The Secret of Letting Go

Harry D. Stumpf
Posted on September 1, 1998

Ending a driver’s employment is difficult for the driver and the supervisor. Letting any employee go is one of the unpleasant responsibilities that falls to the leader of any organization. For a school transportation manager, however, it’s critically important that non-performing employees, especially drivers, be brought up to an acceptable standard - or terminated. When an employee is not performing to expectation, the organization suffers and safety can be compromised. Moreover, retaining a poorly performing driver sets a bad example for the rest of the drivers. There are several principles that make this difficult task more manageable. Abiding by these principles is sometimes difficult because of the time and energy involved. However, making the effort can lead to a fair and reasonable solution to unsatisfactory performance. Here are three key principles:

  • Consistency
  • Documentation
  • Progression


    Equal treatment is key
    Consistency is critical. Each employee must be treated the same. What is overlooked in one must be overlooked in all. What is held against one must be equally criticized in all. Recently, a driver was considered for termination because of her extensive absenteeism. When the attendance records of all drivers were analyzed, a half-dozen other drivers had as many absences, or more, than the driver in question. There had been no consideration given to terminating the other drivers. Attendance alone, in this example, was not enough to terminate the driver; it would have been inconsistent. A drivers’ manual that specifically describes responsibilities, policies and procedures can be used to achieve consistency. When such a rulebook is available to each driver and is uniformly enforced, there will be a spirit of consistency. One technique in supporting the employee manual - and consistency - is to quote the page and policy when delivering oral or written reprimands. If you don’t already have a drivers’ handbook, putting one together is an ambitious project. But it’s worth the effort. Any handbook that states the department’s policies is better than none. As issues crop up, make notes about how you can improve the handbook. (Using a three-ring binder, rather than having the document bound or stapled, makes it easy to revise or expand the handbook.) After several years of use and revision, it will address nearly all situations.

    Put it in writing
    Documentation is another essential principle in establishing a performance record. Written documents in the driver’s file will establish a pattern of good or poor performance. A written reprimand (or commendation) may also influence a driver’s performance. If it causes a driver to begin bringing in the school bus promptly for its monthly maintenance inspection, great. If not, the second, or third, letter can also address the driver’s failure to comply with written instructions, as well as being late for the inspection. These letters, more than your recollection of oral warnings, are evidence of the driver’s negligence. Here’s one documentation technique that has worked well for us. Many parents, motorists or pedestrians call in alleged safety violations and misconduct by school bus drivers. Request that they put their complaints in writing. A written statement is considerably more useful than your phone notes. If it becomes necessary to confront the driver, a written statement will provide better, more accurate and more inclusive information about the incident than phone notes. Someone who takes the trouble to prepare and send a report is more concerned than one who only telephones. A written statement may be placed in the driver’s file. While a written statement is more powerful than a phone call, it’s not prudent for a supervisor to ignore complaints from individuals who don’t put them in writing. All complaints should be logged and investigated. Sometimes, a single phone complaint can be extremely useful in learning about a serious driver problem. A simple "Public Contact" form can be used to document all phone contacts in a consistent manner. Documentation of any type is essential in preparing the basis for recommending the termination of an employee. A computerized database to keep track of all significant actions about each driver can be helpful in identifying patterns over time. The driver’s file may include reprimands, commendations, letters from parents and traffic citations. They all provide meaningful insight into the driver’s performance. Letters of reprimand should identify exactly what actions were performed inappropriately and how they can be rectified. If possible, use the drivers’ handbook as a reference. Ensure the letter also states what changes are expected. If the same thing happens again, another letter should become part of the file, with a stronger message. Be careful with documentation. Always get the driver’s side of the story before accepting any account from parents, administrators, motorists, students or anyone else. We owe it to our employees to ask them what happened. Sometimes their account is much different. Frequently, they were following policy to the letter, but the students told their own story to the parents. The parents may be unfamiliar with policy. Ask the driver first.

    Progressive measures
    Progression is another key principle in dealing with non-performing drivers. There is no strict order of progression. An example might be to first speak about the issue with the driver. Have the driver’s immediate supervisor do this. If the problem continues, perhaps the supervisor can ride with the driver. If it still persists, it may be time for a written reprimand from an administrator. Progressive options could include remedial training, reassignment to a different route or suspension without pay. Remember that carefully documenting remedial training is just as important as documenting complaints and problems - expecially from a liability-protection perspective. Except in an extreme situation, it would not be appropriate to suspend a driver at the outset of a problem. Also, don’t be swayed by personality conflicts. A veteran driver recently was reported by two other drivers for failure to cooperate during loading at the school. The issue was awkward, and some ill feelings resulted. Looking back, the accused driver’s record was a good one. She had good control of the students on her bus, while previous drivers on that route had not. She had no complaints by parents of her students. She was never late, and she had been responsible for no accidents. In this case, the complaints by other drivers should have been scrutinized more closely before approaching the veteran. Her past performance had never been in question, and it should have been given more consideration than it was.

    A final note
    There is no single cookie-cutter method of terminating an employee. However, the termination process should be consistent for each employee, with documentation providing evidence that the school bus operator had made efforts to remediate the problem in a progressive manner. Following this procedure is the best way to avoid the ugly and often time-consuming chore of dealing with a wrongful termination case.

    Author Harry D. Stumpf is administrative assistant for transportation at Clayton County Public Schools in Jonesboro, Ga.

  • Related Topics: driver handbook/policies, driver recruitment/retention

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