Royal Mail boss torn apart by MPs over tracking of workers

Simon Thompson was hauled over the coals

Royal Mail’s boss Simon Thompson has been grilled by members of a House of Commons select committee over whether postal workers are tracked on their rounds and if that information is used to discipline staff or to pressure them to work faster. It is the second time in as many months Thompson has had to face questions from the parliamentary committee, after MPs felt he had not given “wholly correct” answers in his last appearance.

In his previous appearance, Thompson denied knowledge of technology being used to push postal workers to work faster, saying: “I am not aware of technology we have in place that tells people to work more quickly. I am not aware of that at all.” However, Darren Jones – chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee – said that he had received over 1,500 communications suggesting that Royal Mail was in fact using this practice. Thompsons said that any instances were down to rogue managers and that using data in this way was in breach of policy.

At Thompson’s second appearance at the committee – on February 22 – Jones pressed him on this point. Jones displayed a number of images which he argued indicated Royal Mail was tracking workers and using this for performance management. One of these images was a chart showing the performance of workers, with a handwritten note reading “don’t get caught” linked to the slowest postal workers.

Following this, Jones said: “I take your point that in real time, it might not be buzzing saying ‘run more quickly’. But I think it’s quite clear based on the evidence that you are using technology to encourage people to be more quick and to rank them against their colleagues about who is and isn’t the quickest at delivering their letters.

“And we’ve had written testimony from postal workers across the whole country. So far today, you’ve said there have been a number of rogue delivery offices. But I have testimony literally covering the whole country. There’s someone here from Nottinghamshire – ‘I’d like to advise that information recorded on the PDA devices is 100% being used to discipline staff and we’re being pulled into the office daily.’ I’ve got a message here from a delivery office manager who says ‘PDA data’s available to all management levels and is used to discuss postie performance. Managers down the ladder are questioned whether performances have been challenged, names are requested to ensure challenges are progressed through conduct if repeated.’

“I could go on and on. It seems everyone in the business assumes you use this technology to track the speed of your workers, to enforce performance, and in some circumstances to discipline workers. Are you really telling us today Mr Thompson that’s not true?”

Thompson responded by saying, “I did go and check whether we had a situation where this data was being used for performance management. Out of the 3.6 million walks that the team have done – we do around 58,000 a day – out of the 3.6 million walks they’ve done over the last three months, the only thing we can see is 16 conduct cases where data has actually been referenced. And a conduct case is a very severe and actually quite a rare occurrence. And if that data is requested for that particular situation, then that has to be referred to a human resources professional before that information would be released. So there is nothing that I can see that would say that this is being used as performance management.”

Another committee member – Labour’s Andy McDonald – pressed Thompson on this specific point. He asked: “I was interested in Mr Thompson’s comment that PDA data is being used in 16 conduct cases. So, the data is being used in a disciplinary fashion – it’s being used in pursuit of those cases. And we’re hearing from postal workers, as the chair’s outlined, that this information is indeed being used and conversations are being had with line managers about performance based upon this data. Are they all wrong when they’re telling us this – when they’re putting that evidence in, and saying I am being tracked, that information is being used and there are consequences for me in the workplace? Are you sitting here today, telling us that they’re all entirely wrong in their own lived experience.”

After saying “I don’t have the individual cases and I would never say that our people lie”, he went onto argue: “There have been 16 conduct cases where data has been used as supporting evidence. That is the information I have. It has not been used as a performance management tool, which is I think what we discussed last time I was here.”

McDonald then questioned the discrepancy between Thompson’s account and the experience of workers, and asked for him to explain what action he had taken to stop tracking data being used for performance management. He asked: “So this is a surprise to you to hear that it is – according to the perception of those postal workers – being used as a performance management tool? Presumably, as chief executive, you would find that alarming and want to do something about it? So, what actions have you taken subsequent to this information being revealed to instruct people that this data should not be used? Have you enshrined that in writing, have you given instructions across your organisation that we can see and rely on?”

Thompson said: “It definitely needs following up. I had a discussion two days again, which is when we had the evidence – or a day a so ago, when we had the evidence – with the chief operating officer, and what we absolutely commit to is to make sure that everybody is very clear on what the conditions are around the use of data.”

McDonald went on to express his ‘frustration’ at this response, suggesting this should have been done a ‘long, long time ago’.

The committee also grilled Thompson on whether Royal Mail was continuing to deliver against its statutory universal service obligation. In summarising the exchanges between MPs and Royal Mail’s management, Darren Jones said: “There’s a theme to your answers today gentlemen, There’s a theme, which is: we have rogue posters, rogue managers, we have isolated incidents, we’ve got a global pandemic, we’ve got industrial action. It is everyone else’s fault. Everyone else’s fault that there are all of these problems. Nothing to do with me, guv.”

Chris Jarvis is head of strategy and development at Left Foot Forward

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