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Calm leadership during COVID-19 can help fleets keep good drivers

May 8, 2020
Trying to positively influence and educate potentially fearful drivers can go a long way during uncertain times, according to one fleet leader who is weathering the global pandemic by listening to and respecting her team.

When it comes to driver turnover, there are two main sides to every driver’s departure from a fleet: voluntary or involuntary. But in 2020, there’s a new wrinkle to retaining drivers: a worldwide pandemic that has upended the economy and put the vulnerable at risk.

“The ultimate question we are faced with right now is how does this all change during a global pandemic?” Hayden Cardiff, CEO of Idelic, asked during a May 7 Truckload Carriers Association webinar on fleet engagement and retention. “Because right now we are facing something that we’ve never faced before. There is no playbook for what’s happening to the economy, what’s happening to the country from the effects of COVID-19.”

While this is something no one has been through in modern times that is what leadership is for, according to Veriha Trucking President Karen Smerchek, who joined Cardiff on the webinar. “As a leader, we never have certainty in any decision that we're making,” she said. “We have to lead through uncertainty and that's our job as leaders. Yet, I will say, during this pandemic, what I did is I really reminded myself that I only get to influence — there's a lot of things that I don't get to control. I really tried to make sure that my entire team — from the driver to the ops team, to everyone in the organization — really realizes what can we can control and what we can't.”

Driver departures

Traditionally, voluntary driver departures could be for a number of reasons, Cardiff pointed out: From not liking their dispatcher or manager to not feeling appreciated or thinking they can make more money somewhere else. “There's a lot of different things that culminate into this dissatisfaction with drivers wanting to leave, but a lot of it really boils down to the fact that are we giving those drivers a good enough reason to stay? Are we really laying out all the best conditions for them to feel comfortable and at home?” noted Cardiff. 

Smerchek said her fleet, which has 200 drivers based in the Midwest and Northeast, sees voluntary departures from drivers who want to be home daily and some who decide the trucking industry isn’t right for them. Veriha considers itself a training fleet as about half of its hires are experienced drivers and the other half still need training when hired. 

“As a training fleet, as much as we try to explain the industry to them until they're out there actually doing it realizing what it's like to not sleep in their own bed at night, they don't realize it,” Smerchek said. “So deciding that the industry isn't right for them is one of the main reasons that we have voluntary turnover.”

Cardiff said it’s important to understand what drivers want, which is similar to what fleets want in general: “Drivers want to find a fleet that they care about, that they feel good working for, that they feel like is investing in them,” he said. 

And just like fleets don’t want to go through the tedious process of hiring a replacement for a departing driver, drivers don’t want to go through the similar process of applying for a new job and all that comes with that — the application process, background checks, long road tests and retraining — unless they feel they must. Creating a culture that drivers want to be part of, can go a long way in retaining good drivers, Cardiff added. 

The other side of driver departures is involuntary turnover, which includes terminations for poor performances, bad behaviors and preventable accidents. Smerchek said her fleet has been able to keep the involuntary departures lower than average thanks to a thorough interviewing process upfront and making sure the potential hires have the right attitude and know what they are getting into. 

“If they have the right attitude, we feel we can coach them and utilize all the tools that we've invested in them to maintain them,” she said. “We just really feel that the more that we can invest in people, the better they're going to be driving for us, and they're going to be loyal to our organization because we took that time.”

Cardiff said that transparency in the recruiting process can go a long way in helping fleets bring on drivers who will stick around. It also helps to hire drivers who want to learn and be coached. “The minute that you stop being coachable, the minute that you stop wanting to improve or think that your way is better, is the minute that we can't help you anymore,” he said. 

“I think that definitely helps both the involuntary side of making sure that you're hiring the right people who can be coached that will hopefully never get to that point,” Cardiff explained, “but then also the voluntary side where people know before they ever get to you what's going to happen and what we expect. And if you do these things, we will be able to deliver on our promises well. I think that transparency is really, really important.”

The COVID-19 effect

Smerchek said that while she gets to influence her fleet and how it responds during the COVID-19 pandemic, that is just one of many influences on her employees. They are also being influenced by the families and the media. And those influences can be on a broad spectrum from fear to apathy. 

“So the approach we took was all we want to do is influence and educate and allow them to make decisions,” she explained. “We really were just saying thank you for coming in and keeping America moving, and being upfront with gratitude gets divers who may have been in fear to come out of the house.”

That calmness, she said, has a trickle-down effect. If Smerchek can bring composure to her team, they will bring it to the people they oversee. “The more calm we can remain and not go out here in left field, we're going to do a better job servicing our customers and keeping our drivers’ paychecks to where they expected it to be,” she said.

Veriha Trucking didn’t implement new policies because of the coronavirus, Smerchek said. Instead, the fleet focused on increased and open communication.

“We said, these are adults, we're trusting them to haul 80,000 pounds down the road, do I have to tell them what to do?” she explained. “Or can I say, 'hey, our shippers, our receivers, they're going to have some new processes and procedures, please respect what they're asking you to do. If you've lost access to facilities, please let me know so I can reach out to our customers and ask them to reconsider because we know that's important for you when you're out there on the road.' They think that they're protecting themselves by taking away access to facilities, but really, they're hurting the people who are allowing them to keep their productions going.”

Cardiff said it’s a fine line between sticking to the status quo and being a calming hand in a time of uncertainty. He liked the Veriha approach of making sure fleets understand things are changing during these times and that they have to be prepared for unexpected challenges. 

Smerchek added that it’s important to listen to drivers fearful of getting on the road during these times. Some drivers could be fearful for themselves or for a high-risk family member they live with and don’t want to infect with the virus, which is known to be most infectious before a person shows COVID-19 symptoms. Other fears, she noted, could be out of not having a paycheck if they don’t get on the road.

She said the goal has been to keep her drivers educated on the risks and show them respect so they can make their own decision about what’s best for them instead of trying to control their decisions. “My approach got 96% of my fleet working,” she noted. And some drivers who were initially apprehensive about driving during the pandemic are back behind the wheel.

Listening to drivers is “the most important thing we can do,” Cardiff added. “Listen to the drivers, be empathetic, and understand that their health and safety for them, their family, their concerns about economic stability are all things that they’re going to take into account.”

“If you’re trying to control it, it’s going to be banging your head against the wall," added Smercheck. "And if somebody is fearful out there, do you really want them driving your truck down the road?”

About the Author

Josh Fisher | Editor-in-Chief

Editor-in-Chief Josh Fisher has been with FleetOwner since 2017, covering everything from modern fleet management to operational efficiency, artificial intelligence, autonomous trucking, regulations, and emerging transportation technology. He is based in Maryland. 

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