Workplace Wisdom

What Happens When Customer Needs Derail Employee Work Rules?

Sometimes the right thing for an organization to do for a customer and the fair thing to do for an employee are both really obvious but in direct conflict with each other.

This story shows why: It was a night of absolutely horrific storms, and I was traveling on Amtrak from New York to New London, CT to speak at a conference. Power lines were down, there were system-wide delays, and the passengers, station staff, and train staff were all extremely stressed.

Off the Rails

In the confusion and crowds at a change point, I was misdirected off the appropriate train by an overly casual station employee and ended up in New Haven, CT quite late at night, looking for a connection to New London. After consulting with a helpful customer service employee in the station, I made my way to a delayed, but now posted local train on track 10, which listed New London as its last stop.

But when I boarded the train, the conductor announced, crisply, that the train actually would not, this evening, travel as far as New London; instead, it would terminate one stop sooner in Old Saybrook.

In great dismay, I got off the train. After several further escapades of misdirection, dragging a suitcase and fully loaded briefcase multiple times up and down staircases and through corridors, I found an official-looking fellow with a walkie-talkie, and called out to him, “Please, sir! Will you help me?!?”

After establishing the facts of the situation, he escorted me and two other distressed New London passengers back to track 10, assured us that this train would take us to New London, and marched us on.

Burning Fuel

The conductor who had ejected the three of us angrily exited the train and started a screaming match with the station employee. Or at least the conductor was screaming. And cursing. The station employee didn’t raise his voice, but he was clearly standing his ground.

The gist of the situation — so far as I could tell from my seat near the door — was that this crew had already worked an excruciatingly and inequitably heavy load, and that by rights they should absolutely not, under any circumstances, have to go all the way to New London again. They had already done more than their fair share.

After 10 minutes of loud argument, the conductor stalked through the train and back out again, with the junior conductor and the engineer in tow, for more discussion with the station employee; their conversation this time was still intense, but a little calmer. The station guy’s persistent point, for which I was exceedingly grateful, was that this was the last train scheduled to make New London tonight, and it was their job to get the passengers there.

Dear Reader, we went to New London! Our trio of almost-stranded travelers looked at each other sheepishly and with relief during the 25-minute run from Old Saybrook to the end of the line. The junior conductor seemed amicable, and when he carried my suitcase down the train steps to the platform and I thanked him for his kindness, he smiled nicely and nodded. I also tried to thank the disgruntled conductor, but he turned away, still upset.

Back on Track?

The fair thing for Amtrak to do for its employees would have been terrible for its customers; the right thing for its customers felt terrible and was clearly unfair for at least one staff member. So how is management to make these Solomonic decisions?

Theoretically, an organizational vision and mission should include statements about achieving the highest good, which is often related to customer care or satisfaction. But when the real world impinges, as it did with Amtrak on this stormy night, and employees are exhausted and strained, how much is too much to ask of them to fulfill the organization’s mission?

Further, whatever the prior relationship between the conductor and the station employee, and whether the station employee was trying hard to be diplomatic and conciliatory or not, it’s not likely that these two will ever work together comfortably again. A lot of very dirty water flowed under — and over — the bridge that night, and now antagonism is much more likely between them than collegiality.

Training won’t help this situation, nor will new work rules, unless they permit the worker to leave his post in an emergency situation to the detriment of the passengers. How could this situation ever be returned to the rails?

End of the Line

I don’t think there’s a good answer, certainly not a speedy or conclusive one. In the short term, organizations rely on their employees to recognize the “higher good” and behave with dignity in public because they have enough self-esteem to choose to do so.

In the longer term, it is management’s responsibility, with the participation of the workforce, to identify the recurring areas of confusion and conflict and to consider what safety nets and escape hatches should be in place for these kinds of complex contingencies.

Have you found other things that work when these important interests are in conflict?

Onward and upward,

LK

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