Managing the Financial Side of Commercial Fleets

Avoid Being the 'Dirty Harry' of Fleet Enforcement

November 2015, by Bob Cavalli

Image courtesy of iStockPhoto.com.
Image courtesy of iStockPhoto.com.

Fleet policy (and procedure) is the road map for any fleet operation. It encompasses everything from vehicle assignment, maintenance and repair, to safety. Processes such as how to report an accident, where information can be found, how to order a new vehicle, and what forms to use to tell drivers and their managers what to do and when to do it.

Senior executives may feel entitled to ignore policy. Policy should be applied consistently throughout the organization, at every level, in order for the fleet operation to run most efficiently. But, doing so doesn’t necessarily require fleet managers to use the “Dirty Harry” method of enforcement.

Drafting a Fleet Policy

The basic blueprint of any fleet operation lies in the fleet policy document. They aren’t all the same; however, most cover several basic items.

The first topic would be vehicle assignment; this would answer the question of who gets which vehicle, and what criteria determine such assignment (e.g., minimum mileage, job function, compensatory, etc.).
The next item would be personal use. This would clarify by whom, and when, company vehicles may be used for personal business, if at all.

And, what, if any, vehicle expenses the company will cover when used personally is typically included.
A fundamental pillar of a fleet policy is safety. It encompasses a wide variety of policies, including seat-belt use, safety training, and the review and scoring of motor vehicle reports (MVRs), consequences for safety violations, definition of accident chargeability, and cell-phone use. It is in safety policy that more conflicts will arise than with any other policy.

Another item to include is expense reporting. Today, most vehicle expenses are captured and stored electronically, through various fleet management programs. Unlike in the past, where drivers often had to pay and then submit expense reports for reimbursement, today, fuel, maintenance/repair and tires are most often purchased via a fleet management company (FMC)’s program, and billed directly to the company. But, there should be some means by which drivers can be reimbursed in the unlikely event they must pay themselves.
Of course, there are more items covered in a typical fleet policy document, but these are among the most common and essential.

Developing, getting approval for, and publishing fleet policy are processes that can help fleet managers in their enforcement responsibilities. If this is done right, a number of potential conflicts, and enforcement difficulties can be at least ameliorated, if not avoided altogether.

Getting It Done

Different companies have different roadmaps for the development and approval of any policy.

For the fleet manager, one thing is of premium importance: getting the approval and endorsement of senior management, preferably the president or CEO, for not only the policy itself but also acknowledging the fleet manager’s authority over it. This will be most important especially with those senior managers who often feel the need to “go to bat” for a driver.

A simple e-mail, memo, or other documentation of that approval and acknowledgment of authority may come in handy if a particularly difficult conflict arises.

Another important step in the policy development process is to include important stakeholders each step of the way, including HR, legal, risk management, and driver function (sales, service, etc).

Fleet policy should clearly delineate consequences for violations, and these must be cleared by HR and legal departments, as they may impact, at least, the conditions of employment, and in the most serious instances continued employment itself. If, for example, the safety portion of the policy calls for drivers who have specific, serious MVR violations, or multiple chargeable accidents to lose personal use privileges, lost vehicle assignment, or even face termination, that policy had better be cleared by those two key departments before implementation.

Once that has been accomplished, there are a number of simple guidelines fleet managers can establish to prevent them from taking the “Dirty Harry” route to enforcement.

Putting It in Writing

First, make sure that the fleet policy is available to all employees for reference. In the past, this took printed form, but today it can be posted (and very easily updated or changed) on a company or even a fleet website.
Also, make sure that all drivers and stakeholders know where it can be found. Put simply, if drivers and other stakeholders don’t know what the policy is, they certainly cannot be held accountable for violating it.

One simple way to obtain drivers’ acknowledgment of the policy is in the MVR permission process. Checking MVR records should be part of the hiring process and on an ongoing basis for all drivers (as well as any non-employee drivers such as family members). But, the company must obtain permission from the new hire to do so; this can then be used as an acknowledgment of the policy as well. A simple document, hard copy or electronic, that the driver can sign giving the company permission to obtain and review a driving record can also state that the driver has read, and understands, the overall fleet policy.

Knowing that the fleet manager has made the policy available, kept it current, and that all drivers have acknowledged in writing that they’ve read and understand it, is an important step towards effective enforcement.

Setting Clear Guidelines

Fleet managers should know, and fully understand, the key difference between performance deficiencies and actual misconduct.

For example, there will always be drivers who can’t maintain a good preventive maintenance schedule. They’re always late getting oil changes, and sometimes their vehicles may fail state inspections because, they didn’t get worn tires replaced or allowed a small chip in the windshield to travel into a long crack. This isn’t a good thing, and certainly fleet managers need to remind the drivers of their responsibilities. But, this isn’t misconduct, it is a performance deficiency, and should be handled as such.

On the other hand, a driver who’s MVR reveals repeated, serious traffic violations such as speeding, failure to obey signals, or reckless driving are exhibiting serious misconduct, and should be handled promptly and sternly. Policy should be enforced quickly and without exception. The point in all this is that drivers, who in most other aspects of fleet performance do well, but like an occasionally recalcitrant child, miss preventive maintenance (PM) scheduling, they don’t need to have the full fury of fleet enforcement down on their heads. But those who continually drive unsafely place themselves and the public in jeopardy place the company in potentially liable situations, and the fleet manager must deal with them without delay.

Remembering to Stay Calm

Fleet managers, when faced with enforcement circumstances, need to remain cool. Drivers should always be dealt with professionally and with respect, no matter how serious the violation.

This is true even when the aforementioned serious misconduct occurs. The first time this might come into play could be when an otherwise well-qualified candidate’s MVR reveals, a speeding violation. This should not immediately disqualify him or her from being hired. The HR department, the hiring manager, and the fleet manager can meet to discuss the problem; the potential hire should be made aware that any future violations will be dealt with harshly and to the fullest extent of the consequences outlined in the policy. Further, the candidate might be offered the job on a probationary basis, where he or she will be required to use a personal vehicle for a period of time before being assigned a company vehicle.

Again, for new-hire candidates it isn’t necessary to reject one out-of-hand because of MVR violations. If such candidates are highly qualified and want the job, there are ways this can be accomplished without bringing serious consequences immediately to bear.

Listening to Both Sides

Whether, initially, it looks like a chargeable accident, or a moving traffic violation, before enforcing consequences outlined in fleet policy it’s a good idea to discuss with the driver and anyone else involved first.

Here’s a hypothetical scenario: A driver arrives to work in the morning, with a full day of appointments to attend, and the first one is coming up within the hour. On the way to the meeting, the driver signals a turn, and looks in the rearview mirror to see the flashing lights of a police cruiser. After getting pulled over, he’s told by the officer that he failed to signal his turn. He realizes that the blinker bulb has burned out and gets the ticket. Not wanting to cancel important appointments, he continues on with his day, and a day or two later drops into a shop to get the bulb replaced. But the ticket appears on his MVR.

A fleet manager looking at that MVR might put a formal warning into the driver’s record. But, the circumstances of the violation, while not clearing the driver completely, might cause the fleet manager to simply discuss it with the driver, point out what the consequences ought to be, but ultimately allow an exception provided the driver’s record is otherwise clean.

While this is a hypothetical case, it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that drivers may explain circumstances that allow the fleet manager to make a judgment call on enforcement that works in the driver’s favor. Be open-minded — not robotic — when considering fleet policy enforcement.

Being Consistent

Avoiding the need to “bring the hammer down” on fleet policy violations also involves the fleet manager’s ability to apply that policy consistently and at all levels of the organization. (Remember, when the senior VP of finance claims immunity because of his position, the fleet manager has that documentation from the CEO to wield as a last resort.) When all company vehicle drivers know they’ll get a fair hearing, and that those in executive suite positions will be subject to the same scrutiny and consequences, there will usually be fewer instances where conflicts arise.

At first glance, this might seem to be in conflict with the aforementioned need to hear the driver’s side of the story, possibly leading to a negotiated agreement to allow the driver to avoid full consequences of the violation. But, it isn’t the exception itself that is in play here, it is that drivers know that they’ll be given the opportunity to notify the fleet manager of any mitigating circumstances surrounding the violation. Not the exception, but the opportunity.

There won’t be, for the most part, too many instances where those circumstances will allow for the exception, and, thus, the fleet manager will find him or herself having to proceed with enforcement, and any consequences.

Again, it should not matter what the driver’s title is or how big an office they have. In whatever way the policy requires, the driver should be notified and the penalty applied. It isn’t a bad idea when the driver is a senior executive, to “cc” the CEO with any and all correspondence related to the action.

Including Stakeholders

In past issues of Fleet Financials, subject-matter experts have recommended stakeholder departments such as HR and legal be involved in the development of fleet policy. But, this should not be the end of their involvement in policy matters.

First, the safety policy might include an accident review panel, made up of the fleet manager, risk manager, HR manager, someone from the legal department, and a representative from the driver’s function. Meet with them on a regular basis. All accident reports are then reviewed for chargeability, that is, by defensive driving standards did the driver take all reasonable action to avoid the accident.

Most accidents will be relatively simple to classify; many have no other party involved (the driver’s favorite, “hit while parked” for example), or where fault and chargeability are clear. Some will require some discussion and analysis before making a determination. It is a good idea, when the panel determines that the accident is chargeable, to bring the driver into the discussion to offer him or her the opportunity to describe any mitigating circumstances, as previously described.

When drivers know that first, they’ll be represented on the panel, second that it isn’t just the fleet manager who is making the determination but also legal, HR, and risk management, and, third, that they will have the opportunity to tell their side of the story, they are far more likely to accept a chargeable assessment, and any resulting consequences. They may not like it, but they’ll accept it.

Preventing Driver Violations

Most fleet managers take little satisfaction in having to punish drivers who violate fleet policy, and are happy to look for ways to avoid potential conflicts. Steps, such as the ones described above, can be taken to do exactly that and prevent such conflicts from arising in the first place. With that being said, there are some that relish the authority given to them by the CEO or other senior executive, and like “Dirty Harry,” look for instances where they can wield it. But, doing so only creates distrust and tension between the fleet manager and the drivers they serve, making the enforcement of policy more difficult and contentious.

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