City Worker Gets 20-Day Suspension for Using Robot Voice to Answer Phone

By James Fanelli | October 31, 2014 7:26am
 Ronald Dillon, a longtime city Health Department employee, was suspended for 20 days without pay after he repeatedly answered customer service calls in a robot voice, according to the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings.
Ronald Dillon, a longtime city Health Department employee, was suspended for 20 days without pay after he repeatedly answered customer service calls in a robot voice, according to the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings.
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NEW YORK CITY — A longtime city Health Department worker was suspended 20 days without pay for answering customer-service calls in a robot voice.

Ronald Dillon, a computer specialist for the agency's IT help desk who assists co-workers and the public with tech-related problems, repeatedly channeled his inner Siri by talking in a "deliberately robotic fashion" when he fielded calls — despite his boss telling him to stop, according to an Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings decision.

Representatives for the Health Department said during a disciplinary hearing before Administrative Law Judge Kara Miller that Dillon talked in the phony voice on at least five occasions between February and April 2013.

Miller's decision says that during the hearing the Health Department played a recording of Dillon speaking to a customer in a "slow, monotone and over-enunciated manner" and saying, "You have reached the Help Desk. This is Mr. Dillon. How may I help you?"

His droid imitation was apparently good enough to fool callers.

One confused customer who spoke to Dillon later called back and told another Health Department worker that she thought "there was a new automated answering system and had hung up when she heard 'the robot' answer the phone because she needed to speak to a human about her issues," the decision says.

The Health Department originally gave Dillon a 34-day suspension for the robot voice, but Miller lowered the penalty to 20 days in her Feb. 14 decision.

Dillon then appealed the decision with the city's Civil Service Commission. Earlier this month the commission upheld Miller's ruling.

During the Feb. 14 hearing, Dillon defended the tone of his voice, claiming that he wasn't mimicking a robot — rather he was just slowly reading from a script his boss instructed him to follow when dealing with customers.

"He contended that he articulates each word because he speaks fast and has a Brooklyn accent, which is sometimes difficult to understand," the judge wrote in her decision.

Dillon also told her that he was not a "people person" and that his boss, Barry Novack, picked on him.

Dillon also told DNAinfo New York on Thursday that he was simply trying to appease his boss by making his voice sound neutral on the phone.

"They objected to the tone of my voice so I made it atonal," he said.

But Miller found that the robot voice was intentional, calling Dillon a "disgruntled" employee who didn't like his supervisor.

"There is a difference between speaking slowly and distinctly and speaking so robotically that callers did not believe that they were speaking to a person," she wrote in her decision.

Dillon has worked for the Health Department since 1976 and has never faced disciplinary action before this case, the decision says.

His job entails responding to employees' computer problems and to tech questions from the public about NYCMED, a web portal that allows healthcare providers to register with the Health Department.

Judge Miller said in her decision that in the past few years, Dillon's job duties changed and Novack became his supervisor.

"He appears to be [a] disgruntled employee who is acting out because of the restructuring that has occurred within the department over the last few years," she wrote.

The judge also found that Dillon didn't follow through on service requests and didn't stick to protocol while handling requests.

Dillon, who in his private life has led grassroots campaigns against a composting center in Spring Creek Park in Brooklyn, said for many years he was a project manager and supervisor in the Health Department.

But he said about three years ago, against his objections, he was ordered to transfer to the help desk job, even though he didn't have the requisite customer service background.

"It's a bullying-in-the-workplace issue," he said.

He said he has asked for a transfer to another agency unit where his skills could be better used, but his supervisors said no.

"It's an experience. Not one that I would want people to go through, but it's an experience," he said.

The Health Department said in a statement, "This employee engaged in several acts of professional misconduct that resulted in his suspension."