how to spot job candidates who will have attendance problems

A reader writes:

Do you have suggestions on how to screen for employees who will have absenteeism problems and not show up for work?

I work in a call center. Most of the folks we hire know what that type of environment is. And yet we still end up terminating people on a regular basis for not showing up for work. It’s extremely frustrating!

We do everything we can to make it a fun place to work, and whenever we do hire, we have people recommending that their friends apply, so I like to think it’s not the environment.

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 177 comments… read them below }

  1. Lily in NYC*

    You pay them a decent wage and don’t have ridiculous/arbitrary rules (like most call centers) so you can get a better quality of applicant.

    1. Jade*

      That’s really not the main problem. This generally is about showing up for work on time. The vast majority of call center workers are fired for being late — usually by a few minutes. They have a certain number of times it can happen where they clock in 7 minutes late, or 3 minutes late, and then they’re fired.

      (That’s one of the reasons years after I left I really have a super-low tolerance for the threads every few weeks with so many people acting as though everyone in every job should just be so easy breezy about what time an employee — I think the last letter was about an employee in her first week on the job! — shows up for work.)

      1. Amtelope*

        But does it make sense to have policies that require firing people who clock in 3 minutes late but are otherwise good performers?

        1. LQ*

          When your job is primarily about being a butt in a seat and a person answering a phone, yes. It does.

          When you work at a call center taking calls your entire job is answering calls. That’s it. You get to leave on the dot, but you are expected to be there on the dot. You have to be in your seat to be a good performer. You can’t perform well anywhere else.

          1. Ops Analyst*

            Yes, but positive reinforcement works better than negative reinforcement. Wouldn’t it be better to reward employees in some way? For example, if you clock in on time every day for 30 days you get an extra break. Or never being late for six month earns you an extra sick day?

            1. LQ*

              We are back to rewarding people for the basics (not exceeding) of their job.

              Why is it ok (and even good) to fire someone for not performing their work when it is writing a thing but it’s not ok to fire someone for not preforming their work when their work is showing up on time?

              I don’t want to be the person who does show up every day on time and has to deal with stressed out people on the phones because there is already a wait when they called in exactly as we opened. Why am I, a decent employee required to get punished because my coworker didn’t show up? You want to keep stellar people right? That’s something that is frequently talked about here. One of the things that makes you stellar at a job like this is being there on time.

              It doesn’t mean that a person who is often late is a bad person, it just means this isn’t a great job for them. Maybe they are willing to say hours late each day to be able to come in 15 minutes late, GREAT there are plenty of jobs where that works. But this is not one of them.

              1. Ops Analyst*

                Well, the discussion wasn’t about people who were often late, it was about people who are a few minutes late getting fired after just 3 times. In nearly every other job there is an opportunity to fail and fix it many times before getting fired, whatever your job duties are. Even people in emergency services are allowed to screw up and get multiple chances. It’s part of learning and training, especially for people who are early in their career, as many call center employees are. It would make more sense to have the late person be involved in dealing with some of the consequences that resulted from them being late than to keep firing people. Now, if they have a chronic problem, that’s a different story.

                People are given incentives for doing their regular job responsibilities all. the. time. Sales people get incentives for meeting sales goals (which is part of their job), for example. When I worked in retail I was given incentives for selling certain things that I was expected to sell as a requirement of my job, and when I sold a lot I got even bigger incentives. Incentives are not really that foreign of a concept.

                Not being a minute late in 6 months at a job where you’re given a point system for absences actually is above and beyond, because they are not using their points or needing their points reset. If absenteeism is such a problem, this would be someone who is succeeding where others are not. I’m not saying they deserve a standing ovation or over the top praise. But if OP is looking for a way to minimize lateness and absenteeism then incentives are a good way to do that.

                Also, I just have to say that I have seen a lot more talk on here about PIPs and trying to develop employees before firing them than I have seen people raring to fire over something like “writing a thing.” In other words, nobody is really saying its ok to fire people in other jobs but not in this one.

              2. Ops Analyst*

                Why am I, a decent employee required to get punished because my coworker didn’t show up?

                I want to add that this employee is dealing with the mess left by multiple employees, not just one chronically late person. So their perspective can be a bit skewed. But regardless of that, this isn’t kindegarten. We aren’t “punished” at work. Sometimes work sucks and you end up cleaning up other peoples messes. I consider this part of what I get paid for: stepping up when things go wrong, covering when its needed, and working with my department to find solutions to recurring problems.

                If one person causes messes all the time, then that needs to be dealt with on an individul basis. But if there are a lot of people screwing up only occasionally then it’s a company wide issue and that needs to be addressed differently. The solution is not firing people for contributing in a very small way to a much larger problem and giving them barely any margin for error. The solution is to figure out why its a continuing problem and institute new policies that work.

          2. Vicki*

            Do you make it Crystal Clear at the interview that people must be ON TIME or they will be fired? That 3 minutes late is NOT acceptable?

            Because, in most jobs, being 3 minutes late is is not a firing offense.

            1. Jamie*

              I can’t imagine how awesome an employee you’d have to be for 3 minutes to be the difference between having a job and now. How much can you kick productive ass in 3 minutes?

              Tbf shift work is different than many jobs where being on time is a big deal as it can sometimes mean more work for their co-workers – so I guess I understand the fear of the slippery slope and if 3 minutes once turns into 10 minutes every day then okay – a conversation is in order.

              But in the example of a call center I honestly can’t say I understand the example – if I’m calling in to a call center odds are I’m already annoyed about something and someone picking up at 8:00 as opposed to 8:03 isn’t going to increase that. And the co-workers can only answer one call at a time, I’m assuming, so it’s not really more work for them as if they show up 3 minutes later and start pulling calls they are likely still on call #1.

              I get some jobs needing to be strict with time, but I don’t get 3 minutes on occasion ever being a big deal.

              1. AGR*

                8 v 8:03 is absolutely going to make a difference. If I was annoyed before, I am going to be super annoyed at having to wait.

                Call Centers are a different animal. You are in your seat and ready to take call at your designated start time or you’re late. Period. There is no negotiation. You can do this job or you can’t. Pick a side of the fence or as your employer I am going to pick one for you.

        2. Valar M.*

          The call center I was in by nature of the work, it made sense. If you didn’t have enough people covering the phones at any given minute it could mean that someone would be unable to receive emergency help. Plus, if Jane didn’t come in on time I would have to stay until Jane did come in on time. It could cause problems for me personally, but it could also force the company to have to pay me overtime.

        3. Mike C.*

          In a call center consisting of 100 workers or so, what is the cost of a few being a couple of minutes late versus having to hire someone new? I wish folks would consider this more.

          1. LQ*

            The problem isn’t 1 person being a few minutes late. It’s not enforcing timeliness means it degrades and now everyone is coming in 15 minutes late and the phones aren’t getting answers. Most call centers run very tight on how many people are required to answer phones (ever have a wait time when you call in someplace?) so a few people being late means a serious cascade of issues that can stack up over the whole day.

            I’m not saying all call centers are perfectly run. But for most one of the key pieces of your job is actually being there. Why is it that we hold people in other jobs hard to their job requirements but showing up on time is an actual and very important job requirement here and people want to wave it away?

            1. jennie*

              Great comments LQ. I work in this environment and would say the same thing. The most important part of the job is being in place on time to handle calls. It is far more important than any other job skill in this role because it can cost the company a lot of money when it doesn’t happen. People who don’t work in this environment have a hard time understanding, but it would be like hiring a restaurant server who dropped 10% of their orders on the floor. The costs pile up.

            2. A Bug*

              This. I’ve done workforce management in a call centre. LQ, you’ve hit it right on the head. Staffing requirements were very precisely-calculated and although they were able to take a lot of things into account, there was no way to effectively absorb the impact of late arrivals. The staffing requirements in my centre were cut up into fifteen-minute increments, and by the time the quarter began we were expected to be exactly at required, no more, no less. In order to absorb people who come in late by a few minutes at the beginning of the quarter, then the rest of the quarter would have to to be overstaffed. I don’t have any hard numbers for you but I’m fairly confident that a constant 5% overstaffing (in addition to the built-in overstaffing that was designed to absorb call-outs) would cost more money than the cost of hiring a punctual employee.

              And that’s why call centres have to be so strict on punctuality. If, as LQ points out, there are too few consequences for lateness, then 5% at the start of the quarter becomes 25% or worse.

              That said, I don’t think it’s appropriate for call centres to fail to pay employees for time spent preparing their workstations so that they’re able to be on and taking calls right at the start of their shift. But if you work the phones in an inbound call centre, and you fail to understand the importance of being logged in on time, then you are not suitable for your job.

              1. Chris*

                Yes. A focus on punctuality is just part of the job. However, this (and the related tendency to closely manage call lengths) does make it very clear to the employees that they are nothing but bums on seats. Expecting great performers to make a long-term career out of that seems unrealistic.

            3. Bunny*

              This! The call-centre I was at before my current job was one of the most relaxed, friendly and flexible call-centres I’ve ever worked. But it was still a basic job requirement that you be not just *in* but *at your desk, logged in and ready to take calls* at your scheduled start time. The reason being that, while most calls just needed to be answered as soon as possible, we also had a high priority line that *had* to be answered within 20 seconds due to the nature of the calls received. While staff schedules were designed to cover the busiest times as best as possible, sometimes it’s just unpredictable when the phones are going to go mad and it only takes a small number of people to not be there unexpectedly for a call on the priority line to get dropped because there wasn’t anyone free to take it.

              Now, if punctual set start times isn’t your thing, that’s fine. But then you shouldn’t get a job in a call-centre. Or, in fact, any job that requires staff coverage to handle customer contact. Because if you’re turning up late, all you’re really doing is forcing a colleague to stay late to cover your work. This community wouldn’t tolerate any other circumstance where people let their co-workers carry more than their fair share of work. So why this?

            4. Mike C.*

              Understanding that someone can be a few minutes late does not lead to everyone being late. If they need to fire people for being a minute late, then guess what? They’re running too tight.

              1. neverjaunty*

                Yes, it does lead to everyone being late. If Bob comes in five minutes late a lot of the time and nothing happens, why should I bust my butt to be there on the dot?

                Being in place at an exact time is not a requirement of every job. If you are in a skilled white-collar position where you don’t work a shift – especially in an industry like IT, where flexible hours are often SOP – it can be hard to understand that one minute here or there is important. But it is in shift work.

      2. Sunflower*

        People know call center jobs are always available and easy to get. Maybe people don’t care if they get fired because the same job at another company will always be around the corner. If you give people benefits that aren’t typical at other call centers, they might care more about keeping their job.

      3. Chinook*

        “(That’s one of the reasons years after I left I really have a super-low tolerance for the threads every few weeks with so many people acting as though everyone in every job should just be so easy breezy about what time an employee — I think the last letter was about an employee in her first week on the job! — shows up for work.)”

        Jade, you are not the only one with that low tolerance. I have been a receptionist who was expected to be there to answer phones and unlock the phones right on time – no excuses – and couldn’t leave early even if there was no one to transfer these calls to. When my coverage was late, whether it be 2 minutes or an hour, that meant I couldn’t go to the bathroom or get something to eat (because no food at front desk. We had to convince TPTB to let us have something to drink since we were talking all day). Some jobs require punctuality and not being punctual will directly affect others.

        For call centers (and I have worked a tone too), retail or anywhere else with shifts, not showing up on time means someone else has to stay until you arrive and the company will have to pay overtime. So, you being late does cost a colleague their plans and the company real cash.

      4. Lily in NYC*

        That doesn’t really change my opinion and I think we might actually agree with each other – I’m saying that a quality hire would show up on time, and the reason these places are full of people who show up late is because they are low-paying crappy jobs with bad management. And the good employees probably don’t last long. I didn’t mean that having rules about start times was ridiculous or arbitrary; I am a stickler about non-exempt people showing up on time (well, I would be if I had any power).

      5. EvaR*

        At our center, the problem is less about being on time and more about people calling in. But plenty of people make it a habit to show up on time or a little early- My company actually puts it in our training that “you need to be at your desk and punched in at EXACTLY x o’clock, and you can punch in up to 5 minutes early but if you punch in more than a minute late, you will be considered late, and y policy kicks in if you are late more than 3 times in a month.” I think it’s super helpful that companies explicitly say those types of things out loud because I’ve definitely worked in places where it was considered “on time” to show up at x o’clock and go to the bathroom, shoot the breeze with your coworkers, and then get your desk stuff together and punch in at 5 after x.

        Also, make it clear, OP, what your company’s policy for sick times is. If you don’t already offer paid sick leave and steady hours, paid sick leave and steady hours. I’ve worked places where there were scheduling and attendance problems because the hours were unpredictable or the company was not honest about what type of coverage they were looking for. If you are looking for someone to fill in for people who are sick and maybe work 1-2 4 hour shifts during peak call times, let people know that up front. If you are looking for full time and maybe overtime on the holidays, same deal. Just saying, if people are trying to coordinate multiple jobs, they are going to have more scheduling issues and stuff like transportation problems.

        Finally, this is going to sound petty, but look at your culture and make sure the job is as painless as possible. Make sure the dress code is reasonable for a call center, the office environment is comfortable, people are allowed to take their breaks more or less on time, there is minimal drama on the floor, etc. Unhappy people are going to call in more.

    2. Manders*

      Yes! Rules that are too strict may actually be contributing to that absenteeism (for instance, if the penalties for not showing up to work for a legitimate reason like illness are very high, an employee who gets ill may think, ‘They’re going to fire me anyway, why bother calling in?’).

      Some of it may just come with the territory–call centers with a lot of angry customers or repetitive scripts are going to burn employees out fast, and if the wages are low on top of that, the best employees will move on quickly while the worst just stop showing up when they’re ready to quit.

      1. Meg Murry*

        Yes, I worked at a place where the attendance “points” system meant that if you called off a 3rd time, you were fired, so most people called off to quit on that 3rd call instead of calling off to be fired the next day, because they didn’t want to have to check “fired” on their next job application. The employees had no sick or vacation days for the first 6 months, and many of them were relying on old cars that weren’t very reliable, with no way to get them serviced since they worked 6-7 days a week and could barely afford to eat.
        The points system was also stupid in that arriving more than 1 hour late was the same as a call off, so if you were going to be late, you may as well take the whole day – even though we really needed every warm body to keep things running (it was a manufacturing assembly line).

        Things that helped: slightly overstaffing, and if everyone showed up asking for volunteers to take the day off (only paid for the first hour, but no penalty) – especially popular when we were running 7 days a week and it was nice weather, instead of just automatically sending the newest people home; allowing for a certain number of “scheduled days off” before vacation time was earned or once it was exhausted – so the person didn’t get paid, but they didn’t get fired either as long as they asked 24 hours in advance and were approved – drastically reduced call-offs; a revamping of the points system to allow resetting back to 0 or a low number sooner so one bad flu season didn’t set everyone up for being fired the next time they were 5 minutes late.

        Two other perks that helped build goodwill and help employees out of bad spots: overtime was or over 40 hours of work OR PTO hours, not just over 40 hours worked; and they allowed up to half of accrued vacation time to be paid out anytime – good for employees with no emergency fund.

        If you do have a strict attendance policy, especially one with points, explaining that during the interview may allow people who tend to be chronic over sleepers or call-off-ers to self select out, rather than working until they are one attendance point away from being fired, and then NC/NS assuming they will be fired anyway.

        1. Not Today Satan*

          I love the way overtime was calculated at that place. Literally 100% of the time it would have been useful for me to do overtime at my last job was when I had taken a personal day or if there had been a holiday that week. But if I stayed 4 hours late, or even did a full day on Saturday, I wouldn’t get any type of overtime pay. Given that my employer sucked, why would I ever volunteer to do that? Thus, I never did. It was idiotic.

      2. OfficePrincess*

        Back when I worked in a call center, at one point they changed the rules where being more than 45 minutes late or leaving more than 45 minutes early counted the same as being out all day points wise. So if you woke up with a migraine or just generally not feeling well, there was no incentive to get yourself in as soon as you could or to try to go in and tough it out as long as possible. You might as well just take the whole day.

        1. A Bug*

          A whole-day callout actually is easier to handle from a workforce management perspective than a late, provided you gave reasonable notice. “I’m running late but I might be in around ten” is much harder to plan around than “I won’t be in today.” Knowing that you’ll be out for the whole day would allow me to phone part-time-on-call people and get them in; not being sure when you’ll be in, if at all, means I have to prepare for you being out for the whole day and risk being over-staffed in the event that you do make it in.

      1. the_scientist*

        Yup, this. Pay a living wage, offer reasonable sick leave and benefits, and get rid of ridiculous and arbitrary policies like writing people up for being 3 minutes late, or whatever. A place that treats people like miscreant children is not going to be “fun” no matter how much higher-ups try to make it so. Also, I’m not sure what type of call centre this is, but if it’s customer service, people are *horrible* to customer service reps! I can’t imagine doing that kind of work and not getting burnt out quickly, and that would be doubly true if I was working in a place where I knew management didn’t have my back (i.e. the type of call centre that espouses a “customer is always right” mentality and forces employees to tolerate verbal abuse).

        That said, I think high turnover is pretty inevitable. This is a low-skill, low-pay, minimal training & experience required kind of job; a lot of these jobs are sort of easy-come, easy-go. I’m NOT saying that they are easy to do, I’m saying that turnover is generally higher in retail, service and call-centre type places than in jobs that require a well-defined skill set, where barrier to entry is higher and there are more ways to move up. That’s probably just the nature of the beast.

      2. A Bug*

        Could you perhaps muster a small amount of sympathy for the people whose performance numbers are hurt by latecomers? Those people don’t usually make much more money than the phone agents (if at all) and they’re subject to the same indifferent management as the phone employees. When I was in workforce management, a late phone agent directly affected my stats. If 5% of my scheduled workforce was missing from the lines for 5 minutes of a 15-minute quarter, I’d “fail” that quarter and have to explain my failure to my boss and my boss’s boss.

        I’m not heartless. I know stuff happens. That’s why I have some wiggle room, and I do my best to be accommodating as much as possible in everything I do. But strolling in ten minutes late because you just had to have your Starbucks and it’s not like you’re going to get any incentive pay this period anyway? That directly affects my ability to earn my incentive pay, and you’re certainly not making your point to anyone who has any power to change anything.

      3. Jennifer*

        Seconded. They’re a circle of hell. Why would anyone be shocked that they have attendance issues?

    3. Just Another Techie*

      Yeah. Like the letter I stumbled on recently where employees were given a “point” for everything from showing up a minute late to having to go to the emergency room to only giving 23.75 hours notice instead of 24 of a doctor’s appointment, with mandatory firing at 10 “points.” Ugh.

      It’s basic supply and demand. High performers aren’t going to settle for low wages and draconian policies if they can get better elsewhere.

    4. Josh S*

      Y’all don’t seem to understand the way most call centers work. To a large extent, it’s a game of STATISTICS.

      Almost every call center out there has “Service Level Agreements” (SLAs). One of which is an agreement that x% of callers will wait on hold (“in queue” in industry parlance) no more than Y minutes before talking to a representative.

      This means that when the call center opens at 8am, EVERY SINGLE CALLER matters toward that metric. If there are empty seats because employees are late showing up (or still booting up their computers when the calls start coming in), that Service Level is impacted.

      Say you have 100 call center employees, each scheduled to be on the phone for 6 hours per day. (That’s an 8 hour shift, less training, breaks, off-phone work, etc.) This means they are collectively capable of being on the phone for 36,000 total minutes phone time supply per day (6 hours * 60 minutes * 100 employees).

      Now, let’s say you have 3500 callers, with an average call time of 10 minutes each. That’s 35,000 minutes of call time utilized per day.

      Yay! We have more supply than demand (36k vs 35k minutes)! This is good!

      But here’s the thing–it doesn’t all happen at the same time. Calls come in bunches–with peaks at the very beginning of the day, at lunch, etc. So it’s CRITICAL that to meet SLA, you have to have every butt in every seat during those peak times. There will be queues and wait times here, because there simply isn’t a way to staff extra people for just the peak times (they would be idle most of the rest of the time).

      The trick is to have just enough hold time during the peak call volume times to still meet SLA, and make up for it the rest of the day.

      If you have 5 of 100 employees who show up 5 minutes late, that’s 25 minutes of lost phone time. Compared to 36000 total minutes it doesn’t seem like a big deal. But when you consider the impact that has on peak call volume it can have a HUGE impact on SLA and whether you get your contract renewed as a call center.

      So yes, one of the very basic requirements of a job at a call center is that you show up on time, with your computer booted, phone logged in, and ready to go. It is one of the jobs where “Butts in Seats” really *really* matters.

      1. Blurgle*

        The thing is, we don’t care.

        Just because one way of doing things suits management best doesn’t mean they can force employees to work with it. It’s the nature of the beast: your environment is horrible because that is how you choose to make it. You cannot expect staff to magically tolerate the intolerable. Keep doing what you’re doing, you have to live with the result: good employees leave.

          1. Jennifer*

            But I enjoyed the emphasis anyway!

            I don’t think call centers care about having good employees: it’s move ’em in, move ’em out.

        1. Bunny*

          I’m seriously annoyed by this sort of way of thinking.

          Being on-time and on-schedule is a Basic. Job. Requirement for call-centres. Do call-centres generally suck as places to work? Yes. Is high turnover a norm? Yes. But this is really one of those things where, if you don’t want to be tied in to meeting a certain schedule requirement, don’t apply for those sort of jobs to begin with.

          I mean, of all the things that are wrong with call-centres, the need for staff to *actually turn up on time* is frankly the least thing to worry about. I certainly never felt that being asked to be at work at the time they scheduled me for was making the job *intolerable*.

          Things that can make call-centres suck:
          1- Unreasonable sales targets
          2- Cold calling
          3- Strictly times breaks (including toilet breaks)
          4- Shitty management *calling your phone* 1 minute before the end of your 10 minute break to *make sure* you go back on right there and then
          5- The need to be *on* socially for long stretches of time
          6- Those days when the phones are so busy you don’t even get time to catch your breath between calls
          7- Those call-centres that give management the ability to override off-call codes used by staff to force them back onto the incoming call queue without warning
          8- The forced jollity and artificial, enforced *go team* crap everyone is expected to participate in
          9- Rude, unpleasant customers

          Now, none of the above are universal across all call-centres. Most of them have at least one of the above, but only the very worst of them have all of the above. Those are the things that make call-centre work intolerable. I just… in all the shitty jobs I’ve worked in retail and call-centres and factory lines, of all the many, many things I had to complain about, it never even occurred to me to list this as one of them. Why do so many people have such a problem with it that they consider it bad enough to be a driving reason behind staff turnover?

          1. Bunny*

            One other thing that makes call-centres shitty places to work.

            When you’re forced to stay on 20 minutes past the scheduled start of your lunch break or scheduled finish time because you were stuck on calls, because your co-workers were late in or late back from their break.

          2. phillist*

            But some of those (like the strictly scheduled breaks*) are *also* a function of “statistics” and just part of the nature of the job, right?

            It doesn’t mean they’re any less terrible, so why is the “to the minute or suffer” thing okay, but those things aren’t?

            *many, many of my friends work for CallCenterCorp in my town. They frequently wait over an hour to take bathroom breaks. If that isn’t the epitome of absurd workplace rules, I don’t know what is.

      2. Indy Rox*

        I remember working at a high volume IT call center for Bohemoth Retailer during global issues that are definitely NOT planned or at “peak” times. Having hundreds or thousands of locations calling in at once with people still booting up or people running late would literally cause tens of thousands in lost revenue each minute.

        Start times in a call center are usually defined as being in “AVAILABLE” status on your phone.

        1. neverjaunty*

          Let me guess how happy y’all are to call in for help and have a half-hour wait time, or to be told you’re caller 15 and they’ll get to you in order?

            1. I'm a Little Teapot*

              +1000 to both Jim and Mike C.

              Same here.

              “STATISTICS” doesn’t excuse treating people like robots rather than human beings with needs who occasionally get sick or have their (cheap old poorly maintained) cars break down. It’s possible to understand *why* management would do something and still consider it vile.

  2. grasshopper*

    As Alison said it all depends in the framing. If you pay low, and your job postings are emphasizing that hours are flexible or it is perfect for people with no experience, that is the expectation people will have. If you pay well and emphasize professional development, that it is a career and not just a pay the bills job, you’ll get better candidates.

    I’m sure that you’ve already read all about the Zappos call centre, but they’ve set the model ideal for call centres (versus what goes in in the TV show Workaholics!).

    1. VictoriaHR*

      I’ve recruited for call centers that did this – paid well, promoted people from within the company, great company culture and reputation in the community, paid volunteer work, etc. – and they still had horrid turnover. In many cases it’s just the nature of the beast. Call centers aren’t typically able to pay a really good wage – most of the better ones in my area pay $12-13/hour to start, and to keep people they’d really need to pay more like $17-18/hour. But they’re not willing to pay that high because they expect low turnover. But people won’t leave a job that pays that well unless it’s really miserable, and so on. It’s a catch-22 in many ways.

      1. Joey*

        Yeah, it’s mind numbingly frustrating work with little to no career path. Paying well only makes it easier to find people. They still leave for the same reasons- most people think the actual work sucks.

        1. Ann O'Nemity*

          This. A million times THIS.

          Years ago I had a call center job that paid unusually well – like 3x minimum wage. The money got me in the door, and made it harder to leave, but ultimately I realized I would literally rather work twice as many hours for half the pay.

        2. Nina*

          Yep. My brief time in a call center paid me very well, plus there were many opportunities for overtime, cash/prize incentives for sales, and great benefits. But the job itself just took a serious toll on me and I couldn’t wait to leave.

      2. azvlr*

        In my company, we noticed higher turnover in one geographic location. They give new call center employees the less desirable shifts. They are crystal clear up front about it, but we discovered that because we have competitors nearby, people jump ship if they are able to get a better shift doing the same job.

    2. Meg Murry*

      Re:Zappos – the policy of letting the CSR reps do whatever they want to make a customer happy is true! I have a friend who called to explain why she wanted to return shoes outside the normal return window (she just plain forgot, she’s been distracted since she’s dealing with all the stuff going on to replace everything lost in a house fire a few months ago) and the Zappos CSR not only let her return outside the window – he sent her family FLOWERS and a nice note about how he’s sorry the family has been through such rough times lately.
      She posted the flowers to Facebook, and is now a Zappos customer for life.

  3. kobayashi*

    “…you won’t see anyone hanging out on Facebook during the day….”
    But we do hang out on Ask a Manager!

    1. Case of the Mondays*

      That comment bugged me. I consider myself as having a high work ethic. To work hard, however, I need breaks between tasks. I surf the internet on those breaks. Doesn’t make me a slacker. Are you saying you want employees that don’t need any mental breaks? Good luck finding those if it is an intellectual job. I could work an assembly line or other physical labor without a break much easier than working 8 hours without a break for mental labor.

      1. AnonAcademic*

        Cosigned. I’ve survived writing my 135 page dissertation by taking timed breaks to surf the web to let my brain rest a little bit. Then back to writing super technical statistical interpretations. I try to spend more time on sites like this one, or twitter (which I use exclusively to connect with people in my field), versus facebook or instagram. But I don’t think that makes me some sort of slouch with low standards!

      2. Dana*

        +1 If I don’t check personal email, a website, facebook on my phone, answer a text, or something else for 3-5 minutes every so often, I won’t be able to see straight by the end of my shift.

      3. Rebecca*

        This is so me! I do a lot of work but take regular breaks to surf the internet. (I only check FB on my phone.) I’m not disrupting anyone around me and my work gets done, plus I usually have time to help out others as well.

      4. TPS Report*

        something else for 3-5 minutes every so often

        At first I misread that at every 3-5 minutes. Which– millennials I guess… But no one is being forced to work eight hours without a break for either mental or physical labor. You’ve got a break for lunch or internet. Focusing on a job for a few hours at a stretch doesn’t require Kasparov levels of concentration. And if you take up smoking you might be able to sneak in even less.

  4. Zahra*

    Yeah, depending on the call center, about 30% to 60% of people leave or are fired within the first 6-12 months. Pay, benefits, working conditions are what will make the turnover rate vary.

    Our major client has lots of internal and external (read: subcontractors) call centers. The internal call centers have about 30% turnover and the external vary between 50 and 70%. These are the same calls, for the same products, with the same clients. Working conditions, pay and benefits are probably what makes the biggest difference in the turnover rate.

  5. Leah*

    I’m curious as to what’s done to make it a “fun” place to work. Mandatory unpaid lunches? A quirky email? Unfortunately, there are plenty of things that higher-ups think are fun, that aren’t. Maybe it’s worth focusing more on how you can make employees feel valued and respected, and less on making the workplace fun (even if the thing ARE actually fun, they’d rather the first).

    1. Valar M.*

      Yes. I worked at call centers where they painted the walls various bright colors. It was like working at a daycare and they thought it was “fun”. Then they’d have these contests all the time to win things like oven mitts. How about no? Other times where it would be mandatory for us all to make a potluck dish. Thank you for giving me homework and forcing me to take this crappy job home with me when I just want to go home and relax.

      1. Manders*

        I also worked at a call center with mandatory potlucks. There were a few people who went the extra mile and made food, but most people brought a bunch of bananas (the cheapest possible fruit, and still more than some of us could afford). There was a giant, sad banana pile at the end of the day.

        That call center actually had fairly decent perks (free coffee and tea, pto if you worked there for a certain amount of time, no constant monitoring of things like bathroom breaks) and its turnover was still sky high; at two months, I’d worked there longer than everyone else in my training group. It really did come down to pay and the nature of the work, no amount of “fun” would make employees more loyal.

        1. Kelly L.*

          I also noticed the line about people recommending their friends apply. My one call center job–mine was telemarketing, but I think some of the culture aspects are similar–did actually get recommended by word of mouth, a lot, in the town I lived in. It wasn’t because anyone actually liked working there. The scoop was basically, “Hey, if you’re desperate, this place will hire you on the spot (because of said turnover) and they will pay you some money while you try to find something better.” No one took it because they wanted it. They took it because pretty much everybody got hired and they needed a stopgap.

          OP, if your call center is similar to others, it may just be like the_scientist said above–the nature of the beast.

          1. Valar M.*

            That and the call center I worked for paid $0.50 more than the fast food places, which at that age was a significant amount of money when you added it up and meant that I just had people yelling at me over the phone rather than to my face. Slightly better.

            1. Kelly L.*

              And you got to sit down. At the time, it seemed like a huge improvement. And the fast-food places in town weren’t even hiring–it was really seasonal there. In retrospect, I’d take the fast food, but that’s mostly because I felt like my call-center bosses were promoting some really underhanded tactics. At least I didn’t feel like I was scamming anybody when I made them a sandwich.

          1. Manders*

            It is pretty funny in retrospect! I can look back now and laugh, but I do feel sorry for the people who felt like their only option was bringing in a big pile of homemade food. That was a significant amount of money out of their pockets, just to make management feel like they had a “fun workplace.”

        2. Valar M.*

          Yes. I remember. That or people would bring in the stale days-old stuff from the discount bakery. The fun police were abound at that job too. If you weren’t smiling all the time, or weren’t covering your cubicle in pictures of Things You’d Rather Be Doing they would start questioning you about what was wrong and why aren’t you having fun?

          The worst part? There was a huge resort that the call center looked over. So every time you looked out the window it was a view of “what life could be like if your job wasn’t so crappy!” To this day I don’t understand who thought building that there with floor to ceiling windows thought they were going to be able to retain employees. No amount of mandated fun was going to change that!

          1. Kelly L.*

            Ack! At least ours didn’t have the beautiful view. It was literally in a dank moldy basement. We all had headaches all the time from the mold. All it needed was “Lascia ogni speranza, voi ch’i entrate” over the door.

        3. Emily*

          I worked at a great call center once as far as internal operations went. The pay was about 50% above minimum wage, they promoted internally, there were good systems for recognition and occasional (optional) reward events for employees, and the supervisors at the time I worked there were all lovely people.

          It was the people on the other end of the phone who were awful. Our call center was a research firm, so we were calling asking people to take phone surveys for our clients. Our biggest contract was a federal agency who collected national health data through our firm. If you were really good at your job, they’d promote you to “refusal conversion” – yes, this meant calling back people who had already said no once and trying to get them to change their minds. With about a 65% conversion rate, I was put on refusal conversion in a month and was one of the top-performing refusal converters on staff…and I still got cursed at and yelled at on the phone so many times that after just 3 months I transferred to data entry/envelope-stuffing/folder-filing position in the mailroom that paid just barely above minimum wage. I liked my employer enough to want to stay working with them, but I couldn’t take the abuse.

      2. Xarcady*

        Oh, the contests. The Major American Retailer where I currently work has lots of contests. The kicker is that the contests are not for the employees just in one store, they are for the entire region or country.

        When the managers are questioning me as to why I’m not all gung-ho trying to sell more credit cards so I can have a chance at the prize, I have to bite my tongue not to blurt out, “You mean, in my measly 15 hours a week, on the worst shifts where I maybe see 6 customers total, I’m supposed to sell more credit cards than all the full-timers here, so I can get entered in a contest with thousands of other people? Do you really think $50 in money I can only spend in this store will motivate me to fight against those odds?”

        1. Malissa*

          I actually got a Playstation and my first DVD player in contests like those. Still didn’t make up for the misogynistic managers and the fact that I would never ever get promoted.

    2. nicolefromqueens*

      This. I’d prefer to have fun on my own time. With the money my employer pays me.

      Work is a four-letter word and inherently contradicts fun.

      OP (and anyone in this position), if you can’t pay well from day 1, how about attendance bonuses?

      1. Windchime*

        Yes, this. I can put up with a lot of crap for a great paycheck. Unfortunately, it seems that the bigger the paycheck, the less crap. So people are stuck in crappy, low-paying jobs until they find something better — hence the high turnover.

        1. Malissa*

          Not really. I’m paid above market but I feel like part of that pay is for a piece of my soul. Crap happens at every pay level.

          1. Dan*

            I donno. I can’t say I’m paid above market, but I’m paid well. Every job has its BS, but my job has a lot more going for it. For instance, I’ve been out of the country on personal time for the last month, haven’t slept well the last couple of days, and decided to work from home today after sleeping in. Nobody is going to give me any crap for that.

  6. _ism_*

    I don’t know why this is, but I’ve worked at three different call centers for three very different organizations – a large university IT help desk, a cold-call marketing firm, and a contracted answering service. They all had high turnover. It’s something about the nature of call centers and the candidates they recruit from, but I don’t know what! And yes, it can be stressful and emotionally draining work, ESPECIALLY cold calls.

  7. Anon,*

    I used to work at a call center where attendance was rediculously strict-more than 3 unexcused absences in a year and you were on write up. If you;re standards are like that, that might be the problem, not your employees. (The policy left me with no choice but to take a vacation day for emergenecy surgery. Logical, right?)

    1. _ism_*

      That’s pretty much everywhere I’ve ever worked for an hourly wage, and is why I’m a (former?) job hopper. The attendance policies were overly strict and there was no effort to make allowances or changes for those depending on public transit, like I was – lost many jobs for being 5 minutes late three times.

      1. SR*

        Yeah, I think this is probably the biggest issue right here – if you’re not paying people much (which is normal for most call centers) they’re way more likely to be using public transit, which can be unpredictable depending on where you live (and if they can afford a car, it’s probably old and possibly unreliable as well). So there can be a pretty strong direct correlation between how much you pay people and how reliably on time they are, totally aside from their level of motivation/dedication.

    2. former call center employee*

      Same. I got written up for being 5 seconds over my break once, and then lectured about what a no good time thief I was. I also got written up for missing one day due to food poisoning. The next time I got sick I just didn’t bother going back.

    3. SystemsLady*

      I think allowing for 3 *unexcused* absences is actually pretty generous, but I probably have a reasonable/non-call center definition of an “unexcused absence” (being 5 minutes late wouldn’t count, for one).

      1. SystemsLady*

        Or almost any instance where you’ve called in and notified your manager of what’s going on, really.

      2. a*

        Yeah, I agree. I don’t know about call centers specifically, but a lot of places are stricter than that about no-call no-shows. But it’s probably more complicated than that when it comes to what “unexcused” means.

        1. I'm a Little Teapot*

          It would be pretty bizarre to fire someone for being 5 minutes late but be fine with three no-call no-shows. I suspect that here “unexcused”=”unscheduled” or “not part of your vacation time.”

  8. Sans*

    I have one quibble about Alison’s answer. She said to ask whether the applicant really threw themselves into their work or if they were a 9-5 person, with no real passion for it. Well, I’m a 9-5 person. I do my best, because I have professional pride, and because work is simply more interesting if you try to do your best rather than churning out the same stuff all the time, like a robot. I wouldn’t call it passion, though. My job’s okay, but if I won the lottery, I’d quit tomorrow. And I’ve always made it a point not to have jobs where massive overtime was the norm. I am happy to do my job as best as possible, and then go home and have a life.

    But I’ve always done very well at my jobs. I get great reviews. People ask specifically for me to handle their projects. And the only days I take off are my PTO days; no unexcused absences. So a question like Alison suggests would eliminate me entirely. Yet I’m a pretty darn good employee, if I do say so myself!

    1. Paloma Pigeon*

      I’ll throw one thing into the ‘passion’ argument as well – when I was interviewing for a nonprofit that worked for a cause I care deeply about, they asked ‘what will you do when your passion becomes an obligation? Will it affect your passion for the cause?’ it was an interesting perspective.

      I think people can be passionate about being excellent, but passion for an overall mission/cause can lead to burnout. In that case a passion for excellence – which can mean being a great employee with a external life and professional boundaries – wins out.

      1. AdAgencyChick*

        That is a fantastic question, and one that reflects an uncommon level of self-awareness on the part of those asking it!

    2. Stranger than fiction*

      I had a similar thought in that often these types of jobs are in fact 8-5 or whatever and frown upon any overtime so maybe adjust that inquiry accordinglu

    3. Michele*

      I agree. Also, certain people see being at work as more important than being productive. I would rather be at work for 8 hours and get a lot done than be at work for 10-12 hours and not get much done, and I want my employees to be the same way. Sometimes you do have to work extra, but if you always have to work extra, something is wrong.

      1. SystemsLady*

        Same here. I’ll work 10-16 hours when something has to be done (or if I have to travel for a day trip), but most of the time I don’t. It’s not in the company culture to work extra hours and, partially due to the mental stress, it usually wouldn’t correlate to linearly higher productivity to do so.

    4. LQ*

      I agree. You don’t need a passion for all work. You might have a passion for having a job that is stable and lets you go home at 5 every day to write the great american novel. That’s a good person to have at a job like this. Not every job has to have passion, and not every person wants to do their passion for work. (And a job like a call center is a great example of you don’t have to be passionate about the work, if you get paid reasonably, you don’t have expectations for OT, get time off. That can be great for someone.)

    5. Nancie*

      I’m glad you pointed this out. I’m a 9-5-er*, but that has nothing to do with my attendance or my motivation to get my work done, and do it well.

      It does mean I’ll side-eye anyone who wants me to work overtime when I’m caught up, just because somebody whose work I can’t do (don’t have the training, or don’t have the system access) isn’t caught up.

      * Technically I’m a 7-4 person. And this is literally the first chance I’ve had all day to check AAM! Phooey to too many meetings and “number 1” priorities.

    6. Jennifer*

      There aren’t a lot of passion jobs available these days. Who has a super passion for customer service (i.e. being abused) or filling out the TPS reports?

  9. Birch*

    Questions about ethics and commitment will only catch the people who are absent because of lack of ethics or commitment. I don’t know much about interviewing, but I do know a lot about absenteeism *cough* and there are many causes besides ethics, such as:

    – Falling sick (if there’s no sick days)
    – Disorganisation (and then guilt)
    – Secondary disorganisation? Difficult lives with frequent disasters that they try to stay on top of, then they miss one day of work and assume all is lost
    – Having such a stupid explanation for missing work that they’d rather forget about it than admit it, not knowing just how bad this makes them look
    – Having a weird brain that takes a long time getting started (making them late every day) but can work really hard when it’s up and running (making them seem like “good workers” who inexplicably choose to be late)

    Aaaand the obvious thing (combined with any of the above or not):
    – Lack of experience/knowledge, like not knowing how to quit a job.
    Not realising that a no-call no-show is more out of the norm than they think. Believing that they’ve already BEEN fired, if they’re really late one day. Being so young, immature or demoralised that they’re procrastinating on quitting the normal way. Assuming that it’s not allowed to give less than two weeks notice, so if they need to quit immediately this is the only way.

    To catch these things, I think you need to ask about their past behaviour AND (when you hire people) explicitly tell them how to quit the job and what to do if you’re sick or really, really late. Also tell them outright that you really prefer two weeks’ notice, but you’d rather they give you three days or one day of notice than not showing up at all. Reward people who put in two weeks’ notice maybe? Yeah, ideally this shouldn’t be necessary, but it could be worth trying.

    1. Birch*

      Also, if people can be fired for being five minutes late, that’s so harsh it’s unreasonable to expect them to uphold their end of the social contract – the employer isn’t upholding theirs! If the employees can lose their livelihood in five minutes, it’s actually pretty fair that the employer can lose a worker in five minutes too.

      1. louise*

        If the employees can lose their livelihood in five minutes, it’s actually pretty fair that the employer can lose a worker in five minutes too.

        I think that might be the key right there. When it is that easy to get fired, it feels like your entire motivation to perform/attend/arrive on time is all “don’t get fired.” If it doesn’t take much to get fired, then it doesn’t take much to decide you don’t care if you get fired.

        1. I'm a Little Teapot*

          An excellent point. If you’re going to be fired for being less than perfect, you’ll be a lot less motivated to try at all, because if you have any sense you know you’re not perfect.

  10. Stranger than fiction*

    All these takes are interesting. From what I know, call center reps usually use that job experience for a stepping stone into more of the non-call center type customer service job or even account manager type role. Maybe at Op’s company there not growth opportunities? Sometime there’s not its just depends on the business

  11. Hooptie*

    If you haven’t done so already, why not survey your employees to see how they feel about it? How do they rate their own attendance? What drives them to come to work and be at work on time? What policies drive them crazy or seem unfair? What would they like for incentives, whether they be for attendance or not?

    Getting their input and using it without making them feel like they’ll get in trouble for being honest is engaging – even better, let people volunteer (or vote for representatives) for a task force to improve attendance. Let the team own it.

    If you’re really looking for a long term solution, it doesn’t start with hiring the ‘right’ entry level workers. If you offer the right incentives, work environment, and a decent wage you’ll end up with the people that you really want and who want to be there. Not to mention the power of word of mouth.

  12. Stranger than fiction*

    Also, I too am surprised companies are that strict with lateness that’s 5 minutes or less. I get punctuality but a couple minutes here and there should not be scrutinized like this when otherwise the performance is good. This happens when the company is so big you are just a number in their system. Yuck

    1. former call center employee*

      One time I got written up for taking a break that was a full five seconds too long and then my boss lectured me about what a no good time thief I was. And then I got written up for one sick day. The next time I got sick, I just didn’t bother showing up.

  13. Mike C.*

    It’s really simple – when you treat your employees like garbage, you get garbage employees. Company culture is a very real thing, and when you run a place that micromanages everything, has stupid rules and pays very little, this is what happens. It’s not rocket science and for all the data collection that these places are known for it’s a little odd that they haven’t noticed this trend.

    1. Gvt Call Center*

      I work for a place that pays very well for a call center, doesn’t expect a lot of education (you aren’t required to have a degree to be hired), only promotes from within, and doesn’t fire for much. Basically the only thing you get fired for is not showing up on time. And people STILL don’t show up on time.

      The entire job is basically show up on time. Ideally don’t swear at the citizens. We help people so we don’t get a lot of people calling up angry (though you remember every single one of course). Why is it too much to ask that people do the most basic part of their job? Show up on time.

  14. Kai*

    Knowing the culture the candidate is coming from will help a lot here, I think. We hired someone last year who had only worked retail and part-time customer service jobs before, and this was her first 40-hours, corporate environment job. It took a while for her to recognize that calling off last minute because you just don’t feel like coming in doesn’t really work here (not saying it’s okay when you work at Old Navy or wherever, but it’s a lot more common in those environments).

    1. the_scientist*

      So, I’m going to pick on you a little bit here and I apologize in advance…..but do you really think people routinely call off from low-wage jobs because “they don’t feel like working that day”? I mean, I’m sure that happens occasionally but it absolutely happens in office environments too, it’s just cloaked as a mental health day./sick day. People working low-wage jobs aren’t lazy or unmotivated or poor workers. The precariousness of being a member of the working poor means that are a million things that can go wrong in your life at any time and you can’t prevent them because you don’t have the time or the funds for preventive care or maintenance, or the ability to throw money at a problem to make it go away. You also don’t usually have the ability to take time off “just because” (i.e., the mental health day or vacation) if you feel like eating or paying your rent. If you’re hiring people fresh out of that environment, they are going to be dealing with the aftermath of poverty for a long time- I would bet money it’s not about “not feeling like working” but about other, bigger issues.

      1. Just Another Techie*

        I remember my first real office job in my field after ages of cobbling together shift work in retail and food service. I took so much “sick” leave my first month for things like getting cavities filled, getting eye exams and new glasses, my first gyno checkup in years, etc. And I wouldn’t even describe that phase of my life as being poor, but rather temporarily broke after a more or less stable and secure childhood and college experience.

      2. Chriama*

        I think there are a couple kinds of people:

        1) people with good security nets and little work experience working low-wage jobs to earn extra money/avoid student loans/pay off debt. They may call out because they want to do something more fun, and work isn’t a necessity or priority

        2) people with bad security nets, whose lives are basically a series of emergencies. When they call out at the last minute it’s because their kid is sick and can’t go to school and there’s no daycare available or affordable, or they can’t afford gas until their next paycheque, or they need to visit a social services provider — most of which have limited office hours, which is kind of unfortunate considering a lot of the people they serve often don’t have much flexibility in their daily lives.

        1. the_scientist*

          people with bad security nets, whose lives are basically a series of emergencies.

          This is so succinct, and so brilliant.

      3. Kai*

        Oh, I agree with you. I don’t mean to say that people in those jobs are lazy or anything like that, and apologies if that’s how it read! But there is a different kind of expectation in that call-offs just happen more frequently. Also, there are a lot of students in retail positions–I dunno, when I was in college, sometimes my friends would call off work here and there not because of an emergency or anything, but they needed extra study time or they wanted to relax (and had the resources where they could afford that). That’s more where I was coming from.

        1. Dana*

          Two very different types of people on the same side of the fence, so to speak. I worked in retail as a teenager who definitely called off because I didn’t want to go in (but we had to give reasons so it was often a “headache”) or had too much homework. But they would then call up people to cover my shift and it was usually one of the single moms working 50+ hours a week there or the 20-somethings trying to pay off student loans until they could find something better that would happily work it.

  15. Jeanne*

    I think it’s more the nature of the job. Call center jobs are usually entry level and don’t pay well. You will get a lot of turnover. Do they have to sit and listen to abusive people in their calls? Do they feel supported or abandoned by management?

    I don’t know if you can do anything in the hiring process. They mean to be good employees until they decide they don’t want the job. You would be better off assuming high turnover and planning for it.

  16. Chriama*

    The thing is, most call centres are low skill, dead-end work. I see 2 things happening here

    1) you’re hiring people who need any job, but this job doesn’t provide for them in the long term (wages are pretty much capped, no career growth or skills that transfer to other careers), so they leave as soon as they can. Since they weren’t invested in the job long-term, they don’t care about the reputation they get for leaving.

    2) you’re hiring people from a certain socioeconomic background which contributes to the following:
    a) they don’t know professional work norms (how to take a sick day, how to make a reasonable request to a manager when the alternative is just quitting the job outright)
    b) the work policies are so draconian and their lives are peppered with mini-emergencies (crappy car breaks down, kid is sick and can’t go to school) that without a sufficient safety net (family or savings), they can’t survive such an inflexible environment.

  17. Tiffany*

    I’ve worked in call centers for a lot of years and every single one of them, for every single client, has had a high turnover. It’s the nature of a call center. Even the campaigns I loved and that were generally well-liked by everyone had the same problem. Call centers tend to hire less-skilled workers that don’t have any professional experience and aren’t familiar with work place norms. They take the job, thinking they’ll be okay with the culture and requirements and all that, and then they aren’t and they end up getting themselves fired.

  18. Nobody*

    I don’t really buy the explanation that the attendance problems are caused by overly strict attendance policies and job dissatisfaction. I assume that SOME call center employees have satisfactory attendance, and it’s probably not because they love the job or because they’re not subject to the same penalties as everyone else. The OP, then, wants to know how to figure out which candidates are going to be this kind of employee and weed out the ones who aren’t. The fact that the job sucks and doesn’t pay very well isn’t a good excuse. Presumably, anyone who takes a job in a call center needs the job, and it should be pretty clear from the strict attendance policies that if they want to keep the job, they need to show up on time.

    I would think that checking references would be the best solution. I know references can be reluctant to say anything negative, but what if they were just asked, point-blank, “How many unexcused absences has the candidate had in the past year?”

    1. Kelly L.*

      if they want to keep the job, they need to show up on time.

      That right there is the issue. Many, many people do not actually care about keeping a call center job. It’s not even a matter of calling their references. I’ll stick my own neck out as an example. If my hellhole had called my references, they would have heard nothing but the most glowing account of my attendance. And they would have heard I gave appropriate notice when I quit.

      I took the hellhole job with the assumption I wouldn’t be there forever–I needed something for about a month and a half while I was seasonally underemployed, and nothing else in town was hiring. I think I remember an absence or two. Mostly I showed up, fine. I intended to give notice when I quit, and I did give notice, but in the end I didn’t finish out my notice period; I just stopped coming. Because it was a hellhole. It was a hellhole with kindergarten-level bathroom monitoring, toxic mold, scammy bosses, terrible pay, and irate people all day long–and unlike when I worked in food, I couldn’t write them off as assholes. They were probably right to be mad at me. I was pestering them! I hated it. So I just stopped coming in. One friend asked me about my resume, and I said “screw them, I won’t put this place on my resume,” and I never have. I did list it once for a government background check and that’s about it.

      1. Nobody*

        On some level, though, you wanted to keep the job (at least until you got another one). If you didn’t care at all about keeping the job, why take the job in the first place? You needed the income for that month and a half, so you cared about keeping the job for that time period. Not everyone can feasibly leave the job off their resume, because it might leave a long, hard-to-explain employment gap.

        I sympathize with having a job that sucks, and I don’t blame anyone for quitting a crappy job, with or without another one lined up. But until you actually quit, I would think you’d want to avoid getting fired.

    2. heismanpat*

      Yea, you pretty much don’t understand the problem then. Whether or not it’s “excusable” for call center employees to behave this way isn’t the issue…it’s the reality of that type of work environment. Discipline or poke fun at their terrible work ethic all you want, but it’s not going to change the reality of the type of person who typically works in a call center. You’re just throwing away one crop of workers for another, and they will likely bring the same problems to the table

      Fortunately, I have never worked in one, but I did work for a major internet retailer where the call center was located in the same building as the corporate office (although that’s no longer the case). They treated those people like they were in pre-school, along with all of the lame “fun” activities like mandatory potlucks, decorating your cube with toys and painting the walls “crazy fun colors.” I wouldn’t have lasted 10 minutes in that type of job. Anybody with any worthwhile skillset isn’t going to stick around because they will find something better. There are a few “lifers” that are probably maximizing their career potential, but that is the exception rather than the norm. The rest will either burn out or move on to bigger and better things. Also, it’s extremely unlikely that employers have the luxury of being picky about who they hire. I’ve never heard of anyone being turned down for a call center job at my former employer.

  19. Ambee*

    I used to manage a retail grocery store and hired and managed the cashiers. In interviews I would say right out, “Part of this job is showing up for all your shifts on time. Of course we understand emergencies and illness happen, but barring that, the job requires being prompt and present for all your shifts..”

    Then I’d just stop. An astonishing number of people would say, “Oh I try not to call in but…you know, sometimes you’re just not in to going to work.” Or, “I’ll try but I’m always SO late, haha.” Or, “I don’t know if can manage EVERY shift.”

    It was a really useful line of discussion for flagging absenteeism issues, and it made our position clear. An employee didn’t come into work thinking we wouldn’t mind their being late.

    1. afiendishthingy*

      I like that approach. I’m kind of astonished that people just fess up; must be that power of silence thing!

      1. Dana*

        Just like sometimes the only comment is “SCIENCE!” I’m beginning to think “SILENCE!” is even more powerful.

    2. LQ*

      This is a very interesting approach to pulling it out of people. The silence I’m sure helps a lot.

    3. ZenCat*

      I think this is the best approach as well. Just be real. I wouldn’t accept a job with insanely specific times to arrive – I don’t work well with that and prefer to work exempt (I work OT all the time) but having an “ish” time give or take 15 minutes unless I have a meeting helps me be less crazy. I have a disability (that falls within ADA) as well that can cause (low to moderate) complications in times. I make sure it’s not a requirement of my job because I don’t like asking for accommodations and I’ll usually ask upfront about how time works. If I look lazy then I look lazy. I hate being late – I’m often early for anything I can be but sometimes it doesn’t work out and I could never deal with 3 mins and you’re out.

  20. afiendishthingy*

    Maybe it’s the same advice – I can see how especially good reference checking would be important here – but what about people who seem to have more than the average number of emergencies? I supervise part-time temporary employees, and I play some part in hiring and firing but it’s limited – the hiring system at my organization is pretty flawed IMO, and I am pretty sure if anyone even checks references at all it’s a formality. I’ve had a couple employees who are great when they’re present but are often out for their own or their children’s health issues. They always seem like legitimate reasons – of course if your preschooler is at the emergency room having an asthma attack I don’t expect you to come to work – but some employees just seem to have more legitimate emergencies than others. The positions are working with clients one on one in clients’ homes, and we don’t have substitutes so every absence means a client isn’t receiving services. I know we can’t discriminate on whether an applicant has children, and we don’t know if someone has a protected disability, so how would you guard against this problem?

    1. I'm a Little Teapot*

      Perhaps you think about it from the perspective of the person with the chronic illness (or the chronically ill child). People with disabilities (or who have children with disabilities) generally need to work; SSI/SSDI is hard to get, takes years, and pays so little that people who depend on it as their sole source of income are very often homeless unless they are lucky enough to have been able to find subsidized housing or live with family (SSDI tops out at $700 a month!). If you don’t think people with disabilities should work or you don’t want to hire them, you should work to increase government disability benefits and make them quicker and easier to get.

  21. Nom d'pixels*

    I don’t work in a call center (thank goodness!) but a couple years ago I hired someone who has had so many absences that she isn’t really a full time employee, and I am wondering how to avoid this in the future. The employee has chronic health problems that result in her being out of work for sometimes months at a time. She will come back for anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple months, then her health problems kick in, and eventually she goes back on disability. After more than two years, she has worked less than one year, so the department is basically short an employee with no way to fill in the position. I don’t think she is faking her health problems, but they make her extremely unreliable, and because of the nature of our work, working from home or working part time just doesn’t, well, work.

    Her references said that she was good, but she was in grad school where she set her own hours and deadlines. We do hire a lot of fresh Ph.D.s, so this is a common situation (setting their own hours, not chronic illness). How do I avoid a situation like this in the future? I can’t think of any way to ask about someone’s health that would be acceptable.

    1. Anon for this one*

      Interesting question. In the U.S., or at least in my profession, we are supposed to work around these sorts of long term illnesses, but the truth is that if you need a full time employee, this doesn’t work, and you end up having to hire an extra person to make up for the one who is chronically ill. I can think of a specific example right now of someone in my company who doesn’t have a terminal illness, but he does have a moderate chronic illness and is out about half the time. Obviously, it would be terrible to fire him over something he can’t control, and it would have been terrible to not hire him for this reason as well, but what do you do if the company can’t afford to double staff positions? I guess you just do it anyway and chalk it up to the cost of doing business? (I suppose my question is a little different than Nom’s, but it’s along the same lines, and I’d like to hear others’ thoughts.)

    2. Jennifer*

      I don’t know, but we had someone like this and we just ended up having to wait until she quit for health reasons. She never, ever made it in on a Monday (or if we were off on Monday, on a Tuesday) and after she’d take off for vacation she’d have to take a ton of time off for being sick after her vacation.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      FMLA and the ADA don’t require you to hold people’s jobs indefinitely. You can absolutely let people go if they’re not meeting the essential functions of the position, which may include reliable presence at work.

      1. Nom d'pixels*

        Interesting. We haven’t been able to get HR to commit to something like that. I would feel bad having to fire her, but after more than two years, she hasn’t followed a single project through to completion becasue of the health issues.

  22. Sunflower*

    I’d explain the late policy in the interview.

    ‘We have a strict lateness policy here. First time, it’s X. Second, this and third is a termination. This job might not be a fit for someone who has trouble being at work at an exact time. How do you think you would in this sort of environment’

    Ask them about past work experience- ‘Have you ever worked in a role that required you to be at work at an exact time?’

    As Allison mentioned, there’s no process that screens attendance problems out totally. I think having good benefits that puts you above other call centers helps too. Everyone knows call center jobs are pretty easy to get so some people may not have any issue jumping from one to another. If you can offer an incentive for them to really want to keep their job, that can help.

  23. Cruciatus*

    Ask them if they’d rather get into a fight or steal something. This will get to the bottom of the matter.

  24. Parfait*

    My company has a tech support call center that people don’t quit from very often. We have lots of people who have worked there 15+years. Here is why I think that is:

    1. Starting pay is about double the minimum wage.
    2. Excellent benefits
    3. Management that will back them up. We have fired horrible customers based on how they treat the support desk.
    4. No scripts. The job is to solve the problem; we don’t force them to go through a long list of possibly unrelated questions first.
    5. It’s actually not a dead end job if you don’t want it to be. Many many people in my company, including myself, started on the phones and moved up.

    Sure we also bring in the occasional free lunch/donuts/whatever, but that is not why people stay.

    1. Parfait*

      Oh and no BS “point” system. If you’re late, it’s a problem, because your coworkers are overworked until you get there. If there’s a consistent issue that results in you being always late, we’d rather work around it. We had one staffer who couldn’t get there until 15 minutes after start time for childcare reasons. She took 45 minutes instead of an hour for lunch and it was fine. She’s still there, her kid is almost grown now, and she arrives on time.

      1. Cherry Scary*

        My BF works in a call center like this. He knows he can eventually move elsewhere in the company, and the customers sometimes are on the harsh side, but the rest of his team is a great support system. If he wants a day off, but his boss can’t give it to him (because they already are short-staffed) he gave him a freebie half-day that he’s now using so he can move.

  25. David*

    When I’ve had problems in the past with people arriving late, I’ve always told them that the easiest thing they were going to do all day at work was show up. Once they realized how silly it was to let that be the first thing they weren’t succeeding at, tardiness was rarely ever an issue.

    1. The Toxic Avenger*

      This, X 1000. The reality is that there are some jobs where prompt attendance is an expectation. Three minutes, ten minutes, an hour…it’s all the same. When I managed a team of data entry clerks, I had to fire people because they could We had a three-occurrence policy. I would tell them, “I don’t want to do this, but if you keep doing this, I will have to. Don’t make me fire you because you can’t be bothered to show up at your scheduled time. That’s an easy one.”

      1. phillist*

        I find it hard to believe that there are industries where there is zero difference between showing up three minutes versus an hour late.

        I have managed in places where timeliness was paramount (if people don’t get x from us at this time, they can’t get important y) and I would much rather have an employee be 3 minutes late every day than an hour late once a week; I can maneuver/cover for a few minutes, but not an entire hour.

    2. Zillah*

      So I totally get that if the job requires you to show up on time, that’s what it requires, and it needs to happen… but I do just want to say that this?

      When I’ve had problems in the past with people arriving late, I’ve always told them that the easiest thing they were going to do all day at work was show up.

      For me, the hardest thing about my day pretty consistently is showing up on time. It’s not that my jobs are easy – it’s that I just have an absurdly difficult time showing up on time.

      1. Zillah*

        That’s not to say that that’s okay in every job. It isn’t. But it isn’t the easiest thing for everyone, either.

  26. Sandrine (France)*

    You know what ? This is pissing me off, not because of the OP, not because of Alison, but because I was fired *for this very reason* but let me tell you my story, since it does fit.

    I got a call center job and learnt all the ropes. I got praise. Everything was nice. Except I was slower than others. I treated customers “too well” (too nice, hence the longer calls, etc) . Pressure started to pile on. Issues arose and management didn’t give a rat’s ass as to what was happening to us, every issue the company had we took all the heat for since we were on the phones.

    So I started to get sick. A lot. Physically and mentally, little by little my body started to crumble. At first, I simply took medical leave (in almost three years there was ONE day for which I couldn’t give a doctor’s note, and even then it was because the dr’s office was closed and it wasn’t announced) . So I decided to be semi-candid about my issues and started telling my immediate supervisor. I had about 4 in total, and each was aware of my issues.

    Since I still did good work (was often 30 minutes early, documented myself about company tech, and other things) , it was soon clear that I should “advance” in the company (aka get off the darn phones) and every person I could talk to about it would tell me that it was clear that I’d be better off since I’m so much of this, and so much of that… So I applied… at least 5 times for an internal transfer. Nothing ever changed.

    Everything was getting worse progressively. I knew I couldn’t quit. Rent, bills… This time I couldn’t do that. The job was destroying me but I just *had* to go on.

    In July I was on med leave for at least ten days for “depression” . By then I’d had a full blown panic attack at work, and got panic attacks when I’d reach the work building. I got sent a letter that they wanted to fire me for “poor performance” and they wanted me to come in on the last day of my med leave, which is illegal in France. I sent an e-mail to ask about it, it was received, never got a reply, and got sent another letter notifying me of my firing since I had decided not to show up (which is NOT what happened as I just couldn’t show up legally on the day they had requested, but that’s another story) .

    The panic attacks stayed for a while after I was fired. I couldn’t quite meet up with former work friends right there. Even passing by the nearest train station would be triggering.

    Right now, though, I feel more free than ever. I’m kinda broke, since I live on unemployment benefits (I’ve been looking for a job since September 2014) … and here are the things I have taken out of the experience :

    – Don’t ask yourself how you scan screen for attendance problems. Prepare good working conditions and deal accordingly.
    – Be consistent in how you deal with people.
    – Do not treat people like children.
    – Respect the employees. Don’t let the customers win.

    There would be others, but my cheeks are starting to burn from talking about this, and I’m afraid I could be even more incoherent.

    TL;DR : if I get screened for attendance every time I get a new job interview, I’m screwed, guys. But I can’t quite explain fully, can I ?

  27. Suzanne*

    Too many companies have ridiculous attendance policies.
    One place I worked had a no time off for any reason the first 90 days ( unless it was a pre-scheduled doc or similar appt-and you had to bring back a note showing that you’d actually been there. Like Middle School). I guess if you had explosive diarrhea or round the clock vomiting, you would have had to bring in a sample to prove it. Clock in more than two minutes late & you were dinged, after 3 dings you were in trouble, even though we each had our own work to do and did not deal with outside customers. I had a 45 min commute so I’d leave in plenty of time in case of a traffic jam, etc. but I couldn’t clock in early if I was there more than 5 min early. Oh no. That wasn’t allowed either. So I wasted a lot of my own time sitting around waiting to clock in just so I could be sure I wasn’t late.
    I understand the need for promptness, but people do get sick, have flat tires, get stuck in traffic, have kids that fall down and get skinned knees as they are heading to the car. Two or three 2 minute late incidents before getting fired is ridiculous, but that’s how many places are. And with rules like that,many are going to have quite a few surly workers who won’t much care about the job, unless they are boing paid very, very well, which is rare.

  28. Chriama*

    The thing is, many call centres have fundamental issues that make them not-nice places to work, but the bottom line is that companies that run phone support for other companies (rather than companies that have in-house support) are trying to run as low-cost as possible because they’re competing with overseas tech support providers. This leads to issues like:
    – they can’t overstaff, schedule overlapping shifts = super strict attendance policies
    – they don’t pay well
    – they don’t always offer benefits
    – there’s no career advancement
    – inadequete training/lack of institutional knowledge = employees who aren’t always the most helpful
    – irritated customers (ok, this one isn’t the company’s fault)

    Bottom line: a call centre is usually not a place where people want to work long-term. And since they have such a bad reputation, the only people who work there are those who can’t get any better work. There are lots of posiitions that don’t offer advancement but still manage to get employees. People close to retirement (or retired), stay at home parents, or are all part of the workforce. It might mean you’re replacing them every 3-5 years, but that’s much better than replacing them every 3-5 months. So this type of job really has those issues in-built, and it creates a vicious perpetuating cycle.

    1. nonegiven*

      “– irritated customers (ok, this one isn’t the company’s fault)”

      Yes, it is the company’s fault, because:

      “– inadequete training/lack of institutional knowledge = employees who aren’t always the most helpful”

  29. Lyla*

    It’s probably nothing you’re doing wrong and the fact that it is a call center. They’re a stop gap job and while it is probably frustrating for you, it’s the nature of the industry.

  30. Paulina*

    Traffic happens. Transit delays and closures happen. I can’t (won’t) leave an extra hour early every day just in case my train is delayed – just to show up and be an hour early 9 days out of 10… especially when I can’t start early or leave early to make up that time.

  31. Charlotte*

    Alison or others, I was hoping you would share other interview questions and motivations for asking them? I love the scripts and what to look for.

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