Working in Indian Call Centers – Preliminary Findings

AUTHOR
Ananda Mitra

ABSTRACT

The advent of inexpensive and reliable Internet- and satellite-based telephone technology allows private enterprise in the US and Western Europe to transfer a significant part of their phone service operations to India and China. Reliable data on the number of call-center employees and Western entities using them are lacking, but back-office companies in India are currently estimated to export approximately $3.6 billion worth of services annually.

Outsourcing has two significant outcomes. First, a new class of employees is developing in India. Some data suggest that typical Indian call-center employees are urban, evenly distributed between men and women, usually in their 20s, with annual salaries ranging from $4000-$6000; 90% are college graduates or postgraduates. They usually do not remain in the business very long; call-centers experience employee turnover at a rate of 75%-100% every year.

Second, given the need for real-time direct interaction, the workers’ conditions must match those of customers, and they must have a cultural orientation similar to the customers’. Like people who have to move from one country to another to find employment, the technological diaspora produces a sense of displacement and other kinds of stress.

The conceptual framework of the study described here is derived by looking at the call-center work experience through the lens of diaspora studies. There are many important and striking similarities between the experiences of the traditionally diasporic and those working in call-centers. Typically, the diasporic condition has been considered to be a political, social and cultural issue and the scholarship has considered the diasporic effect on how a person negotiates an identity. In the case of call-center workers that identity negotiation is only temporary since the diasporic experience is not all encompassing. The diasporic experience of the call-center worker is an incomplete process because the interaction, and all the cultural baggage of the interaction, is interrupted the moment the person is off the phone and has walked out from the Westernized environment of the call-center into the early morning streets of Bangalore. In some ways this results in the call-center worker having to shape themselves and their environments in different ways so the duality of their existence can be managed.

The need for this duality is related to the fact that the successful operation of call-centers in India depends on the cultural competence and morale of the phone operators, who virtually work outside their country, while living in it. This leads to the following research questions:

  1. What are the critical acculturation processes that call-center employees experience?
  2. What are the critical effects of acculturation strategies?

This paper reports on some of the research question using the data from a study that was conducted as a series of focus group meetings in Delhi in the summer of 2007. The information gathered from the focus group meetings are reported here and the information from the focus groups was also used to conduct a questionnaire using a Web-based data collection method.

The focus group members indicated several different methods that were utilized by the call center industry to try and train the employees to mimic the cultural attributes of the customers. These methods include pronunciation training, changing the names of the call center employees to Western-sounding names, some amount of “cultural training” to familiarize them with the customs and practices of the customers and the call center employees would be encouraged to familiarize themselves with the popular media products of the West.

The findings also suggest that working in call centers lead to a set of issues related to the everyday life of the workers. There was general agreement that some of the main effects include a sense of separation from the general social milieu because of the “graveyard shift” working hours, development of a sense of community among call center employees because of the similarities in life-style and a general sense of disapproval among family, friends and neighbors about the nature of the work partly as well as behavioral problems particularly related to increased use of tobacco and alcohol.

The finding from this study indicate that a sub-culture of people is developing within India who feel disconnected from their actual place of dwelling because of the requirements of their place of work. Many of the issues pointed out by the participants are reminiscent of what migrant workers would experience as they went through the diasporic condition of living and working in a place that was not their own. In the case of the call center employee the matter is complicated by the fact that there is no movement of the people and there is no immersion in the culture in which they work. The acculturation has to happen in a surrogate manner with the use of trainers. This makes the issue of training particularly critical for these employees. Simultaneously, the call center workers have to negotiate a dual identity where their everyday practices need to be balanced between the expectations of the culture of where they live and the culture where they work. Loss of this balance could result in harmful behavior which is evident in the increased incidence of substance abuse.

These issues need a more broad-based examination. As such, a questionnaire was developed to do Web-based data collection from a large cross-section of call center employees. That data obtained from the questionnaires would throw more light on the way in which there could be variations in perception and behavior based on demographic attributes of the call center employees. It is important to continue to collect that data to have a better sense of the quality of life of the employers and to develop specific interventions to ensure that the employers are better able to cope with their e-diasporic experience.

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