Human Side – 2003-04-28

By Raymond Dreyfack Contributing Editor April 28, 2003

Undermining associates: Can he be fired?

If a plant popularity contest were held, Maintenance Planner John Tyler wouldn’t have wound up at the bottom of the barrel. He would have been underneath it.

The word most often used by Tyler’s associates to describe him was “obnoxious.” Tyler regarded himself as a superior human being and wasn’t hesitant to make known not only his brilliance, but his coworkers’ inferiority as well, regardless of their feelings. He was always certain what had to be done, and knew he could do it better than anyone else.

Tyler was seemingly oblivious to others’ response to his denigrating remarks. He made it clear to any person selected to work with him that since they were incompetent by comparison his way was the only way. He got this message across to supervision as well. Inevitably it reached the point where, in the view of Tyler’s associates, enough was enough.

One day Maintenance Manager Jeff Kramer approached Sam Regan, a maintenance employee, and instructed him to assist Tyler on a project.

Regan tightened his lips and pulled in his breath. “No way, Jeff. I’ve had it with that guy.” He didn’t have to explain why.

Kramer hesitated, and then thought better about reprimanding Regan for failing to follow an order. He summoned another maintenance man to his desk and repeated the instruction. The result was the same: “I can’t work with that guy.”

Question: In Kramer’s place what action would you take?

Kramer’s response: The supervisor didn’t have to think twice. He called Tyler to his desk and fired him. When the stunned planner protested, Kramer made a beeline for his boss’s office. “Good decision,” Plant Engineer Roy Diamond said. “That blowhard should have been canned months ago.”

Harassment by a customer: Can the company be held liable?

Here’s one that could keep your eyes from shutting at night. What’s your responsibility if a worker in your department complains she was sexually harassed by a non-employee, especially if the alleged culprit happens to be a customer executive?

Fortunately Maintenance Manager Joe Falcon’s hair was already gray when Alice McDermott approached his desk in a barely suppressed fury following a troubleshooting assignment at one of the company’s important customers.

McDermott, a crack mechanic, wasn’t one to pull punches or understate the source of her outrage. While on the job attempting to track down the cause of a malfunction of one of her company’s machines at the customer plant, she told Falcon she was approached by a production department executive who gave her some fast talk along with a hug and a squeeze, and proceeded to proposition her.

Falcon said, “I’m sure you let him know.”

“I did,” McDermott exploded. “But it had no effect on the jerk. He gave me a pat on the rear and kept on with his advances. I all but had to swing at the guy to get rid of him.”

Falcon swallowed in an effort to hide his embarrassment. He shook his head. “If we get another call from that plant I’ll send a guy.”

“You expect me to settle for that?” McDermott demanded.

“Uh, what do you want me to do?”

“I want you to go after that guy. I want an apology.”

Question: In Falcon’s place, what action would you take?

Manning’s mandate: Joe Falcon paid Plant Engineer George Manning a visit and brought him up to date on developments. He asked, “What am I supposed to do to satisfy Alice? Complain to one of our biggest customers that one of their executives is a harasser?” Manning blew out a breath. “Either that, or risk having Alice, in the state she’s in, take us to court. EEOC regulations specify employer responsibility for employee abuses at the hands of non-employee personnel while on the job. The requirement, in response, is for swift and appropriate action. Leave it to me, Joe. I’ll know whom to call.”

Are your people surfing the internet too much?

Statistics vary. Some company’s human resource and/or personnel executives claim that internet surfing undermines productivity a varying number of hours per day. A recent survey revealed that 40% of the workforce spends time online gathering or shopping one or two hours per day. Another 40% report worse profit-busting numbers than that.

“Add it all up,” laments one CEO, “and it takes no great imagination to conclude what effect internet surfing has on the bottomline.”

A host of corporate executives agree. It thus comes at no surprise that the production and marketing of software created to monitor employee internet surfing with curtailment in mind has mushroomed into an industry.

In a Maryland paper products company, one such concern was causing Maintenance Supervisor Joel Ricotti’s brow to wrinkle prematurely. His craft and technical people weren’t that much of a problem; their access to the internet was limited. What aggravated Ricotti most was that half the time he visited the Supply Room to check inventory or pick up a tool he found Supply Room Attendant Edith Blecker surfing the web. Same thing when he passed by one of the department’s two clerical employees. They seemed to spend more time searching for bargains online than doing their jobs.

Perhaps it was time to take action, maybe order one of those monitoring gizmos. He decided to suggest this to Plant Engineer Mark Russo.

Questions: How do you feel about Ricotti’s concern? Is internet monitoring software the answer?

Russo’s response: The executive listened with interest to Ricotti’s suggestion. “I can appreciate your frustration,” he said. “There’s no question employment internet management software, EIM as it’s called, is a fast-growing business, and understandably so. But is it an answer for us? That’s a moot question. Weighing the value of these control systems often boils down to making a tradeoff between their productivity boosting potential and good old-fashioned employee morale. In your opinion, is the supply room being run e fficiently?” “I’d say so,” Ricotti replied. “And are our clerical people getting their work done despite their internet surfing?” The supervisor hesitated. “I suppose so.” “In that case, I’d leave well enough alone. For the time being at least.”

Job phase-out: Beating management to the punch

The handwriting on the wall was bold and clear. With special equipment on order the quality control inspection procedure would be drastically revised. It appeared that two quality control inspectors would no longer be needed, in which case Arnold Cole’s head would be first on the chopping block.

Cole decided not to wait for the ax to fall and informed Plant Engineer Ralph Lemon of his decision. Lemon tried inducing Cole to hang on until his layoff was announced, advising him it might be in his best interest to do so.

The inspector persisted in seeking another job rather that risk being out of work for a prolonged period.

“That could cost you your severance pay,” Lemon counseled.

Cole shrugged and embarked on a letter writing and telephoning campaign in an attempt to find other employment. His efforts bore fruit by the end of the month. At that time he gave Lemon a week’s notice.

When advised he would lose his severance pay, Cole protested.

Question: Can Cole be deprived of his severance pay for failing to wait until he was officially phased out?

Lemon’s response: “Sorry,” the plant engineer informed Cole. “You were advised in advance about the risk of resigning instead of hanging on. Had you stuck with us we would have offered you another job at an equivalent rate of pay. I wish you the best of luck in your new job, but I’m afraid any severance pay is down the drain. If you refer to a clause on page 39 on the manual you’ll see why. Flipping the pages to the clause, Lemon read aloud, ” ‘The Company will do its utmost to find work for qualified employees displaced by technological change. Failure to cooperate with management shall be regarded as voluntary termination and will cancel all rights to severance pay.'”

Cutting hours in the workweek

When the economic slowdown threatened to deteriorate into a prolonged slump, management of an Ohio manufacturing company became increasingly concerned that its costs would run too high to ensure survival. At a steering committee meeting called to deal with the problem, General Manager Hal Raskin threw the floor open for ideas to cope with the crisis.

It was no secret to any executive in the room that manpower was the biggest and most consistent cost the company faced.

“We already put the kibosh on overtime,” Production Manager George Britner groused. “What more can we do?”

“Short of layoffs,” Personnel Director Irene Kessner said, “not much.”

“We tossed that fireball around at our last meeting,” Plant Engineer Vince Mellin said. “Chopping the payroll would be a quick and clean way to chop costs in a hurry, except that…”

“Except that,” Raskin cut in, “we’d be losing a bunch of valuable experience and expertise developed by people over the years.”

The response was several glum nods of agreement.

“So,” Vince Mellin said, “why don’t we keep the labor force intact for the time being and cut the workweek from say 40 hours to 35?”

“That’s the direction my mind was turning,” Raskin said. “The question is, can we get away with it?”

In response, all eyes turned to Corporate Labor Attorney Ann Marie Fitzgerald.

Question: In Fitzgerald’s place what would your answer be?

Expert’s response: “When a company finds itself in economic straits,” the lawyer said, “there are money-saving strategies it can apply apart from layoff. The workforce may raise a storm of protest, but in the absence of contractual restraints, management has a right to adopt a work-sharing program, and may cut the workweek so long as it can cite a justifiably bona fide business reason for doing so.”

Double-check classifications periodically

From the day he was hired by Maintenance Supervisor Harry Ratzloff, Instrument Mechanic Charley Givens was classified as a part-time employee. In this category he received a share of vacation and sick leave

In the company’s policy manual part-time was defined as less than 30 work hours per week. The normal workday in this Philadelphia plant was 7

The second year, when the time came to fill in vacation entitlement forms, Givens appeared at his boss’s desk with a frown on his face.

“What’s the problem, Charley?”

Givens produced the vacation form specifying a vacation entitlement of seven days.

“I’m entitled to two full weeks, the same as everyone else,” he protested.

“You’ve got that wrong,” Ratzloff replied. “You’re classified as a part-time employee; your vacation time is pro rated accordingly.”

“That may be how I’m classified,” Givens persisted, “and it might have applied a year or so ago, but it’s not accurate today. If you check the time sheets you’ll see what I mean. Part-time is supposed to be 30 or fewer hours per week. Most weeks in recent months I worked more than 30 hours.

Ratzloff frowned. “I’ll check into it, Charley,” he replied.

Question: In your opinion, is Givens’s claim valid?

Green’s response: “Reclassify Charley as a regular full-time employee and put him in for two weeks vacation,” Plant Engineer Ben Green instructed Ratzloff. He added, “We’re past due in reviewing our employee classification listings. It’s important to keep these up-to-date and consistent.”

Does senior man deserve a chance?

When plant management decided to trade in its aging boilers for automated high-pressure units, it was decided that a skilled employee would be needed to monitor and maintain the equipment. After posting a bid for the job, Harold Hillman was selected. That led applicant Murray Rozofsky to promptly register a beef.

“I’m the senior applicant,” he protested. “The job should go to me.”

Maintenance Manager Art Storr disagreed. “Seniority isn’t the only factor to consider in assigning someone to a highly sensitive job. Training, experience, and skill are at least equally important. Hillman already has the training and ability needed.”

“The training’s no big deal,” Rozofsky persisted. “You don’t have to take my word for that; you can take the manufacturer’s word. I can acquire the skills in three weeks or less.”

“Sorry, the decision has been made.”

Rozofsky refused to let the matter die. “The units are automatic for Pete’s sake. The only thing required is to set a few gauges and periodically monitor them.”

Question: Do you think Rozofsky deserves a crack at the job?

Luken’s decision: “The job goes to Hillman,” Plant Engineer Tom Luken ruled. “This is a key responsibility involving equipment that could cause serious danger to both personnel and assets if improperly handled and monitored. Automatic or not, the human factor cannot be overlooked. We can’t afford to take chances.”