From October to December 1969 I worked for the New York Telephone Company as a Customer’s Service Representative in the Commercial Department. My office was one of several in the Broadway-City Hall area of lower Manhattan, a flattened, blue-windowed commercial building in which the telephone company occupies three floors. The room was big and brightly lit—like the city room of a large newspaper—with perhaps one hundred desks arranged in groups of five or six around the desk of a Supervisor. The job consists of taking orders for new equipment and services and pacifying customers who complain, on the eleven exchanges (although not the more complex business accounts) in the area between the Lower East Side and 23rd Street on the North and bounded by Sixth Avenue on the West.
My Supervisor is the supervisor of five women. She reports to a Manager who manages four supervisors (about twenty women) and he reports to the District Supervisor along with two other managers. The offices of the managers are on the outer edge of the main room separated from the floor by glass partitions. The District Supervisor is down the hall in an executive suite. A job identical in rank to that of the district supervisor is held by four other men in Southern Manhattan alone. They report to the Chief of the Southern Division, himself a soldier in an army of division chiefs whose territories are the five boroughs, Long Island, Westchester, and the vast hinterlands vaguely referred to as “Upstate.” The executives at—Street were only dozens among the thousands in New York Tel alone.
Authority in their hierarchy is parceled out in bits. A Representative, for example, may issue credit to customers up to, say, $10.00; her supervisor, $25.00; her manager, $100.00; his supervisor, $300.00; and so forth. These employees are in the same relation to the centers of power in AT&T and the communications industry as the White House guard to Richard Nixon. They all believe that “The business of the telephone company is Service” and if they have ever heard of the ABM or AT&T’s relation to it, I believe they think it is the Associated Business Machines, a particularly troublesome customer on the Gramercy-7 exchange.
I brought to the job certain radical interests. I knew I would see “bureaucratization,” “alienation,” and “exploitation.” I knew that it was “false consciousness” of their true role in the imperialist economy that led the “workers” to embrace their oppressors. I believed those things and I believe them still. I know why, by my logic, the workers should rise up. But my understanding was making reality an increasing puzzle: Why didn’t people move? What things, invisible to me, were holding them back? What I hoped to learn, in short, was something about the texture of the industrial system: what life within it meant to its participants.
I deliberately decided to take a job which was women’s work, white collar, highly industrialized and bureaucratic. I knew that New York Tel was in a management crisis notorious both among businessmen and among the public and I wondered what effect the well-publicized breakdown of service was having on employees. Securing the position was not without hurdles. I was “overqualified,” having confessed to college; I performed better on personnel tests than I intended to do; and I was inspected for symptoms of militance by a shrewd but friendly interviewer who noticed the several years’ gap in my record of employment. “What have you been doing lately?” she asked me. “Protesting?” I said: “Oh, no, I’ve been married,” as if that condition itself explained one’s neglect of social problems. She seemed to agree that it did.
My problem was to talk myself out of a management traineeship at a higher salary while maintaining access to the job I wanted. This, by fabrications, I was able to do. I said: “Well, you see, I’m going through a divorce right now and I’m a little upset emotionally, and I don’t know if I want a career with managerial responsibility.” She said: “If anyone else said that to me, I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to hire them,” but in the end she accepted me. I had the feeling it would have been harder for her to explain to her bosses why she had let me slip away, given my qualifications, than to justify to them her suspicions.
I nonetheless found as I began the job that I was viewed as “management material” and given special treatment. I was welcomed at length by both the District Supervisor and the man who was to be my Manager, and given a set of fluffy feminist speeches about “opportunities for women” at New York Tel. I was told in a variety of ways that I would be smarter than the other people in my class; “management” would be keeping an eye on me. Then the Manager led me personally to the back classroom where my training program was scheduled to begin.
The class consisted of five students and an instructor. Angela and Katherine were two heavy-set Italian women in their late forties. They had been promoted to Commercial after years of employment as clerks in the Repair Department where, as Angela said, “they were expected to be robots.” They were unable to make the transition to the heavier demands of the Representative’s job and returned to Repair in defeat after about a week.
Billy was a high-school boy of seventeen who had somehow been referred by company recruiters into this strange women’s world. His lack of adult experience made even simple situations difficult for him to deal with: he could not tell a customer that she had to be in the apartment when an installer was coming without giggling uncontrollably about some imaginary tryst. He best liked “drinking with the boys,” a pack of Brooklyn high schoolers whose alcoholism was at the Singapore Sling stage; he must have belonged to one of the last crowds in Brooklyn that had never smoked dope.
Betty was a pretty, overweight, intelligent woman in her mid-twenties who had been a Representative handling “Billing” and was now being “crosstrained” (as they say in the Green Berets) in Orders. She was poised, disciplined, patient, ladylike, competent in class and, to me, somewhat enigmatic outside it: liberal about Blacks, in spite of a segregated highschool education, but a virtual Minuteman about Reds, a matter wholly outside her experience. By the end of the class Betty and I had overcome our mutual skepticism enough to be almost friends and if there is anyone at the phone company to whom I feel slightly apologetic—for having listened always with a third ear and for masquerading as what I was not—it is Betty.
Sally, the instructor, was a pleasant, stocky woman in her early thirties with a frosted haircut and eyes made up like a racoon. She had a number of wigs, including one with strange dangling curls. Sally’s official role was to persuade us of the rationality of company policies and practices, which she did skillfully and faithfully. In her private life, however, she was a believer in magic, an aficionado rather than a practitioner only because she felt that while she understood how to conjure up the devil, she did not also know how to make him go away. To Sally a disagreeable female customer was not oppressed, wretched, impoverished in her own life, or merely bitchy: she was—literally—a witch. Sally explained to herself by demonology the existence of evils of which she was far too smart to be unaware.
The Representative’s course is “programmed.” It is apparent that the phone company has spent millions of dollars for high-class management consultation on the best way to train new employees. The two principal criteria are easily deduced. First, the course should be made so routine that any employee can teach it. The teacher’s material—the remarks she makes, the examples she uses—are all printed in a loose-leaf notebook that she follows. Anyone can start where anyone else leaves off. I felt that I could teach the course myself, simply by following the program. The second criterion is to assure the reproducibility of results, to guarantee that every part turned out by the system will be interchangeable with every other part. The system is to bureaucracy what Taylor was to the factory: it consists of breaking down every operation into discrete parts, then making verbal the discretions that are made.
At first we worked chiefly from programmed booklets organized around the principle of supplying the answer, then rephrasing the question. For instance:
It is annoying to have the other party to a conversation leave the line without an explanation.
Before leaving, you should excuse yourself and—what you are going to do.
Performing skillfully was a matter of reading, and not actual comprehension. Katherine and Angela were in constant difficulty. They “never read,” they said. That’s why it was hard for them.
Soon acting out the right way to deal with customers became more important than self-instruction. The days were organized into Lesson Plans, a typical early one being: How to Respond to a Customer if You Haven’t Already Been Trained to Answer his Question, or a slightly more bureaucratic rendering of that notion. Sally explained the idea, which is that you are supposed to refer the call to a more experienced Representative or to the Supervisor. But somehow they manage to complicate this situation to the point where it becomes confusing even for an intelligent person to handle it. You mustn’t say: “Gosh, that’s tough, I don’t know anything about that, let me give the phone to someone who does,” though that in effect is what you do. Instead when the phone rings, you say: “Hello. This is Miss Langer. May I help you?” (The Rule is, get immediate “control of the contact” and hold it lest anything unexpected happen, like, for instance, a human transaction between you and the customer.)
He says: “This is Mr. Smith and I’d like to have an additional wall telephone installed in my kitchen.”
You say: “I’ll be very glad to help you, Mr. Smith (Rule the Second: Always express interest in the Case and indicate willingness to help), but I’ll need more information. What is your telephone number?”
He tells you, then you confess: “Well, Mr. Smith, I’m afraid I haven’t been trained in new installations yet because I’m a new representative, but let me give you someone else who can help you.” (Rule the Third: You must get his consent to this arrangement. That is, you must say: May I get someone else who can help you? May I put you on hold for a moment?)
The details are absurd but they are all prescribed. What you would do naturally becomes unnatural when it is codified, and the rigidity of the rules makes the Representatives in training feel they are stupid when they make mistakes. Another lesson, for example, was: What to Do if a Customer Calls and Asks for a Specific Person, such as Miss Smith, another Representative, or the Manager. Whatever the facts, you are to say “Oh, Miss Smith is busy but I have access to your records, may I help you?” A customer is never allowed to identify his interests with any particular employee. During one lesson, however, Sally said to Angela: “Hello, I’d like immediately to speak to Mrs. Brown,” and Angela said, naturally, “Hold the line a minute, please. I’ll put her on.” A cardinal sin, for which she was immediately rebuked. Angela felt terrible.
Company rhetoric asserts that this rigidity does not exist, that Representatives are supposed to use “initiative” and “judgment,” to develop their own language. What that means is that instead of using the precise words “Of course I’ll be glad to help you but I’ll need more information,” you are allowed to “create” some individual variant. But you must always (1) express willingness to help and (2) indicate the need for further investigation. In addition, while you are doing this, you must always write down the information taken from the customer, coded, on a yellow form called a CF-1, in such a way as to make it possible for a Representative in Florida to read and translate it. “That’s the point,” Sally told us. “You are doing it the same way a rep in Illinois or Alaska does it. We’re one big monopoly.”
The logic of training is to transform the trainees from humans into machines. The basic method is to handle any customer request by extracting “bits” of information: by translating the human problem he might have into bureaucratic language so that it can be processed by the right department. For instance, if a customer calls and says: “My wife is dying and she’s coming home from the hospital today and I’d like to have a phone installed in her bedroom right away,” you say, “Oh, I’m very sorry to hear that sir, I’m sure I can help you, would you be interested in our Princess model? It has a dial that lights up at night,” meanwhile writing on your ever-present CF-1: “Csr wnts Prn inst bdrm immed,” issuing the order, and placing it in the right-hand side of your work-file where it gets picked up every fifteen minutes by a little clerk.
The knowledge that one is under constant observation (of which more later) I think helps to ensure that contacts are handled in this uniform and wooden manner. If you varied it, and said something spontaneous, you might well be overheard; moreover, it is probably not possible to be especially human when you are concentrating so hard on extracting the bits, and when you have to deal with so many bits in one day.
Sometimes the bits can be extraordinarily complicated. A customer (that is, a CSR) calls and says rapidly, “This is Mrs. Smith and I’m moving from 23rd Street to 68th Street, and I’d like to keep my green Princess phone and add two white Trimlines and get another phone in a metallic finish and my husband wants a new desk phone in his study.” You are supposed to have taken that all down as she says it. Naturally you have no time to listen to how she says it, to strike up a conversation, or be friendly. You are desperate to get straight the details.
The dehumanization and the surprising degree of complication are closely related: the number of variables is large, each variable has a code which must be learned and manipulated, and each situation has one—and only one—correct answer. The kind of problem we were taught to handle, in its own language, looks like this:
A CSR has: IMRCV EX CV GRN BCHM IV
He wants: IMRCV WHT EX CV WHT BCHM IV
This case, very simplified, means only that the customer has regular residential phone service with a black phone, a green one, and an ivory bell chime, and that he wants new service with two white phones and a bell chime. Nonetheless, all these items are charged at differing monthly rates which the Representative must learn where to find and how to calculate; each has a separate installation charge which varies in a number of ways; and, most important, they represent only a few of the dozens of items or services a customer could possibly want (each of which, naturally, has its own rates and variables, its own codes).
He could want a long cord or a short one, a green one or a white one, a new party listed on his line, a special headset for a problem with deafness, a touchtone phone, and on and on and on. For each of the things he could possibly want there would be one and only one correct charge to quote to him, one and only one right way to handle the situation.
It is largely since World War II that the Bell System abandoned being a comparatively simple service organization and began producing such an array of consumer products as to rival Procter and Gamble. It is important to realize what contribution this proliferation makes both to creating the work and to making it unbearable. If the company restricted itself to essential functions and services—standard telephones and standard types of service—whole layers of its bureaucracy would not need to exist at all, and what did need to exist could be both more simple and more humane. The pattern of proliferation is also crucial for, among other things, it is largely responsible for the creation of the “new”—white collar—“working class” whose job is to process the bureaucratic desiderata of consumption.
In our classroom, the profit motivation behind the telephone cornucopia is not concealed and we are programmed to repeat its justifications: that the goods were developed to account for different “tastes” and the “need of variation.” Why Touchtone Dialing? We learn to say that “it’s the latest thing,” “it dials faster,” “it is easier to read the letters and numbers,” and “its musical notes as you depress the buttons are pleasant to hear.” We learn that a Trimline is a “space-saver,” that it has an “entirely new feature, a recall button that allows you to hang up without replacing the receiver,” and that it is “featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection on industrial design.” Why a night-light? we were asked. I considered saying, “It would be nice to make love by a small sexy light,” but instead helped to contribute the expected answers: “It gives you security in the bedroom,” “it doesn’t interfere with the TV.”
One day a woman named Carol Nichols, whose job it is to supervise instruction, came to watch our class. Carol is a typical telephone company employee: an aging, single woman who has worked her way up to a position of modest authority. In idle conversation I inquired into the origins of our programmed instruction. Carol said it was all prepared under centralized auspices but had recently benefited from the consultation of two Columbia professors. One, she believed, was the chairman of the English department; another, an English professor. Their principal innovation, I gathered, was to suggest formal quizzes in addition to role-playing.
Carol took the content of the work very seriously. She was concerned to impress on us the now familiar Customer’s Service Ideology that We Do Help the Customer no matter what his problem. She said: “If the customer tells you to drop dead, you say ‘I’ll be very glad to help you sir.”‘ I couldn’t resist raising the obvious question, wondering what is the Rule covering obscene propositions, but saying innocently, “Gee, I can think of things a customer might say that you wouldn’t want to help him with.” Carol looked very tough and said: “Oh. We don’t get those kind of calls in the Commercial Department.”
Carol threw herself into role-playing tests with gusto. In one of the tests she pretended to be a Mrs. Van Der Pool from Gramercy Park South, whose problem was that she had four dirty white phones that needed cleaning and one gold phone that was tarnishing. Carol enjoyed playing the snotty Mrs. VDP to the hilt, and what sense of identity, projection, or simple resentment went into her characterization it is hard to say. On the other hand, despite her caricatured and bossy airs, Carol was very nice to the women in the class. At the end, when Angela and Katherine were complaining that they were doing so poorly, Carol gave them a litte pep talk in which she said that she had been miserable on her first day as a Rep, had cried, but had just made up her mind to get through it, and had been able to do so.
“Many have passed this way and they all felt the way you do,” she told them. “Just keep at it. You can do it.” Angela and Katherine were very grateful to Carol for this. Later in the week when, frustrated and miserable, Katherine broke down and cried, Sally too was unobtrusive, sympathetic, encouraging.
Selling is an important part of the Representative’s job. Sally introduced the subject with a little speech (from her program book) about the concept of the “well-telephoned home,” how that was an advance from the old days when people thought of telephone equipment in a merely functional way. Now, she said, we stress “a variety of items of beauty and convenience.” Millions of dollars have been spent by the Bell System, she told us, to find out what a customer wants and to sell it to him. She honestly believed that good selling is as important to the customer as it is to the company: to the company because “it makes additional and worthwhile revenue,” to the customer because it provides services that are truly useful. We are warned not to attempt to sell when it is clearly inappropriate to do so, but basically to use every opportunity to unload profitable items. This means that if a girl calls up and asks for a new listing for a roommate, your job is to say: “Oh. Wouldn’t your roommate prefer to have her own extension?”
The official method is to avoid giving the customer a choice but to offer him a total package which he can either accept or reject. For instance, a customer calls for new service. You find out that he has a wife, a teen-age daughter, and a six-room apartment. The prescription calls for you to get off the line, make all the calculations, then come back on and say all at once: “Mr. Smith, suppose we installed for you a wall telephone in your kitchen, a Princess extension in your daughter’s room and one in your bedroom, and our new Trimline model in your living room. This will cost you only X dollars for the installation and only Y dollars a month.”
Mr. Smith will say, naturally, “That’s too many telephones for a six-room apartment,” and you are supposed to “overcome his objections” by pointing out the “security” and “convenience” that comes from having telephones all over the place.
Every Representative is assigned a selling quota—so many extensions, so many Princesses—deduced and derived in some way from the quota of the next largest unit. In other words, quotas are assigned to the individual because they are first assigned to the five-girl unit; they are assigned to the unit because they are assigned to the twenty-girl section; and they are assigned to the section because they are assigned to the district: to the manager and the district supervisor. The fact that everyone is in the same situation—expected to contribute to the same total—is one of the factors that increase management-worker solidarity.
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:
- To recognize situations where it is appropriate to encourage users to retain service.
- To be able to apply Save effort successfully.
- To negotiate orders for Termination.
- To offer “Easy Move.”
- 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:
- Business or residence.
New or existing service.
Reason for request
a. handset or mounting cord
b. approximate length
- Type of set or location.
Other instruments in the household and where located.
Customer’s phone number.
Then you get:
Off the line where you
- Get Customers records.
Think and Plan What to Do.
Check reference materials.
Check with supervisor if necessary.
Then you return to the line with a:
- Set stage for recommendation.
Suggest alternative where appropriate or
Accept order for cord.
Suggest appropriate length.
a. Verify handset or mounting
- Present recommendation for suitable equipment that “goes with” request including monthly rental (for instance an extension bell).
Determine type of instrument and color.
Quote total non-recurring charges.
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:
- To identify situations in which it is appropriate to disconnect Customer.
To apply the necessary techniques so that disconnects can be accomplished with minimum irritation to the Representative.
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.)
March 12, 1970