month raise of 50-cents, and at a year I received 26-cents with another performance review - now I am making a whopping 10.76! So, if they don't get raises, I don't understand why I did and everyone after me did not." It is appropriate to note that my hire group was made the very same promise last August but StarTek did not follow through and went mute on the subject.
If accountability is the thorn in StarTek's side integrity is its Achilles heal. In a written evaluation of StarTek's business principals weighted against current practice a former StarTek management employee gave them a score of ten out of one-hundred. He wrote"Integrity-- This is where I feel the management team is struggling the most. Decisions on a site level, get made without, what appears to be, taking constructive input from the other departments possessing a make-it-happen' attitude. Preparation for change needs to be a focus. Input from those that are affected by the change needs to be taken into deeper consideration as opposed to putting out fires after the fact. False promises get thrown around, the things will change, cliché has become a standard - some form of stability should be in place. People are given promotions, based on unknown criteria, without the benefit of a proper, ethical job bid to determine if there are other suitable candidates available. Information is distributed one way, and changed on a whim. Again' structure is needed in order to achieve goals. Knee-jerk reactions to situations should be minimal, and stronger preparations for what if, should be taken into consideration."
Howard, an oriental engineering student who had recently graduated from Queens University, was unable to immediately find work in his chosen vocation applied at StarTek to start paying back money borrowed for his education. As he put it: "I learn. Now I pay back." Howard, an affable fellow, possessed a charming sense of humor and an enormously strong work ethic that elevated him to a Red Hat at 3-months tenure. Shortly after, Howard quit. I met him that day for lunch to ask why he,d quit StarTek. "They wanted me to lie," he blurted, "to my agents and the customer. I won't lie. There is not enough money to make me tell lies. I was not raised that way. They tell me just to do it. I won't. I quit. They said I could get another promotion. I apply and they do not give me promotion. Yet I am most qualified. They didn't even look at it. They don't care about people in that place. No wonder they don't want union in that place. Union makes them stick to rules."
The union has made overtures to rank and file StarTek employees from the periphery of StarTek property after discovering that conditions outlined in the StarTek employment contract were not binding on the company and were subject to change from moment to moment. The union further contends that StarTek's annual review process is less than fair and just. They discovered that some employees found themselves being discriminated against by losing points because they had been disabled from working due to a provable, legitimate illness, which the union believes, may be a violation of the Ontario Human Rights Code.
In a January 19, 2005-StarTek memorandum circulated to clarify StarTek's position regarding the implementation of a union' the StarTek Management Team stated, "Our strong preference is to remain union free . . . that it is not necessary, nor do we believe it will ever be necessary, for you to be represented by a third party."
The memorandum comes dangerously close to the use of scare tactics in order to get employees to support StarTek's position. The memorandum asks: "Did you know that the Canadian National Federation of Independent Unions, is actually an affiliate of the Laborer's International Union of North America, based out of Washington' D.C.?" Apparently the StarTek Management Team has forgotten it's own south-of-the-boarder affiliation with its parent company. What's good for the goose, evidently, is not good for the gander.
The dubious memorandum goes on to state that signing a union card is "evidence of supporting the union." Such a statement spawns question: "Evidence? What type of evidence? How does StarTek intend to use this evidence? In a court of law? To browbeat employees? To bring action for dismissal?" While StarTek's use of the word evidence might be considered an unfortunate choice of words, they move on to caution employees about being "tricked into signing a union card as a means of obtaining more information." Clearly, such a statement assails the integrity and motivation of union proponents. My personal experience with StarTek compels me to urge them not to throw stones while living in a glass house.



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