I have recently been watching (and secretly enjoying) BBC Three’s The Call Centre. The “documentary” follows the day to day events at a Swansea call centre under the leadership of CEO and self-titled Napoleon, Nev. It took me a while to realise that this was not some terribly clever spoof like The Office, but was in fact the real thing. One wonders how they sold the idea to Nev, and I suspect that looking back, he probably does too.
Nev’s management style can only be described as unique and I am sure there were numerous employment lawyers and HR managers watching from behind the sofa some of the goings-on. I have set out a few of my personal highlights and the potential issues below.
- After conducting interviews where one of the questions was simply “Do you want a job?”, Nev walked potential recruits through the Centre asking current employees whether they deserve a job. He even shouts “Good-looking Welsh girl coming through” when parading one of them. These acts may create an impression (put delicately) that successful candidates are not selected based on wholly objective criteria and that protected characteristics may have been taken into account. For example, the Call Centre has a high percentage of employees under 25 and an impression may be given to older unsuccessful candidates that their age was a factor. It may equally be, on the other hand, that anyone materially older would have the degree of self-respect necessary to know that he/she could not put up with Nev for any extended length of time.
- New recruits were made to sing The Killers’ Mr Brightside and Nev admitted that he has previously sacked people for not singing. New employees obviously would not have sufficient service to bring an unfair dismissal claim but if they did, I wonder whether “failure to sing” could be squeezed into one of the potentially fair reasons for dismissal. It could perhaps be argued that Call Centre staff need to be out-going and confident and any dismissal was therefore an SOSR one but I suspect that a Tribunal would prefer a suitability test with at least some passing relevance to the job in hand.
- When a member of staff at a training session appeared to be falling asleep, Nev threw a pen at him (though he did warn him to duck and said he aimed above his head). Whilst making very funny television, it could be suggested that such conduct is bordering on bullying. Do not try this at home, boys and girls.
- Nev paraded an employee through the office proclaiming her to be a “desperate female” and asking for “single blokes” in the workforce to give her a hug. No wonder she looked desperate. At first glance one might suggest that she has a cast-iron claim for harassment though a claim for direct discrimination may fail as we see him do a similar thing with one of the male employees later in the series. An asset at any dinner party, our Nev.
- When one employee missed her sales targets, Nev demoted her to tea lady. No apparent attempt was made to performance manage her first. Perhaps training would have been a better route and there would obviously be a risk that the employee could bring a claim for constructive unfair dismissal. We do not see her reaction to this. however, and it remains possible that her new role provides her with somewhat greater satisfaction than did being welded to the phone on tele-sales.
Interestingly, the company in question ranked highly in the Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For 2013 and many of the employees did seem happy. Maybe he is seen as a little harmless respite from an otherwise fairly tedious job. Ultimately, the current employees seem to have accepted Nev’s conduct and even embrace it. Adapting Nev’s catchphrase “happy people sell”, perhaps happy people don’t bring claims! But here is Nev’s risk – the fact that employees have not complained about discriminatory conduct on his part does not mean that they are not offended by it. You do not work at a Call Centre if you are over-burdened by other career choices, so they may be reluctant to complain for fear of having to leave. But all it will take for this Napoleon to meet his particular Waterloo is for one of them do so, especially when all the evidence is on film.
For those of you that have not seen it, I am afraid the series it is no longer available on BBC iplayer although this clip on the BBC website will give you a flavour.