About a week ago, I was inspired to pen an opinion piece. The protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd opened a window for widescale conversations about race and racial biases. As a black man with roughly 25 years of supply chain experience, I felt it necessary to bring attention to how issues of race were playing out in the logistics and supply chain community. I focused specifically on black delivery drivers doing last mile logistics work, after noting a recent trend of racial discrimination and bias-driven harassments experienced by black male home delivery workers. To be honest, I felt torn when seeing the piece in print. On one hand, the response brought me great joy, as supply chain professionals suggested that the piece had stimulated tough, but necessary, reflections and conversations about how race matters can impact logistics. Yet, as a scholar whose research area is last mile logistics services, I also found it somewhat frustrating that, in focusing on the problem, I failed to discuss impacts or offer potential solutions. That’s what I want this follow-up piece to represent – a discussion of several cost and service implications of this issue, and ideation regarding ways to address the problems of racism and bias that are lurking throughout many last mile logistics networks.
First, I want to be clear in highlighting that the recent pattern of black delivery driver harassments is not reflective of a new issue. In fact, there have been several examples of such encounters over the years, most of which never captured national attention or sparked much conversation. Yet, the more recent occurrences have emerged at a time which allows us to directly address this issue, and to do so in more real-time fashion. Case in point, since my first opinion piece was published a little over a week ago, another incident was reported in Warren, Michigan. This one involved a black driver experiencing what many view as excessive policing (including a physical takedown and swarms of backup law enforcement), because of an illegally parked delivery van. And, I just received notice of a circulating video posted by an emotional black male FedEx driver in Ohio, reporting that he was verbally attacked with a racial slur and spit on by a white passerby.
In light of the many prior documented examples, and the unfortunate reality that these issues continue to surface, it is time that we examine how this particular aspect of last mile logistics execution affects our community, and talk through how we can change. I have some thoughts, based on insights from my academic research on last mile, as well as recent discussions with black delivery drivers and research on black delivery driver issues and concerns. In sharing them, I hope to highlight ways that these encounters impact delivery firms, the retailers using their services for online order deliveries, and what can be done about it. While this list isn’t meant to be exhaustive, it does offer up some points to ponder and a kickstart to this important discussion. Furthermore, although my focus is on black men because of the examples we’ve seen in the media, the thoughts below can easily apply to black drivers of all genders, as well as drivers of other minority groups.
Impacts of Black Driver Racism and Harassment
1. Driver Safety and Well-being – In my mind, the most important area of impact to consider is the overall health, safety, and well-being of black delivery drivers. First, delivery work comes with more than a fair share of stress, especially when we consider the increased standards of short delivery lead times, and the amplified demand for delivery services due to the pandemic. In fact, I’ve spent some time watching several YouTube videos that would fall into the “day in the life of a delivery worker” category … a series of unscripted delivery-related testimonials from drivers of all races, ethnicities, and genders. What is quite common across them is the acknowledgement that the work is stressful. The time pressure, traffic, package weights, and impediments to smooth delivery (i.e. apartment complexes, dogs, etc.) are but a few commonly expressed contributors to the taxing nature of the work. Interestingly, I also noticed that black male drivers were much more likely to highlight another stressor … the fear of being perceived as a criminal while delivering, just because of their physical appearance. This is important to highlight, because it speaks to larger health and well-being issues within the black delivery driver community. What we’ve seen in the many driver harassment examples that have surfaced are black male drivers expressing a variety of stress-related emotions, including fear, anger, anxiety, frustration, and in some cases, being moved to tears. In other words, the racism experienced by black delivery workers, or just the thought of it, adds an additional, and substantial, layer of stress to an already stressful job. Medical researchers have well documented the physiological impacts of racism-related stress and anxiety. What the data suggests are increases in health outcomes like hypertension, diabetes, and chronic obesity, and a plethora of psychological and psychosocial disorders. This is especially the case when racism-related encounters are internalized, due to them going unreported or undocumented. Thus, we have to face the harsh reality that this segment of the driver workforce is much more likely to be at risk for health-related work interruption and limitations, due to the additional stress and fear they face by doing the job. Moreover, the added-on stress also increases the likelihood of things that would decrease driver pool stability, such as heightened driver turnover amongst black male delivery workers, and reductions in their availability or willingness to serve. Dare we even mention how this additional stress could induce risky delivery driver behaviors (such as speeding or driving while distracted) or how an encounter can impact job attitude or commitment. Can you imagine going back to your job after such an incident, particularly if you have the significant time constraints and public exposure as drivers? Can they really be expected to deliver a truck full of packages after such trauma?
2. Delivery Service Performance – While racism and bias-based confrontations are inherently problematic, they also represent a significant interruption in service delivery. In most reported cases of black male driver harassment, significant amounts of time are required to de-escalate these confrontations, such that drivers can try to get back to the important and essential work of delivery. One of the questions I’ve been posing is, “what about the NEXT customer?” If a two minute delivery turns into a one hour encounter, the service performance for subsequent customers will most likely suffer. First, the driver is likely to be late with subsequent deliveries. My own research has shown that delivery services are a vital aspect of the online retail purchase experience, with on-time delivery representing a key component of why consumers are satisfied with online shopping. Thus, late deliveries because of prior racism encounters can come with severe consequences, even the loss of important customers. In addition to the time impacts of actual racism encounters, even the idea of potential encounters has service implications. For example, in order to not be viewed as a threat, black male drivers often avoid interpersonal and close interactions as much as possible, even if it means providing sub-par delivery service performance. Some time ago, several videos went viral showing delivery drivers leaving packages on curbs or tossing packages on porches from afar. When they surfaced, many watched in disgust, wondering how drivers could be so disrespectful to provide such horrible service. Oddly enough, I couldn’t help to wonder if the drivers were black, and consider what kind of experiences they’d had delivering to those neighborhoods or homes before. While I acknowledge that there are drivers of all ethnicities who just don’t care enough, or are too stressed, to be concerned with service excellence, I also find it completely plausible (and likely) that black male drivers might provide such poor service because of concerns that delivery recipients will be threatened by them as they approach. Again, delivery services are important to consumers, and my research has shown that one bad service experience can tarnish how consumers view the delivery provider, as well as the retailers that use those delivery companies. In essence, black driver harassments come with a likely domino effect on service quality, with real customer service and brand image implications.
3. Resource Duplication – A few years ago, a black male UPS driver (in full uniform and UPS delivery van) was confronted by a white woman in an Atlanta neighborhood and told that he looked “suspicious.” The incident persisted until a white male driver arrived to “validate” that the driver was legitimate. The same was necessary in a more recent similar incident – a white driver was required to relieve a black male driver from being questioned over his legitimacy. In the recent Warren, Michigan incident, another driver had to be deployed in order to recover the driver’s delivery van after he’d been arrested due to how the incident had escalated. All of these examples point to the significant resource duplication that is often necessary in order to de-escalate and recover from these delivery encounters. Resources that are already constrained. What those of us who research or manage supply chains know is that last mile logistics represents over 50% of total logistics costs. Hence, the costs of delivery are already quite steep…and that’s if no additional resources are required in order to provide delivery services. Add additional resources to the equation, in the forms of duplicate drivers or equipment, and the costs go through the roof. As such, these driver racism occurrences are not only about indirect or long-term operational costs (such as those mentioned above, in the form of turnover or driver stability), but the incidents themselves come with a hefty price tag in the form of unplanned, duplicate, and tied-up resources.
Now that we’ve outlined some ways that racism targeted at black delivery drivers can impact operational execution and costs, let’s discuss some ideas on how to address these issues. I do think it important to note that the following solutions are suggested with the primary focus on ensuring the safety of black delivery workers. I acknowledge that there are broader root causes that need to be addressed, and larger societal discussions that are necessary. Yet, those are beyond the scope of the immediate emphasis here – which is ensuring a safe, healthy, and stable driving force.
Combatting Black Driver Racism and Harassment
1. Empower Drivers – Hollywood actor Will Smith has been quoted as saying racism is “not getting worse … it’s getting filmed.“ This speaks directly to the issues we’ve seen on the delivery front. My own discussions with black delivery workers, as well as observations from documented driver testimonials, suggest that these issues happen “all the time,” as one FedEx driver stated. I can’t help but to ponder why they’re not reported. An unfortunate theme we have to address is the perception that delivery companies “don’t care.” Many feel that there is a pervasive underlying industry culture that discourages drivers from reporting these encounters – especially if they’re not as egregious as some of the recent cases to hit the news, where drawn firearms, racial slurs, and bodily fluids have been involved. I think a real question for delivery companies to consider is whether drivers feel empowered and “heard” enough to consider the reporting of these situations as worth the hassle. This is important, because what I know as a black man myself, is that black men have had to learn how to let these kinds of situations “roll off our backs” … especially if we want to stay gainfully employed or, might I add, alive. Firms might consider training and communication that empowers drivers to report these encounters, no matter how small. Key to this will be refraining from discounting the encounter as the driver being “too sensitive” … that’s one of the main reasons why these issues likely go unreported. Likewise, firms might also consider adopting standard operating procedures and equipment which empower and encourage drivers to record deliveries – especially those involving close customer engagement. Perhaps even to the extent of investing in bodycams. As the recent stories to emerge have shown us, mobile technologies make the ability to record these situations quite prevalent. More importantly, providing video support of these run-ins has allowed drivers to penetrate environments where their written and/or vocal documentation of such events might not be enough. And, to be honest, it is the main reason why we’re talking about it on a national level.
2. Deny Service – I grew up in the inner-city of Detroit in the 80’s. Part of that reality was a known limit to when and where we could expect certain services. For example, due to a series of unfortunate delivery worker robberies in our area, our community had been redlined. In other words, our entire zip code was denied services, such as food delivery, as a way of protecting drivers and safeguarding the resources of those companies. Dare I suggest that the same could apply here. If certain customers or communities are known to be problematic, then firms could simply deny service. Sure, it’s a radical solution, and there will be a revenue hit … but in light of the aforementioned costs that these situations carry, the profitability of delivering to those customers or areas might not be there anyway. Furthermore, I’m pretty sure that job satisfaction and organizational commitment amongst the minority driver population, which some have estimated to be at roughly 40% of total driver force, would likely increase, allowing for additional cost avoidances (such as reduced turnover and better service quality). And, well … the message this approach conveys would likely reverberate within these communities.
3. Tracking and Notification Technologies – When my first piece ran, I had several friends ask about tracking technologies, suggesting they can be used as a notification to delivery recipients that a driver was en route. I agree … I think this idea has some merit. Yet, it also circumvents what we’ve seen as the real problems in these cases. So, first, I’ve done research on this topic some years ago. Some colleagues and I conducted a study where we provided study participants with delivery notifications that included the faces and names of drivers. We also changed the names and faces, with some drivers being black men and others white. We found that the disclosure of drivers was beneficial, in terms of increases in pre-delivery customer trust and satisfaction, but only when the driver ethnicity matched that of the customer being studied. And, mind you, many in the customer sample were black. So, yeah, delivery and driver notifications can help … but the issues of racial identity also complicate this issue. It is also important to note, however, that in most reported cases of race-related black driver harassment, it wasn’t the delivery recipient that was the problem … it was others in the community. So, unless the notification is going to be sent to the entire neighborhood, notifications only get us so far. This is not to say that notifications including driver identity aren’t important enough to add to this list … I think they are. But, the nuance associated with them suggest they should be used in conjunction with other tactics.
4. Routing and Operational Adjustments – Only for the sake of driver safety and well-being do I painstakingly suggest driver routing as a potential solution, where black drivers can be re-routed to customers and areas where they are less likely to encounter racism and bias-based harassment. My apprehension lies in the feeling that this approach caters to those whose racial biases are the core of the problem. Yet, it is a real option that needs to be considered. For example, some years ago the home improvement chain Lowe’s came under fire after a black delivery driver was informed that he was not to make a delivery, per the customer’s request. When he inquired further, he was told that the customer, a white woman, had specifically requested that no black delivery persons be dispatched to her home. This story was upsetting to me … I was upset because of the customer’s unapologetic racism and blatant disregard for others involved, and I was upset that Lowe’s folded. But then, I thought about the driver. I can’t help but to wonder how he might have been treated, had he been allowed to make the delivery. And, well, considering that many of these situations have involved verbal attacks with racial slurs and false reports to law enforcement, I gain some solace in the notion that maybe this was best for the driver. Firms might also consider going further with broader operational adjustments, such as the adoption of matching algorithms and choice-based driver routing, similar to the technology used by Uber. I’ve done studies on this, and customers are generally more satisfied when they have the ability to choose carriers and drivers ... even if they opt to not choose. Though this model is not as widely adopted, there are examples of delivery and courier companies that allow customers to choose drivers, and allow drivers to choose deliveries. This is particularly popular in the crowdsourced delivery environment. Perhaps these routing approaches can be more broadly adopted, allowing drivers to be more selective of where they deliver. Again, I suggest these routing solutions as part of a more comprehensive approach to dealing with these issues … and only for the sake of the mental and physical health of black male drivers do I mention them as one aspect of possible solutions.
5. Branded equipment – Most of the reported cases of black driver harassment have involved drivers for major delivery companies, such as UPS and FedEx. Even in full regalia associated with these brands, drivers have been labeled as suspected criminals. So, it seems that branded equipment can only go so far in combatting this issue. However, what branded equipment does for drivers is my point in including it on this list. What I’ve noticed is significant expressed concern amongst black male drivers when they are dispatched in unmarked delivery vans, because of the increased likelihood that they will be perceived as a threat. Thus, they might be more likely to compromise delivery service quality (such as tossing packages from a distance or quick drops without securing packages) when their equipment contributes to raised suspicions. This issue is specifically concerning in the crowdsourcing space, where delivery drivers are almost always in unmarked vehicles and plain clothes. Firms should consider more conspicuous equipment branding as part of their solutions to address this problem. Doing so will ease a lot of concerns and associated stress for black drivers as they hit the road.
6. Touch-less delivery – The COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a new normal; one where distance is expected and appreciated. Many retailers and delivery providers have jumped on the contact-less or touch-less delivery bandwagon, emphasizing social distancing while also providing delivery services. What has been interesting in the stories I’ve read about this new phenomenon has been a bias toward customer benefits when discussing touch-less delivery. However, in this case, I find it as also a huge benefit for the driver, especially black male drivers navigating the headwinds of racism and bias. Touch-less proof of delivery (POD) has become popular, locker deliveries are on the rise, and more delivery recipients are accepting of curb or driveway-level deliveries, even for bulky items that were traditionally delivered across the threshold. Some have suggested that these approaches might be here to stay, representative of a new normal in customers’ expectations of delivery services. I argue that adopting these delivery approaches can also contribute to driver health and safety, especially for black drivers, by further ensuring that they are distanced from unfortunate biases or unfair treatment.
7. Retailer Involvement and Oversight – Most of these solutions have focused on what delivery companies can do, but I find that retailers employing these companies can also affect immense change by simply reinforcing the efforts of delivery providers. It’s one thing for a service provider to adopt tactics with a focus on keeping all drivers safe; it’s another thing when retail clients double down in support of these tactics. As such, retailers might consider proactively discussing these black driver realities with service providers, inquiring about tactics to curb or prevent their occurrences. Likewise, retailers might even go further to include these social issues as part of performance reviews and scorecards. After all, as my research has suggested, retailers have a lot of skin in the game. Delivery performance appraisals not only involve consumer perceptions of the delivery company or the driver, but assessments of the retailer and product brand are also at stake. As such, retailers can use their brand management, customer experience, and supplier management strategies to play a very vital role in ensuring a safe and equitable delivery experience for black drivers, while advancing their cause and brand in the process.
I admit … this is not an exhaustive list. I’m sure there are other costs and implications that I didn’t uncover, and several additional ideas on how service providers and retailers can address this problem. My focus, however, was not on being comprehensive. Instead, I want to bring national attention to this problem, and inspire conversations that can result in real change. Before writing this final paragraph, I went back and re-watched the video that surfaced today. The tears of the Lisbon, Ohio FedEx delivery driver were met with my own this time. Interestingly, it was not his tears because of the incident that triggered mine … it was when, in an instant, he sighed, wiped his tears of frustration and anger away, and with a much more even and controlled voice said, “well … I’d better keep going … because I’m on a f***ing time limit and I got hella stops … so I don’t want to burn too much time.” THAT is the purpose of this work, and the impetus for this follow-on piece. The reality is that black male delivery drivers are not only experiencing racism and harassment on the job, but the nature of the work doesn’t allow for time or space to deal with these issues. It is my hope that these piece I’ve penned, and any conversations they trigger, can help to change that.
Dr. Terry L. Esper is an associate professor of logistics at the Fisher College of Business of The Ohio State University. He has published several articles on issues associated with retail logistics and supply chain management strategy in leading academic and managerial outlets.
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