Sunday, November 23, 2008

Postal Employee's Personalities

One of my former coworkers stopped by yesterday, looking for places to hunt deer. We hadn't talked in quite a while, so it was pretty entertaining to get caught up, etc. His visit reminded me (oh boy, here we go again....) about a theory I've held for years about the types of people the Postal Service attracts and why.

It seems to me, and anecdotes do not make evidence, that the rank and file postal employees seemed to share similar personality traits. First and foremost, they were mostly fairly smart. There were a few ditzes, but the majority were moderately intelligent, particularly compared to the average trucker, for instance. Then, most were at least moderately anal retentive, some worse than others. I fit into that category as well. I was particular about my job as far as it compared to others. I wanted to be faster, neater, and more productive. Some were just picky about their work environment. They'd spend a major amount of time making sure trays were lined up, labels were just so, and any other nitpicky little detail that bothered them. The typical "slow moving" postal worker would be highly insulted if they were called slow, because they pictured themselves as the hardest working employees ever. After a time, they developed their excruciatingly slow speed more as an offensive measure to management and other workers. Naturally, these types populated the unions, too. Self preservation was a common trait among the average worker, unlike me, who was more into burning out. The work is repetitive and boring, so some took it upon themselves to make life miserable for those they didn't like, particularly if they were senior to their victims. Most employees are also impatient, not necessarily about the same issues, but something not going their way sets them off.

Part of the problem at the USPS is the environment. Management is truly shackled by the contracts they have signed, and they become frustrated and break said contracts. Everyone always goes on about how it's impossible to get rid of an unproductive employee, but that is simply not true. What is true is doing so is difficult, and most of the managers didn't have the patience. Most supervisors are selected from rank and file workers as well, and this will become important later.

One of my supervisors figured out the best way to keep me on the boil was to piss me off. For a long time, I was the main "flat" sorter. Flats are basically the larger manila envelopes, magazines and small catalogs. They require a separate case to sort. I was the flat king - no one was faster. However, later in my career, I got burned out from trying to get done as fast as possible and go to a letter case to help them out. We only had one flat case, and lots and lots of letter cases - and there was always a shortage of people who were fast enough to overcome the deliberate drags on production. This supervisor would mess with my head in order to piss me off - he'd mess with me about how I was setting up my area (remember how I said we were all anal?), or make some snide comment, or whatever it took to bring my blood pressure up. I performed better under pressure, and being pissed off counted as pressure. Of course, he only was able to pull this stunt a few times until I caught on and refused to be pissed. I'd just answer whatever he spewed with "It ain't gonna work this time."

There were all kinds of incidents and policies that helped burn me out, but that is another post for another time. I just used this incident to show how malignant the relationships could be in that fine institution, and this was really rather mild in the great scheme of things. Anyone who was fairly productive was pretty high strung, and those who were not were usually fairly malignant in petty ways. Not that some of the more productive weren't malignant, either. Some were.

Now, most of you who have worked in an office see this as well, but I've held jobs in other fields and witnessed the interactions there as well. Take my word for it, the average business isn't even close to being as toxic as the atmosphere at larger post office. For one thing, businesses don't generally put up with the lack of production nor have picayunish contracts restricting their decisions. Unless there are unions involved, but I also have a theory as to why the USPS is different.

To get into the USPS as a career employee, you are required to take their battery exam. I've mentioned it before. The people that designed the test are looking for above average abilities in certain areas. The general knowledge portion of the test weeds out the less intelligent on a bell curve. However, and here is one of my contentions - they don't get employees further up the curve with really high intelligence. People with college degrees - unless it's in underwater basketweaving and they can't find a job any where else - don't go into the USPS except in certain higher level positions requiring degrees. The average worker is smart up to a point, but not successful in the sense that they could get a college degree. I fall into this category as well. Not that a degree is the salvation of all that is holy, but the slice of the bell curve of available talent is fairly narrow. People with degrees find better paying and more rewarding jobs than the USPS usually offers.

Another thing that USPS management wants in their employees is the ability to learn and retain apparently disjointed information quickly and repeat it as well. Such employees are more likely to learn and retain sorting schemes in a shorter time and be more effective. What is a sorting scheme? Well, each postal mail carrier delivers mail to a route. This route consists of "loops" where the carrier walks or drives in a predetermined pattern designed to give them a consistent amount of mail, and bring them back to their starting point to gain access to their delivery vehicle to get another loop of mail. So, a loop might have a starting point at the 2500 block of "A" street, turn on Oak to "B" street, come back to the south, and loop over to A on Maple. So, all the addresses contained within that loop go to that carrier route. A completely different carrier may have the rest of A street, and a completely different one with B.

When sitting in front of a "city case" set up for manually sorting letters addressed to the town, you will see labels on the "holdouts." C1 would be carrier one, and so on. You have to know all the addresses that each carrier delivers to in order to correctly sort the mail that is sent to them to deliver. So, retention of disparate data and applying it consistently is important to postal management.

But now let's look at the bell curve of available employees. We've already narrowed it down to a small subset of above intelligent (no, really) candidates, but inadvertently limited on the upper end. Now, we've cut into that subset and weeded out people with lousy short term memories. Not that someone with a poor short term memory isn't capable of memorizing the schemes necessary for the job - but that is what the USPS wants. Now we have an even smaller subset of candidates.

I took the battery exam when there were only two sections, but it's far more than that now. So, I'm not familiar with what they are looking for these days in the other parts. But, I can assure you, the tests reduce the qualifying candidates even further. Finally, we are left with the ideal USPS candidate.

My question is this: Wouldn't you think that people sharing these "superior" abilities also have personality quirks in common? That immersing these people in the petri dishes that are the hallmark of employment in the USPS may result in conflicts and general unhappiness? That recruiting management from the ranks is another bad example of the Peter Principle? People hired for a specific skill set not necessarily related to management are suddenly placed in positions of authority. I'm not trying to knock burgeoning supervisors here, but I'm just trying to look at the situation analytically. Yes, the USPS spends endless time training their managers, but the raw material was formed for a different purpose. And, the raw material doesn't play well with others in the first place.

I'd bet that if someone did a study on this, they'd find a lot of unhealthy traits common to our ideal subset of available candidates. I'd expect no change - postal management doesn't like to be told what to do. Most of them took the tests as well.

So, that is my Unified Theory on Screwed Up Postal Workers. Part of it is the selection process, and the rest is their environment. Oh, there are people who manage to survive successfully in their careers at the USPS, but most have something in common as well. They leave their work at work when the door swings behind them leaving, they work hard enough to stay under the radar of their managers, but not so hard it affects their home life. They can look at injustices and not let that bother them, either, unless they are specifically singled out. They learn to survive. I did not.


Anonymous said...

The average worker is smart up to a point, but not successful in the sense that they could get a college degree.

Hmmm, of the 4 postal workers I've known, I wouldn't call any of them only slightly above average in intelligence. The first was retired Air Force. Don't know whether he had a college degree or not, but he seemed (to me, at least) to be further out on the intelligence bell curve than I infer you mean.

2 others are/were extremely intelligent (1 is deceased). Don't know if either has/had a degree -- pretty sure the 1 who's still alive does -- but certainly either of them would have had no trouble with college.

The 4th guy is pretty damn smart, and has a degree.

I think you might be painting with too broad a brush here. Yeah, I think there used to be a good correlation between a degree and higher income, but I think that's been breaking down recently. I also think that some people pursue a career with USPS because they want the stability, not because they can't get something better.

Also, I suspect you're futher up the curve than you give yourself credit for.

But I do think you have a good point in re. promoting to management. It is a different skill set. Granted, knowing the nuts 'n' bolts of the operation can be a good thing in a manger, if that's all they're good at, they'll suck at the upper-level positions. Sometimes, you can find someone in the rank and file who can make the transition, but as you point out, more often than not, it doesn't work. Particularly when a narrow selection criteria is employed in the first place.

p.s. I recall reading, somewhat recently , that the "worth" of a baccalaureate degree has gone down considerably. IIRC, it's because the quantity of graduates has gone up, while the average quality has gone down.

Jeffro said...

Oh, I know there are a ton of people with degrees that work for the post office, but they aren't usually starting out as a part time flexible clerk or carrier at level four or five, where I did. Those are the levels that do the majority of the jobs most people associate with a postal job.

Yeah, I was painting with a pretty broad brush, and my experiences were with my office, some of the neighboring ones, and witnessing the operations in Wichita when I got training there.

I've read the same thing - that the average bachelor's degree has been devalued considerably, for the reasons you stated and the lower standards in the course material.

I shouldn't have phrased that sentence quite the way I did - I should have qualified the statement by adding most didn't take the opportunity to further their education or have an interest in doing so. I know a lot of people whose marriage and the need for income for their family more or less forced them into working rather than going to school, and a job at the Postal Service was their best option.

Another thing I'll note is there were a lot of women whose marriages were weak when they came to work there, and the relatively higher pay and benefits gave them the freedom to get divorced and have a measure of independence they wouldn't have had working for WallyWorld. Of course the pay is relative - the hourly rates are the same for all of the CONUS (AK has a premium), so what is a high income in Dodge City KS isn't all that impressive in Denver CO.

And after reading what I wrote, I really think the biggest share of dysfunctional behavior is more due to environment than the quirks that may be associated within the narrow range of qualified candidates. While still employed, I discussed this with some of my coworkers, and some "got" it right away. I didn't want to bring up a subject like this with most of them. But, I still think my original supposition has some merit.

Plus, when I start reminiscing about my days there, I get kinda pissy.