A Complicated Answer to a Simple Question

Excerpted from the May 27, 2019 issue of Mailers Hub News. Subscribers click here to access the full version.

When I spoke recently at an industry gathering, one of the questions I got (after reviewing the PQ II service scores) was what the USPS could do about its service performance. Why is service so poor in some places? What can be done to improve it, especially in the chronically low-performing districts? What actions can management take?

I found the answer both simple and complex, and as I began to respond I found myself having to peel back the onion layer by layer to make the questioner understand. Along the way, I alternatively felt like an apologist for the Postal Service and a critic of the agency for the policy decisions that contributed to its circumstances.

The bottom line

Ultimately, for any company or organization that provides a service to the public (rather than a physical product) the fundamental element is its employees. What they do, how well they do it, and how much they optimize their discretionary effort is what makes the difference between poor service and great service.

Many factors affect employee performance, such as the employer’s compensation and reward system, the employer’s business condition and marketplace reputation, and the employee’s exposure to risk of unemployment for any reason. Arguably more important is the individual’s own work ethic, and how that does or doesn’t motivate the person’s attitudes and performance. Each employee has a level of work that must be performed, but how far beyond that level the employee actually performs is a reflection of the person’s work ethic, and what additional effort he or she chooses to apply – discretionary effort.

Different worlds

In a private sector business, within the framework of federal and state labor laws, management has significant latitude in defining conditions of employment, including wages and benefits, work rules, and discipline and reward systems. In addition, the success or failure of a business has a direct impact on its employees, just as their performance can be a factor in their employer’s success or failure. In a unionized company, the union’s influence on work rules, wages and benefits, and overall employee attitudes itself can be a factor as influential as that of the company’s management.

The Postal Service, of course, is a government agency, so the relevant factors are not the same as in a private company.

Being part of the federal government may offer some benefits to the USPS – exemption from local property taxes and parking tickets being commonly cited examples – but there are important offsetting requirements and restrictions, particularly involving employment and employees.

When the agency was established by Congress in 1970, it was ordained to be a unionized enterprise, and collective bargaining was required. Though wages were negotiated, sick leave and annual leave, health and life insurance, and worker retirement plans were all tied to federal government programs and policies. Employees were afforded a variety of protections from adverse actions, whether reductions in force, firing, or other disciplinary measures, under Civil Service, Merit Systems Protection Board, and veterans’ rights processes.

Making its own bed

For its own part, the USPS further improved its employees’ circumstances by what it agreed to in contract negotiations and, on top of that, many negotiations went to binding arbitration, where arbiters often acceded to union arguments to preserve or expand benefits won in the past. A recent newsletter produced by the western regional coordinator for the American Postal Workers Union itemized fifteen contracts from 1971 through 2015, detailing the enhancements in benefits contained in each, whether because of USPS agreement or arbitration award.

In some ways, the Postal Service sowed the seeds of its current labor circumstances in the very first contract it signed with its labor unions when it gave five raises, a bonus, a cost-of-living adjustment, and agreed to a prohibition against layoff. Over the course of successive agreements, some of which were settled and some of which went to arbitration, there were more raises, more COLAs, and renewal of the no-layoff clause.

Shielded from the real world

Though the business circumstances of the Postal Service have changed over the past half-century, none of those changes have imperiled its employees’ wages and benefits. No raises or COLAs were ever deleted, no vacation or sick leave was reduced, no health or retirement plan canceled, and no career workers lost their jobs because USPS volume or revenue declined.

As a result, generally speaking, postal employees are in an insulated, protected environment. Though they perform relatively mundane and repetitive tasks that present few inherent occasions for job satisfaction, they’re in a cocoon where there’s neither the chance for great reward nor an exposure to great risk. Thanks to the unions, there are neither enforceable performance standards nor significant incentive programs for rank-and-file postal employees. So, in a work environment where all workers get uniform pay, benefits, and protections, and are immune to any consequences for poor performance, the only meaningful differentiator between one employee’s work and another’s is the individual’s work ethic and discretionary effort.

Though this is most visible among craft workers, it also applies to supervisory and professional staff. While the selection process for promotions considers merit and performance more carefully, weeding out the underperformers, non-craft personnel generally enjoy the same protections as craft workers. Moreover, the pay-for-performance mechanism for non-bargaining unit employees has been widely criticized for mathematically apportioning rewards to operational units rather than basing them strictly on merit. So, perhaps to a lesser degree than in the crafts, discretionary effort remains a significant factor in employee performance and attitude, especially for line supervisors and professionals in the lower strata of the executive ranks.

The foregoing does not mean to suggest there aren’t USPS employees at all levels who are caring, attentive, dedicated, and hard-working – there are, and they’re likely the great majority. However, there are many who are not, and their presence is both demoralizing to the good workers and an impediment to the Postal Service’s ability to provide the service that its ratepaying customers want and expect.

Shaping employee attitudes

Sometimes people have told me that I’m being anti-union because I point to what I consider to be the postal unions’ disproportionate self-interest and their concurrent disregard for the bigger picture. To me, unions have a necessary role in advancing workers’ interests, but that needs to be balanced with a sensible understanding of the environment in which their members and their members’ employer exist.

In that regard, it should be obvious that the postal environment of today is very different from that of the 1970s and ‘80s. Mail no longer “just happens,” and the revenue stream into the Postal Service’s coffers is far less – relatively and absolutely – than it was back then. The notion that the USPS could be at risk of economic collapse would have been irrational decades ago but it’s very credible today.

Nonetheless, the apparent view of the postal unions and, to the extent they speak for their members as they claim to do, the view of postal bargaining unit employees, is unchanged from the early days of the USPS when it comes to what’s expected from each successive labor contract.

Whether more raises, more COLAs, and continued protection from layoff are still reasonable and appropriate is never questioned by the postal unions, apparently in the desensitized belief that their employer can sustain such benefits forever. Moreover, to the point of the discussion above about discretionary effort, there’s never any mention of pulling together to yield better service and retain satisfied, postagepaying customers for their employer. And there’s still no likelihood of performance standards for craft workers.

The point of this digression is not that unions are bad, it’s that they have a role – and a responsibility – in shaping employee attitudes and performance. It makes a difference whether they’re preaching “do your best” or “do only what you have to do,” or telling members “you’re responsible for doing a good job” or that everything is “management’s responsibility.” Employee attitudes can be self-developed, but they also can be shaped by what their told.

Unions aren’t supposed to be tools of management, but neither should they be routinely adversarial; they should represent their members, but shouldn’t see subversion if their members express their own independent opinions; they shouldn’t placate, but neither should be they be divisive; they should understand the need for their members to provide good service, but shouldn’t use service as an excuse for adding needless costs onto their employer.

Need an example? See the box below.

Most importantly, the unions and their members – and management and customers – need to operate with the clear realization that if the enterprise fails, all stakeholders will suffer. Poor management, obstructive unions, indifferent workers, self-centered customers – all contribute their share to the challenges of operating an enterprise like the USPS – and all will be without an employer or service provider if the agency falters.

If the boat sinks, everyone in it goes down, not just management, or the customers, or the workers – everyone.

Back to the question

Returning to the premise for this commentary, I explained to the person who asked me the question that postal management does care about service, and that the USPS takes a variety of steps to improve performance. It sends teams to analyze underperforming districts, issues standard operating procedures, provides data tools and management planning processes, and reassigns managers and executives if needed.

In the end, however, I found no way to not confess that, regardless of what any executive, manager, or supervisor may know, do, or say, it all comes down to the individual employees and their discretionary effort. They – the craft workers – are the ones who process and deliver the mail.

If employees don’t know, understand, or care how their attitudes, performance, and discretionary effort impact the service provided to their employer’s customers; or if they believe themselves safe from any consequences for poor performance, there’s not much that anyone else can do. LR

Click here to contact Leo Raymond with your comments or question, or to learn how to become a Mailers Hub Subscriber.

Share this post:

Comments on "A Complicated Answer to a Simple Question"

Comments 0-5 of 0

Please login to comment