Talking the “safety talk” is universal. When a fleet manager communicates safety — training, policy, tracking driver performance — everyone is a fan. After all, how can any business professional object to taking responsibility for the safety of employees, their families, and the general public?
Unfortunately, walking the “safety walk” is sometimes less popular, especially as it pertains to the establishment and enforcement of policy. Nowhere is this more evident than when dealing with the most senior executives in a company. Indeed, they are the ones who cheer most loudly when safety is the subject, while quietly creating exceptions to those same efforts. Fleet managers, for decades, have felt the need to walk this tightrope very, very gingerly, as they try to balance their own responsibilities with the nagging fear they are committing career suicide.
The problems usually begin with policy. Good fleet policy should always address safety, and that usually includes consequences for violation of that policy. Where things can get sticky is when that violation is committed by some senior VP or C-level executive.
One of the basic requirements in establishing fleet policy — particularly one that carries with it some consequence for violations — is to get management support and endorsement as high up the organizational chart as possible. While this is important, it doesn’t necessarily mean fleet managers can rest easy when executives are culpable. The consistent execution of a safety policy can be enhanced with some simple wording from the CEO in his or her endorsement. Here’s an example of a CEO endorsement that should get everyone on the same page:
“I have charged (fleet manager) with the responsibility of executing this policy on behalf of the company, the board of directors, and our senior management. It will be executed without exception, and all drivers of company-provided vehicles — regardless of title or position in the company — will be held accountable for their performance.”
The next step is to continually remind all drivers of their vehicle operation responsibilities. Whenever safety is communicated, whether as an item on the company website, during meetings and conference calls, or as part of any other communication, those words from the CEO should be repeated, over and over. This will help the message sink in.
When executives run afoul of the safety policy (and fleet policy in general), another step that will help to soften the blow is to carefully develop relationships with those executives who drive company-provided vehicles. Some will be part of the overall fleet — sales and service executives, for example — and others will be driving perk vehicles, provided as part of an overall compensation package.
Begin with stakeholders: vice presidents and directors of the function most common in the fleet (sales, service, delivery, etc.) both in the field and in the corporate office. Include them in fleet decision making (to a point); get their input when working up vehicle selection and specification, and in policy decisions. Communicate often, both formally and informally.
Next, begin to work your way up the C-level chain — COO, CFO, and CEO. These are the executives who others will go to when they are looking for exceptions to policy, and relief for themselves and others from the consequences of violations. This can begin when the policy is first developed and implemented, as the CEO or president is asked to review and endorse it.
Here’s another way to work toward a solid executive relationship: Take a personal interest and participate actively as it pertains to the executive’s vehicle. Track preventive maintenance (PM), and work with him or her to schedule PM via a local repair facility. Negotiate with the repair shop for pick up, drop off, and loaner vehicles. Arrange for at-home or at-the-office detailing, or even onsite oil changes. Anything that makes the executive’s day easier and more convenient will help to develop a good relationship that’ll serve you well later.
Tread Carefully with Exceptions
The interactions that can cause “executive angst” in a fleet manager come in various forms:
● A driver who is the company “star performer” gets a second speeding ticket, or is involved in another accident. The fleet manager notifies the driver and manager of the consequences. A phone call or e-mail from the VP of sales asks for this star performer to be let off the hook. The fleet manager refuses and the next e-mail or phone call comes from the CEO.
● The CFO’s son is driving dad’s company SUV, and is cited for DUI.
● The VP of finance collects her third moving violation in the past six months and refuses to pay.
Most fleet managers can undoubtedly relate to one or more of the above. When executives either have violated policy themselves or are intervening on behalf of others who have, it is never a pleasant prospect.
If the previous suggestions have been carefully put into place, that is, if the endorsement of the CEO or president has not only been received, but reiterated regularly, and if the fleet manager has fostered the relationships needed, the steps to follow are straightforward.
The “star performer” request is the easiest of a tough set of scenarios. Making exceptions for a regular fleet driver will inevitably lead to more requests, as word gets around quickly. Begin by discussing directly with the executive asking for the exception. Make sure he or she understands your dilemma, and how one exception will invariably lead to others, causing the safety policy to become ineffective.
If the exception is for accidents, make sure he or she understands the “gross up” costs in sales dollars (if the total cost of an accident is $10,000, and the company’s net profit margin is 5 percent, it will take $200,000 of sales just to break even). If the relationship is there, and the communication is reasonable and professional, the executive should act accordingly.
More difficult is when the executive or someone in the family (child or spouse) is the culprit. Once again, when the safety message has been consistent, and the C-level endorsement has been driven home, it is not wrong to remind executives of their own responsibility to set an example for the rest of the company. In fact, it can be a “teaching moment” — a CFO or senior vice president can acknowledge to his or her subordinates that, yes, he or she has violated policy, and he or she is more than willing to accept the consequences with the unspoken message that “if I am subject to the policy, I expect everyone else to accept his or her responsibility as well.”
Sometimes, however, there just is no successful way to address the problem. Occasionally, an executive simply refuses to pay the price. It’s rare, but it does happen, and, when it does, the fleet manager may have nowhere to go. At this point, the decision must be made: Am I ready to sacrifice my career with the company over this principle? It is seldom worth it; agreeing to the exception for an executive, in a rare instance where you actually believe your employment is threatened, should be considered.
It Can Be Done
Dealing with such delicate circumstances is challenging. Most executives will ultimately adhere to fleet safety policy, provided the fleet manager handles it professionally.