Sitel’s Chief HR Officer responds to Xpress story on union drive

After the publication of Xpress’ Aug. 1 cover story on the union-organizing drive at the Asheville Sitel call center, company representatives contacted us and asked to talk in more detail about their stance on the issues of wages, working conditions and unions. Sitel Chief HR Officer Michael Wellman apologized that the company had not spoken to Xpress before the story went to print and commended Xpress on “a well-written article” that “fairly positioned responses” from the company based on publicly available information. He offered the following statements on Sitel’s position.

Wellman: From Sitel’s perspective, the Asheville location has been there for over 15 years. It went through a couple changes; it’s been part of Sitel for the last seven to eight years. It was part of acquisitions through the years and our site director, Jean Harmon, has been there 22 years. So we’ve been a part of the Asheville community for at least 15 years, connecting ClientLogic and Sitel. We’ve been a big part of the community and one of the larger employers in the Western North Carolina area. We try to do what we can to give back. When we think about bringing jobs into the area, we started with an average of 200-250 employees, we’re now up to 534 associates. That’s a huge support to the community and shows our civility in making sure things are right to give back [to the community] as well.

Xpress: You mention Sitel’s long involvement in the community, has it been a surprise as these complaints about working conditions and the union drive have emerged in recent months?
I would say yes. We as a company look at our associate satisfaction surveys that we do, we look at trends from the employee perspective. Every business when you have 200, 500 employees you tend to have challenges that come up, but we feel we manage them proactively. We’re pro-employee, not anti-union. There’s a lot of fundamental programs we have in place. To see the level that’s going on in regards to the media and the press, I would say yes [we’re surprised], especially with the things we feel we’re doing really good at.

As you know with any business — including where you work — there’s always opportunities [for improvement] from our associates, and we ask what we’re doing to rectify those things. There’s always going to be items that are brought back to us that we need to work through, but I would say again that we’re surprised that it’s gotten to this point.

Is the picture they [Sitel employees pushing for a union] paint of wages — of $8 to $9.50 an hour — that has fueled some of these complaints, is that an accurate depiction of wages at that call center?
So we look at our wages for our employees, we look at what the market is paying. That market is a variety of jobs. It’s not just contact centers, it’s any service industry, it’s any sizable industry within the business that we’re going to go into and stay in. So we always look at that data at least on an annual basis. Our starting wages varies. It’s $8 but we also have step programs which allows our employees — the longer they stay with us — to receive higher wages. We feel like it’s competitive with the market and competitive [when combined] with other things that we provide to our employees.

You mentioned earlier that Sitel is “pro-employee, and not anti-union.” In a little more detail, what would you describe as the company’s stance on unions and collective bargaining?
We feel like the management and leadership of our organization are able to work through and manage day-to-day with our associates and don’t feel it necessary that a third party help manage through that.

Are there any union shops in Sitel call centers in the U.S.?

But I understand there are union shops in other countries Sitel has dealt with.
As you noted in your article, we’re in 27 different countries and there are unions that represent our employees in some of those other countries. Some of those are legacy collective bargaining agreements that we had through acquisitions and changes in business, so those are ones we’re managing. Our goal, again, is that we feel we’re pro-employee, so if we do the things we say we’re going to do for our employees and our associates, that we don’t need to grow beyond that. We want to make sure we take care of our employees.

Since this drive has emerged at Asheville, what has been the reaction of Sitel’s management?
Management at all levels is concerned, especially when we go through any items that are raised. Is there truth behind them? If there are issues, what are we doing to rectify them? That’s always a concern, because most importantly we want to make sure our associates are being treated fairly and that we’re managing our location in Asheville no different than we’d manage any other location across the world and that our management staff is providing the utmost support of our associates and managing through any issues that might come up.

Some of the issues that have come up, from the IBEW’s assertions as they’ve filed these complaints with the National Labor Relations Board. Sitel has responded that the complaints are not valid. Can you say anything more about those at the moment?
I can’t go into any details about those at this point.

Past those complaints, has management engaged in any activities to discourage any of the workers from joining the union drive?
Absolutely not. In fact, we hold our management staff to a high level of accountability and we have zero tolerance for that.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about this issue at the moment?
I think it is an issue. As a company, we’re not happy it’s occurring. We do appreciate how you’re positioning it for a broader audience and we want to make sure the communications around the facts. We apologize that we didn’t have an opportunity to talk to you beforehand, but want to make sure going forward that we can help you as you craft your communications.

Again, we’re not anti-union, we’re pro-employee. We’re proud of what we’ve done as a company to support our associates and we want to continue to do that.


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9 thoughts on “Sitel’s Chief HR Officer responds to Xpress story on union drive

  1. Matthew Burd

    “Past those complaints, has management engaged in any activities to discourage any of the workers from joining the union drive?
    Absolutely not. In fact, we hold our management staff to a high level of accountability and we have zero tolerance for that.”

    Well now, lets see whos been fired since that cover story was released.

    • majicks82

      Not a single person. Well that’s until they start moving volume out of the site and slowley shut us down that is.

  2. cwaster

    Yeah, right. In my opinion they are just concerned because they are getting “outed” on the low wages and unpleasant working conditions. This is clearly PR damage control by HR folks on their parts. I for one am glad to see the dirty laundry exposed for all to see. Mr Wellman admits $8 as a starting wage according to the above statements. That’s not even close to a living wage in this area and I’m sure they know it.

  3. Boulengerina

    The last paragraph bothers me… They are proud that they pay poverty level wages, and they hope to continue to do so.

    Meanwhile, their competition pays much, much more, to the tune of several dollars an hour.

    If Sitel is so “pro-worker”, why don’t they start pay at the established living wage for the area, and re-institute the “step programs”, as Mr Wellman calls it, and unfreeze the wages that have been frozen for YEARS.

    I don’t know if a union is the answer, but it sounds like something the current Sitel employees should seriously consider. Mr Wellman’s statements above are as transparent as air to those that have been exposed to the wages and conditions within Sitel.

  4. Organiser

    While it is supportive to the community to offer employment, it is more supportive to help the working community prosper alongside their employer, rather than stagnate at $9.50/Hr after the 2nd year of employment.

    Every year I have taken the employee satisfaction survey, I have addressed wages, and I, and many others, have been ignored. Yes, Sitel offers discounts with many companies, such as mobile phone service providers, computer merchants, and others, but we wouldn’t need those if we were paid a living wage. What exactly are the things you feel you’re “doing really good at?”

    What exactly are the “opportunities [for improvement]” of which you speak, beyond promotion? Once workers earn $9.50/Hr our wages are capped. If the NLRB quotes the average call center worker earning $14.75/Hr, and we earn up to $9.50/Hr, with which industry or nation are we competing? The “step programs” of which you speak are promotions, rather than pay raises for the workers. I’ve been with the company 3 years and was capped at my 2 year mark and have no incentive for higher pay short of promotion; I also have coworkers who have been with Sitel for 5 years and haven’t seen a raise in 3 years. It isn’t possible to promote all employees, as you would then be without workers, so the worker is stuck with an “open door policy,” no say in their treatment, and no hopes of future pay increases.

    Management at the Asheville Sitel location have engaged in traditional union-busting tactics with their mass employee meetings which reminded us of the dangers of organization and how well we have it now, though we have no chance of an increase in pay without promotion, as well as the letter we all received on our desks two days after the recent Mountain Xpress article was released.

    If you were truly “pro-employee” you’d allow us to improve our standards of life by offering pay increases, rather than forcing our hand to turn to organization as the only option for better wages.

  5. Not Suprised

    The most dangerous weapon at Sitel is now a 3X5 card with the IBEW logo and YOUR name on it..

    We have hundreds of them. Sign one. We won’t tell on you.

  6. truth

    It’s 600 jobs…if our local economy is so plentiful Sitel wouldn’t be paying the wage they are paying…please somebody show me the opportunity for 600 people to get a job in Asheville paying a wage that is better. No employee is forced to be at Sitel? If wage is an issue then it’s a local economic issue. Why run out one of the biggest employers in Asheville over a 1.00 an hour. Ask yourself, will it change your life? Will it make it better? And by the way, will it offset your union dues? Common Sense it’s real people….

  7. ClobberinTime90

    majicks82, do you not understand they cannot do that without violating federal law, what dont you understand about federal laws!

  8. Ken Ashworth

    Dear Truth:

    “if our local economy is so plentiful Sitel wouldn’t be paying the wage they are paying.”

    Thank you for confirming what many of us have attempted to convey. Sitel employs a business model whereby they deliberately expand into economically deprived areas or emerging off shore economies, in an effort to exploit the most vulnerable worker populations, in my opinion.

    Desperation breeds exploitation, even if those being exploited are not fully cognizant of that fact. There are two other inustries in Buncombe county who offer similar services as Sitel, and they pay a starting wage of $9.50 or more with experience.

    How can these two companies “afford” to pay in this range and Sitel cannot? Sitel tops us out at what these toher call centers start at.

    “please somebody show me the opportunity for 600 people to get a job in Asheville paying a wage that is better”

    Sitel has hired over 7,000 persons to maintain a workforce of 600. This means 6500 persons either quit or were terminated from Sitel, which represents a 1000% turnover. In order for a business to achieve the kind of status you are attempting to attribute to Sitel, the jobs must be sustainable. 6500 people is more than the population of several towns in our area.

    “Why run out one of the biggest employers in Asheville over a 1.00 an hour?”

    This comment assumes two highly implausible scenarios:

    1.Who exactly, would “run Sitel out of town?” A previous response should have covered this. The above comments from Mr. Wellman inidcate nothing remotely approaching a desire to do anything other than remain a part of the community and work with us because Sitel is pro employee. uf yoou are suggesting something else, I suggest you coordinate with Mr. Wellman who seems to indicate otherwise.

    2. $1.00 an hour is a hypothetical number you chose for your own purposes and does not accurately reflect any current data I am aware of. Though I cannot nor do I propose to speak on behalf on any union that I am not either a member nor an officer of, I can cite a well publicized figure that is geneally accepted by industry and organized labor, that union employees make about 29% more than non union employees.

    Even using the unrealstic base pay of $8.00 instead of the prevailing competitive pay of $9.50, 29% of $8.00 isn’t $1.00. It is close to $2.50 an hour.

    Your “truth” sure does assume a great deal….

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