WP215 Call center agents and the experience of stigma

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Call centers have been widely critiqued in academia, and by extension the media, for their widespread standardization. This paper argues that while this critique of working conditions has been well-intended, it has led to unwanted, widespread stigmatization of not just call center work but also of call center agents. While much has been published on call centers, the stigma this kind of work entails and the effect this has on agents on and off the phone has been overlooked so far. This paper applies Goffman’s notion of stigma to data collected through long-term ethnography and interviews with over seventy call center agents in a London call center. It shows how agents experience stigma, manage, and resist it. The analysis reveals that agents attempt to hide where they work by adopting different accents and avoiding specific lexis associated with call center language. The paper concludes by suggesting potential avenues for reducing the stigma of working in a call center, e.g. shifting the dominant discussion in academia beyond debates surrounding standardization.