The Other Army
After the call came inviting me to interview at UPS that November, I drove over to the building. I was directed to a snack room, where I joined a dozen other applicants, and together we sat in silence. Soon the local head of human resources, Jed Barnes, entered the room to give us an overview of the job. He had salt-and-pepper hair and was of medium muscular build. Those of us hired would ride shotgun in a truck to help reduce the amount of work for each driver during December's uptick in package movement. Barnes emphasized that it would be a fun and "energetic" job.
He handed out a job description with a checklist that reduced our required set of skills to a surprisingly specific group.
You have to be able to: Illustrate spatial awareness; Read words and numbers; Concentrate; Memorize; Recollect; Identify logical connections and determine sequence of response; Process up to two or three steps ahead.
The sheet noted that we would handle packages of up to 150 pounds and that the average package weighed 11 pounds. Barnes cautioned that we would be exposed to the season's inclement weather and that we had to like that in a job.
As he told us that UPS would supply us with uniforms, I stifled a smile—if I was going to go undercover, I wanted to look and feel the part. He said we would be paid $8.25 an hour and charged a union fee. He then handed out applications.
Before I joined UPS, I felt that I knew a fair amount about its brand, one that had held up remarkably well for decades. The image of this company in my mind was one where solid customer service and cutting-edge technology reigned, where the customer was always right, and where there was tremendous goodwill between customer and company, personified by its eager and enthusiastic, competent drivers. Like many others in the room that day, I had been exposed to global UPS advertising that recast the company simply as Brown and asked, "What can Brown do for you?"
UPS used that tagline in everything from recruitment advertising to prime-time TV ads, reaching both internal and external audiences. By extolling the importance of the organization to the world at large, UPS gave its employees a rallying cry, a connection to the brand, another reason to want to be a part of UPS. There was an unstated equation that also shaped how the UPS troops thought of the company: UPS = Brown-->Brown = me-->I am Brown What can we do for you?
Whereas the relative newcomer FedEx was known mainly for the speed of its deliveries ("When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight," declared its classic slogan), UPS was known for the care and responsibility with which it delivered. I wanted to know what it felt like to wear the brown uniform—to be Brown.
As I filled out my application, I struggled to make my real employment background fit into the boxes on the form. I stated that I had been mostly self-employed and listed a friend who could vouch for several years of self-employment. My main goal was to not raise any red flags, to sneak in unchallenged; knowing that I would do the required work, I was not concerned with falsifying my work history.
After we completed the paperwork, we were called next door, one by one, into a cluttered conference room. Barnes's colleague Lou, dressed in a cheap blue suit, was lower in rank and less articulate than Barnes. He asked me why UPS should hire me.
"I am responsible, and I'll work well as a team player with the driver. I am fit," I told him. "As a customer of UPS, I am a big fan of the brand, and I think that working here will be a good experience. I am available during the dates you would need me." And that was the extent of our dialogue. I got a call about five days later asking if I was still available and interested. I said yes and was told to come in the following week for a four-hour orientation.
My first day on the clock was this half-day orientation, which was loosely broken into four segments: filling out more paperwork, getting a security briefing, learning how to use the UPS handheld field computers, and listening to a safety overview in which our group checked out the inside of the iconic brown trucks for the first time.
Although most people think the approachability of UPS's drivers is one of the company's stellar qualities, we were given only a brief lesson in how to treat customers. It went something like this: If a customer is angry at you or upset that a package has not been delivered, tell them that you are sorry. Do not confront them or engage them.
The local UPS loss-prevention director came in and stared at the dozen of us filling out forms. "It takes a lot of paperwork to get a job at UPS," he said, "but very little paperwork to lose your job here." He told us that we were not to open boxes or look inside them, and that we could not conceal anything in our pockets.
We were paired up, handed a delivery information acquisition device, or DIAD, and taught how to use it. The clipboard-size computers were covered with buttons and had small screens and a user interface that was not intuitive. We practiced entering information about a hypothetical delivery, and I quickly got lost. The boards we would have in the field, we were told, were the newest technology and would allow us to move on autopilot; simply scanning bar codes would be the drill.
Bruce, the tall, skinny, middle-aged manager who had shown us how to operate the DIADs, offered some advice. He'd worked as a driver years before, he said, and the winter months could be cold. . . .