For a year now, United Parcel Service has been healing the wounds of last summer's crippling 15-day Teamsters strike, during which the public, though very much inconvenienced, sided in large measure with workers.
That was so because of the rapport the giant package carrier's brown-uniformed truck drivers had developed with customers over the decades. As a company spokeswoman noted as the work stoppage loomed, "Our drivers are considered our ambassadors."
If the polite, efficient couriers represent UPS' public face, there is also a good deal of image-building going on behind the scenes in the management ranks. And this year, somewhat uncharacteristically, the company is shining a big spotlight on it. UPS denies, however, that the publicity is merely an effort to get back into the public's good graces.
UPS started its Urban Internship Program, now called the Community Internship Program, in 1968. It is designed to help supervisors get a feel for the needs and demands of an increasingly diverse work force and customer base.
Each year, 40-plus managers take monthlong internships with nonprofit agencies in one of four communities: Chattanooga, Tenn.; McAllen, Texas; Chicago; and New York. They serve meals to the homeless, work in halfway houses and AIDS centers, build houses for migrant workers and help battered women. The work can be as basic as driving nails or as sophisticated as establishing an optimal delivery route for a food bank.
Based on the experiences of two Southern California managers who went through the program earlier this year, the UPS program delivers.
Tim Robinson, a district operations manager in downtown Los Angeles, says he developed greater compassion while working at the Henry Street Settlement in New York.
Robinson, of Moorpark, used to be disgusted by trash-scavenging homeless people. Now, he said, "when I see people pick up cans in the street, I don't feel the same way. They are often victims of circumstance who are trying to pull themselves out of a rut."
Although Robinson has prided himself on being a "people person," the internship gave him an understanding of the world's many troubled or afflicted souls. He visited toddlers with AIDS, advised heroin and crack addicts and spent a shift with police officers in Spanish Harlem.
Last year, during the work stoppage, "we came out as a big, bad employer," Robinson said. The Community Internship Program helps cast UPS in a different light. "I'm proud to work for a company that makes that kind of investment in its managers," he added.
Since the program began, more than 1,000 senior managers have participated, at a cost to UPS of $10 million. In addition to covering salaries and transportation to and from the community, the company pays for a flight home for each intern halfway through the program. Accommodations are far from lavish; Robinson, for example, stayed on the fourth floor of a youth center building, strictly dormitory style.
UPS' Dennis Obregon, who directs corporate community relations at company headquarters in Atlanta, said the program is intended to instill in managers an awareness of social problems, an understanding of why such problems exist and a desire to be involved in helping to find solutions.
For example, he said, many supervisors do not tolerate tardiness. But they might take a different view after seeing what it is like for individuals who must depend on sometimes unreliable public transportation.
"You're walking a mile in the other person's moccasins," he said.
While serving in McAllen, a poor Texas border town, UPS' Les Dahlgren developed a greater appreciation for basic conveniences. Among other duties, he helped build a house for a pregnant woman and her husband who had been sharing a one-bedroom place with several other individuals. Another UPS intern helped develop a marketing plan for a bicycle-assembly venture aimed at providing jobs for gang members.
Serving as an intern "makes us stronger managers, more sensitive to the needs of people who aren't quite as fortunate," said Dahlgren, a district human resources manager in UPS' Ontario office.
Indeed, far more than philanthropy is spurring UPS. "We feel the program helps us build better management people for the future," Obregon said.
Although the company has never attempted to quantify the program's effects, Obregon has found that many people who get promoted have participated. Next year, he said, UPS plans to hire an outside firm to figure out a way to measure results. The company also will be evaluating nonprofit agencies in California and possibly overseas that might benefit from participation.
Dahlgren and Robinson, for two, say it has helped them relate better as human beings.
"It's something I'll remember for the rest of my life," Robinson said, articulating the views of both. "Now it's up to me to do something with that experience. I want to make a difference."
Does your company have an unusual way of developing managers' people skills? Write to Martha Groves, Corporate Currents, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Or e-mail email@example.com.