How to Get Strategic: Lessons from the Coming Post Office Shakeout

One of the problems I had, especially as a newer HR professional, is how to support the business when decisions revolve around non-staffing issues.

Take the recent talk about the United States Postal Service looking to possibly close over 3,700 post office branches. That’s a big number, and it is certainly controversial, especially if you live in an area impacted by a closing. And the purported solution (semi-privatized retail outlets in existing stores and gas stations) seems to be a reasonable one.

But if you’re a HR professional wanting to be a strategic partner and all of that, do you just sit on your hands or do you pipe up?

The Postal Service’s issues

Anyone who has been following the situation with USPS closely knows the story: they’re hemorrhaging money. They lost $2.2 billion last quarter.

Their business is fundamentally shifting with increased e-mail and virtual fax usage, loss of revenue from decreasing media publication deliveries and far fewer people choosing to utilize that system.

Meanwhile, they have branches all over the country that sit virtually empty all day. There are post offices in towns where there isn’t a single other retail business.

One possible closure I’m familiar with is Ariel, Washington. It was always odd driving past it on the way to Mt. St. Helens and wondering when common sense was going to catch up with this small post office. A closed up gas station, school and a reduced speed limit is the only thing stopping it from being a blur.

That’s ignoring other possible solutions too (like the elimination of Saturday delivery).

And while the problems could indirectly be linked to staffing, I don’t think there is a direct correlation. It seems these places and routes are properly staffed. But for a tiny location like Ariel, it isn’t about that one person necessarily, it is about the fact that you can’t have less than one person manning a branch. Not to mention, the cost of maintaining another location.

Getting strategic in a non-staffing situation

If you were a HR person at the Postal Service, what could you offer though? The first thing is more tactical: specific steps on dealing with shifting the talent you do have. That means knowing your current staffing situation, understanding what retention and retirement challenges lie ahead, knowing your union contracts and coming prepared to direct the redeployment of possibly thousands of employees (and possibly the layoff of thousands of others).

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This is bread and butter stuff. As the HR pro for an organization, you’re living and breathing this world every day and you probably shouldn’t have been caught off guard by the possibility that some restructuring would be in order at some point (again, $2.2 billion lost in a single quarter). I’m guessing the HR pros at USPS were prepared for this with some contingencies in place.

That’s the bare minimum though. That’s what they pay you for. But there is a next step that critical business leaders take.

Moving beyond the tactical

One of the focuses would be on how the HR function is going to assist in making the company viable. That means, beyond the near-term restructuring, what sort of things are we doing to not only control increases of costs for talent but to also ensure we have the right people in place to deal with retirements, turnover and the vision for what’s next.

For the people who had to deal with the “Going postal” employment brand moniker for so long, it seems almost cruel that you add in the job instability tag to it too. That’s what the major restructuring of the postal service can do to a brand image though. When talking about future recruiting and retention challenges, this can be an argument to not only make sure you’re cutting locations correctly but also that you’re not cutting too deep or too little.

Lastly, in the context of setting the strategic objective, you have to have some insight about where you are headed. In a HR role, you can help pull together feedback from across various organizational silos to get compelling information for recommendations. When department stakeholders are arguing about what should be prioritized, you can take a broader look at how the company is functioning and give feedback that better clarifies the whole of the organization.

That’s where I always found HR’s sweet spot to be, especially when the conversation moves away from talent and into the realm of overall operations. Bring that to the table and you’ll always have a seat there.

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