Tales from my soul-killing six month stint working in a call center
“The name’s Bond…”
Often as an over-the-phone banker I would encounter situations I didn’t know how to handle. We had a resource for this called Help Desk, which was made up of 4-5 women in a separate row of cubicles at the end of my block. When we needed help with a situation, we would put our call on hold, place a call to Help Desk, and they’d work with us to find a solution.
I hadn’t been on the floor for very long before I realized I’d be calling Help Desk a lot. I also quickly figured out that they had a caller ID system that allowed them to see who was calling before they picked up that phone, because they always greeted me by name. I quickly established a rapport with the Help Desk ladies. They were always cheerful, and I always enjoyed talking to them. It didn’t take long for me to see if I could leverage that to get them to have some fun with me. One day I asked one of the ladies if she’d call me “007” instead of “Joe” when I called in for help. She laughed, but she agreed! I figured it would make calling in for help about bank accounts all day a little more entertaining, and I was right. It was such a fun idea that it caught on, and almost all the Help Desk ladies were addressing me as the world’s most famous British secret service agent. It was hilarious, it brightened my day every time I called and heard things like:
“Hello 007, how can I help you?”
“Yes, 007, what seems to be the issue?”
“What’s going on, 007?”
Those were really fun times, but unfortunately, it wasn’t going to last. As has often been the case with me in situations like this where I attempt to insert fun into a system that is averse to it, I became a victim of my own success. We were having so much fun that word began to spread. More and more people were getting a kick out of having 007 work at their northeast Colorado call center. One day, I called Help Desk, and my favorite lady answered (the one who had started this tradition with me). She sounded a little sad and subdued as she informed me that she had to call me by my real name now. I had become so famous for calling Help Desk as 007 that word of our fun had gone very high up the food chain, and the news from up the corporate ladder was neither good nor surprising: no more fun. Even though calls to Help Desk were in-house and never heard by customers, our 007 tradition was deemed unprofessional and shut down. It was a death-knell to my time in the corporate world. That experience helped make it clear to me that working at a place like that would change me in ways I didn’t want it to. There are definitely workplaces out there that are graveyards for the soul—it’s why movies like “Office Space” and shows like “The Office,” and “Corporate” resonate with so many people. That place was one for me. That experience showed me that my fun-loving attitude and creativity had no place in this world. The corporate machine saw my spark and turned up its nose, only interested in me if I assimilated to it, and left my spark behind. I couldn’t do that, so I would have to leave.
“HR enemy number one”
When I started at this company, I was a recent high school graduate grappling with my parents having just split up. I was a cheerful person, eager to please, with a natural inclination to get along with others. But I was also young, rebellious (a character trait I still have), and I was going through a lot. So if someone rubbed me the wrong way, chances were high that I wouldn’t respond well. Unfortunately, there was a lady in the Human Resources department who seemed to have it in for me from the first day I walked in the building. She would give me disapproving glances for no reason, make snarky little comments sometimes when I buzzed in, and just generally didn’t like me. I did my best not to react, but one day it came to a head. There was an open house for people interested in working at the call center. I’d attended one months before when I first started. There were trays of cookies for the open house on a table by the front desk. I passed by them as I was buzzing out for lunch. My nemesis in HR happened to be at the front desk, and for some reason she called after me, “Those cookies are for the open house, they are not for you.” Her voice was dripping with disdain. My temper flared. I was already halfway across the lobby. I hadn’t even looked at the cookies. I knew what was going on, I hadn’t been making any trouble, and this woman was using her position of power to harass me. I looked at this petty woman, feeling fed up with her treatment of me, and something in me snapped. I locked eyes with her, and walked back to the front desk. Without breaking eye contact, I deliberately reached down, took a cookie, and slowly took a huge bite. Her overly dramatic gasp was music to my ears. And in the moment I could tell she was relishing it too. She baited me, wanted me to do something so that she could savor the joy of enacting discipline. So I didn’t feel bad, even as I sat through the formal warning that I got because of what I did. I’ve always had a really hard time letting bullies go unchecked, especially when they know how to work the system so they can wield their power without consequences.
“An epic exit”
On sort of a dare, I brought my guitar to work on my last day and sang a song to a couple of my longest running coworkers. At the end of the day, I was called over the intercom to come to the office of the HR director. When I walked in, there was the HR director, 3 or 4 floor managers, the regional director, and the site manager. I thought I was in trouble (what were they going to do, fire me?). Turns out I’d been called in because they wanted a private concert. I played 2 or 3 songs, including “Collide” by Howie Day & “Iris” by The Goo Goo Dolls. I killed it. Several of them cried.
“Leaving my mark”
When I cleaned out my desk on my last day, I left behind a poem pinned to the outside of my cubicle. It was my swan song. It was a witty tribute to the ways I made some creative racket in the stifling boredom of a giant corporate machine. I was one of the last of my class to leave. In a way, I wanted to leave a spark of life for the friends I made who weren’t getting out. Rumor has it that poem stayed pinned to my old cubicle for months. I wish I’d kept a copy of it, but I do remember that one line referenced my days calling Help Desk as 007. Makes sense to me, that’s stood the test of time as one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.
All in all I worked for that company for about 6 months, and that was much too long for my taste
My clash with the woman from HR reminds me that power, whether great or small, is a dangerous thing. It can intoxicate us, making us feel like we are better than others, and blinding us from seeing what’s going on in the lives of other people. Believe me, having a position of power and being a leader are not the same thing. To this day, fewer things get me hotter under the collar than petty, entrenched bullies using their power to harass the people around them. Power and authority are great indicators of character. I hope I do a good job with the measures that are entrusted to me.
How I left that company is a fun reminder to me that I have never had aspirations to be a normal anything. Wherever I am and whatever I’m doing, I want to be myself. I want to leave fingerprints of creativity and fun all over everything I do. Just because you’re working a job that a lot of other people doesn’t mean you have to be a drone. There are always little ways to inject life into your routine and leave your own personal signature on even the most mundane work. The thought that there were probably people who smiled every time they passed the poem I left outside my cubicle, or who laughed about “that guy who used to have Help Desk called him 007,” makes me happy even today.
Experiences like my 007 story impressed on me deeply how important it was going to be for me to find a career that didn’t want to extinguish my spark. I wanted to pursue work in which my creativity and fun-loving nature would be advantages to cultivate, not liabilities that needed to be squelched. I can’t work for something or someone I don’t believe in, my work needs to mean something to me, or my light starts to go out. Like I said before, everyone is different. Some people flourish in this type of work and really enjoy it. And don’t get me wrong, I’m absolutely a proponent of a good work ethic, and I don’t think work like that is beneath me at all. But that’s not the same as calling attention to the fact that there are definitely workplaces out there that are dreary beehives for corporate drones. I’ve fought for my life alone in the wilderness, and I can honestly say that didn’t scare me as much as the thought of spending my life in a place like that. We all have different seasons & way stations in life. If you’ve got to work in a job like that in order to make ends meet or to provide for someone else, that is a noble thing. But I don’t believe that means you’ve got to be stuck there forever. If it’s a choice between slowly trading your life away working for nothing more than a paycheck, and doing whatever it takes to fight for your soul, I hope you’ll choose to fight. I did, and it’s a choice I’ve been doing my best to honor ever since. I still have my company ID card from that place. I am keeping it because I know that someday I’m going to have children who will work jobs early on in their lives that they don’t like, in which people rub them the wrong way, and they don’t feel like they belong. I’ll show them my old company ID and tell them what I’m sharing with you know:
"Work hard, be yourself, and know that this is just a season of your life. Just because you’re here now doesn’t mean you always have to be. When your time there does end, do your best to leave on your terms, with your head held high. Remember that you’re going to look back on this as a chapter of your story someday, so make it one that you’re proud of, that you can learn from, and that you had fun with."