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March 01, 2009  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Raising Morale: The Trickle-Down Approach

By reaching out to staff more often, transportation supervisors and the higher-ups can help keep spirits high.

by Michael Dallessandro


“Morale.” That one word can sum up all that is good in your workplace, or it can be used as the reason things are not going all that well.

The word “morale” can also be used as an excuse for poor performance by a few employees who would not give an extra inch at work, even if times are good. And to make things worse, if they can get a few more people on the “low-morale bandwagon,” their own substandard job performance will just get mixed into the group of poor performers, ultimately offering the chronic complainers and slackers the perfect cover and leaving you wondering what went wrong.

As transportation supervisors or directors, we are often in a tough spot where it can be diffi cult on some days to keep our own morale positive, let alone the morale of the people we are expected to lead and instill pride and good feelings in.

From the top
Unless you own a school bus operation and the buck stops with you, chances are that, like me, you answer to a higher power — the superintendent of schools or another boss. Your boss has a certain set of priorities, goals, knowledge, skills, opinions and budgetary considerations that often all lead into his or her decisions on things that directly impact your job and your transportation department.

Even though you may have spent most of your adult life in the school bus business, and you work every day with your employees and have a good idea of what they want or need to be happy, the answer from above still may be “no.” Many of your drivers and other staff members look directly to you to ensure that the work environment is sound and give no thought to the fact that, like them, you actually answer to a boss as well.

Improving morale at a school transportation operation is everyone’s job. From the company owner or superintendent to the transportation director, office staff, and the drivers and monitors, everyone must ensure that the work environment is positive.

So what is there for a person like you, who may be stuck in the middle of the district office or corporate headquarters and the driver team? The following will give you some ideas on how to reach out to the people in power above you and to the people you lead, with the goal of improving morale on all fronts.

Reach out
What can cause low morale among transportation staff? There is often a combination of things that can be affected by the supervisor and the central office. I’m not saying that the supervisor is totally responsible, but he or she should have a handle on the condition of his or her department’s morale at any given time.

Regarding the central office (if you are a district operation) or corporate office (if you are a contractor), I can’t really fault them here. During my years of interacting with central office administrators, the general attitude is that if the phone is not ringing off the hook with complaints about the transportation department, they feel that all is well.

As a transportation supervisor, I have to say that I appreciate that somewhat, because the last thing any of us wants is to be micromanaged. But drivers and monitors desire positive feedback from central office administrators or corporate headquarters.

In many cases, building principals go out of their way to communicate with drivers and monitors, host appreciation events and often invite them to activities in the schools that the drivers and monitors serve. The district or corporate office also needs to reach out and communicate with your team that is on the road. Make sure they include transportation staffers in district-wide meetings, mailings and job postings, even if sometimes they may not be directly applicable to those staffers.

If invited to a transportation luncheon or holiday party, central office administrators should make some effort to be seen for at least a few minutes. Your drivers are not living in the dark. They read the local newspapers and see the school calendar, which may be full of pictures of administrators attending events, and they ask themselves, “Why don’t they visit us?”

In good repair
Transportation facility maintenance or, better yet, improvements are another way that the central office can demonstrate to transportation staffers that they are committed to them as a part of the team like the other buildings or departments in the district. If every few years your district is spending $1 million here and $2 million there on improvements, but the transportation facility built back in 1960 is falling apart, what message does this send to your staff of how the organization or community values them and the service they provide?

I know — in this economy, districts are fighting to get every dollar they can to improve schools. However, transportation facilities are critical infrastructure, as they provide a district-wide service that impacts students. And facilities can directly impact transportation department morale.

Equal treatment
Another key issue that can impact morale is fair and equitable treatment of staff members. While the majority of personnel matters are handled on a confidential, case-by-case basis, your employees watch closely to make sure that everyone is treated the same.

If one employee is approved for a personal day and other employees are not, the rumors are going to take off like wildfire. If two drivers have a seemingly identical fender bender and one driver gets a written warning but the other is terminated, discontent will erupt.

The transportation director and central offi ce should work as closely as possible on these types of personnel issues to keep the chances of rumors, and the poor morale that ultimately comes with them, to a minimum.

Keep an eye out
What are some key indicators of low morale? Some are far more subtle than others, and you have to be really paying attention to catch them and determine that they are either directly or indirectly causing poor morale.

Of course, one of the most easily recognizable signs is the attitude of your staff. Drivers and monitors generally wear their hearts on their sleeves. You know when they are happy, and you know when they are mad. If your staff has been humming along pretty well and then slowly you start to notice grumpy or unfriendly behavior to each other, the office or you, something is definitely up that needs your attention.

Open your ears and eyes fast and get in touch with a few of your more outspoken drivers — you know the ones — who tell it like it is. Ask them for the inside track on what is wrong.

Another indicator that there is trouble is that the little things start to bug people. You may hear that a few drivers have had an argument in the drivers room. Or your union representatives (if you have a unionized workforce) may start to appear at your doorstep more frequently with petty gripes.

The more subtle indicators that there are morale issues could be drivers who are less and less available to help out or do the little extras, even if you are offering extra pay. Happy employees will often jump at the chance for some extra hours in the evenings or on a Saturday. But if you offer the work with the correct pay and one by one they say, “No thanks,” they may be looking to get out of your place and go home for a reason.

Lastly, a typically clean bus fleet — inside, outside or both — that starts to look shabby can be an indicator that your staff is starting to developed the “I don’t care” attitude. A team meeting may be needed right away to have some open discussion about what is bothering them.

Meaningful interaction
So by now, I have you running around your yard checking the cleanliness of your buses and sending memos to central office asking them to visit more often and to shell out for a new bus garage. No problem, right? But perhaps the most important step that you and your bosses can take is to dig yourselves out of your paperwork and telephone jungles every so often. I know that that’s easier said than done, but interacting with your staff is very important.

Offer to pick up one of your assistant superintendents and take them to some of your school sites at arrival or dismissal. Visit the buses, chat with your staff and give your boss a chance to see how things really work out there.

When your staff handles a very difficult situation, such as a terrible morning commute due to traffic, an accident or weather, or if they handle an unexpected dismissal of school due to a water main break, give them kudos over the radio and make sure central office or corporate knows about the incident.

Central office staff will often want to send a thank-you memo over if they know how much work your staff put into an issue. Don’t miss an opportunity to improve morale by calling your boss and asking him to send a memo to your staff. Yes, I said ask him. Remember: We are often out of sight and out of mind because things went well.

Lastly, communicate with your staff. Fill them in on new ideas you are considering for your department; give them a pin, hat or T-shirt each year for a job well done during transportation appreciation week; and do not hesitate to admit when you are wrong. If, like me, you were a driver once, you surely know that it feels good to be valued and included.

I would like to thank Transportation Director Shea Schreiber from the Alexander (N.Y.) Central School District for giving me the inspiration to write this article. If you have a topic you would like addressed in a future article or would like to comment on this one, e-mail me at

Michael Dallessandro is transportation supervisor at Lake Shore Central School District in Angola, N.Y., and a frequent contributor to SBF. His Website is

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