Human Side – 2003-01-15

By Raymond Dreyfack Contributing Editor January 15, 2003

Prohibited offenses: Must violation be on the list to warrant discipline?

The plant’s policy manual included a list of employee offenses likely to result in discipline up to and including termination.

These included among others:

  • Being under the influence of alcohol during working hours

  • Theft of company property

  • Assaulting or threatening to assault supervisors or coworkers

  • Insubordination

  • Violation of safety rules.

    • Floyd McIntyre, a marginally performing welder, had been repeatedly and justifiably denied incremental wage increases over his 3 yr of employment. The worker was eloquently bitter on the subject.

      One day the company, in an effort to attract skilled personnel, participated in a Job Fair conducted at a nearby municipal facility. McIntyre showed up at the event and accosted several participants, sounding off on why his employer was the worst company in town to work for.

      When word of his action reached McIntyre’s boss, Maintenance Foreman Harvey Chesnik, he promptly typed a termination notice spelling out the charge. He handed it to McIntyre.

      The welder acted stunned. "You can’t fire me for expressing my opinion."

      "I’m firing you for publicly undermining and sabotaging your employer."

      "No way!" the welder replied. "That isn’t included on your list of prohibited offenses."

      Question: Can Chesnik fire McIntyre?

      Lindsey’s verdict: "Not only do you have the right, it’s your duty to do so," Plant Engineer Frank Lindsey told Chesnik. "While it’s true that the policy manual cites actions that warrant discipline, it doesn’t limit discipline to the items specified. Items listed serve only as examples. The manual states that discipline, in management’s judgment, may be imposed for any infraction, up to and including dismissal."

      Automatic raise after a year: Is this guaranteed?

      When sales sagged during an economic downturn, several employees were laid off in an effort to cut costs. One of the first to go was Mechanic Second Class Rick Nelson, a low man on the seniority list.

      Weeks dissolved into months with no improvement in sales. Finally, three months later, a few large orders came through. With things looking up, laid off workers were recalled. Nelson, who had been unable to find work, was overjoyed when his name finally came up on the recall list.

      His joy was dampened somewhat when he received his first paycheck.

      "What’s going on here? How come I didn’t get the raise I’m entitled to when a full year of seniority is reached?" Nelson demanded of his boss, Maintenance Supervisor Chris Borman.

      "You were laid off for three months," Borman replied. "Your seniority freezes on layoff. You still have a couple of months to go before you’re due for the increase."

      That’s a rip-off, Nelson protested. He recruited Murray Mosler, his unit representative, to go to bat for him.

      "Nelson’s due for that raise," Mosler informed Borman. "He was hired more than 13 months ago."

      "Thirteen minus three equals ten," the supervisor replied.

      "That doesn’t make sense. When the contract specifies a year, it refers to the calendar year. It’s not Nelson’s fault that he was laid off."

      "That’s not the way it works," Borman said. "The year specified refers to a year on the job. He has two months to go."

      When Mosler promised to explore the matter further, Borman made a beeline for his boss’s office to get his take on the situation.

      Question: Is Nelson within his rights in demanding the raise?

      Kaufeld’s decision: "No raise for Nelson," Plant Engineer Max Kaufeld ruled. "Those guys overlooked a critical sentence in the labor agreement." Flipping open the contract, he read, ‘Seniority will be interrupted by a layoff of four weeks or longer.’

      Case closed." A useful clause to have on hand when it’s needed.

      Religious needs: Should an employer be accommodating?

      Employees were required to work overtime when such work was critically needed. But when Electrician Milton Rubin was assigned to work overtime on a Saturday, he declined on the grounds that to do so would conflict with his religious obligations.

      Maintenance Supervisor Jerome Turner refused to accept this excuse.

      "This is more than a routine job," he told Rubin. "A glitch on the production line has to be tracked down so that it can operate Monday morning. If you check the contract, you’ll see that fulfilling this assignment isn’t voluntary."

      Rubin disagreed. "According to EEOC guidelines," he pointed out, "a company has to respect an employee’s religious needs where no undue hardship exists."

      "This is a job that has to be done," Turner insisted. "If it doesn’t get done, it will produce undue hardship. You’ve got no choice, pal."

      Rubin persisted in his refusal to comply. "You could assign someone else. I’m not the only electrician in the department, and I’m not the only one qualified to track down that glitch on the production line."

      "Maybe not," Turner replied impatiently. "But you’re the one best qualified. Who to assign is my job to decide, not yours."

      Rubin refused to back down.

      Turner shrugged. "You either show up Saturday, or else."

      "I’ll settle for or else," Rubin replied. "I’m not compromising my religious beliefs."

      Questions : According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an employer has to accommodate a worker’s religious beliefs. But where does a supervisor draw the line? Can Rubin be disciplined for refusing to work on Saturday?

      Polsky’s verdict: Plant Engineer Paul Polsky, when presented with the facts, instructed Turner to assign another electrician to the job. The supervisor said, "Rubin’s the best man for the job, I thought…"

      "Whatever you thought," Polsky interrupted, "it was pretty thoughtless. Do you mean to tell me no other electrician in the department is capable of tracking down that glitch you’re talking about?"

      "Well, no, but…"

      "Forget the but. Assign someone else."

      "Yes sir," Turner replied, his face flushed.

      "I quit!" Did he really, or will it be busness as usual?

      Foot-in-the-mouth disease is an all-too-common occurrence in the nation’s offices and plants. It is no secret that people can get into trouble speaking impulsively and without rational forethought.

      But when it comes to management-employee relationships, labor experts make clear that most often, in adjudicating, it’s not so much what the employee says as what he or she meant at the time.

      Unfortunately, Harold Ravich, maintenance supervisor in an Ohio plant, had to learn this the hard way.

      Utility worker Jose Gonzales was a hot-tempered cuss. His temper heated up even further when Ravich instructed him to clear the sludge and grime from a loading tank in the lab. It was the dirtiest, most undesirable task in the plant.

      "I was assigned that job less than a week ago," he complained. "It’s somebody else’s turn."

      "No one else is available, and the job has to be done."

      "Not by me it doesn’t," Gonzales grumbled. "You’re giving me the shaft because I’m a Latino."

      "That’s a lie," Ravich replied. "I’m not prejudiced against anyone. I’m assigning you the job because you’re the only one on hand to do it."

      Gonzales refused to settle for that. Soon the two men were at each other’s throats, close to blows.

      Restraining himself, Gonzales yelled, "Forget about this lousy job!

      I quit."

      "That’s a smart decision," Ravich snapped back. "Get your final pay from Personnel and punch out."

      The worker left in a huff. Good riddance, Ravich thought. Disposing of a rotten apple is a joyful event for any supervisor.

      Ravich’s pleasure was short-lived. The next day Gonzales showed up for work bright and early.

      "What are you doing here?" Ravich demanded. "You quit."

      "I didn’t mean to quit," the utility man replied. "I was just hot under the collar."

      Questions: Is Gonzales out of Ravich’s hair? Or is he still on the payroll?" Berner’s verdict: When the case came to Plant Engineer Fred Berner’s attention, he instructed Ravich to put Gonzales back on the roster. "It’s a question of intent," he explained. "Did he really intend to resign when he stormed out of there? It doesn’t look that way. There’s no set rule in cases of this kind, but the benefit of the doubt usually goes to the employee."

      Gambling arrest at the workplace:Is it sufficient cause for discharge?

      When a city detective marched up to Maintenance Supervisor Jim Levinson’s desk and demanded to see Utility Worker Casper

      Morrison, Levinson asked, "What’s the problem?"

      The policeman replied, "I have it on good authority that the guy has been running numbers. In fact, my information is that he has numbers slips on his person at this moment."

      Gambling in the plant was not only against company policy but illegal as well. Levinson made a phone call and minutes later, Morrison appeared at his desk.

      He paled when he saw the detective. "What’s up?" he asked.

      The supervisor replied, "This officer claims that you’ve been running numbers."

      "That’s not true," the worker protested.

      "In that case," the detective said, "I’m sure you won’t mind being searched."

      The utility man resisted at first, but ultimately gave in. When numbers slips were found in his pocket, he was placed under arrest. Given a suspended sentence, he showed up at work the following day.

      Levinson was ready for him. He informed the employee he was being discharged for gambling.

      "What I do on my own time is my own business, not any of yours," Morrison protested.

      "Maybe so. But gambling during work hours is prohibited. Read the policy manual."

      "I wasn’t gambling during work hours," Morrison said. "I might have been taking numbers, but I didn’t do it on company time."

      "Hah!" Levinson replied.

      When he persisted in dismissing the worker, Morrison threatened to file a grievance.

      Question: What are the employee’s odds of beating the termination?

      Merkle’s verdict : When Plant Engineer Ed Merkle was given the termination notice to be signed for his approval, he asked the supervisor, "Jim, can you prove that Morrison was running numbers during working hours?" "Well, no, but it stands to reason that he was doing it."

      "You’re probably right. But unless we can come up with clear evidence that he was doing so, you can’t fire the guy. I would suggest issuing him a written warning that his behavior will be closely watched in the future."

      Positive feedback: Don’t forget to recognize a job well done

      Project Leader Ben Pollack was as conscientious and hardworking as they come. But to supervise people most effectively this isn’t quite enough.

      Plant Engineer Mark Madden had a high regard for Pollack, and at the same time, a deep concern. Employee turnover in Pollack’s section had increased steadily over the past several months. Too many good people were either quitting or requesting transfers for no apparent reason. What was going on?

      Few forms of communication are more effective than the company grapevine and, thanks to the latest scuttlebutt, word reached Madden that Carl Hoffman, a young, well-rated engineer, was busily shopping the market. "Is that the same reading you get?" the plant engineer asked Pollack.

      The project leader frowned. "I don’t know; I heard the rumor."

      "Did you broach the subject to Carl?"

      "Not yet. I’ve been thinking about it."

      "If you think too long, he could be gone. Mind if I chat with him?"

      "Not at all. I’d appreciate your help."

      It was like pulling teeth from an alligator but Madden got Hoffman to confirm the rumor. He was indeed scanning the want ads.

      "Why?" Madden asked. "Do you think you can do better elsewhere? Or get better benefits?"

      Hoffman hesitated. "I don’t know."

      The young engineer was reluctant to say, but when Madden assured him his purpose was not to punish or persecute anyone, Hoffman revealed how he felt.

      "If I make an error or commit a misjudgment, you can be sure I’ll be called on the carpet within minutes. But when I do a good job, which I think is most of the time, I get no feedback. It’s demoralizing. I don’t know how I stand."

      Question: In Madden’s shoes, what would you do?

      Madden’s response: The executive’s first step was to persuade Hoffman to hold off on action for the time being at least. Step two was a heart-to-heart talk with Pollack. "Ben, one of the pitfalls of supervision is becoming too busy to think of people as human beings instead of units employed to follow instructions and fulfill departmental goals. I think it was Mark Twain who said, ‘I can live two months on a good compliment.’ "It’s been said that good work that goes unacknowledged will gradually disappear. In my experience, the same thing applies to good people. I suggest you have a chat with Carl Hoffman and set him straight on how you feel about him."