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Poll: Would you share phone headset? Belfast call centre worker facing sack for refusing

By Claire McNeilly

A call centre worker is facing the sack for speaking out against a company policy that would mean hundreds of staff using shared headsets.

Cathal Young (45) said he was worried about lice after employees at Convergys were informed that they must leave the units on desks for the next worker after finishing shifts.

Workers were previously provided with individual headsets that could be disconnected and then taken home at the end of each day.

But this week, the company announced plans "to implement the shared headset process in order to significantly reduce costs", meaning that more than 860 staff across various departments will now share receivers.

Belfast City Council said it had received complaints from a number of staff at the firm's Springvale Road site - which is dedicated to Vodafone contracts - in relation to the new headset policy.

Speaking to this newspaper, Mr Young, a father-of-two and his family's main breadwinner, said he was frightened he would lose his £16,000-a-year sales associate job over "legitimate health concerns".

"It's already pot luck when it comes to what desks workers are at, and if we're all now going to have to use shared headsets then there are going to be health risks, such as lice and possible infections," he added.

"I love my job. I'm good at it. I don't think it's too much to ask our employer to give us our own headset, which is the fundamental tool for the job. I'm prepared to pay for a headset myself.

"A lot of my co-workers are very unhappy about this new policy, but I'm one of the few who has actually taken a stand on it.

"I'm now waiting on a disciplinary hearing for gross misconduct, so I could lose my job."

In an internal company email, Convergys outlined that its primary motivation for introducing shared headsets was to cut operating costs, including the price of missing equipment.

It said that "missing curly wires" and a "minimal" number of headsets being returned by workers leaving the company meant "a significant cost to the business".

The message instructed call centre team leaders to "audit bays as agents are finishing their shift to ensure that the headsets have not been removed".

It added: "All agents must be challenged if they are seen with headset in their possession. There will be no exceptions apart from those with a valid medical reason. Any agent found removing headsets should be subject to disciplinary action.

"PS. Once complete there will be no requirement for payroll to deduct cost of headset from leavers."

Convergys did not respond to our request for comment.

Mr Young, who lives in Annalong, Co Down, and makes a three-hour round-trip to work every day, said his brother, Phelim (30), was also facing disciplinary action for failing to comply with the new policy.

"I objected because I didn't feel comfortable exposing myself to using headsets that had been used by someone with unknown hygiene routines that I couldn't vouch for," he added.

Mr Young said he had a investigation meeting yesterday because he removed cable ties and brought his headset home on Monday, an act for which he will face a disciplinary hearing.

"I am facing a charge of gross misconduct, which can be (punished with) anything up to and including dismissal without pay in lieu of notice," he explained.

A Belfast City Council officer visited the company after complaints from staff.

"During the visit it was confirmed that the same headset was being reused; however staff have been advised to retain their own foam ear pads to promote good hygiene," said a council spokesman.

"HSE guidance was provided which recommends that ideally each employee is provided with their own personal headset; however as a minimum, each user must be provided with their own personal headset ear pads."

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