Call Centres and Human Resource Management: A Cross‐National Perspective

Peter Bain and Phil Taylor (University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK and University of Stirling, UK)

Employee Relations

ISSN: 0142-5455

Article publication date: 1 October 2004




Bain, P. and Taylor, P. (2004), "Call Centres and Human Resource Management: A Cross‐National Perspective", Employee Relations, Vol. 26 No. 5, pp. 569-571.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The spectacular growth in call centre employment since the mid‐1990s has attracted considerable media attention. This has tended to focus upon the number of jobs created (at least 500,000 in the UK), often in areas of declining “traditional” industries, or upon sensational accounts of the call centre as electronic sweatshop or panopticon. Since 1999, an ever‐increasing volume of academic research has been published in the UK journals, and the Human Resource Management Journal (November 2002) and European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology (December 2003) have produced special call centre issues. However, with the exception of Holtgrewe et al.'s edited collection of German and UK research (2002), no book dedicated to the call centre has been published, perhaps reflecting the paucity of US material.

On these grounds alone, the appearance of a volume analysing HRM policy and practice in call centres is to be welcomed, especially since the growth in employment looks set to continue in at least the medium term (notwithstanding the recent development of the Indian industry). However, it is disappointing to find that five of the 12 chapters are reprinted from the aforementioned HRMJ special issue (itself emanating from papers to a 2001 seminar), and three others draw heavily upon previously published work. Consequently, some chapters, and the related research, betray signs of lagging behind theoretical and empirical developments.

A useful introductory chapter by the editors – from both a call centre “specialist” and general reader standpoint – reviews key issues and debates. The book is divided, thematically, into three sections, namely:

  1. 1.

    managerial strategies and employment practices;

  2. 2.

    characteristics and organisational features of call centre work; and

  3. 3.

    effects of call centre work on employees.

In Part 1, Batt and Moynihan's study of US telecom call centres identifies three models – mass production, professional service, and a “mass customisation” hybrid of these two. Their objective is to determine if “high involvement” work practices, when combined with a mass customisation strategy, can be economically viable and, if so, under what conditions and why. In related research, Houlihan examines whether managerial desire to gain high commitment from employees in four UK call centres can overcome tensions and problems found in essentially “low discretion” operations. While different combinations of control and commitment strategies were utilised by management, variations on the “low discretion, high commitment model” were found to be in use in all four centres. In Fernie's analysis of differing workplace governance arrangements, “authoritarian”, “union partnership” and “visionary HRM” approaches were being utilised separately in three centres within a UK bank. Generally, superior performance (from both management and employee perspectives) of the “visionary”, and poorest performance of the “authoritarian” establishment are attributed primarily to “effective leadership”. Lastly, Kinnie and Parsons examine the effects of client companies on the management of dedicated outsourcer call centres, which now accounts for about a quarter of all UK call centre employment. The authors identify the constraints and pressures on managers as they attempt to satisfy and balance often conflicting demands and expectations of different client companies, a variety of individual customers, and their own employment relations policies.

In Part 2, Thompson, Callaghan and van den Broek use case studies from the UK finance and Australian telecoms sectors to explore issues related to recruitment, selection and skill formation, and how training and other practices are used to develop normative controls. Given that much call centre work is “routinized, heavily scripted and monitored…with a limited career structure and high likelihood of burnout and exit”, it is argued that systematic selection, training and socialization processes are utilised to identify potential, and mould actual, employees. Importantly, “social competencies” (communication and attitudinal skills), rather than technological or product knowledge, are valued, identified and nurtured. Collin‐Jacques also adopts a comparative approach, in her case based on research into autonomy and skills in nursing call centres in England and Canada. Although somewhat overstating the extent to which existing research has focused on “routine white‐collar workers”, this is an extremely useful study of the ways in which a range of factors can produce differing outcomes in terms of how, and the extent to which, these “professional” workers exert control over tasks and utilise their skills. Belt's study of the nature of women's career prospects in 11 call centres draws upon research conducted in the UK and Ireland, but the data are not disaggregated along national lines. Identifying tendencies towards polarisation, Belt argues that while “large numbers of women do not move off the ‘bottom rung’ of the call centre career ladder”, considerable numbers were developing careers as team leaders and managers. However, in practice, there was evidence of a “glass ceiling”, and most women had difficulty in progressing beyond team leader.

In Part 3, the first two chapters, by Deery, Iverson and Walsh, and by Holman, respectively, address issues of employee well‐being. Like some writers in the field, Deery et al. emphasise the importance of the customer in shaping the way work is performed and, in this study, focus upon how this is perceived to affect call‐handlers' job satisfaction and levels of emotional exhaustion in two call centres. While one organisation encouraged staff to use their skills and initiative and build closer relationships with customers, the other sought to standardise interactions and prioritised call throughput. Unsurprisingly, workers in the latter type of operation had higher workloads, less autonomy and suffered more from emotional exhaustion. It should also come as no surprise to discover, as Holman did, that high control over work organisation, low level of monitoring, and supportive team leaders had the most significant effects on employee well‐being. More contentious is the argument that call centre work “compares favourably to shop floor manufacturing and clerical work with regard to well‐being”, especially since no details are provided of the comparative sample. The last two chapters, by Gollan and van den Broek, respectively, examine the employee representation mechanisms in two very different environments – the non‐union Channel Tunnel and the deregulated Australian telecoms industry. Gollan found that, over a range of issues, there was majority employee dissatisfaction with the company's consultative and participatory arrangements, and that the company council “was seen as an ineffective substitute for union representation”. Indeed, by June 2002, “nearly all of the call centre staff belonged to the TGWU”. Van den Broek also found that in the four centres studied, as the pace of work increased, so did employee resistance. Despite management's anti‐union stance, and aided by a national union call centre organising campaign, membership had grown in three of the workplaces.

In conclusion, the quality and originality of the chapters is uneven and it is difficult to detect a coherent “cross‐national perspective”. Six chapters discuss findings from exclusively UK‐based research and only two others adopt comparative perspectives – Thompson et al. and Collin‐Jacques. A resistance to characterising call centre work as Taylorist perhaps helps to explain the surprising omission from several chapters of discussion of a key employee concern – management‐imposed quantitative and qualitative targets. A related tendency may also be detected among those who appear to look exclusively to management to ameliorate the intensive and stressful nature of much call centre work. The overall competitive economic environment (labour accounts for 60‐70 per cent of total call centre costs), and consequent constraints on managers in the workplace, suggests that it will take worker organisation and pressure to attain such goals as, indeed, some contributions to this volume show.

However, this is not to detract from what is, overall, a useful compilation in the development of research and knowledge in this increasingly important sector of the international economy.

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