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Feb 28, 2014

A recent story in The New York Times caught my attention. It not only personifies employee engagement, but also challenges the perpetuating notion that union employees are sometimes less than eager to go above and beyond.

Last week, Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) train conductor Michael Shaw made the same announcement on his PA system that he always makes when delays on his line occur — that there would be a train immediately following his that would run “express,” making fewer stops along the route into Manhattan.

There was only one problem: that train never arrived, leaving passengers temporarily stranded.

A personal and sincere mea culpa

Shaw had assumed that the usual protocol was in place, but his Metro-North bosses abruptly made alternate plans that he didn’t know about.

Determined to rectify his mistake, he decided to take matters into his own hands. The following Monday, 500 MTA train riders had a personally written apology from Shaw waiting on their seats. It said:

I made a huge mistake in telling you, MY/OUR passengers, to ‘trust me and wait for the express train behind us’ not knowing Metro-North had canceled it. I will never make this mistake again.”

This personal mea culpa showed two things;

  1. That admitting a mistake is what proud owners of their work do; and,
  2. That Shaw wanted to make certain that his customers knew he was genuinely sorry — not to save face, but because it was the right thing to do.

As you might expect, the reaction to Shaw’s notes and personal initiative was overwhelmingly positive. One particular rider commended Shaw but still managed to express her dissatisfaction with the cancellation, posting to her Instagram, “This guy is great. Metro North still sucks.”

Management was appreciative, but …

New York area MTA riders — especially in the morning — are a surly lot, and they hate even the smallest disruption to their routines (I’ve personally witnessed severe overreactions to music played too loud through headphones). Michael Shaw not only put himself in his customers’ shoes, but took that extra step to regain their trust — an attribute that any organization should embrace in their employees.

Except the MTA, of course, who supported his concerns but did not appreciate the gesture.

According to The New York Times, a spokesman for the railroad, Aaron Donovan, said in a statement:

Conductor Mike Shaw is one of the many Metro-North Railroad employees who care deeply about our customers. His open letter expresses the same frustration that customers and employees alike feel about the railroad’s recent challenges. While we share his concerns, we do not condone his methods of communicating them.”

And, The Times added this postscript to the whole episode: “The spokesman advised customers to rely on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority website, not their conductor, for scheduling changes. Mr. Shaw will be re-instructed in railroad policy.”

A version of this was originally published on the Michael C. Fina blog.