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What are allies in contact centers?
I have spent a large chunk of my career in contact centers in lots of roles. Over the years, I have worked in many geographies of this industry as well. The contact center is a unique environment. At its core, it is a contact factory that utilizes humans nearly exclusively – technology and processes exist to enable people’s efficiency. It is also generally a diverse environment. In the U.S. alone, there are close to 300,000 call center agents, about 70% are women. Of the total population, about 60% are white, 20% are Latino, and 11% are Black and African American. Generally, women earn 97% of their male counterparts. More than 7% are LBGTQIA+. (Zippia, 2022)
This is a diverse industry and growing even more so.
Yet even with the diversity, the number of women and other marginalized groups in leadership positions is not reflective of the diversity in the agent population. This makes it is a wonderful space for allies to help change this industry. An ally is a person who is not a member of a marginalized or disadvantaged group, but who expresses or gives support to that group. Simply put, it is a non-marginalized person who is passionate about supporting their contact center peers and friends to enjoy equality in the industry.
Five ways we can help our contact center organizations as allies
So obvious, so over said, and yet so rarely heard. Something I have learned is that managers have typically achieved their roles because they know a lot of answers. Conversely, the real skill of a leader is not answering questions and solving problems, but leading people to build the confidence and skill to do that on their own.
But as an ally, we don’t know these answers. I have walked exactly zero miles in anyone else’s shoes. I don’t have any experience as a female person of color. I can’t speak from experience about the issues of a gay or lesbian person. (Burke, 2022) But no matter our experience, one thing we can all do is listen. Listen and hear these diverse individuals and understand where they come from and what they are experiencing – especially as it relates the person’s intersectionality, or how certain aspects of who they will increase their access to the good things or exposure to the bad things in life. (Crenshaw, 2017) Try to understand the complexity of the marginality the individual is facing or has faced. Try to understand their perspective based on the marginalized groups they are members of. (Herrity, 2021)
Don’t manage and try to solve the problem unless they ask for that help. By listening, it is easier to stop and think about the assumptions I make on a regular basis, which can help with unconscious bias that we never realized we had. Active listening helps question the assumptions we are unconsciously making.
One of the common issues in contact centers is one of trust. It is an interesting problem. What I have seen is that leaders are generally less likely to trust a group of agents in a contact center. I have heard so many statements such as, “They are all looking to [insert negative thing].” or “These agents just want to [insert negative thing].” You can probably complete these sentences. Yet when I ask leaders, “Who specifically would you point to that does that [insert negative thing]”, the answer is almost universally “Well you know the bad agents.” No one specific, just the thought that the group is untrustworthy. Certainly, if they knew of an individual it would have been dealt with.
My belief is this lack of trust is cultivated in call centers due to a few people taking advantage of the system over time, but manifests in a bulk and misplaced lack of trust in the system. This creates an interesting intersection with being an ally. As an ally, one of the most difficult things to do is to believe and trust people who have marginalized experiences which we don’t share. It is human nature to frame situations in our own context and experiences, and when those run counter to the other individuals, we can suspend belief. Add in the trust factor in a contact center and discounting is easy.
As a scenario, if a Latina woman feels discriminated against or marginalized, then we need to believe and trust from her perspective that she was. As noted above, respecting that perspective, and not explaining it away from our unmarginalized perspective is critical. Believing in your people and respecting their perspective is a skill in being a great ally.
3. Learn and grow
As an ally, one of the most imperative things I can do is learn and be open to feedback. Increasing my knowledge of marginalized situations and people is the first step in discovery.
By doing the homework we are better allies. While it is tempting to ask marginalized groups like people of color, or women, or women of color about their experiences with inequality and injustice to learn, it is not the best approach. It is an unfair burden to ask someone to speak for an entire group – get some data first, read some articles on the subject, and create some space from your knowledge. Then discussions can be more productive. (Melaku et al. 2022)
Here is an amazing statistic I found while doing research that really framed this up for me. While it is estimated white women will reach gender parity with men in the States in 2059, the data shows that for Black women this date is 2130, and Hispanic women the date is 2224. (Bagalini, 2020) If we don’t take the time to understand the multiplicative effect of the diversity of intersectionality on women in this example, our efforts will be less effective. We need to constantly do the homework.
The danger is that we rely too heavily on our own experiences. The experiences I have were cultivated in an area of privilege and advantage. In too many coaching sessions led by men, I have heard the dreaded male-forward, alpha type coaching. In one such example, I had a female head of HR in a contact center I was leading who received coaching from the chairman of our board. He said, “Be more of a lion and less of a lamb in meetings.” When I asked her what she would do to respond to the coaching she said, “I don’t know, I don’t think I can do that.” Asking her to act like someone she is not simply unfair. Even worse, she now knew the chairman was expecting some sort of change from her she could not deliver.
4. Deal with yourself first
Own your privilege. I am a straight white male in an executive position in my organization in the United States of America. I have been granted many of the privileges my segment of society has to offer.
Being a great ally means recognizing the advantages, opportunities, resources, and power you’ve automatically been accorded. It also means recognizing others have been overtly or subtly denied them. This can be painful because it often means admitting that you haven’t entirely earned your success. But it’s necessary. It’s also important to understand that privilege is a resource that can be deployed for good. (Melaku et al. 2022)
Specifically, as male allies, we need to recognize the way our group holds political, economic, and social privilege and power. (Parltools, 2017) This is not to say any of us had easier or harder paths to success, and men may also face discrimination because of our gender and at times the intersectional elements of our identities such as class, sexuality, ethnicity, age, and disability, among others. Ultimately, we are privileged over women in this society. Great allies understand, acknowledge, and, where appropriate, leverage their privilege to help remedy gendered and ethnic power imbalances. (Melaku et al. 2022)
One of the most powerful things we can do as an ally is change and challenge our peer group. All too often I see people who want to “lift a group up” to “help the marginalized.” Perhaps the first thing we should do is get out of the way and make space for that group or person. Humans are incredible, adaptive, and smart when we want to be. Allowing a person to be who they are freely and learning to adapt ourselves to the diversity around us is a skill we all have. We just need to be conscious of the need to use it.
5. Show up but don’t bully
This is the hardest and most uncomfortable part about being an ally. Where the rubber meets the road. Contact centers, generally, are permeated with younger individuals who are on the front side of their career and people that had made a career of this industry. In both cases the amount of personal development can tend to be on the lower side. It’s the nature of the roles and transitory nature of the job.
To complicate this environment, many individuals in contact centers are looking for recognition that will spark their upward career climb. This can lead to aggressive behavior to be noticed and seen. The combination of fewer tools in the kit around personal development and aggressiveness in career momentum is not the ideal combination.
As a leader and an ally, we need to monitor our workplaces for racist or sexist comments and behavior, and then be clear and decisive in shutting them down. Don’t walk away and wait for marginalized people to react, as they’re often accused of “playing the race or gender card.” A tactic used to silence women, people of color, and women of color specifically. When you witness discrimination, don’t approach the victim later to offer sympathy. Give them your support in the moment. (Opdahl, 2022)
Most importantly, we need to intervene whether or not women, people of color, or the marginalized group are in the room. Speak for yourself and not on behalf of others – explain that you personally are offended and that such comments or actions aren’t acceptable or representative of your organization. Frame the confrontation as a learning or growth opportunity for the person and the team.
Pay special attention as meetings can be hot spots for microaggressions toward underrepresented groups. Look for people being interrupted while speaking, having ideas immediately dismissed or being completely ignored. (Herrity, 2021) Similarly, look for a restatement of an idea that was previously ignored, and then accepted when someone else said it. Give credit where credit is due.
While it is very important to address these situations, the way this is addressed is also important. As an ally we need to address these in the manner in which the individual wants them addressed. Calling a woman out and demanding she speak more to ensure her voice is heard is not helpful, but saying, “Can we take a pause here and let anyone who has not had an opportunity to share chime in?” is far better. It may be the individual does not want to contribute at that moment.
The general rule is a wonderful amendment of the “golden rule” changing from “Do unto others as you would have done to you” to “Do unto others as they desire them to be done.”
Great allies always support and don’t degrade. They give praise in public, as well as feedback in private in a way that the person can best receive it.
Be a great ally.
After call work
There is a lot to unpack here. Certainly, much more to be learned, shared and understood. If I could leave you with one recommendation above all the others, it would be to build a community of allies. Meet, discuss and learn in a safe environment. One example of this is the Allies Employee Resource Group at CallMiner, which was created as a safe place to discuss and share as we all learn, grow and understand.
Much of this is adapted from hours of research, here are resources I used in research and writing if you want to keep going.
Citations and resources:
Bagalini, Adwoa. (2020, July 22). 5 ways intersectionality affects diversity and inclusion at work. World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/07/diversity-inclusion-equality-intersectionality/
Burke, Kate. (2022) 3 Things You Can Do Now to Take Action as an Ally in the Workplace. Inc. https://www.inc.com/katie-burke/3-things-you-can-do-now-to-take-action-as-an-ally-in-workplace.html
Crenshaw, Kimberlé (2017, June 08). Kimberlé Crenshaw on Intersectionality, More than Two Decades Later. Columbia Law School. https://www.law.columbia.edu/news/archive/kimberle-crenshaw-intersectionality-more-two-decades-later
Granger, Sarah. (2018, January 08). Want to Be an Ally to Women at Work? Here Are Five Things Men in tech Have Been Doing. Slate.com. https://slate.com/human-interest/2018/01/want-to-be-an-ally-to-women-at-work-five-things-men-in-tech-have-been-doing.html
Herrity, Jennifer (2021, March 29) 5 Steps To Become a Better Ally at Work. Indeed.com. https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/career-development/become-a-better-ally-at-work
Melaku, Tsedale M.; Beeman, Angie; Smith, David G.; Johnson, David G. (2022, November-December) Be a Better Ally. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2020/11/be-a-better-ally
Opdahl, Courtney Lewis (2022) How to Be an Ally to Women in the Workplace. Experience Life. https://experiencelife.lifetime.life/article/how-to-be-an-ally-to-women-in-the-workplace/
Parltools (2017) Male Allies for Gender Equality. ParlAmericas and the UN Women Multi-Country Office - Caribbean. https://parlgendertools.org/en/male-allies-gender-equality/
Zippia.com (2022, April 18) Call Center Agents Demographics and Statistics in the US. https://www.zippia.com/call-center-agent-jobs/demographics
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