High Absenteeism? Consider Your Agents’ “Breaking Point”


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I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty frustrated by clients, prospects and some contact center managers who think that the only reason agents are absent from work is because they are lazy. Not only is this conclusion frequently detached from the facts of what’s causing the absenteeism, but it also abrogates a level of responsibility on the part of management.

I find some managers in our industry ignorant or avoidant of the challenges facing their agents in their daily lives. A common attitude is “It’s a job, why do I have to worry about what happens outside of these walls?” True, it is a job—agents are getting paid to render a service, and are receiving money in return. But if the hundreds of people in that agent job are constantly facing pressures and chaos on multiple fronts in their lives, how easy will it be for them to do anything but address the most emergent crisis, and thus be absent from work?

Everyone Has Their “Breaking Point,” Including Your Agents

Most agents in the contact center industry earn somewhere between the minimum wage (in their respective society) and the middle-class wage. Therefore, the majority of our agents are living within a socioeconomic band and living situation where they constantly have less resources with which to address crisis or problems that crop up in their lives, compared to someone earning more than a middle-class wage.

This situation can get more extreme when looking at the challenges with living in the developing world at this relative income level. In our business, we have certainly seen instances where even a good employee, when faced with a number of personal challenges in their lives that they feel are beyond their ability to hurdle, will eventually sacrifice some of their job to hurdle these challenges.

The reasons why agents are absent are myriad and usually legitimate. Whether it’s a broken-down car, problems with child care, sickness of the agent or a family member, relying on public transportation, unexpected expenses, violence within their neighborhoods that affects them, you can see that there’s a lot that can go wrong.

And yet how many of those are solved with more resources? Transportation, health care, child care and the ability to afford better neighborhoods—these are all economic conditions that, when they go awry, are easier to deal with if you have resources. Thus, when faced with these problems, sometimes your agents will choose the crisis versus their job because the economic consequences may be less.

This is natural, and that “breaking point” is different for each individual. Have you ever had a day where you called your boss and said, “Listen, I’m dealing with some personal stuff, I can’t come in today. I’ll get in touch soon, when things are resolved.” Since you’re a manager and a professional, your boss probably said, “Oh, sorry to hear that. Good luck getting everything ironed out.”

But when our agents do that, we sanction them. Why are they any different than we are?

I define “breaking point” as where, in the agent’s mind, they will sacrifice goodwill at their work in order to remedy the immediate personal struggle they are facing. Essentially, it’s when they subordinate their job (our company) to the immediate personal struggle—or conversely, when they lack the motivation to go deeper on problem-solving the personal struggle to where they are still able to come to work (i.e., subordinating the personal struggle to their job).

How to Move Your Agents’ Breaking Point

As a contact center manager, you may not think it’s your responsibility to solve their personal problems. But you avoid that responsibility at the peril of your SLAs and your profitability. The result of avoiding it is persistent absenteeism and attrition.

But there is much you can do, and I want to arm you with the tools you need to combat this problem and, thus, move the breaking point of your agents.

  1. Consider a calamity fund. This is a small amount of money (typically less than $3k/month), that any employee can access as a grant to offset any expenses resulting from a calamity affecting them or their family members. It’s a small figure for our budgets, but can make a huge difference to the agent.
  2. Fight for health care. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) will have required most of you to offer your employees health benefits given your population size, but nothing affects absenteeism more than health. Agents who have no access to health care will be absent longer, and will be more affected when a health issue occurs. Plus, if agents know they have secure access to health care, it will move their breaking point.
  3. Worry about transportation. You may not be able to relocate your centers, but you certainly want to understand how agents are getting to work. Many of your agents won’t be able to afford cars (of if they do, they may be prone to breakdowns), so consider subsidizing public transportation costs or helping the agent through other transportation struggles. Secure transportation can be the single biggest factor to impact attendance.
  4. Make your workplace safe. This is generally not a problem in American centers, but offshore, there is a lot more intimidation, violence and favoritism at play—both among agents, and between agents and managers. Let your agents know that they will always be safe and you’ll see a big move in the breaking point.
  5. Create opportunities. Are you trying to fill promotions internally first, before you hire externally? Are your L&D programs focused on knowledge about how to do their jobs, or how to build their skills as people? If people know they can advance in their careers, and thus, in their lives in your center, you’ll move their breaking point and get them to reconsider being absent or leaving because of the opportunity cost of doing so.
  6. Say “Thank You.” We recently completed a very unscientific survey of our agents in our main call center in the Philippines. We found that most of them had been offered jobs at an average of 20% more money, but declined the competing offer. When one respondent was asked why, they pithily said, “Because here, managers say ‘Thank you.’” Direct managers have a lot of power in moving the breaking point through their daily interactions with their agents.

Consider Your Agents’ Lives, Not Just Their Jobs

By now, you may be groaning because there are items on this list you have seen before, in either management guru books or at conferences. That is certainly true. I don’t believe there are any new ideas here. But what is new is how I’m asking you to think about the lives of your agents, and what they’re going through, when you operate your contact center.

The concept of the breaking point may be a cliché, but it is also a parable. It’s a parable about how people make decisions about what to prioritize in their lives—their job or their life? You want them to prioritize their job, and sometimes we all need to prioritize our lives. What we want to prevent is when our policies, practices or the general economic conditions of the agents force them to choose their lives.

And let’s remember that in the contact center world, absent means no pay. So the situation has to be pretty bad for an agent to forgo pay (or they have to be pretty disengaged, and you don’t want them anyway).

Before we conclude, one other warning: Sometimes the policies that either you or senior management makes you implement can have a severe negative impact on the quality of what’s going on in your call center. Sometimes you know this, sometimes you don’t. Take a bit of time to interview your agents specifically about what’s working and what’s not—economically—in their lives. Make sure not to neglect the money questions. You’ll learn a ton and the agents will really appreciate it.

At Rethink Staffing, most of the way we run the company is for the benefit of agents. More than likely, you won’t be able to go that far—we could because we built from the ground up (and weren’t willing to take contracts that would be a detriment to our agents).

Our stats are through the roof as a result, and a lot of that is dependent on our ability to “move the breaking point” in our agents’ minds, producing greater productivity, work ownership (quality), low absenteeism and low attrition. But we can do that because we think about our agents’ lives, not just their jobs; and as a result, we know exactly how to move the breaking point.

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