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Labor organization and employment relations in Italian call centers during the crisis

Vincenzo Fortunato


Cet article traite du thème des relations et de l’organisation dans les centres d’appels en Italie, tenant compte en particulier des changements sociaux, politiques et économiques significatifs en cours, de l’impact de la crise financière, du processus de restructuration des industries ainsi que de l’importante diffusion des entreprises du secteur des services. Il devient particulièrement intéressant d’observer les processus organisationnels et les pratiques de travail dans les centres d’appel. Cet article vise à contribuer au débat sociologique sur le travail à l’intérieur de ces nouvelles formes d’organisation et sur son impact sur l’économie de la connaissance. À travers des données issues d’une recherche récente, menée dans 19 centres d’appels italiens privés et publics situés dans quatre zones du pays, et fondée sur 1 715 questionnaires, nous explorons le rôle et les caractéristiques des employés, les stratégies en matière de gestion des ressources humaines, les relations de travail. Nous accordons aussi une attention particulière à l’impact des différents contextes dans l’organisation et les pratiques de travail.

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1This article aims to contribute to the international sociological debate on employment and labor organization in Italian call centers drawing particular attention to workers, human resource management strategies as well as to the impact of such organizations in the service sector or knowledge based economy.

2By looking at the ongoing social and economic significant transformations as opposed to the past organizational fordist paradigm based on the supremacy of industry, full time employment along with a gender division of labor, several scholars (Drucker 1969; Crozier, Normann, 1990; Castells 2009) argue that the new society of information emphasizes the importance of “knowledge”, capabilities and new technologies as key factors opposed to capital and labor considered as the basis of the previous model. In the new scenario new jobs and occupations are appearing, which are different from the traditional blue-collar worker ones, which seem to be characterized by greater flexibility and instability. Recent analyses of changes in organizational structures and labor markets posit crucial developments. All, to varying degrees, argue that changes in the macro-economic and socio-political climate are driving important changes in the nature of employment and work. Standing (1999) points to the crumbling of what he describes as “labor market security”, which is a result of insecurity in employment, insecurity of income from employment and unemployment, and the fragmentation and detachment of social protection regimes. Others, (Felstead and Jewson 1999), point to a worldwide growth in flexible labor, where this refers to new forms of work, the erosion of voice, a break-down of internal labor markets, work intensification, employment insecurity, the return of labor brokerage, and outsourcing. In the European context, Grugulis et al. (2004) suggest the emergence of the ‘hourglass’ economy, where skills are polarized. They argue that while jobs become increasingly complex and skilled, the control employees have over their own work has not risen, and instead task discretion and autonomy has declined.

3In Italy, according to the CENSIS (2010) data the service sector accounts for 2.9 million enterprises (corresponding to 55.4% of the Italian firms) employing 15.5 million people. In terms of national GDP the service sector contributes around 70% of the whole, mainly distributed between private market services (50%) and public services in the areas of welfare and social care (21%). Nevertheless, the increasing importance of the service sector has not led to an internationalization of the service sector as well as an improvement in the quality of occupations created. In particular, in the last five years the most significant growth (24.7%) concerned low quality jobs, whereas professional occupations developed only 8.4%. Therefore, it appears there is a strong contradiction between the effect of the economic crisis, that has led relevant changes in production and labor organization, in typologies of goods and services demanded, in the competences and skills required of workers, and the fragile nature of the Italian labor market which seems to be unable to respond effectively to these challenges and find solutions to overcome the crisis.

4Starting from these assumptions, we explored the “world” of call centers as a typical example, of a new form of organization in the service sector economy. In fact, call centers have rapidly spread in all industrialized countries since the 1990s undergoing significant changes over the course of time. While looking at this phenomenon, Huws (2009) talks about “callcenterisation” underlining that a growing number of jobs around the world are organized according to the model of call center.

5With regards to the Italian situation, it can be noted that in the last ten years call centers have been one of the fastest growing businesses. From the approximately 700 employees in 1993, it quickly passed to 65,000 employees in 2002 and to 190,000 in 2004, before reaching the current 250,000, equal to 1% of the whole work-force. This growth is in line with the European trends, a market that today sees two million operators in call centers, equal to 1.2 % of the total work-force. This is, therefore, a phenomenon involving a significant number of companies/bodies and workers and that takes on a major importance in the development of the employment and the economy in Italy.

Theoretical framework and research methodology

6The growing presence of call centers is a varied and complex phenomenon that, until now, in Italy has not been sufficiently understood and studied. In the last few years there have been several studies and research projects, mainly carried out at international level (Taylor, Bain 2007; Batt et al. 2009; Batt, Nohara 2009; Huws 2009; Pierre and Tremblay 2011, 2012), that have explored the call center phenomenon from different levels of analysis. The sociological debate on call centers is characterized by a polarization between those authors who underline the return to taylor-fordist models of production and labor organization (Taylor, Bayn 1999; Callaghan, Thompson 2002; Glucksmann 2004; Winiecki 2004) in which the main features are stress, monotony, repetitiveness of single tasks, de-qualification of work, higher managerial control, and those scholars who instead recognize call centers as a symbol of flexible capitalism (Arzbacher et al. 2002) and who support the theory of a new organizational paradigm related to the knowledge based economy (Butera, et al, 1997; Campi, Palamara, 2002; Holtgrewe, Kerst, 2002). In particular, this latter approach emphasises the greater flexibility in organizing as well as the workers’ empowerment directly linked to additional skills and competences required in using new technologies and dealing with customers, problem solving activities, team-working and other work practices that should lead to a greater workers’ participation and involvement within the organization. Nevertheless, the limit of both approaches lies in their reductionist perspective, they take into account only private and commercial call centers while ignoring other relevant organizations such as public call centers, institutional, non-profit and public utility, that are growing in all sectors of public administration.

  • 1  We refer at the Global Call Center project (Holman et al. 2007) based on comparative survey and qu (...)

7In contrast with the international context, in Italy there is still a lack of studies on call centers and many of those that have been carried out have focused attention on local cases and specific areas of the country (Greco 2006; Corigliano, Greco 2009), by using a qualitative methodology. In addition, usually research has been carried out in in-house call centers that pre-eminently work in inbound, due to the fact that it is easier to get access and these are often characterized by better working conditions (better jobs), higher salaries, greater career opportunities, as opposed to call centers that work in outsourcing, which means external firms (generally small or medium sized) that offer their services in both types: inbound and outbound. Alike Germany and Spain and differently from France and Denmark1, at present in Italy outsourcing companies represent the vast majority and are particularly difficult to examine, but just for this reason they are the most interesting and challenging to explore. The lack of information is mainly related to the “union free” nature of the vast majority of the workplaces in which managers unilaterally set employment terms and working conditions, as also noted by Brophy (2009, 2010), leaving still unsolved the relevant problem of labor representation for a significant number of these “new” workers (Huws 2009).

  • 2  The paper is based on original data from a national research carried out in 2010 and financed by t (...)

8Thus, we consider that it is worthy and particularly interesting to explore the heterogeneous universe of Italian call centers by looking at different typologies that can be identified using criteria such as their private or public nature, the services delivered, their structure and size, in house or outsourcing activities. In particular, we suggest a relevant distinction between generalist or horizontal call centers and dedicated or vertical call centers. In the former type the assignments and organizational mission are multi-tasked, whereas in the second type call centers are specialized in single task activities. Looking at these criteria, we carried out a survey2 on call center operators working in 19 organizations located in four key areas of the country with different social, economic and institutional backgrounds and traditions (fig. 1).

  • 3  The questionnaire consisted in 54 closed questions articulated in five broad sections covering asp (...)

9In detail, findings are based on 1.715 questionnaires3 completed by workers of 19 call centers located in Lombardy, Lazio, Calabria and Sicily, selected by research groups in accordance with the size (in terms of number of workers employed), the private/public nature, the organizational typology (in-house or outsourcing), the kind of services delivered (generalist Vs dedicated), the workers’ tasks (inbound and outbound). Table 1 shows call center typologies and the number of completed questionnaires for each of them.

10The research presented in this paper addresses several questions. First of all, one of the aims is to fill the gap in international literature as far as Italy is concerned by increasing our knowledge on working in call center organizations. In particular, we look at call center operators and at their characteristic features, drawing particular attention to similarities and differences that can be related to specific areas of the country leading to increasing labor segmentation.

11Another key point concerns the fact that, as argued by Pierre and Tremblay (2011), call centers are traditionally considered high-turnover workplaces; with this in mind, we take into account that in Italy this may not necessarily be the case especially in some regions of the South characterized by high levels of unemployment among youths and women and the diffusion of the so called black economy. In fact, as stressed by Huws (2009), despite the similarities among call centers across the globe, national industrial relations systems, labor market features as well as other aspects of particular locations make a significant difference to the working conditions of call center workers.

  • 4  Project work (previously defined as coordinated and continuative collaboration), before the labor (...)

12One of the hypotheses guiding the research is therefore that, at present, call center jobs in Italy are not always bad jobs associated to precarious forms of employment, low wages and weak social protections, which is what emerged in previous comparative research on call centers in Europe (Altieri 2002; Isfol 2008). On the contrary, thanks also to the State intervention, through the law n.17/20064, in certain contexts and in specific periods they may be considered as “socially acceptable”, not only as a first job or temporary occupation. This argument might also support a more positive image of call centers considered as an “opportunity” for those territories and local institutions able to attract and retain such organizations, at least in the medium term, by using those practices defined by Pierre and Tremblay (2012) as forms of “socioterritorial innovation”, and as a source of competitive advantages. Finally, we try to explore the role of management and its strategies to achieve workers’ involvement to reach the company targets as well as managerial strategies to secure control over the workers.

Who works for call centers

13At present, in our society, working as a call center operator often represents the initial period of socialization within the labor market for young people with a medium-high level of education. This job also represents, above all for women, a period of re-socialization to work, of re-entry into the labor market after a period of temporary inactivity. Socialization of young people or re-socialization of adults to this new profession, still searching for a socially and/or labor recognized identity, assumes a particular form. It requires the involvement in a highly technological environment in which communicating relations with customers/users are not face to face; working motivations are often weak because they are combined with inadequate wages, scarcely satisfying working conditions in terms of contractual stability and ergonomic positions that are difficult to tolerate. Therefore, we analyze research data and we highlight the main operators characteristic features, the reasons behind this working choice as well as the required skills.

14The framework emerging from our research confirms a significant gender based division of labor within call centers, in fact 66.7% of workers are women aged between 26 and 30 (table 2). The need of flexibility required by this work seems to better fit with women searching to combine work and family care duties. Moreover, women seem to be also preferred due to their life skills such as emphatic and communicative capacities, relational and cooperative skills, greater ability to get used to behavioral standard, which are considered priorities in this specific field (Belt, et al. 2002). Not less important, women are usually more oriented to accept lower pay as opposed to men, particularly if they are married and consider their income as integrative to that of the male bread-winner husband. In fact, in our sample 46% are women who declare they have a family, as opposed to 30% of men. In general, over a third of the sample is married while 56.4% are currently single.

15As highlighted in table 2, there are also significant percentages of workers over 30, as evidence that in different regions of the country, in different ways, working in a call center represents a more or less obliged stage for a relevant number of people searching for a job. Interesting considerations emerge when we analyze data disaggregated at regional level. For example, there is revealed a clear distinction between Southern areas, where the highest percentages are related to the younger age groups and which significantly decrease with increasing age, and the Northern regions (especially in Lombardy where 26.4% of workers are over 46 years old – see Chart 1) with high rates also within older groups.

16On the two opposing sides, we have the case of Calabria where 61.8% of operators are aged under 30, as opposed to the Lombardy region where the percentage of younger workers is half that.

17A further element that strengthens the hypothesis of a polarization between two macro areas of Italy and, at the same time, allows us to define an identikit of call center operators, is the education level (table 3). In details, Calabria is, among the four considered regions, the one with the highest rate of young graduates and university students in call centers, amounting to 72.3%, followed by Sicily and Lazio. By contrast, in Lombardy the workers’ education level decreases, with a prevalence of high school diplomas and middle school leaving diplomas. With regards to the Southern regions, and above all the case of Calabria, we have to take into account the weakness and fragility of the socio-economic context, mainly based on the diffusion of small-sized enterprises in the field of construction as well as the scarce relevance of manufacturing activities. In addition, in these regions also known as the Italian “Mezzogiorno” the labor market is characterized by “extreme” levels of intellectual unemployment, mainly involving young people (one out of three) and women, through a strong effect of discouragement (Reyneri 2010).

18In Lombardy young people more easily find jobs in other economic sectors, so that working in the call center mainly interests less educated people or those who re-enter the labor market after particular events (such as maternity for women or unemployment or even the loss of a previous job in relation to the economic crisis). With regard to the education level and territorial contexts, in the Southern areas there seems to emerge the profile of an over educated operator in comparison with the characteristics of the job, with theoretical skills in different areas, often interdisciplinary; these features lead to a higher individual flexibility and adaptability in relation to performing tasks. In the case of Lombardy instead the operator profile is of someone less qualified and therefore more in line with the kind of job.

  • 5  As Reyneri argues “the over education, the objective or perceived difference between the education (...)

19Young people who start working in call centers have different personal reasons (table 4). Sometimes they deliberately choose this job, but more frequently it represents the only possible solution to obtain a job with certain characteristics of stability and social protection. Overall, the more frequent motivation is the lack of opportunities; in fact more than a third of respondents (34.9%) chose to work in a call center because there are no other job opportunities. An additional 9.5% accepts this type of job in order to face economic difficulties. Considering the expressive dimension (the construction of a life project) there seems to be prevalently, at least initially, a pragmatic approach among young people who attribute to work a mostly instrumental value, in order to procure necessary resources for changing work later. Despite working in the call center being perceived by the majority as a forced choice, but necessary to “survive” in a period of crisis and scarcity of opportunities, if we consider the other possible answers, we note other more positive factors which influence youths’ choices. Among these, the idea of a flexible work (23.4%) that allows them to reconcile life time and work time, that gives the possibility to combine this work with other paid activities5, and that creates relationships with people (clients/users). Other respondents emphasize the need to have a stable job (4.7%) or at least to come out from the black economy (1.9%). It is interesting to observe that only 3.6% of our sample says they chose this job as a transitory work, while looking for a better one.

20Observing the data disaggregated by regions (table 5) we note some important differences in percentages. For example, scarcity of job opportunities, along with economic difficulties, represent the most frequent reasons for young people from Calabria and Sicily, while dimensions of flexibility and of compatibility with other jobs assume greater significance for operators in Lombardy and Lazio.

21Still in the South, the experience in a call center is chosen because it represents a stable and regular job, not “in black”. Finally, the idea of working in a call center as a temporary job is more widespread in the North (where it is indicated by a third of respondents) whereas the percentage significantly decreases in the cases of Central and Southern regions.

22With regard to education, we note that young graduates (25.2%) and people with a high school diploma (50.6%) mostly indicate scarcity of opportunities as the most important reason at the basis of their choice, followed by the necessity of facing economic difficulties (45.4% and 20.9%). These are young workers aged between 26 and 30 (24.5%) and those between 31 and 35. Among the university students, the main reason is the possibility to combine work with other external commitments (47.8%), and therefore with their study activities. Regarding gender differences, crisis and scarcity of opportunities mainly affect women (65.3%), but also those people who have external and study commitments (72.4%). Therefore, analyzed data suggest a strengthening of the pluralization of work meanings (Gosetti 2007), that goes far beyond the classical dualism between instrumental and expressive orientations. Among factors influencing the work meanings construction, a significant role is played by those which have an objective nature concerning personal characteristics, such as young people’s age, gender and level of education. Furthermore, we have to take into account the social context and the family of origin in terms of social, cultural and economic status that significantly influence young people’s expectations of work. A common element between Southern and Northern regions is the central role of families in terms of safety net, an aspect that deeply influences the dependency on ascriptive variables. The path towards increasing work flexibility in Italy seems to affect mainly job stability/instability and a widespread difficulty, for young people, to define their life choices related to the transition to adult life. Particularly in the South of Italy, young couples are exposed to a context of flex-insecurity that leads to a mix of over-education, economic vulnerability and “passive acceptance”.

23After having examined the main reasons which lead young people to work in call centers, we can assert that often it represents a “pragmatic” choice involving sacrificing personal aspirations and study for the security offered by a stable job, even if low paid, without connections to the study background and with poor future work perspectives. Only few people chose the call centers as a temporary stage, while more often people made a conscious choice, in a period of their life in which there are no other chances for better jobs, adequate to their abilities. As highlighted by Gosetti “at the basis of the orientation to work for young people, there are some consolidated aspects, such as de-ideologization, pragmatism, negotiation, disenchantment, realism, and selectivity that does not correspond to work refusal, but rather it is a tendency to critically evaluate job opportunities” (Gosetti 2007, p. 163). However, especially in Southern regions, socio-economically disadvantaged, the call center in the mid- term becomes a trap for young workers, a “tunnel” in which it is very easy to enter but it is very difficult to get out of. In the South of Italy “ties” have more relevance due to the fact that opportunities for youths are drastically reduced. In fact, over a third of respondents (31.3%) have been working in the same call center from 1 to 3 years, but 66.9% are not currently looking for a new job (table 6) because they have become used to this job or they are “happy with it”.

Organizational environment, job features and the nature of employment

24As emerges from the literature on this subject, only rarely (Paulet 2008; Pierre and Tremblay 2012) has research explored the relationship between call centers and the external environment in which they are located. More often attention has been paid to occupational dynamics and to organizational practices mainly related to each specific structure. On the contrary, using our data we propose a detailed analysis of such a relationship which seems to have a great influence on human resource management throughout workers’ recruitment and selection strategies. In fact, looking at our sample, data proposed in table 7 suggest that family networks (Granovetter 1973) deeply influence both workers’ motivations, as well as management recruitment practices. In particular, 42% of people interviewed declared that they found the job via family contacts or friends, while 44.1% spontaneously sent a curriculum to the company or answered a job advertisement. Less widespread is, instead, the support of public labor institutions and above all the role of private recruiting agencies set up at the beginning of the 90s with the aim of promoting a better fit between labor supply and demand. This practice usually creates triangular employment relations in which workers establish connections with several employers. In Italy, and in the Southern regions more than in the other considered areas, finding a job is mainly related to a model which may be defined as “do it by yourself”. In addition clientelism prevails in institutional channels by considering that acquiring a full time job as inbound operator may often require a recommendation or sponsorship by politicians or other local authorities.

25At the stage of job interviews, the most required competences of applicants are mainly relational skills, not directly related to their education or professional qualifications (table 8). Concerning this, managers do not express any interest in skills achieved at school and certified by university titles. Although 40% of our sample has a university degree (BA and MA level) or attend university courses, only 4.3% of applicants were asked for a university degree whereas for 39.6% the required level of education was the high school diploma. Unexpectedly, the knowledge of foreign languages and marketing principles do not also represent necessary conditions required by this kind of job, while technological competences related to the use of computers and specific software, as well as team-working orientation, are more important.

26Good communication and mainly savoir-fare skills in dealing with customers are particularly significant for managers who look for these competences in over 70% of the cases. As argued by Della Rocca and Fortunato (2006) this is an explicit recognition that worker’ professional skills and abilities do not only and necessarily rely on their certifications such as school or academic titles or other public and corporation certifications, but they depend on how these certifications become effective behaviors and practices in delivering services. On the side of “acted” competences (table 9), those effectively adopted by call center operators, social representations confirm the above mentioned framework. In particular, 70% of the workers claimed that they “always” use relational competences in their working tasks, and 20% do it “often”. The same results concern the use of information technology competences and the predisposition to team-working. Another confirmation is the rare use of foreign languages. The unique difference is related to a quite widespread use of sale and marketing competences, above all for outbound operators, due to the specific kind of activities such as telemarketing, sales, market analysis, etc.

27To fill the cognitive gaps in particular fields, but mainly to “adapt” the workers to the specific features of the job as operators, in all the call centers we analyzed there is a training period which is articulated in two phases related with each other: training courses directly managed by the companies (75.3%) and training on the job under the supervision of senior workers (63.2%). Moreover, companies usually (in 17.7% of the cases) adopt self-training materials distributed to workers. Rarely (4.8%) are training activities outsourced to professional agencies or firms.

28Of particular interest is the analysis of contracts with which workers are hired (table 10). In contrast with previous studies (Altieri 2002, Isfol 2008), our research shows that working in a call center is, at least formally, less precarious than it appears in social representations. In fact, there emerges a difference between “standard contracts” and “non-standard” or non-traditional ones (Regalia 2009). On one side, probably as a result of the law n. 17/2006 (Circolare Damiano) implementation, the great majority (50.4%) of the workers have a full time contract, as opposed to the 22% who are employed with project or short term contracts. Between the various areas of the country there are significant differences. For example in the Centre of Italy (Lazio) there is concentrated the highest percentage of full time workers (60.4%) whereas the lowest (42.3%) may be found in the South (Calabria) along with the highest percentage of atypical contracts (40.1%). In general, atypical contracts regard almost exclusively outbound operators (84%) who have the duty of calling customers and convincing them, with different levels of intensity, to buy the product. The effort required of workers is therefore directed to persuade clients, along with the number of contacts and results achieved. Inbound operators instead are pre-eminently hired with permanent contracts (65.8%). In this case customers’ calls are in-coming and this would require a more experienced worker who is able to professionally deal with clients, with their needs and expectations. For these tasks the effort is related to listening to clients, to the management of calls, to solving problems, always offering a good image of the company. For this reason it is necessary to achieve the greater workers’ commitment through full time contracts. As far as the spread of temporary contracts, this kind of employment relation is particularly adopted by call centers located in Sicily followed by those in Lazio and Lombardy.

29Working time is another aspect that needs to be considered. Concerning this, looking at the weekly working time scheduling (including over-time work), there are no particular differences among workers. In fact, 23.3% of our sample work for thirty hours a week; 17.3% for forty hours; 17% for twenty hours, while only 4.1% declared to work less than twenty hours a week. Overall, the vast majority of workers (66.1%) affirmed that they appreciate their working time and shifts, with no difference by gender and age.

30In order to better understand the organization and the labor practices within call centers it is crucial to draw attention to the task carried out by workers (table 11). In fact research findings confirm a clear difference between inbound call center operators, who represent 34.8% of the whole workforce, and outbound operators who account for 24.2%. These percentages become even higher if we consider those workers who perform their task pre-eminently in inbound or outbound. From a qualitative point of view both typologies have different characteristic features that allow us to define two different identikits of call center operators. In particular, looking at the education level, graduated workers are mainly concentrated (58.4%) among those who work exclusively or pre-eminently in inbound, while outbound operators generally have a high school diploma (48.7%). On the other hand, if we take into account the age - as shown by Chart 1 - inbound operators tend to be a little bit older than outbound ones. 23.5% have an age included in the range 26-30 years, followed by another 22.6% aged between 31 and 35 as opposed to outbound workers whose highest percentage (23%) belongs to the range 20-25 years old. Another slight difference concerns gender; in particular 32.8% of women have an inbound job and this percentage decreases to 26.2% with an outbound task.

31Table 12 gives us a detailed picture of tasks performed by call center operators within the different suggested typologies thus underlining the main differences and similarities. A first aspect concerns the private or public nature of the call centers, in particular public call centers and, above all, those with over 200 workers employ almost exclusively (91.7%) inbound operators whose profile we have seen above tends to be more specialized and less precarious than other operators. Similarly, the inbound task is more widespread in big size specialized or dedicated call centers (66.2%) and in the generalist ones (58.2%).

32The second finding is that the “size”, in terms of workforce employed, is definitely important. In other words it seems that small sized call centers tend to be characterized by a greater use of outbound workers; this is particularly true for dedicated/single-task organizations as well as for the generalist/multitasking ones under 200 employees. Even from the point of view of salaries earned by operators there are differences directly linked to workers’ tasks and to employment contracts (table 13). Overall, almost half the employees of our survey (43%) are included within the range 500-800 Euros per month, but a significant percentage (about 20%) of the workforce can be found over the psychological edge of 1.000 Euros. On the other hand, only 12% of call center operators monthly earn less than 500 Euros. In a more detailed analysis, we find that the inbound or outbound task deeply influences the payment structure. In particular, 47.6% of operators who work exclusively in inbound earn a salary that may vary between 500 and 800 Euros, but the other 50% is more or less equally distributed over that limit and, therefore, inbound workers may also earn up to 1.500 Euros per month according to their working time and length of time employed. On the contrary, 37.8% of outbound workers earn less the 500 Euros whereas 38.3% of them are included in the intermediate range.

33To support our analysis based on job inequalities related to tasks and employment contracts, research data confirm that among call center operators who earn less than 500 Euros there are workers with temporary (73.4%) and fixed term contracts (13.5%). The highest percentage (35.9%) of workers with full time employment contracts are instead in the range 800-1000 Euros and another 54.5% belong to the further ranges up to 1.300 Euros. Furthermore, a basic (fixed) pay is the traditional modality of payment for inbound operators (60.3%) while outbound workers usually have both a fixed base pay integrated by incentives or economic bonuses related to the achievement of company objectives.

Employment relations and HRM strategies

34As argued by Normann (1984) many service activities, among which call centers, may be considered as personality intensity. For this reason several companies mainly invest in “social innovation” (Pierre and Tremblay, 2012) which means to invent and re-define roles, to discover new ways to manage and improve workers’ capabilities, to define new systems of learning, developing a positive organizational environment and good relations among workers. In fact, such a positive approach within the organization makes the achievement of business targets possible and simpler. Starting from this idea, we asked our respondents some questions in order to explore the nature and “quality” of employment relations and the level of workers’ satisfaction on various issues concerning their labor activities.

35Overall from workers’ social representations emerge a dynamic environment in which the level of interaction among call center operators, as well as with team leaders (the nearest in the management hierarchy) is quite high at the workplace. By looking at the relations with the management (table 14) the majority of workers underline the attention of managers to the establishment of a good social environment within the organizations, as well as a focus on workers’ needs, at the same time it is clear the management concern about the results.

36There, emerges therefore a working environment, which is, at least apparently, without conflicts and tensions both at a horizontal level among workers, and at a vertical level, with superiors with whom workers establish relationships that are mainly based on collaboration (65.2%) and friendship (43.1), as described in Chart 2.

37From this point of view, there seems to be a “democratic” leadership style based mainly on the informality of the relationships and a downwards devolution of responsibilities, in order to stimulate the sense of belonging and to enhance the participation of workers. Only for 19.4% of them does the leadership assume an authoritarian character, and for 24.3% it has strict control over the workers. The just outlined scenario is strengthened by the data shown in table 15 and relating to some aspects, that are particularly important in the management of human resources such as, for example, the ability of management to motivate the staff, the quality and specificity of training offered, the clarity of the tasks and roles according to the operating contract. Some problems arise, however, from the difficulty of properly exploiting the potential of individuals within organizations, as well as to recognize and give credit to the results achieved by the operators. Overall, also in the case of call centres, the search for organizational commitment by workers is a central element in managerial strategies to increase the efficiency of workers and, at the same time, to improve the quality of the service and this is substantially realized in the creation of a more pleasant working environment, free from conflict and tension, in which incentives and control over workers are carefully measured to obtain the best result. As noted by Pierre et Tremblay “there are call centers that do make efforts to couple economic and social performance taking into consideration working conditions” (2011, p. 54). In particular, management does have an option offering better working conditions to increase its retention rate as well as workers’ involvement to achieve quality and better economic performance.

38The policies of incentives and control do not seem to generate particular conflict or discomfort, at least at the aggregate level. Our sample indicates the existence of a system of incentives and penalties of a traditional matrix (table 16). In this regard, 85.3% of respondents said that the failure to reach the goals set by the company has consequences. A verbal warning is the most common result (66.5%), followed by economic penalty connected to premiums (48.4%). Obstacles to career progression are a negative consequence that almost half of all workers (40.6%) expect, together with a penalty in the allocation of tasks (34.5). The system of sanctions perceived by the operators goes up to job loss, expected by 36.9% of respondents in case of failure to reach targets.

39The type of contract affects fears of job loss; whereas for project workers it is expected, and to some extent inherent in the nature of the contract, such a concern is not conceivable in the operators with permanent contracts. However, 21.3% of these express the fear of losing their jobs. The type of call center and the dimensions suggest, moreover, a reading of more diverse business cases. In particular, it is known that of the people who are afraid of losing their jobs as a penalty for not achieving the results set 52.3% belong to the generalist type of call center with less than 200 employees. In contrast, call centers, especially larger ones, appear to provide peace of mind to operators in terms of job stability.

40Finally, to better understand the impact and the effectiveness of managerial strategies on call center operators, we asked them to express their level of satisfaction or dissatisfaction (table 17) regarding some key items related to the workplace concerning both material and psycho-social aspects.

41Workers’ social representations seem to confirm the Herzberg (1966) theory according to which there is a clear path to overcome the negative effects introduced by Taylor with Scientific management. Call center operators are almost exclusively satisfied, and in different ways, by those contents which are “external” to labor such as salary, full time employment, working conditions, good relations with colleagues and managers. On the contrary, low level of workers’ satisfaction concern the “internal” and more important content of labor which means career opportunities, greater involvement and participation, greater autonomy over their work, more creative tasks, a greater correspondence with their study background. It clearly emerges that management succeed in satisfying those aspects which are external to labor, but it becomes harder to accomplish with those requests that are instead directly linked and can definitely improve workers’ satisfaction, as well as motivation through a job-enrichment process. Therefore, looking at the examined call centers and at the specific tasks required by this job, we suggest that mangers be more willing and pay greater attention to reduce workers’ dissatisfaction rather than stimulate workers and increase their motivation.


42After having analyzed some of the most meaningful data emerging from this research, we will try to briefly outline some inherent aspects in the organizational dimension and the work practices that occur in the call centers in the survey areas. A first significant  aspect to be underlined concerns the figure of the operators, the characteristics and the motivations that influence these people in their work choice. Without any attempt to generalize the results of our analysis, the data give a rather heterogeneous picture in which the work in the call center and, above all, the figure of the operator assume a meaning and peculiar characteristics according to the specific territorial context. For instance, in Calabria there is the highest percentage of young people below the age of thirty (61.8%), and in Lombardy 35.8% are over forty. Analogous considerations are true for the level of education, in fact, among the operators of the Calabrian and Sicilian call centers there are the highest percentages of young graduates and university students. However, it is above all in the motivations and on the working choice that the social context and the relationship networks have a fundamental impact, contributing to define the different meanings attributed to work. Altogether, in this period of crisis and widespread absence of work, the lack of alternatives represents, in all the analyzed cases, the principal motivation pushing young people to work in a call center. In addition, in the South of Italy, in many cases this choice represents their only possible opportunity given the fragility of the economic productive system. In these areas call centers invest a lot and they occupy economic spaces left free by other entrepreneurial activities (Pierre et Tremblay 2012), absorbing the young work force which has a high-level of education and that cannot find any other position. In Lazio and especially in the case of Lombardy, instead, as well as the lack of alternatives, there is a wider acceptance of the idea of flexibility of work which is understood as the possibility to do other paid activities, to have work times that are not rigidly defined; or more simply to reconcile work and life time. Also the idea of temporariness gives us a measure of the differences between the analyzed contexts. In fact, almost a third of the interviewees (31.3%) have worked in the same call center for between one to three years. But above all, 66.9% of the interviewees declare not to be currently looking for a new job because they get on well where they are or because they are by now “resigned” to their lot. Among those people who are not searching for a new job “because it is okay like this”, 39% are found in Lombardy and 34% in Lazio, while the highest percentage among those people who declare they want to change jobs is recorded in Calabria and in Sicily (26.5%), or rather in those regions in which the operators are younger, with a higher level of education and more inclined to equate the studies done with the search for a better job. In substance, in the two Southern areas, which are more handicapped from the socio-economic point of view, the call centers become traps into which it is easy to fall, but from which it is difficult to get out even if you want to. While in the two cases of the Center and the North more weight is given by the interviewed workers to the subjective value of the rational choice, of the utilitarian dimension.

43With regard to the work content, work in the call centers does not ask for particular skills or abilities. What is important is the ability to communicate positively with the clientele, to interact with the others, to know how to resolve the problems if and when they occur. The savoir-faire prevails, therefore, over the know-how (Accornero, Carmignani 1986). The mismatch between possessed competences and those enacted is meaningful, there is no professional enrichment, above all for the outbound operators who repetitively follow the same “script”, which in the long run ends up with producing anxieties and frustrations in the young operators. Notwithstanding this, the climate inside the analyzed organizations is predominantly positive; in fact, there are good relationships between the colleagues and with the management, these are characterized by a collaborative leadership style, which is scarcely authoritarian and is directed to favor the commitment of the operators through the creation of a working environment in which friendship and informality prevails. In reality, the harmony and the collaboration that seem to characterize the surface relationships between the subjects, and the appearance of operator autonomy in the carrying out of the job do not hide the imperative of the production and the objectives that must necessarily be reached.

44In general it is necessary to underline that, however disqualified and alienating it can appear, the job in the call centers introduces some aspects that must necessarily be taken into consideration in our reflection. Above all, there emerges a very great distinction between inbound and outbound operators, to which there is added the possibility of a greater or lesser formalization of the employment relationship, full time permanent contract or project contract. The reading of the data substantially confirms the clean split between the two modalities to which correspond tasks, safeguards, different retributive levels with relative different intensity in the degree of work satisfaction. Synthetically, we can say that the “ghost of uselessness” (Sennett 1999) is a feeling felt at the end of the day more by the outbound operators than by the inbound ones. If, therefore, the outbound operators job is traditionally translated into what can be defined as “bad job”, the inbound job, both in terms of content and of image, socially appears more acceptable, to the point of becoming a “good job” even for the young graduates, especially in the regions of the South.

45Besides the territorial variable and the difference between the two principal tasks, another noticeable aspect to be considered is represented by the typology of call center. The distinction we proposed between different types of call center in outsourcing, multi-tasking, specialization, being of public utility, suggests some important considerations that influence the modalities with which the work is done, on the operators’ condition, and on the motivation. A first aspect concerns the public or private nature of the service rendered. In general, in the call centers of public utility there is the highest percentage of operators that exclusively and primarily work in inbound (over 90%), while in the multi-tasking and specialized call centers the two modalities have the tendency to combine. A further element, tightly connected to the type of call center, is represented by the dimension in terms of number of posts and of operators. In the smaller call centers the prevailing modality is the outbound calls, there are generally better working conditions and a higher level of satisfaction. As far as regards the working conditions, the most problematic aspects are found, instead, in the large multi-tasking call centers in which a sense of unease is manifested more frequently and the workers report lower levels of satisfaction.

46In conclusion, through these data the investigation suggests an image of the Italian call center as a non-homogeneous reality (Huws 2009), since organizational work and production modalities vary in function of some fundamental variables, such as the context in which the center operates, the business dimensions, the specialization of the activities or the size of the offer of the services, the work modality that is predominantly used, the public or private nature. The combination of such characteristics leads to significant differences, both in terms of work organization and conditions, in the profile of the operator as well as in the management of the working relationships. Taking into account such differences, it is possible to understand the operation and the internal dynamics of the call centers and, above all, the choices of young people, who in various contexts opt for this type of career.

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1  We refer at the Global Call Center project (Holman et al. 2007) based on comparative survey and qualitative research from call centers located in several European countries such Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain.

2  The paper is based on original data from a national research carried out in 2010 and financed by the Italian Minister of scientific research on “labor organization and wellbeing in Italian call center”, in partnership with researchers of the University of Rome “La Sapienza”, Milan “Statale” and Catania, in Sicily. As far as methodology, each research group chose call centers, in accordance with the identified criteria, in some cases among those companies available to cooperate with researchers and in some others delivering questionnaires directly to call center operators outside the firm at the end of their working shifts. In addition, we also experienced problems related to specific typologies of call centers such as the public ones with more than 200 employees which are less diffused in the South of Italy and those private-dedicated with less than 200 employees; this meant that we covered 19 organizations instead of 24 as originally foreseen in the research plan. Finally, we delivered at least 50 questionnaires in call centers with less than 200 employees and at least 100 questionnaires in those ones over 200 employees.

3  The questionnaire consisted in 54 closed questions articulated in five broad sections covering aspects such as socio-demographic information; workers’ identity and motivation, education and previous work experiences; the nature of work and the main characteristic features; employment and labor relations; working conditions.

4  Project work (previously defined as coordinated and continuative collaboration), before the labor reform promoted in 2003, represented for a long time the mostly adopted form of employment contract in Italian call centers (Altieri, 2002; Isfol, 2008). In practice, this traditionally led to a managerial abuse of cheap as well as flexible working contracts both numerical and functional. To avoid negative outcomes for workers and to reduce the spread of non standard contracts in call centers, under Unions’ pressure, the Italian Government defined a specific law n.17/2006 better known as “Circolare Damiano” (from the name of the former Minister of Labor and Welfare), which declared illegitimate the management use of such a contract for inbound and mixed activities, leaving it still possible for outbound tasks only. Following this institutional intervention, social parties reached an agreement to set the guidelines that companies would have had to accomplish to turn non standard contracts in traditional forms of employment.

5  As Reyneri argues “the over education, the objective or perceived difference between the education level or personal knowledge and the specific work role or the required knowledge, is widespread in all European countries, even if with different degrees. This condition mainly regards youths, especially those ones who have temporary jobs, and the phenomenon is increasing in all European countries” (2009, p.54).

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Vincenzo Fortunato, « Labor organization and employment relations in Italian call centers during the crisis », Revue Interventions économiques [En ligne], 47 | 2013, mis en ligne le 13 février 2013, consulté le 26 mars 2017. URL :

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Vincenzo Fortunato

Università della Calabria.

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