As the elevator door closes, but before it begins its descent, the boss or HR manager on the other side of the door hears an employee impulsively mutter what he thought was an entirely private thought, “x!@!!*!# boss!…#!*@!!x! job!”, after swiftly calculating that it was safe to do that, since no one was (supposed to be) within earshot.

Should the boss or manager do anything with that “information”?

On-Stage Muttering before an Unseen Audience

The hypothetical situation described is somewhat like that described by “NG” (abbreviated here to prevent compounding his professional misery by identifying him by his real-name-handle) in a forum at, a huge Illinois-based social networking and information site for U.S. cities, with lots of employment-related postings (total postings: more than 11,000,000):

“Well, I worked at a call center for ATT (Sales and Services). On the 11th of this month I was dealing with an irate customer. After the customer hung up, I said (expletive deleted) you!” Earlier today, my supervisor called me in for a meeting. She told me that corporate had heard my call. Apparently they can still hear after the call has ended and heard my remark.

I had really great sales, always followed my call flow, my talk time always met goal, and my QA scores were always passing. My supervisor told me she tried to talk to corporate to save me but they didn’t budge and told her to terminate me.”

That kind of mutter “bleed” can clearly get an employee into trouble and maybe, as in this case, booted out the door.  I said “somewhat like” above, because the call center agent was on the job at the time of the incident, rather than in some remote free-time location.

But what about cases in which being overheard is neither expected, nor in the workplace itself (e.g., in another office-building’s elevator or the men’s room on another floor), nor a risk inherent in the company’s monitoring policies or technology (e.g., calls that continue to be “recorded for quality assurance” even after the phone portion of the call ends)?

Terminated NG (which is not short for “No Good”) made the fatal slip of staging a crude soliloquy while at work, without realizing that even if “all the world’s a stage” is not true, the office is certainly one—and like most stages, one with an audience, perceived or not.

Say Something, See Something (Happen)

OK, so he got caught. Should his ears-like-a-dog supervisor treat it as “water under the bridge”, or as fire that will burn NG’s bridges behind, under and ahead of him?

Setting aside the legal issue of whether an employee could conceivably be fired for muttering something (besides threats) no one but the person responsible for firing him hears, there remain two other issues important enough in their own right to warrant exploring them: the strategic and moral questions associated with firing a venting office-soliloquizing Hamlet

  1. overheard while at the workplace.
  2. overheard while elsewhere (on rough analogy with being caught red-handed on off-site (red)Facebook)

But before exploring the rights and wrongs of such “Hamlet firings”, it is wise to be aware of the smarts: A smart call center agent will realize that for as long as 10 or 15 seconds after the customer has hung up, the recording software and call configuration, e.g., “ring and tone VOIP”, can continue recording.

This was confirmed by the agent in a call to my bank and is otherwise a common occurrence. So, employee beware! (Employer—enjoy the surveillance bonus!)

Likewise, a client or customer response after an agent disconnect could possibly be recorded for a few seconds, thereby providing information about whether or why the agent call disconnect was one-sided.

Forgivable Water—or Fatal Fire—under the Bridge?

So, how should the boss or HR manager respond, if at all? For a moment, consider the possibilities from the strategic and moral point of view (rather than from the legal standpoint). The possible strategic and moral responses as alternatives to firing include

Don’t react: “No harm done,” you say, because the customer had already disconnected, literally, if not emotionally. Besides, although the question as to what the law in fact allows is set aside for the moment, to the extent that the law may be vague, flexible, variable (e.g., depending on the region) with unforeseen consequences for the company, that uncertainty can give enough pause to justify not reacting.

Against this mellow non-response and despite whatever legal fuzziness there may be in firing the agent, it can be argued that the potential for disaster on this and future occasions was and is unacceptably huge. Suppose the customer had merely dropped the phone and then picked it up to resume listening, creating the false impression of a call disconnect. If that didn’t happen during the recent call, the harm done is that a potentially disastrous habit would be reinforced by a supervisory or monitor’s non-reaction.

Check the employee’s file for any mention of Tourette’s syndrome: This may sound like a joke, but the point is that it may be worthwhile to search for extenuating circumstances, such as acute stress—especially if the employee in question is otherwise a valuable company asset. This makes sense from the financial strategic perspective, for obvious reasons, such as cost-saving staff retention and avoidance of possible law suits (even if frivolous).

What’s more, if “private” mutterings are going to be sufficient for the firing of that employee, a precedent will have been established for firing, instead of rehabilitating, reprimanding or otherwise retaining the next out-of-line office Hamlet—which can lead to  (more) cases of “If it ain’t broke, don’t torch it.”

Another posting on the city-data site claimed that a boss who fired a customer service rep for cursing under his breath in the presence of a customer also “bragged” about what a great employee the rep was before that incident.

However, the cost-benefit picture here differs from that of the possibly corrigible office Hamlet who does no immediate harm, since there was a probably adversely affected third party, the customer, present at the time of this separate multi-person incident.

Schedule “sensitivity training” for staff: To maximize the likelihood that the offending Hamlet would get the rehabilitative message without having to be singled out (which can have damaging consequences of its own), arrange a sensitivity training session, or, more simply, just have a short meeting about the issue, to nip it in the (already partially “blossomed”) bud. The point can be hammered home by making it clear that the meeting was called because of such an incident and that the culprit has been identified (without revealing who it is—which will, in any case, be unnecessary, since the gossip mill will shortly fill in that blank).

Notify the union, if there is one: At the risk of finding yourself embroiled in a debate or law suit about employee free-speech rights, you could raise the issue with the employee union rep, if there is one. That just might have some effect.

Review the tape to assess and improve agent-customer procedures and relations: Sitting down with Hamlet and reviewing the interaction with the customer could prove invaluable in several ways:

1. It restores a collaborative tone to the working relationship, as an offset to whatever sense of alienation that may have been a factor in his outburst.
2. It offers a valuable data-mining opportunity for the purpose of analyzing and improving the formats, protocols, procedures, etc., of agent-customer (scripted) interactions.
3. It allows the agent to salvage his self-esteem and add positives to the negative experience.
4. It is likely to engender gratitude in the agent that can translate into better performance.
5. If proposed in a non-threatening, conceivably even light-touch way, it could make the agent comfortable with using the tape as a group lesson— this, however, being the least likely outcome.

Focus on the employee’s intentions, not on the consequences of his behavior:  In ethics, a big fuss is made about the distinction between the moral (de)merits of intentions vs. the moral (de)merits of consequences of one’s actions. Since we are certainly more directly responsible for our intentions than for the consequences of our actions, it seems reasonable to argue that the office Hamlet should be morally judged by what he intended than by the unintended consequence(s).

Equally importantly, if, on the other hand, it is insisted that consequences count more than intentions, the office Hamlet should still not be fired, because there were no dire consequences, save for the above-mentioned risk of reinforcing his monologue habits by failing to react in any way whatsoever—which, as shown above, is only one of the many available strategic and moral management responses.

From this moral perspective, there is only one proper response to an office Hamlet who has done no harm and who, in a thought-to-be solitary moment, mutters !@x!*!%x! or asks, “To be, or not to be?”

Let him be….

…But make him learn.

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