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Inside the New York Telephone Company

The women enact the sales ritual as if it were in fact in their own interest and originated with them. Every month there is a sales contest. Management provides the money—$25.00 a month to one or another five-girl unit—but the women do the work: organizing skits, buying presents, or providing coffee and donuts to reward the high sellers. At Thanksgiving the company raffled away turkeys: the number of chances one had depended on the number of sales one had completed.

As the weeks passed our training grew more and more rigid. For each new subject we followed an identical Army-like ritual beginning with “Understanding the Objectives” and ending with “Learning the Negotiation.” The Objectives of the “Lesson on Termination of Service,” for instance, were:

  1. To recognize situations where it is appropriate to encourage users to retain service.

  2. To be able to apply Save effort successfully.

  3. To negotiate orders for Termination.

  4. To offer “Easy Move.”

  5. To write Termination orders.

Or, for example, Cords. It is hard to believe such a subject could be complicated but in fact it is: cords come in different sizes, standard and special, and have different costs, different colors, and different installation intervals. There is also the weighty matter of the distinction between the handset cord (connecting the receiver to the base) and the mounting cord (connecting the base to the wall or floor). The ritual we were taught to follow when on the telephone with a customer goes like this, and set up on our drawing board it looked like this as well:


  1. Business or residence.

  2. New or existing service.

  3. Reason for request

a. handset or mounting cord

b. approximate length

  1. Type of set or location.

  2. Other instruments in the household and where located.

  3. Customer’s phone number.

Then you get:

Off the line where you

  1. Get Customers records.

  2. Think and Plan What to Do.

  3. Check reference materials.

  4. Check with supervisor if necessary.

Then you return to the line with a:


  1. Set stage for recommendation.

  2. Suggest alternative where appropriate or

  3. Accept order for cord.

  4. Suggest appropriate length.

a. Verify handset or mounting

  1. Present recommendation for suitable equipment that “goes with” request including monthly rental (for instance an extension bell).

  2. Determine type of instrument and color.

  3. Quote total non-recurring charges.

  4. Arrange appointment date, Access to the Apartment, and Whom to See.

On the floor, substantial departure from this ritual is an Error (more later). This pattern of learning became so intolerable that, one day, while waiting for Sally to return from lunch, the class invented a lesson of its own. We called it Erroneous Disconnections. The Objectives were:

  1. To identify situations in which it is appropriate to disconnect Customer.

  2. To apply the necessary techniques so that disconnects can be accomplished with minimum irritation to the Representative.

  3. To accomplish these ends without being observed.

We then identified a variety of situations in which our natural response would be to disconnect. I was surprised by how deeply Billy and Betty were caught up in our parody, and I thought it represented an ability to dissociate from the company which most of the time was very little in evidence; it seemed to me somehow healthy and promising.

As the weeks wore on our classes became in some ways more bizarre. On several afternoons we were simultaneously possessed by the feeling that we simply couldn’t bear it and—subtly at first but with increasing aggression as time passed—we would simply stop work: refuse to learn any more. At these times all kinds of random discussions would take place. On one occasion we spent an entire afternoon discussing the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and calling up information services of newspapers to find out what they were; on another afternoon Sally explained at great length her views on magic.

At first I believed that these little work stoppages were spontaneous but later, as we completed our class work close to schedule, I came to believe that this was not so: that they were a part of our program and were meant to serve as an opportunity for the instructor to discover any random things about our views and attitudes the company might find it useful to know. In any event, partly because of these chats and partly because of the intensity of our training experience, by the end of the class we were a fairly solid little unit. We celebrated our graduation with perfume for Sally, a slightly alcoholic and costly lunch, and great good feeling all around.


Observers at the phone company. They are everywhere. I became aware of a new layer of Observation every day. The system works like this. For every five or six women there is, as I have said, a Supervisor who can at any moment listen in from the phone set on her desk to any of her Representatives’ contacts with a customer. For an hour every day, the Supervisor goes to a private room off the main floor where she can listen (herself unobserved) to the conversations of any of her “girls” she chooses. The women know, naturally, when she is doing this but not whose contact she is observing.

Further off the main floor is a still more secret Observing Room staffed by women whose title and function is, specifically, Observer. These women “jack in” at random to any contact between any Representative and a customer: their job is basically to make sure that the Representatives are giving out correct information. Furthermore, these observers are themselves observed from a central telephone company location elsewhere in the city to make sure that they are not reporting as incorrect information which is actually correct. In addition the Observers make “access calls” by which they check to see that the telephone lines are open for the customers to make their connections. This entire structure of observation is, of course, apart from the formal representative-supervisor-manager-district supervisor-division-head chain of managerial command. They are, in effect, parallel hierarchical structures.

One result of the constant observation (the technology being unbounded) is that one can never be certain where the observation stops. It is company policy to stress its finite character, but no one ever knows for sure. Officials of the Communications Workers of America have testified, for instance, that the company over-indulged in the wired-Martini stage of technology, bugging the pen sets of many of its top personnel. At—Street there were TV cameras in the lobby and on the elevators. This system coexists with the most righteous official attitude toward wiretapping. Only supervisors and managers can deal with wiretap complaints; Federal regulations about the sanctity of communications are posted; and the overt position toward taps, in the lower managerial echelons, is that they are simply illegal and, if they exist, must be the result of private entrepreneurship (businesses bugging one another) rather than Government policy.

If someone complains about a tap,” Sally said, “I just ask them: Why would anyone be tapping your phone?” Consciousness of the Government’s “internal security” net is simply blacked out. Nonetheless, the constant awareness of the company’s ability to observe creates unease: Are the lounge phones wired into the Observing structure? Does the company tap the phones of new or suspicious personnel? Is union activity monitored? No one can say with confidence.

Sally had two voices, one human, one machine, and in her machine voice on the very first day she explained the justification for Observation. “The thing about the phone company,” she said, “is that it has No Product except the Service it Gives. If this were General Motors we would know how to see if we were doing a good job: we could take the car apart and inspect the parts and see that they were all right and that it was well put together. But at the phone company we can’t do that. All we can do is check ourselves to see that we are doing a good job.”

She took the same attitude toward “access calls,” explaining that a completed access call is desirable because it indicates to the manager and everyone up the line that the wires are open and the system is working as it should. The position toward Observers she attempted to inculcate was one of gratitude: Observers are good for you. They help you measure your job and see if you are doing well.

The system of Observers is linked with the telephone company’s ultimate weapon, the Service Index by which Errors are charted and separate units of the company rated against each other. Throughout training—in class and in our days on the floor—hints of the monumental importance of the Index in the psychic life of the employees continually emerged. “Do you know how many Errors you’re allowed?” Sally would ask us. “No Errors”—proud that the standard was so high. Or: “I can’t afford an Error”—from my supervisor, Laura, on the floor, explaining why she was keeping me roped in on my first days on the job. But the system was not revealed in all its parts until the very end of training when as a pièce de résistance the manager, Y, came in to give a little talk billed as a discussion of “Service” but in fact an attempt to persuade the class of the logic of observation.

Y was a brooding, reserved man in his mid-twenties, a kind of Ivy League leftover who looked as if he’d accidentally got caught in the wrong decade. His talk was very much like Sally’s. “We need some way to measure Service. If a customer doesn’t like Thom McCann shoes he can go out and buy Buster Brown. Thom McCann will know something is wrong. But the phone company is a monopoly, people can’t escape it, they have no other choice. How can we tell if our product, Service, is good?” He said that observation was begun in 1924 and that, although the Company had tried other methods of measuring service, none had proved equally satisfactory. Specifically, he said, other methods failed to provide an accurate measure of the work performance of one unit as opposed to another.

Y’s was a particularly subtle little speech. He used the Socratic method, always asking us to give the answers or formulate the rationales, always asking is it right? Is it fair? (I’m certain that if we did not agree it was right and fair, he wanted to know.) He stressed the limited character of observation. His units (twenty “girls”), he said, took about 10,000 calls per month; of these only about 100 were observed, or about five observations per woman per month. He emphasized that these checks were random and anonymous. He explained that the Index has four components which govern what the observers look for:

Contact Performance Defects (CPD)

Customer Waiting Interval (CWI)

Contacts Not Closed (CNC)

Business Office Accessibility (BOA)

The CPD is worth 70 percent of the Index, the other factors 10 percent each. The elements of CPD are, for example, incomplete or incorrect information, making inadequate arrangements, or mistreating a customer; the elements of BOA are the amount of time it takes a customer to reach the central switchboard, and the promptness of the Representative in answering the phone after the connection has been made. Points are assigned on a scientific basis, based on the number of errors caught by the observers. Charts are issued monthly, rating identical units of the company against each other. Y’s unit (mine) was the top unit in Manhattan, having run for the preceeding three months or so at about 97 or 98 percent. While I was there there was a little celebration, attended by high company officials, in which Y was awarded a plaque and the women on the floor given free “coffee and danish.”

Now, a number of things about this system are obvious. First, demeaning and demanding as it is, it clearly provides management with information it believes it has a desperate need to know. For instance, there was a unit on the East Side of Manhattan running at about an 85 percent level. The mathematics of it are complicated but it basically means that about 12,000 people every month were getting screwed by the department in one form or another: they asked for a green phone and the Representative ordered a black one; they arranged to be home on the 24th and the woman told the installer to come on the 25th; they were told their service would cost $10.00 and it actually cost $25.00, and so forth. Management has to know which of its aspirants scrambling up the ladder to reward and which to punish.

On the other hand, their official justifications for observation are a lie for two reasons. First, the Index does not measure actual service: our unit could run at 98 percent while half the phones in our area were out of service because the Index does not deal with the service departments of the company which are, in fact, where its troubles are. The angriest customer in Manhattan would not show up as an error on the Index if he were treated politely and his call transferred: the Commercial Index is a chimera capable of measuring only its internal functioning, and that functioning, being simply bureaucratic, is cut off from the real world of telephone service and servicing. Secondly, it is a lie because it does not spring from the root that management claims—that is, the absence of a tangible physical product (observation is in fact commonplace in industry where the nonexistence of a product is not an issue) but from another root: the need to control behavior. That is, if the system is technically linked to measurement of service it is functionally linked to control.

Furthermore, it works: it absolutely controls behavior. On December 24, the one day of the year when there is no observation (and no contribution to the Index) the concept of service utterly disappeared. The women mistreated the customers and told them whatever came into their minds. Wall lights whose flickering on a normal day indicates that customers are receiving busy signals were flashing wildly; no one cared about the BOA.

But on a normal day, the Index is King. It is a rule, for instance, that if one Representative takes over a call for another, the first must introduce the second to the customer, saying “Sir, I’m going to put Miss Laramie on the line. She’ll be able to help you.” “Don’t forget to introduce me,” said Miss L. anxiously to me one day. “An observer might be listening.” Or: we were repeatedly told never to check the box labeled “Missed on Regular Delivery” on the form authorizing delivery of directories. “It will look as if Commercial made an Error,” Sally told us, “when the Error is really Directory’s.” This awareness of observers and Errors is constant not because of fear of individual reprisal—there is none—but because of block loyalty: first to the immediate unit of five women, then to the twenty-women unit, then to the still larger office.

The constant weighing, checking, competition, also binds the managers to the women and is another source of the overwhelmingly paternalistic atmosphere: the managers are only as good as their staffs and they are rated by the same machine. The women make, or don’t make, the Errors; the managers get, or don’t get, the plaques and the promotions.

What the system adds up to is this: if we count both supervisors and observers, at least three people are responsible for the correct performance of any job, and that is because the system is based on hiring at the lowest level, keeping intelligence suppressed, and channeling it into idiotic paths. The process is circular: hire women who are not too talented (for reasons of social class, limited educational opportunities, etc.); suppress them even further by the “scientific” division of the job into banal components which defy initiative or the exercise of intelligence; then keep them down by the institutionalization of pressures and spies.

Surely it would be better if the jobs’ horizons were broadened—a reformist goal—the women were encouraged to take initiative and responsibility, and then left on their own. And it would be better yet if those aspects of the work directly tied to the company’s profit-oriented and “capitalistic” functions—the Princess and Trimline phones and all the bureaucratic complications that stem from their existence—were eliminated altogether and a socialized company concentrated on providing all the people with uniform and decent service. But……

(This is the first of a two-part article on Miss Langer’s experience at the telephone company.)

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