Adventures in Coin Collecting

Why should we reward people for not stealing from us?

Telephone company manager

My first corporate job was at Bell Laboratories in pre-divestiture AT&T. As part of my indoctrination into the phone company, I was sent to a month long training class called “BOCAP,” or “Bell Operating Company Assignment Program,” in a rust-belt city that I’ll leave nameless. The purpose of BOCAP was to teach Bell Labs engineers how the phone company really worked. We got to go down manholes, up telephone poles, and out on customer service calls. It was a pretty good introduction to the day to day operations of the phone company, but as with most training, only a couple of truly vivid memories remain.

One was a day I spent with a guy whose job was collecting the money from coin telephones. He had a heavy, armored, truck that carried a few hundred coin boxes. Each day, his truck would be filled with empty coin boxes, and he’d get a set of keys, one for each phone, and a detailed route to follow for that day. At each stop on the route, he would grab a few empty coin boxes, run into whatever establishment had the phones, unlock each phone, swap out the full coin boxes for empty ones, then sprint back to the truck with the full ones.

That particular day, we had a route that took us through what seemed like every down and out bar and bowling alley in the city; places where it seemed like the patrons would have happily knifed us for the coins if it hadn’t been too much trouble to get off their bar stools for a bucket of dimes. We were in and out of most places, even the ones with 4 or 5 pay phones, in a couple of minutes, tops.

The coin boxes were well sealed and once taken out of a pay phone it would be hard to open them up undetected. However, often the boxes were left in place so long that they filled up and coins overflowed into the surrounding area. When this happened, you’d find coins inside the phone housing, but outside the sealed coin box. These coins had to be counted, placed in an envelope, and brought back with the coin boxes.

There was no record, other than the collector’s notes, of how much money was collected this way. Therefore, there was no way for management to know if the collector was reporting the overflow correctly or pocketing it. To combat theft, the phone company had an internal investigations team whose job was to randomly follow collectors to check on them. They also would seed certain phones with extra coins then check to be sure the correct amount was reported.

The day after my adventure in coin collecting, we spent the morning with the coin collectors’ managers, who explained the theft prevention process in excruciating detail. I frankly remember much less of that morning than I do of the previous day’s adventure, but I do remember thinking that they probably spent more money checking up on the coin collectors than they could possibly have lost in overflow. In addition, by putting the collectors under so much scrutiny, it was clear they were managing their employees under the assumption that they were thieves.

When I asked whether they used any kinds of rewards for good performance, the response was “Why should we reward people for not stealing from us?” I’ll admit it was a naive question, and of course, I know you can’t open up the cash register and assume that no employee will steal from you. However, their response revealed that their definition of good performance barely reached beyond “don’t steal.

Regardless of how important it is to avoid theft, I believe that by couching their approach in those terms, this management team did more to encourage stealing than to discourage it. Employees always know what is important to their manager. If you only care about stopping possible bad behavior, your employees will only care about avoiding that behavior or hiding it from you. They are unlikely to be interested in becoming more productive or improving quality, and they’re likely to become gun-shy and antagonistic. If, on the other hand, you expect good behavior, look for it, and reward it, while keeping a sharp, but discrete, eye out for problems, you change the tone of your organization and give people a real incentive for working harder and smarter.

When we’re talking about technical writers, theft of money or property is probably not at the top of your list of concerns. However, prevention of other undesirable behaviors may be. If you focus on preventing missed deadlines, preventing factual errors, or preventing bad writing, rather than encouraging on-schedule delivery, good fact checking, and good writing, you set the bar too low. You will probably prevent missed deadlines, factual errors, and bad writing, but your team may never get beyond that to improving productivity and quality. In effect, you put a limit on achievement when you define success through avoidance. Instead, define success as achieving more every day and you take away the limits.

One comment

  1. […] I’ve just posted a new section titled, “Adventures in Coin Collecting.” […]

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