We all have to live our lives with the cards we’re dealt. Life is not fair and bad things can happen to good people, but that doesn’t mean shouldn’t try to do the right thing, and make the world better where we can.
I know life in the developing world isn’t easy: every Agent in my employ faces many dangers in their lives. They have to deal with various threats from the moment they leave their homes to go to work, and sometimes when they go out and be with their family. Adding ‘unfair treatment at work’ to their list of worries isn’t fair, and it’s also not just.
As a business owner with a strong sense of social justice, it’s of great concern to me if the social and economic inequities that commonly plague human society — such as discrimination, unequal pay, and violations of the labor code itself — are creeping into our workplace at Rethink Fair Trade Outsourcing — the company that I built in the Philippines and later in Philadelphia.
The feelings of unfairness caused by perceived favoritism or biased treatment of employees lowers morale among our Agents. Lower morale is just the tip of the iceberg. Feelings of unfairness or no equality in the workplace can hurt the company in ways that will eventually destroy the relationship between managers and employees. This puts in peril the levels of productivity and client satisfaction that we’ve worked so hard to achieve.
That pervading lack of fairness in the workplace, especially in the BPO industry, inspired me to create the Agent Bill of Rights for Rethink employees. The underlying principle of Absolute Fairness is present in every right enumerated in the ABOR.
Turning Upside Down the Power Dynamics in the Employee-Employer Relationship
In developing countries, especially in the Asian continent where cultures practically instill submissiveness in people with subordinate positions in society, the power dynamics in an employer-employee relationship is less naturally egalitarian compared to workplaces in North America and Europe. It’s no wonder. These cultural practices have been ingrained for centuries, almost since societies first began appearing in Asia three millennia ago.
In the Philippines, this same power structure has existed since the first inhabitants were boat-dwelling villagers who organized themselves into barangays under the leadership of their “Datu” (Chief). It carries forward today. The behavior of workers towards those of a higher position is almost reverent. It’s a relationship that values obedience, above all, and allows inequity in the distribution of rewards.
For example, the mayor of a town is normally seen as the benevolent leader of his flock, but his position also grants him certain privileges that aren’t usually available to rank-and-file workers in government. A generous compensation package may be one of those privileges. Another may be exclusive access to business deals, giving them an insider’s view of investments they can sink their teeth into, so to speak.
However, such privileges create a fine line between bribery and gifts from friends, and it’s so easy for the mayor to commit graft and corruption as political hubris and greed darken a man’s (usually a man) heart.
Such disparity in power is also evident in workplaces in the BPO industry where the managers impose nearly impossible metrics on their employees. The whole system is rigged, designed to fail half of the new Agents to meet seat requirements while cutting down costs.
Thus, in this work environment, the only recourse for employees to climb up the career ladder is to find favor with one of the managers, which usually happens behind closed doors. This gives people in higher positions the opportunity to exploit those below them and engage in corruption.
That’s why the ABOR was born. My previous exposure to managers with shady reputations, especially one or two who showed disgusting behavior towards their subordinates, made me realize that in order to establish fairness at work, me and my board will have to lead the way in establishing moral leadership in the BPO industry.
At Rethink, I always make it a point to meet with employees in small focus groups. From these sessions, I gather a lot of insight into what makes our Agents happy or sad, what their fears and challenges are, and what would make them become motivated and more productive at work.
Focus groups aren’t the only venues for our Agents to vent. My managers make sure they have time set aside to talk with their Agents. Each team has a leader and they are encouraged to be supportive and communicative to their teammates, nurturing a trust-based relationship where Agents feel safe in sharing their thoughts and feelings, whether they’re positive or negative.
It’s a real-life application of the ABOR#5 which demands that managers take time to listen to their people. It sends a clear signal to our Agents that before we demand that they follow the rules we’ve implemented, our leaders should be the first ones to adhere to them. They should be the ones leading the pack in destroying the unfairness of the status quo in our industry.
And, it’s not just the BPO industry that’s guilty of such a one-sided approach to managing people. Almost all companies in every industry follow a traditional employee-employer relationship wherein the employer acts like a feudal lord in charge of a serfdom. The employees are no better than peasants who must toil day and night in order to feed themselves and their families.
Providing Equitable Distribution of Work and Compensation
At Rethink, we refuse to compromise with the way we compensate our people. Each job has a set of skills required to get things done in addition to credentials that a prospective employee is expected to possess. It can be the least number of units taken in college or a bachelor’s degree in a related field, or a certification for a technical specialty. But, each job has a corresponding salary and each employee with the same job receives the same salary.
However, employees working as data entry specialists may earn less than someone in a customer service job, and that customer support rep may earn less than a full-stack developer. Thus, we have parity in the distribution of rewards as well as equity in compensation based on skills and value of work produced.
At the same time, almost all of our Agents agree that they are fairly compensated with the amount and quality of work they are providing. Our Philippine center has an absenteeism rate that’s ten times less than the industry average, which means our Agents rarely miss work. In fact, our overtime take-up rates are generally over 80 percent.
According to J. Stacey Adams’ Equity Theory, when an individual experiences tension due to perceived inequity, that person will work harder at reducing that tension. Outwardly, an Agent who is treated unfairly may start to slack off at work or arrive late often. But, that’s not happening with our Rethink employees. The enthusiasm they have shown towards their work has developed into a strong sense of ownership over the quality of service they provide and the outputs they produce.
Promoting Fairness at Work Through Skills-Based Hiring and Promotion
When it comes to work distribution, we make sure each job can be done by anyone with a brain, a computer, and an internet connection. It can be either low-skilled work or higher skilled technical work, but the requirements for the job are based on skills only. Thus, Agents know what it takes to get in the door, and further, they know what it takes to walk through that next door with our company — on to higher level, higher paying work.
When we hire people, it’s important that we look at their skills more than the school they went to, the people they know, or the number of medals they received. In my introduction to this series, I proferred that university degrees and credentials are nice, but skills that can be proven are really the only thing we use to judge ability.
We have built assessments deep into the way we evaluate talent at Rethink. There’s a prove-that-you-can-do-it mentality, such that if we are unable to reduce someone’s skills to a number, we prefer to defer a decision until we can accurately evaluate them.
Case in point is the English Proficiency Training Program that we launched in 2018. We began our directed training classes early this year and we have already raised the proficiency dozens of Agents at least one level. With this “leveling up” in English, they’re now higher skilled, so we pay them more — raising their income by 7% to 10% depending on their starting base salary.
Some agents were able to level up two levels after taking just 1 month of classes. This puts them at “mid” or “senior” level English. This means that they now have the opportunity to progress into more senior CSR positions, and eventually, TL positions. This is where they really earn more money, becoming middle-income earners, and an anchor to their families.
An apprenticeship program for software developers is also underway and expected to produce highly skilled workers who can work on software or app development projects as soon as they graduate.
While we accept enrollees from outside the company, our desired group of learners must come from our own crop of IT grads. More than 35% of our Agents who work at customer support jobs are graduates of an IT-related course. The skills and knowledge they gleaned from their college education can be further developed through a supplementary learning program designed to teach them work-ready skills for the tech industry.
A Culture of Justice That Leads to Greater Purchasing Power Parity
As a fair trade outsourcing company, Rethink is dedicated to running not just a profitable business but also a company that cares for its Agents. It does this by building a culture of justice that promotes social and economic equity.
However, this is just the beginning. Rethink’s mission is to eventually raise a new generation of entrepreneurs from a pool of wage earners — a visionary goal that will greatly improve the purchasing power parity of workers in developing populations.
’Tis a concept worth exploring in another article.