Friday, May 25, 2012
A Job That Got No Respect
It took a while for the penny to drop, but after working at the newspaper for a couple of years I finally figured out who the most important employee was. Not the editor; not the business manager; not the office manager who processed payroll and did our checks.
No, it was the switchboard operator.
The epiphany occurred when Jeanie Ewers, the extremely competent operator at the time I got hired, was promoted to a better-paying position in the business department, and a series of short-lived successors were hired to follow her. In hindsight, we should have raised Jeanie’s salary to what the editor was making and given her the switchboard job for life.
Nothing makes you appreciate a job well done as much as seeing it subsequently done badly. That’s when you realize how demanding the job really is and what’s missing in the performance of it.
When the city hall reporter is getting calls at deadline that were intended for the society desk or the classified ad department; when messages from missed calls have names so badly misspelled that you can’t figure out who they were from; when the call-back number for a school district official takes you to an escort service instead, it’s a problem.
And when all those things happen several times a day, it’s not happenstance; it’s not coincidence; it’s a bottom-line issue for the whole business.
In addition to those obvious mistakes were the more subtle ones that strained tempers and wasted countless hours of time. A complaint call that goes to the wrong editor wastes that editor’s time by interrupting him or her twice — once to take the call, and again to repeat the information to the editor it was intended for. A newsroom call put through to a reporter furiously trying to complete a story five minutes before deadline — when three other reporters were done with their work and sitting around — interrupts the reporter, can cause the paper to be late to press, and all but guarantees that the caller will be given short shrift. A good switchboard operator has an understanding of the business, combined with good powers of observation so nearly every call goes to the right person on the first try.
Considering the cost of these problems in terms of lost ads, missed stories, and wasted productivity, I concluded the paper should be hiring college graduates for that position and paying them executive salaries. Instead, they hired high school graduates and paid a hiccup above the minimum wage. In many cases, they didn’t even get what they paid for.
For all the prattle we hear about the efficiency of free markets, there are a lot of places where businesses are myopic about their own best interests. This is a classic example of what I would refer to as a silent loss. The boss can see the salary of the switchboard operator on the balance sheet, but there’s no line on that sheet to quantify the wasted time, lost productivity, and missed business caused by underpaying the operator and absorbing the ensuing havoc.
Once the people at a business get an idea in their heads as to the worth of a job, it’s almost impossible to change that thinking. If you think only a Harvard MBA can run the company, you’ll overpay for that degree and pass on some better candidates who may have lesser credentials but higher competence. If you think anybody can run the switchboard, you’ll underpay for that job and suffer consequences you don’t even realize. It’s a subtle form of disrespect that comes back to bite the disrespecter.