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Letters from an old railway official (second series)/Letter 17

LETTER XVII.

CORRESPONDENCE AND EXPLANATIONS.

Portland, Ore., July 29, 1911.

My Dear Boy:—The man who is successful in the exercise of authority soon learns to be something of a buffer between his superiors and his subordinates. He learns to temper justice with mercy. In this little railroad game of ours there has often been an unconscious departure from this rule of conduct. The word “why” should ask for an increased overtime rate in its next working schedule. Somebody at the top is peeved because a train comes in late. He asks the next man below, “Why?” Down goes the inquiry through the baskets of offices whose files contain the desired information, because it is so much easier to write another man a letter than to dig up one of our own. The final inquiry is to a man who has already rendered one report or explanation. It would be a pretty poor sort of recording angel that would register against this underling the more or less justifiable profanity in which he then indulges.

Up in this part of the country, where they do some mighty good railroading, is a big hearted general officer, who once, during a blizzard, directed his superintendents to order train and engine crews to disregard block signals forced out of commission by the elements. A section foreman went out to change a rail with the traditional one man who could not flag both ways. So the section foreman, with the rail out, relied upon the [automatic] block signal for protection. Along came the train with orders to disregard the signal—and the engine landed in the ditch. There was some official talk of discharging the section foreman. The big general officer faced the music and said, in effect, that if any enforced vacancies were to occur he himself must be the man. “Furthermore,” he added, “we have learned something; if we are ever again tempted to disregard block signals, we will first notify everybody on the railroad, including the section foremen.” Such manliness is the rule rather than the exception among railroad officers. It is a practical kind of honesty which counts in the great art of handling men.

The lesson to be drawn is that we should all be just as honest and considerate for the man below in the conduct of our offices as in the face to face contact of outside activities. The first thought of an official and of his chief of staff should be to avoid humiliating a subordinate. A letter demanding an explanation accumulates much momentum of censure while traveling, perhaps from the general offices, through the channels to an agent, a yardmaster, a conductor, or a foreman. The tendency of each office is to unbottle a little more of a never-failing supply of suppressed indignation. By the time the return explanations and apologies have trekked back across the plains to the starting point, the whole incident is often as much ancient history as the days of ’49.

Yes, we must have explanations for certain irregularities. The taste for such office pabulum is more or less cultivated. It is a kind of diet which demands vigilant restraint of appetite. It does not increase the self-respect of a faithful old employe to write a schoolboy explanation of something that looked badly on paper in a distant office. Actual experience has demonstrated that discipline can be maintained, efficiency increased, and loyalty engendered by greater politeness and consideration in official correspondence. Instead of the superintendent or trainmaster writing to a conductor, “Why did you delay No. 1 at Utopia when you pulled out a draw-bar on the main track on the 32nd?” why not say, “It is claimed that quicker work on your part would have avoided delay to No. 1 when your train pulled out a drawbar, etc.” This leaves it open to the man to explain or to let the matter go by default. The employe who lets too much go by default is soon well known to his officers and his cases will receive the special treatment they deserve. Some officials devote more time to the gnat-heel measure of explanations than to a broad analysis which will prevent future irregularities.

To some officials, papers on the desk are a nightmare. For the sake of a clean desk they will write unnecessary letters and pass the papers to the men below. The road will not go to pieces if many papers are held for a personal interview next trip. Because it is now and then desirable to force some old buck to go on record is no reason for not separating the sheep from the goats and avoiding the necessity for a record in a majority of cases. This is another instance where L. C. L. judgment is worth a whole trainload of rigid bumping posts.

Among the many advantages of the chief of staff should be his ability to prepare explanations for higher authority from routine reports at hand without making a special reference of papers to offices below.

Your old dad takes considerable pride in the fact that he never consciously wrote a sharp letter to a subordinate. Once, when a trainmaster, and sick in bed, he dictated in a letter to a conductor, “Hereafter, please take sufficient interest to see that switches are properly locked.” The stenographer improved the phraseology by writing, “Please take special interest, etc.”—see the difference?—which happy circumstances caused the conductor to come to the sickroom and express his undying devotion to the cause of locked switches. A personal interview with a conductor, however, is worth a dozen letters by a trainmaster.

These same observations apply to the general manager as well as to the trainmaster. The higher one goes, the more consideration must he cultivate. If you have something disagreeable to get out of your system and the typewriter is your only recourse, take it out on your superiors rather than your subordinates. It is better for the company to have you fired for insubordination than for you to demoralize the service by rawhiding men below. You must carry out the policies and instructions of your superiors. The success of your administration will depend upon the manner in which you execute the wishes of your superiors and upon the methods you pursue, as much as upon the inherent merits of the policies themselves. Flattering yourself, as you probably do, at being the happiest of the happy in the medium line, see how safe a middle course you can steer. It will take another generation to eradicate feudalism in railroad administration. Those whom Fate, opportunity, or desire has landed in the railroad game must abide by the existing rules. If out of accord with the policies of those above, be a good sport and resign like a gentleman. Before doing so, however, be dead sure that you have not mistaken some trifling inconsistencies of methods for real incompatibility warranting voluntary separation.

A good friend and a good superintendent down south recently asked me to preach a little on the necessity for a more dignified tone in railway correspondence. He cited his correspondence with government offices as an example of dignified expression. Instead of saying, “Please advise me,” or, “Kindly let me know,” or “I wish to be informed,” they use some such impersonal expression as, “Please advise this office,” or “Kindly favor the department,” or, “This bureau desires information concerning, etc.” Some people say they like to have an official or an employe act as if he owned the property. I would not. A man will ride his own horse to death. When acting as trustee, guardian, or fiduciary, he will perhaps conserve the property entrusted to his charge more carefully than if it were his own. Is not a careful trustee better than a careless owner? Railway officials are trustees as well as hired hands. Through long traditions of service, the government officer, however hampered by certain limitations that are inherent in government administration, forms a habit of mind which prompts first attention to his employer rather than to himself. On railways we are equally loyal, but are cruder in our manifestations. We have the feudal conception of “my railroad” rather than that of “the railroad on which I have the honor to be employed.”

Following the same reasoning, it is better for a man to sign, “John Doe, for and in the absence of the General Manager,” than “Richard Roe, General Manager, per John Doe.” When John Doe acts in the place of Richard Roe, the former has become the representative of the company, rather than a facsimile of Richard Roe. The act of John Doe binds the company, and the papers should show on whom personal administrative responsibility must be fixed. The phrase, “For and in the absence of,” explains to the recipient the departure from normal procedure, and to the company’s future reviewer is John Doe’s explanation or apology for seeming usurpation of the functions of higher authority.

When you have signed a letter, no matter by whom suggested or prepared, it becomes your act for which you are responsible. Do not have its effect weakened by showing in the corner of the original the initials of the persons dictating and typewriting. Whether or not such initials shall be shown on your file carbon for the sake of future reference is a matter of taste. Such carbon copy record can be made either by a rubber stamp or by typewriter. With the latter method some stenographers prefer to slip in a piece of heavy paper to blank the original and to save the trouble of removing the outer sheet from the machine. The point is that, however desirable such information may be for your own office, it is no concern of the recipient of the letter. It is much more important that the carbon copy should show by rubber stamp or otherwise who actually signed the original and became responsible for that completed stage of the transaction.

The impersonal form of address used in government correspondence precludes the necessity for printing the names of officials on letter heads. Illegible signatures are a pretty poor excuse for attempting to issue an official directory in the form of a letter head. The working conception of the self-perpetuating corporation falls short if we must alter or reprint our stationery every time an official is changed.

We are wont to look upon government administration as typical of conservatism and circumlocution. Some things we do much better than the government. There are things the government does much better than we do. For example, an officer of the corps of engineers in the Army does his own disbursing. He controls all the component functions of his particular activity, including supply and purchase. He is checked up after the fact by an auditor in Washington. A railway cannot pay most of its bills until six or seven persons sign a voucher. Number seven signs perfunctorily because Number six did. Number six likewise is the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that caused the voucher in the house that Jack built. It all comes down to some responsible man who handled the matter in the first place. Why not trust him, and perhaps one other, checking them both after the bill has been promptly paid? A bank check is validated by only one genuine, creditable indorsement. If drawn to bearer or to self, only one signature is necessary. I am optimistic enough to believe that you will live long enough to see railways follow the example of the banks and the government and pay a legitimate bill with one, or at the most two signatures. When this is done, however, I trust that due notice will be given, so that the seismograph stations may have fair warning. If all the old time auditors turn over in their graves at the same time, the earth will tremble and the shock will be too great for delicate instruments.

Affectionately, your own,

D. A. D.