Over the course of this series, in explaining nine of the 10 Agent Bill of Rights, I thought it was best to help explain what Agents live through by giving you, dear reader, their stories.
Because I always want the focus to be on our Agents, I hesitated to mention any of my founding story of RTS to explain the Agent Bill of Rights (ABOR). But then I realized that especially in ABOR #10 — “Neither management nor you shall violate these rights,” it was important to tell the story about how I arrived at the philosophy now embodied in the social contract of the ABOR.
Publicly, I’ve always said that it was our board member and shareholder, Windyll Balasa, who gave me the idea — that the work we were doing in our Philippine Service Center for my other company, ModSolar, was so good with BPO work that we should look at doing it for other companies.
However, I’ve been hiding from the world the fact that there was another person who had a large influence on me not only starting this business but also in discovering all that is wrong and cruel about the BPO industry in the developing world.
He was an Australian named Dave (not his real name). Dave and I were originally 50–50 partners in the Philippine company, the subsidiary from which RTS now runs its Philippine operations.
I’ve decided not to use Dave’s real name, not because I have respect for him as a person — which I don’t — and not because our separation agreement contains an anti-disparagement clause — it doesn’t. Dave now realizes many of the mistakes he made, and I firmly believe that everyone deserves a second chance. Using his full name could hinder that. But, Dave’s mistakes cost him much more than the money his mistakes cost me. It cost him his marriage and a damaged relationship with his two girls.
I met Dave in Manila in the summer of 2014, on my first trip to the Philippines, when I was shopping new software development outsourcing companies for ModSolar. He owned a small piece of a larger, older 100+ person ITO company. The majority was owned by another Australian, whom I came to learn believed in dubious business practices, especially when it benefited him. Dave, unfortunately, learned from that guy.
Dave is an entrepreneur, but not in the inspirational Bill Gates/Mark Zuckerberg mold. He’s a scrappy hustler. He was doing the primary sales of new accounts for that company, and he had doubled their size in 18 months and was making some money.
Dave was traveling to Manila frequently, maybe once every six weeks, and often stayed there for two weeks. He and I met on a Saturday at their offices. After seeing their offices, talking with him and understanding what their business was about, including their pricing, he offered to take me out for a drink in the Greenfield neighborhood of Manila.
Over our first drink, we got to know each other, including talking about our families back in the US and Australia. Dave was one of five children, and his father had been an entrepreneur for most of Dave’s life. Being an entrepreneur was all Dave had known, and so that’s what Dave decided on as his career.
Dave was married to a woman and had two girls back in Australia. While we were there, he received a call from his wife, and it was clear by the tone of the conversation that they didn’t have a good relationship.
After he hung up, he immediately said, “Let’s order another drink.” I was barely through my first, and this next one was Dave’s third. By the end of the night, it would become clear to me that Dave may have been a functional alcoholic. (Later, after Dave was gone and I was negotiating his exit with Dave’s father, I was told that Dave had previously and now again sought treatment for alcohol addiction.)
While we were waiting for that next drink, Dave said, “I’m going to have a friend join us, do you mind?” I’m a sociable guy, and it’s my first time in Manila, so I didn’t think anything of it. I figured it was another male business colleague that was probably away from home on the weekend and looking to get out and be social.
The person wasn’t male, and it wasn’t a colleague. It was Dave’s girlfriend, Amy (also not her real name). Amy was 22 years old, (Dave was in his late 30’s then) very attractive, and spoke excellent English. They were quite close, and not afraid of showing it.
After a pleasant drink, Amy stepped away to go to the bathroom. There was a clear and uncomfortable silence between me and Dave. Then he said, “Look, mate, things with the wife are shit. And, Amy’s amazing.”
At the time, who was I to judge? People are adults and make their own choices. Globally, monogamy isn’t as prevalent as it is in American culture, and historically, humans haven’t been all that monogamous. But, of course, this wasn’t the point.
The point was that Dave’s wife didn’t know, and because of that call, Dave knew that I knew that his wife didn’t know, and on top of it, Dave wasn’t about to tell her. Amy knew Dave was married, knew that his wife didn’t know, and was fine with it. And they generally seemed happy together. Again, who was I to judge?
Dave eventually told me that they were in love and that he just didn’t have the courage to leave his wife. I nodded understandingly and then asked what may be the inevitable question of what his and Amy’s “arrangement” was.
As I would come to learn, when it came time to form a partnership with Dave for what eventually became RTS’ first service center in Iloilo, I stupidly ignored the signals — what Dave’s relationship with Amy, plus his alcoholism, said about Dave, and the type of person I was making my business partner.
Dave, in a very timely way, made it very clear what my initial answer should have been to forming a partnership — that I should have never partnered with Dave.
The first time Dave brought his sexual proclivities into our workplace was in March 2016. We were starting off a project with what turned out to be our first big client. Dave was responsible for being there and doing some of the initial organization. He did that, but as soon as he got comfortable, the trouble started.
In order to be in time sync with a US client, Dave was working throughout most of the night (the Philippines is either 12 or 13 hours ahead of the US east coast — so the graveyard shift in the Philippines is the busiest). That means he started his work late in the day. He’d get into the office around 3 or 4, work for a few hours, then go out and get dinner. It was the condition he was in when he came back to the office from dinner that started the problems.
He was always offering to take people out for drinks, first in groups, then individually. Dave was big — like 6’4”, and he had a way of using his size alternately to be friendly or to intimidate. On this trip, Dave was seen cornering a female employee in the hallway to “chat her up a bit, mate,” but would position himself in such a way that she couldn’t easily exit the conversation with the boss.
Later, when we installed cameras, he would send me a chat message to “bring up the camera” and talk about how attractive (he used crasser words) one or another of our female employees looked at the present time on camera. Employees knew there were cameras, but they were assumed for security.
In May 2016, we were there at the same time, and I started hearing even more disturbing reports about his behavior in the period between March and May. By this point, I was already concerned. As our business started to grow, I could see things getting more serious, both for the business and for him. Our original agreement was that he would do sales, and I would do operations and management. Soon, I was doing all sales, and Dave was just going there from time to time to “work.”
In July 2016, when I wasn’t there, two things happened that made it clear Dave wasn’t going to work out. First, Dave got drunk one night, locked himself and everyone out of one of the offices, and decided to break the door down to an extension office we had just rented. The landlord was furious and threatened to file criminal charges against him.
It was on this same July trip that the blow-up happened. Up until this point, Dave had largely kept his sexual tourist activities outside of the office. The blow-up is not an overly salacious story (those would come later before I cleaned house). When he was drunk again one night in the office, he touched a married female employee 100 percent inappropriately and without invitation in one of his “cornering” sessions.
I’m very thankful that she and her husband, who both worked for us at the time, spoke up and were very clear about what happened. I’m also thankful to the other employees who gave testimony so we could ensure, in compliance with Philippine law, that we had sufficient evidence to act. And, act I did.
I immediately barred Dave from our facility to protect our workers’ safety, and called him and told him so. I also informed him that the employee and her husband were considering filing criminal charges against him for sexual assault. Regardless of what the current president of the Philippines says publicly, and the impression those words create, it’s not okay. It wasn’t for Dave, and it shouldn’t be for our leaders.
In his apology to me after it happened, he again blamed the bad relationship with his wife, missing his kids, and alcohol. He admitted his mistake, but not in a way where he took full responsibility for what he had done.
It was Dave’s actions (along with the actions of others) and his key shortcomings that inspired me to write the ABOR, and ultimately to understand that any ethical BPO provider in the developing world needs a social compact, so that it’s very clear what behavior is okay and what is 100 percent not.
I often say that RTS is the anti-BPO, BPO company. This is reflected in many things we do differently, but none more important than how we work to protect our agents.
You would think that a company should never have to pledge to its employees that it will protect them from bad managers. But in fact, both ABOR #10: “Neither management nor you shall violate these rights,” as well as ABOR #5: “Your managers shall listen to you and treat you fairly,” are rules that specifically tell managers how they should behave. They are directly a result of our experience with Dave and a few others.
I have thought long and hard about accountability. Why is there a double-standard in the BPO industry between managers and Agents? Why can Agents be so easily fired, while managers can be exempt? Why can managers take advantage of employees, and get away with it? Up to and including sexual violence?
There’s a reason why ABOR #10 starts with “Neither management nor you..” instead of “Neither you nor management.” That’s deliberate on my part. I want managers to understand that the burden is on them, first, before Agents, to uphold and enforce these rights. When they screw up, consequences should be the same as they would be for agents. No double standard.
That is uncommon in Philippine society (and sadly, in a lot of developed world societies as well), where economic power gives one rights unequal to another’s within the same society. There are many examples of how the rich violate the law to their own benefit versus those with less economic power.
There are many wonderful things about starting a company. Probably the best, in addition to creating something of value that the world needs, is this: You have the power to create your own little world and society where things can be as you think they should be. Equality can reign inside the walls of your company, though it may never reign outside those very same walls.
The mission, vision, and values of RTS — along with the social compact that is the ABOR — create our own little society. And in our society, there are no unequals. Not even equity owners of the company. Or, should I say, especially not equity owners of the company? Everyone learned that when I removed Dave.
And like every other right, ABOR #10 is good for business. When Agents saw me remove first a partner, and then one bad manager after another, they knew that they would always get a fair shake; they knew that I would protect them. How much will they value a job, how well will they try to perform, and how much will they try and grow if they know they will always be on equal footing and safe? As I said, it’s not just about what should be, it’s about good business.
And what if I screwed up? As the founder and CEO of this company, am I different? You know my answer, but let’s make it more stark by considering the two worst possible actions I could perpetrate: either physically harming an employee or sexually assaulting an employee.
I say this to all of my executives and senior managers reading this post: If I ever violate these bill of rights, remember well ABOR #10: that management first has an obligation to behave according to these rights, then to uphold them, before Agents are expected to. If I’m proven to have done these horrible things — then you have an obligation to remove me from the CEO post — just like you will be removed if you do the same. If it ever does happen, I hope I will have the grace to go quietly, own up to my mistakes, as I should.
No, you can never remove me as “founder” nor can you take away my equity (Just like I didn’t take away Dave’s — I ended up buying him out). I have done or earned those things, and they are mine. But, if I do commit so egregious an offense that it normally warrants dismissal, then that is what you must do. If we can’t hold the person at the top responsible, what are we? What would it all have meant?
We would then be just one more unequal society in the world. And like I said, the best part of creating a company is creating things as they should be.
I think this is the way things should be. So, let’s start with ourselves. I encourage you to do the same.