Human Side – 2002-10-15

By Raymond Dreyfack Contributing Editor October 15, 2002

Heated argument escalates: Is fighting cause for dismissal?

Maintenance Foreman Jeff Arnold had been called out of town for two days. Before leaving he instructed Ted Berner, his assistant, to “keep an eye of things” while he was gone.

That afternoon Group Leader Joe Salmon resented the way Berner appeared to be observing him more closely than usual.

“I don’t like the way you’ve been spying on me,” he groused.

“Tough luck, pal,” Berner snapped back. “I’m just doing my job. Jeff instructed me to keep an eye on things in his absence.”

“Well, I’m not a thing, I’m a person.”

Berner shrugged. Salmon refused to leave it at that. He made a profane remark and called Berner an obscene name.

“You take that back!” Berner demanded, “or I’m bringing you up on charges.”

“No way!”

The dialogue became more and more heated, and within seconds the two men came to blows. By this time a group of employees had congregated to watch the show. The fight became increasingly violent, and by the time they were separated by a utility man on the floor, both men were bloodied and had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance.

When Foreman Jeff Arnold returned and learned what had happened, he looked into the matter, interviewed the two combatants and witnesses, and terminated Salmon and Berner for fighting. Both men protested the discipline as too severe.

Question: Do you agree that discharge was too harsh?

Keller’s verdict: “The termination stands,” Plant Engineer Keller ruled. “For one thing, management has a responsibility to provide a safe workplace. For another, this was more than a spur of the moment brawl that can be easily dismissed. For a third, employees have been reminded repeatedly that fighting constitutes major misconduct that can result in dismissal. Finally, if we expect this message to get across to rank and file employees, it must certain apply to, of all people, supervisors especially.”

Loud machinery: Is the company liable for job-related hearing loss?

Maintenance Setup Man Tony Gomez was responsible for the repair and maintenance of several machines on the plant floor. Some of the units, the peg pounding machine in particular, were especially noisy.

One evening at home Tony’s wife Maria asked him to do something for her.

“What?” Tony replied.

Maria frowned. “You must be getting hard of hearing. You’re saying ‘what’ more and more these days.”

“I’m not hard of hearing,” Tony replied irritably. “You mumble.”

“Nonsense. I speak very distinctly. You ought to go and get yourself tested.”

“No way. My hearing’s okay.”

Maria finally talked Tony into going to an authorized audiologist who found him to have an almost 40 percent hearing loss in both ears.

“Have you been subjected to a lot of noise?”

“Yeah. On the job for 20 yr or more. I work around noisy machines.”

“You’re a candidate for hearing aids,” the audiologist said.

Maria, ever alert, told her husband, “Your hearing loss is job-related. You should be entitled to workmen’s comp.”

Question: If Gomez puts in for workmen’s comp do you think he’ll collect?

Rankin’s ruling: Gomez put in his request to his supervisor, who passed it to Plant Engineer George Rankin. Rankin in turn gave the company’s labor attorney Alice DeMille a call. “How long has Gomez been on the job?” she asked. “Sixteen years.” “Would you categorize the noise as very noisy, moderately noisy, or tolerable?” “Some machines, but not all, are very noisy.” “Does his hearing loss apply to both ears?” Rankin checked the audiologist’s report. “Yes.” “In that case I think he’s entitled to workmen’s comp.”

Clamp down on email

When Administrative Assistant Ellen Stone complained to Maintenance Supervisor Jeff Kessner that email being distributed by Electrician Grade II Jerry Falk was vulgar and offensive, Kessner felt it was time to take action. Stone was right, he thought.

Falk’s messages, sometimes appended to normal business correspondence, were often vulgar and disrespectful of women. They had annoyed Kessner too for some time. He had put off calling the electrician on the carpet thus far because he was sensitive to both employee privacy rights and the avoidance of supervisory intrusiveness if it could be avoided. But he decided now that enough was enough.

Kessner summoned Falk to his desk and ordered him to “lay off the porno stuff.” Falk’s response was predictable. He claimed Stone was a prude, that his email was harmless, and he resented management’s snooping over his shoulder when he was simply doing his job.

“Part of your job is to respect the feelings of female employees whether you agree with them or not. I want you to cut out the smut stuff.”

“Yeah, okay,” Falk grumbled.

For a while the electrician’s messages were toned down somewhat, but the hiatus didn’t last long.

A couple of weeks later, when another female employee came to Kessner’s desk with a vulgar and offensive email, he decided to take up the matter with his boss, Plant Engineer Herb Cheskin.

Question: In the PE’s shoes how would you handle this problem?

Cheskin’s response: Brought up to date on the female complaints and Falk’s persistent noncompliance, Cheskin said, “It’s time we got this issue resolved once and for all.” “How do we do that?” Kessner asked.

“By developing, publishing, and distributing a policy statement defining the company’s policy, not only regarding email, but on corporate communication in general. We have to get the message across that communication is subject to management control, and it is the employer’s right to monitor email and other correspondence created during working hours.

“This includes management’s right to determine what is improper and inappropriate. Finally, it is management’s right to impose discipline upon any employee who fails to adhere to the company’s policy guidelines. My suggestion is that we get these messages into the works as soon as possible.”

Snow time conflicts with show time

This case deals with not only snow time, but with any other weather-related disturbances, from flooding to hurricanes, that keep employees from showing up at work.

In some cases, of course, workers stay home in response to a management mandate. More often, days off are triggered by nothing more than a look out the window and the decision that it isn’t a fit day for man or beast to be out. Thus an already shorthanded crew gets cut even more.

This is more than a winter problem for employers; it’s a year-round headache. The question confronting management in this tight economic climate when productivity is more important than ever is: What’s the best way to deal with, and hopefully minimize, absence caused by inclement weather?

When Maintenance Foreman Peter Jaffe woke up on a cold snowy morning one day, he knew how he’d like to answer this question: Take the day off himself. But that’s a luxury managers and supervisors don’t enjoy.

Two or 3 in. already had fallen with another 2 or 3 in. predicted. Jaffe knew from experience what he would find when he got to the plant. As predicted, the absence of crew members was apparent.

Also as expected, a group of employees did show up. These were the men and women who almost always showed up because they appreciated the difficulties the department faced when the work didn’t get out because of missing personnel. The difference between their rationale and that of the no-shows had been bugging the supervisor.

Question: In Jaffe’s position what might you tell your boss?

Mullen’s response: “It’s not fair,” Jaffe groused when Plant Engineer Ron Mullen pointed to a chair and told him to get a load off his feet. “I’d rather get a load off my mind.”

“Okay, shoot. What’s not fair?”

“It’s not fair that people like (Jaffe reeled off the names of folks who clocked in) should receive no special recognition for braving the storm when others take the easy way out and take the day off.”

Mullen said, “They’re getting paid for the day; the absentees lose a day’s pay.”

“That’s true, but some of the people who showed up would prefer taking a day like this off despite the pay loss.”

“You’re right. What do you suggest?”

“Well, I know some companies reward employees who show up in severe weather by giving them an extra floating personal day or some other extra benefit.”

“Sounds like a good idea,” Mullen said.

Should a senior employee receive consideration?

When Instrument Repairman Jim Duffy opted for early retirement, Al Merchant, after 9 yr as a mechanic, saw an opportunity for advancement. With this thought in mind he broached the idea to his boss, Maintenance Supervisor Frank Dormer.

“Have you ever worked as an instrument repairman?” Dormer asked.

“No, but I’m a quick study. With a little training it would take no time for me to qualify.”

“Sorry, Al,” his boss replied, “but instrument repairman is a highly specialized job in this plant. It requires at least 2 yr of hands-on experience.”

“That’s not fair,” Merchant persisted. “A guy has to start somewhere. I know I can do the job if I’m given the chance. As a senior employee I’m entitled to that consideration.”

When Dormer didn’t agree and turned him down for the job, Merchant threatened to file a grievance.

The supervisor shrugged. “Go ahead.”

Question: If Merchant follows through with his threat how do you rate his chances of winning?

Murdock’s ruling: When Dormer clued in his boss on Merchant’s threat, Plant Engineer George Murdock backed his decision. “While seniority is respected and valued in this company, it doesn’t obligate the employer to enroll a senior in a training program or to give him a shot at a job on the chance that he might possibly qualify. In making hiring decisions it is management’s right to select individuals who possess the background and experience required for the job.”

What’s a fair rate of pay after a bump down?

When business declines management’s attention focuses on reducing payroll costs.

The first to feel the squeeze is overtime. Next in line is a workweek reduction.

Finally, when no alternatives are left, a layoff is announced. That’s when the protests become lively.

Among casualties on the layoff list at a New England plant was Utility Man Oscar Trout, a 59-yr-old, 11-yr veteran employee in the maintenance department. The performance rating in his personnel file was “Satisfactory.” Just about.

“At age 59, with the economy the way it is,” he groused to Maintenance Supervisor Harry Cooper, “where am I going to find another job?”

Cooper felt for Trout. His wife wasn’t well. He had an aging mother he was helping to support, a daughter at home, and a son still in college. Cooper scoured the roster for possibilities.

“You might be able to bump down to Tank Cleaner,” he suggested.

Trout appeared somewhat relieved, the obvious logic being that a lower- ranking job was better than no job at all.

“Are you interested?”

“Sure, why not.”

“Okay, I’ll check it out for you.”

Cooper returned to Trout with good news. “I found an opening for you.”

“Thanks a lot. What’s the rate?”

Trout winced when Cooper cited the figure.

“That’s the bottom rate for Tank Cleaner,” he complained.

Cooper shrugged. “When bumping down, the starting rate is all you’re entitled to.”

“I’ll take it if I have to,” Trout replied, “but as an 11-yr veteran in this company, I think I’m entitled to more.”

“I think that’s the best you can get, but I’ll double-check with Mr. Griffin.”

Question: Do you agree with Trout that he’s entitled to more than the starting rate for the job?

Griffin’s verdict: “Trout’s lucky he’s not out on the street altogether,” Plant Engineer Tom Griffin told Cooper when informed of the worker’s dissatisfaction. “You were right in telling him the starting wage was the best he can get. It wouldn’t be fair to pay him more than employees who have been doing that job for years.”

Should public bad-mouthing be tolerated?

In critical need of skilled personnel, management took part in a “Job Mart” being conducted at the town center.

One purpose of the forum was the community’s effort to address the area’s growing unemployment problem. Several local companies participated. Speeches were made, job opportunities publicized, corporate virtues touted.

One attendee was Bill Schlemmer, a mechanic employed in the maintenance department of a neighboring auto parts manufacturing plant. Schlemmer was a bitter employee.

Repeatedly bypassed for promotion, he was attending the job mart for the sole purpose of giving prospective candidates the real lowdown on the rotten company he worked for. With this aim in mind Schlemmer circulated around the hall where the forum was held disparaging his employer to all who would listen. At one point a corporate spokesperson described its policies and job opportunities in glowing terms.

A loud voice was heard from the audience. The single word shouted was an angry denigration characterized by the letters BS. A policeman promptly escorted Schlemmer from the hall.

Next day the mechanic found his timecard missing from the rack. He made a beeline for his boss’s desk. “Where’s my timecard?” he demanded.

“It’s in the dead file,” Maintenance Foreman George Culp replied.

“You’ve had it, pal.” He handed Schlemmer a discharge notice.

“No way!” the mechanic snapped.

Question: Is Schlemmer’s termination justified?

Vogel’s verdict: “Absolutely,” Plant Engineer Harry Vogel told Culp when informed of Schlemmer’s intention. “No company should have to tolerate an employee’s public disparagement of its products, policies, or people, or sit still for his efforts to defeat its objectives. The termination stands.”

Should dishonesty lead to discharge?

Considering the tremendous loss undergone by employers due to employee dishonesty, a response to offenders is understandable.

One day Maintenance Department Carpenter Jack Tallman was authorized to work 4 hr of overtime in order to complete constructing a rig.

Normal quitting time was 5:30 p.m. A supervisor on hand noticed that Tallman had completed work on the rig by 8 p.m. and had signed out and gone home. Curious, he checked the sign-out sheet and saw that the carpenter had put in for 4 hr overtime for 21/ 2 hr of work.

Next day he reported his observation to Tony Hiller, Tallman’s supervisor. Hiller called the carpenter to account for the discrepancy.

Tallman apologized. “Sorry, I made a mistake.”

“You sure did,” Hiller replied. He handed the employee a termination notice charging dishonesty.

Question: Was termination justified in this case?

Britener’s decision: “It’s a tough call,” Plant Engineer Herb Britener said. “Stealing is stealing,” he said, “But there’s a difference between stealing products and money and stealing time.” He then suggested to Hiller that he suspend Tallman for a week, and accompany the suspension notice with a warning that a repeat offense would result in termination.

Don’t judge a man before you know him

It was only a sense, Plant Engineer John Simon believed, maybe little more than an instinct. General Manager Paul Franklin had made no adverse comments about Chuck Danbury, but Simon had the feeling that Franklin didn’t share his opinion about the project leader. When Ed Turner opted for early retirement, Simon selected Danbury for his replacement.

Franklin had long held a high regard for Turner and more than once had let him know it. An occasional friendly comment, or a compliment directly to Simon. One would think the general manager had two different sets of attitudes: warm and friendly for Turner. Formal and disapproving for Danbury.

Or was he imagining it? Simon didn’t think so. It was something. The plant engineer couldn’t define it. Did the general manager dislike Chuck Danbury? Or was there some other reason?

What made the situation worse, Simon thought, was that he was planning in the future to give Danbury a nice raise. The general manager wouldn’t object or complain, but it was important that his boss see eye to eye with him on such matters.

Question: In the plant engineer’s shoes, what action if any would you take in regard to Chuck Danbury?

Simon’s Strategy: The plant engineer decided to find out if he was indeed imagining the general manager’s disapproval of Danbury. One day after lunch he dropped by his office. “Got a minute, Paul?” The executive grinned. “For you, anytime.”

Simon wasted no time on preliminaries. “How do you feel about Chuck Danbury?”

The question took him back. “Chuck? Uh, he’s no Ed Turner, but as long as you’re satisfied…”

“I’m more than satisfied, Paul. Don’t get me wrong. Ed was a good man. No complaints. Conscientious. A dynamo of energy. But in my opinion Chuck’s even better. One might get the impression he’s lazy because he doesn’t move around much. But he’s anything but. Chuck’s a delegator; he trains key people to take over. That’s why he spends so much more time behind his desk than on the floor. His management style may be different from Ed’s, but each in his own way is effective. Paul, you’re not close to Chuck the way I am. So I’m wondering if all this might be news to you. There’s not a lazy bone in his body; his head is going constantly.”

The general manager looked thoughtful. “Hmmn, is that so? Very interesting. I never thought of Chuck in that way. Thanks for confiding in me.”