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‘[I was] forced to take aggressive phone calls and stay on them, whether they were screaming and cursing or actively masturbating and asking perverted questions about lingerie’: As Victoria’s Secret lays off customer service staff, employees describe an ‘aggressive’ work environment

‘The customers have more rights to abuse associates than the associates have to protect themselves.’

 

Braden Bjella

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On April 25, a selection of the customer service staff of Victoria’s Secret was invited to a video call. The mood was tense; prior to the call, employees were asked to sign a confidentiality agreement threatening employment termination and potential legal consequences if any information about the company’s new plan, “Project CCS 2023,” became public.

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This meeting came at a troubled time for Victoria’s Secret. Earlier in the year, CEO of Victoria’s Secret and Pink brands Amy Hauk abruptly resigned after less than a year on the job. The brand also reported that its revenue dropped by 6% in 2022, announcing that it expected further losses in the first quarter of 2023 when compared to the previous year.

Soon, an executive logged on to the call. She had some bad news: The entire customer service staff was being outsourced.

“A third party [Business Process Outsourcing] partner…has been selected to support [customer care services],” the executive stated. Over the course of the call, she revealed that this BPO would be sending their jobs to Belize and the Philippines.

Customer service representatives were in shock. They had just been told that, at some point this year, they would be put out of a job.

While many were saddened and angered by the announcement, it did not come as a surprise to some. In numerous conversations with the Daily Dot, 11 current and former employees alleged an abusive working environment, poor management, and a mounting series of issues that higher-ups appeared to ignore.

We’ve altered some of their names in deference to their requests for confidentiality because they expressed concerns about their employment status, denoted by an asterisk. The Daily Dot supplied a detailed list of allegations to the company, and despite several emails and a phone conversation with Victoria’s Secret PR, it declined to comment. Each and every allegation reported in this article was brought to the attention of Victoria’s Secret.

Joining Victoria’s Secret initially seemed like a godsend for Sierra, a former employee of Victoria’s Secret customer service department, who requested her last name be withheld. The brand had positioned itself as employee-centric, offering benefits not commonly provided to workers in similar roles at other companies.

“When I began, it actually was a great place to work,” Sierra recalled in an interview with the Daily Dot. “It was a great environment, leaders actually seemed to care and want to help you, [and] we all worked as a team to make sure we were doing everything right because live chat was always definitely busy.”

Things were so good, in fact, that branding throughout the company—including a sign outside its Kettering, Ohio, offices—declared the company as “The Best Place to Work,” a claim that employees say, at one point, was a relatively fair if exaggerated assessment of the working environment.

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However, as time passed, things began to change. L Brands, the company that owned Victoria’s Secret as well as Bath and Body Works, split to form two separate companies in 2021. Some customer service workers stayed at Victoria’s Secret & Co.; others were reassigned to a third-party company then called Sitel, now Foundever. Two current Sitel/Foundever employees say those who were reassigned to the company lost benefits accrued over time, such as family and medical leave, despite performing essentially the same job as when they worked under the L Brands umbrella. Foundever did not respond to the Daily Dot’s request for comment.

For those who were able to stay at Victoria’s Secret & Co., cracks began to form in the so-called “Best Place to Work.” Issues regarding wages were brought up to management and ignored. Employees reported troubles with taking the leave they had been promised. At the same time, information came out regarding L Brands CEO Les Wexner’s close relationship with infamous pedophile Jeffery Epstein.

Employees’ jobs became more stressful—and, they say, more abusive.

Everything we do must begin and end with an insatiable drive to anticipate and fulfill our customers’ desires. -Les Wexner, L Brands Code of Conduct, 2019

Customer service agents at Victoria’s Secret had always faced harassment from callers and chatters. However, as customer service agents were given an increasing number of responsibilities and less time to deal with them, this harassment soon became too much to bear.

“Customers are racist, fatphobic, transphobic, and straight-up hateful,” explained Devon*, a current Victoria’s Secret employee. “I’ve been called every name in the book and, when customers request a supervisor, [the supervisors] often force us to give [the customer] their way to prevent having to take the call.”

Agents faced daily onslaughts of abusive comments, inappropriate statements, and, according to five current and former employees, attempts to act out role-play fantasies.

For example, one employee reported an incident in which a customer called pretending to be a stepfather buying lingerie for their stepdaughter. Other callers asked how the lingerie would look if the customer service agent was wearing it. In some cases, callers said nothing at all, instead breathing heavily or moaning into the phone.

While Victoria’s Secret employees were allowed to terminate chats and calls if customer behavior became vulgar or inappropriate, two employees noted that the limits of this idea were not explicitly defined.

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“The closest definition was anything directed at the associate,” explained Patricia*, a former employee. “So a customer saying ‘fucking bitch’ would be acceptable, but ‘You’re a fucking bitch’ would not.”

“The limit seemed to vary by associate, or who would be scoring the calls,” added Heather Saldivar, another former employee. “Overall, we were instructed to find ways to get them to disconnect.”

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Because of this vagueness, employees were often unsure if these callers crossed a line by Victoria’s Secret’s standards. As such, these employees frequently remained on the phone for fear that hanging up would cost them their livelihoods.

“[I was] forced to take aggressive phone calls and stay on them, whether they were screaming and cursing or actively masturbating and asking perverted questions about lingerie,” detailed T.C., another former employee. T.C. requested the Daily Dot only include their initials in the story.

“One associate said she received a call in her first week of employment from a couple who began moaning and asking questions like ‘What would you do if you were here with us?’ and ‘I bet you like this kinda stuff when people call in like this,’” said Devon. “The associate reached out to her manager, and she was told to redirect the conversation and attempt to sell them lingerie.”

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Although documents from the company claimed that “a supervisor will support you and take over the call when needed,” this sort of interaction—and response from management—was typical, say five former and current employees.

In response to issues of caller harassment, management repeatedly directed workers to push the callers back toward the theoretical buying process.

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According to three current and former Victoria’s Secret employees, this led to multiple instances in which moaning callers would be held on the phone as employees feebly attempted to get them to ask questions about Victoria’s Secret product range.

“The customers have more rights to abuse associates than the associates have to protect themselves,” summarized Patricia. “‘Customers’ call in and make obscene calls that skate just under the line where associates are allowed to hang up on them…and as policy stands today, agents cannot hang up unless it becomes verbally vulgar [for] fear of losing their jobs. This is often very ‘triggering’ for associates who have been sexual assault victims, and it is utterly disgusting even to those who do not have PTSD or a history of assault.”

Victoria’s Secret was aware of these and other issues from the customer service department. Multiple current and former employees of the company report verbally conveying their concerns and sending emails to management asking for a resolution to problems related to pay, working hours, and/or abuse faced by employees. 

Patricia recalled a meeting in which the issue of raises for employees was brought up, as many employees were hired at a rate of $15 an hour. She claims that in response to a request for a cost-of-living increase, an executive said that they would not be offering a raise and that those who could not afford to continue working for the company could find work elsewhere.

Patricia says the same executive later attended a staff meeting and began complaining about “how her daughter refused to drive her Mercedes Benz SUV, and that she was going to have to buy her a new ‘big ol’ truck because that is what her daughter wanted.”

“I sat there absolutely stunned,” Patricia remembers. “It seemed so wrong and demeaning to have an executive say this when I was not even sure how I was going to pay for groceries that week.”

Although Patricia technically got a response to her request, two former employees note that such responses were rare. In their telling, when employees’ concerns were actually acknowledged, the answers were vague with no specific plan of action to resolve the stated issues.

“As an employee of Victoria’s Secret, I constantly shared business feedback about changes that needed to be made, and I never received one single response,” Devon stated. “I wish I could count how many messages/emails I’ve sent that were never replied to. They do not want our input as much as they claim they do.”

“Our HR team…was extremely insensitive, cold, and mocking of any issues that were brought to [them],” Saldivar explained. “[They] would discourage associates from taking mental health leaves of absence, pick you apart for issues brought to [them] about the treatment by management, and any…internal issues or feedback that would be provided would be laughed off and mocked away.”

Claims of indifference to health issues on the part of management are a theme throughout conversations with current and former employees. While the company offered medical leave, paid maternity leave, and mental health breaks for its workers, three employees note that actually using said leave wasn’t as easy as it initially appeared. These employees report requesting time off or additional help at work, only for those requests to be ignored or, in some cases, explicitly mocked.

“I called my supervisor from the hospital because I was having lung failure,” stated Margaret*, a former employee. “He told me, ‘Well, it sounds like you can breathe now.’”

T.C. alleges that she requested part-time work after returning from maternity leave following a difficult second pregnancy. Instead of the 15 or so hours for which she had asked, she was scheduled for “28-30 hour work weeks,” a move that she says cast her into a depressive state.

Finding it difficult to manage both the work and her new child—and losing benefits because of her move to part-time work—she contacted management about the possibility of taking a mental health break. While her initial consultation with the company’s HR providers indicated to her that she would be able to do so, she says that following her request, she was placed on an Unsatisfactory Performance Notice (UPN) “with the threat of termination” by one of the Victoria’s Secret’s HR managers.

“I reached back out to [HR] with obvious concerns,” T.C. recalled. “…[The HR manager] respond[ed], ‘I think we’ve accommodated more than enough time for you’—even though all of the time I had been off was…protected and offered with the company.”

Although she says the HR Manager later apologized for the remark, T.C. chose to leave the company soon after.

In at least one case, taking maternity leave may have indirectly led to the loss of one employee’s job.

“In September of 2022, I was pulled into a last-minute team meeting. My supervisor goes on to say that HR has made the decision to let me go as my performance was ‘historically low’ from December of 2021 to April of 2022,” recalled Chelsey Justice, a former employee. “I was never given the chance to even say anything before my supervisor apologized and ended the meeting. A few minutes later it dawned on me that I was on maternity leave from December of 2021 to April of 2022.”

Justice claims she was locked out of her accounts soon after and has not pursued further action against the company.

We are committed to providing accessible facilities and services to our job applicants, associates and customers with disabilities. -L Brands Code of Conduct, 2019

In early 2020, an employee began expressing to co-workers that she was dealing with issues related to depression. According to Saldivar, this employee had run out of available days off but still brought her concerns to human resources, who “[blew] off” her requests for assistance. Soon afterward, that employee took her own life.

“It took the company almost two weeks before acknowledging or addressing her passing in any way,” Saldivar claims.

Later, in 2022, a Victoria’s Secret employee applied for Short Term Disability (STD) Benefits related to major depressive disorder and anxiety disorder.

According to a June 2022 document from The Lincoln National Life Insurance Company, which is responsible for managing claims for Short Term Disability benefits under VS Service Company, LLC’s Group Disability Plan, a doctor had previously noted the employee’s “depressed/anxious/fatigued appearance with tearful affect.” The employee herself “reported episodic difficulty getting out of bed, becoming easily irritated, poor concentration.”

This employee further claimed that work with the company, including recent changes to working hours, was compounding her issues.

“You reported that your work was a trigger due to poor communication from management and noted that your work hours had just been cut,” the document reads.

The employee’s appeal for Short Term Disability benefits was denied.

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The fact that the employee had recently re-enrolled in school and begun searching for other work was used by the insurer to claim that she was ineligible for benefits, as “…both activities are inconsistent with cognitive/emotional impairment as they would require focus, motivation, organization, and follow-through.”

Second, the employee’s note that “poor communication from management” and a recent cut to working hours was a trigger for her issues was used as a reason to reject her claim. According to the document, the reference to how the job had affected her mental health showed that the employee’s symptoms were “related to work, which may represent a poor job fit vs systemic impairment.”

We treat everyone with respect and dignity. -VS&Co website.

While numerous employees say they maintained positive relationships with their co-workers, three current and former employees claim that management seemed to try to pit employees against each other, unfairly doling out promotions and raises while making unkind remarks about people in the company.

“…It is my belief that the company’s management operates in a clique-like environment,” notes Margaret. “If you did not belong to this clique, you were often ostracized and never promoted. Those who fit the mold of the ‘typical’ Victoria’s Secret employee—attractive, thin, and conventionally feminine—were the ones who were favored and promoted within the company.”

Sometimes, Margaret alleges, management resorted to personal attacks against employees.

“I recall one overweight woman being told in training that she was an embarrassment to the company because she was overweight,” offers Margaret.

“Personally, I could have papered my entire cubicle with accolades, but being older, [I was] always [passed] over for promotions,” she continues. “This kind of culture is harmful not only to those who are excluded, but also to the company as a whole. By limiting promotions and opportunities to a select few, Victoria’s Secret is missing out on a diverse range of perspectives and ideas that could help the company grow and improve.”

Higher-ups at Victoria’s Secret have been accused of similar behavior in the past. In February 2020, the New York Times cited “30 current and former executives, employees, contractors and models, as well as court filings and other documents” to report that the company had “an entrenched culture of misogyny, bullying and harassment.”

This report included details like then-L Brands CEO Les Wexner’s dismissiveness about the industry’s growing embracement of different body types (“Nobody goes to a plastic surgeon and says, ʻMake me fat,’” Wexner is quoted in the piece) and instances in which alleged sexual harassment and mistreatment from executives were seemingly ignored by management.

For example, during a buffet lunch in 2015, Casey Crowe Taylor, a public relations employee, went to get more food before being intercepted by Ed Razek, then an executive at L Brands.

“…He tore into her, berating her about her weight and telling her to lay off the pasta and bread,” the Times article states. Taylor later complained about the incident to HR, but “as far as she could tell, nothing happened” as a result of her complaint. Despite this and other allegations, Razek continued his employment with the company until he stepped down in 2019.

This reporting was among the factors that eventually led to a lawsuit from a shareholder who had requested documents related to issues within the company. The lawsuit was later settled for $90 million, with the company admitting no wrongdoing.

“We can assure you that the company is intensely focused on the corporate governance, workplace, and compliance practices that directly impact our 80,000 associates around the world, nearly 90% of whom are female,” read a 2020 statement from L Brands’ Independent Board of Directors in response to the Times article.

“With the adoption in recent years of even more robust anti-harassment policies, hotline reporting, and training, we have made significant strides in ensuring that the company provides a safe, welcoming, and empowering workplace for every associate,” the statement continued. “We regret any instance where we did not achieve this objective and are fully committed to continuous improvement and complete accountability.”

Although employees still reported issues within the company in the years after this statement, it’s possible that these issues could have been overlooked by management if the company was running smoothly.

However, all current and former employees with whom the Daily Dot spoke claim that this wasn’t the case. Chat and call center workers describe a fast-paced environment in which workers were given scant time to fulfill all of their obligations. If they failed to perform their numerous expected duties—a common issue given the workers’ limited timeframe for doing so—they had points marked against them. These points could prevent them from being promoted or, in some cases, lead to their firing.

One of the places where this manifested most was in text chat-focused help. Employees working for the chat helpline were required to follow a strict set of guidelines when working with customers. These included details like addressing a customer by name, repeating their concerns back to them, and avoiding negative language like “unfortunately.”

Over time, workers for the chat helpline were saddled with more and more tasks to complete during each call. Rather than just dealing with customer concerns, chatline workers were increasingly encouraged to upsell customers, telling them what items would go well with their orders as well as saying what they liked about each item. Employees were timed during these interactions, and taking too long to respond could result in points against them.

As chatters were tasked with running two-to-three chats at once, managing all these responsibilities quickly became difficult.

“[We didn’t have] time to browse the website for an item to recommend [while] talking to three people, dealing with order issues, placing orders, and typing out notes and responding to each customer within 2 minutes,” explained Sierra.

New hires found acclimating to this environment particularly challenging. While previous employees could expect a fluid, in-depth training process led by workers in the area, a former employee alleges that hires in recent years received rushed training that often left them unprepared for the job at hand.

“The training I received 2021 was post-COVID, virtual, two weeks, very unorganized and trained by people that didn’t actually work in the customer service department,” detailed Jessica*, a former employee. “We started taking customer contacts on day three knowing nothing about how to navigate the system they were using for orders or the system they used to communicate with the customer through live chat.”

“When I finished training, I let the trainer and supervisor know I was not ready and didn’t think even taking the training again would help,” added the ex-employee. “I was told to ‘stick with it and we’ll see how it goes.’”

Two current and former employees claim that this fast-paced environment, paired with a lack of training and difficult-to-attain goals, meant that workers quit or were fired from chat help with alarming frequency.

“I personally left as I had actually gotten so stressed my blood pressure skyrocketed and I went to the hospital thinking I was having a heart attack,” Sierra recalled. “They never listened to us about how unrealistic these expectations were—believe me, we ALL said it.”

When interacting with customers, workers for the live chat helpline were directed to “assume positive intent,” no matter how suspect the order was. Three current and former employees claim that this direction resulted in heavy losses for the company.

“Basically the entire job consists of issuing refunds,” Devon explained. “I realistically could not count how many orders I personally refund daily.”

While the company had processes in place to prevent fraud (refunds over certain dollar amounts would require supervisor approval, for example), employees claim these processes rarely stopped what they perceived to be fraudulent activity, as supervisors would more than likely approve the refund regardless of employee concerns.

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“Many [packages] do get lost in transit, which is apparent by the tracking information,” Devon continues. “However, the majority of the packages we claim have been marked as ‘delivered,’ and most carriers even include a picture of the package on the customer’s doorstep—but, if the customer claims they haven’t received it, there are no exceptions…I’ve seen customers who’ve false[ly] reported upwards of $15,000 worth of merchandise continue to get away with it.”

“There was a ton of fraud and reselling happening outside of the US,” adds Sierra. “These people would continue to send to freight [forwarding] addresses in the US, and [open a chat] saying they never got their package… We would refund or send the items again, every time.”

“I mean, this was thousands of orders,” she continues. “It happened daily. I’d say 75% of chats were ‘lost packages’ [that] almost always said ‘delivered,’ and we would just allow these people to do this hundreds of times. There was no end.”

Despite these manifold issues, workers still carried on. Some say they stayed with the company because they needed the benefits; others cited their continuing positive relationships with co-workers as a reason for their ongoing employment. Additional employees claim that they held some hope that the work culture in the company would return to something resembling what they had experienced in the past.

Regardless of the reason, many customer service employees stayed, sending emails in vain to management in hopes that their situations could be improved.

Then, on Tuesday, April 25, customer service agents were told that their jobs were being outsourced. There was no talk of resolving the issues that plagued the company, no discussion of how training would be restructured to prevent employee abuse—just an apology and a statement of the economic incentive the company had for moving their operations abroad.

Customer service agents may continue to face the same issues, only this time, they will not be on American soil. They will be in Belize or the Philippines. Victoria’s Secret has not announced how much money it expects to save with the switch, nor the number of employees put out of work due to this outsourcing.

“This place has messed with my head,” stated Abigail*, a current employee. “I wouldn’t recommend anyone [work] for this company.”

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