Telstra culture and death

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(Image by Bidgee via Wikimedia Commons)

For the longest time, I have remained silent on my experiences working with Telstra. Fear of retribution, loss of income – or worse – have, stopped me from taking greater action for myself. Now a person I knew and worked with is dead.

Many others are left to toil in the general cesspool that is Telstra, are facing a great struggle. They need a voice, and they need action.

I’ve had numerous run-ins with Telstra’s human resources (HR) teams over the years. Risk minimisation and siding with management are main priorities, which of course are refuted. With no such written rules, they would never leave themselves open to such a blatant challenge. They are smart and they know it.

Telstra employee support mechanisms contradict themselves, continually making the same brutal assumption: the system is perfect, it must be the employees that are a problem. Systems like the corporate Employee Assistance Program (EAP) offer counselling services to employees, who generally access it to help them come to terms with what is going on in their organisation. Except there isn’t a feedback loop: nothing changes where the problem is occurring. These are programs designed to help stop the bleeding, however there has never been any fundamental change in how Telstra acts.

My story

A number of years ago, I worked in a team that serviced enterprise customers directly within Telstra. Experts and leaders, we were able to get things done for our customers, receiving amazing feedback promoting us as real customer advocates. I remain in contact with many, who tell me Telstra never really changed their modus operandi. They were always thankful the team was there to help them navigate “all of the typical bullshit in Telstra”.

In a restructure, a new manager was recruited. A traditional command-controller, he brought his micromanagement stick and created matrices of performance targets he believed were important. Customer service suffered directly and customers told us their experience suffered from the changes we were required to implement. Some customers told us to ignore the manager, keeping on doing what we had been doing for them all along.

This put many of us in a difficult position.

Screws began tightening. Trying to meet unreasonable and unrealistic targets increased stress and depression for the entire team. We would meet in secret, talking about the manager’s behaviour and what we could do. Connecting with our contacts inside the company to try and work out what options we had, we found there was no meaningful pathway out.

A talented group of people began to dwindle. After two of the most senior members of the team left Telstra, the manager began ferociously targeting me. As someone who will challenge the status quo, this wasn’t a surprise. My annual rating was dropped, despite being extremely high the year before. Upon challenging this, HR amended it. The damage had been done; he’d lost a fight and the game was on.

He flexed his authority: demanding my location; what I was working on in extreme detail; demanding I share my calendar so he could track meetings; use of communications tools to note where I was and wasn’t on break. All the tip of a massive iceberg.

Another colleague of mine was under so much stress he had increasing time off work. The stress filtered through to his personal life. His wife suffered a miscarriage. He subsequently quit the company.

I searched for other jobs, while making complaints to the HR representative for the global team — as did others. Investigations found the manager was right to be acting in the manner he was. However, he committed to undergo “training” to better understand the needs of his employees and the "values" of the company.

I started utilising the EAP program to help manage my stress created by this toxic environment. The counsellors were worthless; simply people you could talk to about your issues. They told me first hand they couldn't help change what was going on in the organisation, though telling me it “sounds dreadful”. Geez, thanks!

I went on stress leave for a month. My doctor told me the situation was ridiculous and I should seek further assistance within the company. I tried again, hitting brick walls everywhere I turned.

More people quit the team. This was when I first met the recently deceased. He joined as a senior member when the team was extremely short-staffed, yet the workload was increasing due to poor customer experiences. He knew how to play the Telstra game: do what you’re told, dance through the hoops, when say "jump" — you say "how hig". He played it well — on the surface…

Finally, I was offered a role in another team; I got the hell out. That wasn’t before the manager tried to get one last jab in, giving an extraordinarily awful reference, presumably in an attempt to sabotage my new role. Thankfully, I had filled-in the new director on my plight. Not all people in Telstra are bad, after all.

In his wake, the manager racked up HR complaints from at least four individuals and lost no less than six people from his team. He still works at Telstra.

I was out of the nightmare, into a new team working with people directly in organisational behaviour and the betterment of customer experience. What a dream… until it all came crashing down again, thanks to another restructure.

Recently departed

I don’t know very much surrounding the circumstances and I want to be respectful to family, friends and loved ones with what I say here.

What I know is this Telstra employee (a former team colleague of mine) was on extended stress leave until recently. I also know he continued to work with the manager described above for some time, before moving to other areas within the company. I can’t help but think of what he went through. His experiences within Telstra were similar to mine – unreasonable pressures, impossible deadlines, ridiculous targets.

This man was good, a hard worker, and passionate about the customer. This unreasonable stress and culture contributed to his death. The environment breeds bullying and vindictive behaviour, creating unnecessary stress through unreasonable actions. The toxic culture throughout the company leaves carnage ripping through families, breaking people.

Management circulated an email to Telstra staff informing them of his passing. The email dutifully reminds staff of Telstra’s EAP program they can utilise in case they need to speak to a counsellor. They encourage everyone to “let their people leaders know if you have personal concerns”. What a joke.

Cultural norms

The toxic environment Telstra fosters is supported by blind management who only care about their own seats on the board, and their own stock options. They don’t understand that culture can only grow organically, it cannot be forced. They don’t realise the machine they have created: a soul-destroying monstrosity which breaks people, puts customers last, and puts profits first.

They think it's normal.

This is in the face of organisational experts like myself and everyone else who have given presentation after presentation showing them why things need to change.

I still have hope for Telstra, as weird as it sounds. Someday, they might listen to people like me I when we say there’s a problem and know how to fix it. Until then, all of the wonderful friends I have made in Telstra — get out if you can.

To my colleague’s family and friends, whose time with their loved one was cut prematurely short — consider asking a lot of questions. Nothing will change inside Telstra unless it hits their bottom line, as it’s the only target they really care about.

This story is factual, except for the author's name.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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