Alexandria, Va. — Unknown to her, Karen M., a directory assistance operator at the C&P Telephone office here, is being observed. Her every word is being heard, her every keystroke being noted on the computer screen in front of Carol Nikirk, an operator supervisor who is sitting in a small airless room adjacent to the operators' comfortable bullpen.
Is this the 1987 version of Big Brother, as some employees contend? Or is Ms. Nikirk merely ensuring, through her evaluations of the operators and subsequent talks with them, that customers get the most professional and courteous service possible?
The question, now being aired on Capitol Hill with the introduction of a bill Monday, affects anywhere from 4 million to 15 million employees. As computers proliferate and more business is done over the phone, companies ranging from airlines and hotels to insurance companies, banks, and mail order houses have found that the telephone manners of their agents can either sharpen or blunt their competitive edge.
``For many companies, the phone is the key to customer satisfaction and to revenues,'' says Alan F. Westin, professor of public law and government at Columbia University. ``If their people don't observe proper, courteous behavior, they lose business.''
Moreover, he says, telephone monitoring is ``not inherently immoral.'' It can be used to protect employees who are accused of misrepresenting a product they are selling over the telephone, for example. It can flag managers to particular problems that their telemarketers are having in their selling approach. It can be used to smooth out the peaks and valleys of telephone volume. And mainly, it is used to instruct employees.
But employees say that telephone monitoring is going too far, that it is causing stress and invading their privacy. And it is yet another twist in a larger, more worrisome trend, says Ann Crump, union spokesman for the Milwaukee Communications Workers of America: Turning service jobs into a modern-day sweatshop akin to the 19th century factory line.
For example, two weeks ago, a directory assistance operator in Milwaukee answered a call. The operator recognized the voice of the man who was requesting a number, and they talked for 20 minutes. Unfortunately for the operator, she was being monitored by a supervisor at the time. She was fired; the case is now in a grievance proceeding.
Ms. Crump concedes that it was wrong for the operator to ``goof off.'' But she says this illustrates that companies are stepping over the bounds of privacy. ``The supervisor knew in the first few seconds that the call was private'' and should have gotten off, she says. ``But the monitoring went on for the entire conversation.''
But to companies, 20 minute phone conversations is a luxury they cannot afford. At C&P, for example, it takes an operator, on average, 23 seconds to answer a call and relay the number to a customer. Every second that average can be lowered saves the company $1.3 million, since the 600 operators can answer more calls, which generate revenues.
With that kind of money at stake, more and more companies are watching every word and keystroke. But ``there's a point at which the intensity of monitoring will deteriorate performance,'' says Gary Marx, a sociologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an expert on the impact of technology on the workplace.
He cites a recent study of 144 clerical workers at three insurance companies, a financial institution, and a government regulatory agency. Workers who were monitored were faster than those who weren't; however, they felt much more stress and their managers tended to emphasize quantity over quality of work.
Nancy Almacy, manager of the C&P office in Alexandria, notes that stress is a common complaint and says that quantity is being de-emphasized at the phone company. For example, operator evaluations used to place equal value on the number of calls answered, the courtesy/accuracy of the operator, and the attendance rate of the operator. Now, however, quantity merits just 20 percent of the performance review.
She also says only a fraction of the calls are monitored. Each operator has 30 calls monitored each month (new employees have 60). At the time, the operator doesn't know it is happening, though she finds out at the end of the day when the supervisor goes over her performance with her. A summary goes into the employee's record, though it has no monetary effect, since operator wages are covered by union contracts.
Most evaluations are fairly standard, but sometimes monitoring catches those who are really snarling up the system, Ms. Almacy says.
For example, last year the phone company got complaints from a business that was constantly getting calls from all sorts of people. C&P narrowed it down to one suspect operator, and intensively monitored his calls. It found that when he felt he was falling behind, he would just tap three easy keys on the terminal, instead of really looking for the requested name. Then the customer would get a recording with the number of the beleaguered business.
``When you take away our ability to monitor, you eliminate our opportunities to discover atrocities,'' Almacy says.
Now the issue is on the floor of Congress. On Monday, Rep. Don Edwards (D) of Calif. introduced a bill that would require companies to alert employees and customers with a beep when a supervisor is listening in on the conversation.
Analysts give the bill little chance of passage anytime soon. In fact, the momentum appears to be going the other way: last year West Virginia repealed a law that was similar to the Edwards bill.
But for operators like Karen M. at C& P, any federal bill would come too late. She just gave someone who asked for Chevy Chase Savings and Loan the number for Citicorp Saving. And the supervisor saw it.