Human Side – 2003-09-10 – 2003-09-10

By Raymond Dreyfack, Contributing Editor September 10, 2003

Recovering alcoholic

How far backward must you bend?

Utility Man Gerald Shea had been given one break too many, in Maintenance Supervisor Arthur Jolson’s view.

Shea’s performance was only marginally acceptable when he was sober. After hitting the bottle, it was anything but. Jolson couldn’t recall how many times he had been on the verge of firing the guy. The last time, about three months ago, he had laid it right on the line. Shea had returned to work that day from a lunch that was obviously more liquid than solid.

“This is your final warning,” the supervisor declared. “The next time I see you under the influence you’re out of here.”

Shea lowered his eyes. “I’m doing my best to break the habit.”

“If you really mean that you would have enrolled in the rehabilitation program I recommended.”

The utility man sighed. “Okay, I’ll sign up.”

“That’s more like it.”

Jolson drew up the papers. Shea signed up and was admitted to the program.

The worker remained sober for a few weeks. Then one day he returned from lunch more inebriated than ever.

“This does it,” Jolson said. “You were given fair warning.”

“Hey, give me a break,” Shea protested. “I signed up for the program in good faith and I didn’t miss a single session. So I slipped up just one time. I deserve another chance.”

Jolson disagreed. He handed Shea a termination notice.

Question : Do you think Jolson is entitled to another chance?

Dorfman’s response : “Give him one more chance,” Plant Engineer Don Dorfman instructed Jolson. “His having enrolled in the rehab program is a point in his favor. Another point is his good attendance record. The EEOC states that in situations like this a reasonable accommodation is in order.”

Unapproved absence

Does it warrant an employee’s loss of seniority?

Accumulated seniority is a prized possession, and employees will guard it with their lives.

When Mechanic Grade II Bud Sherman, a seven-year employee, asked his boss for a week’s leave of absence, Maintenance Foreman Charley Keebler responded angrily.

“You have got to be kidding. We’re backlogged up to our ears, and you want to take off.’

“This is important to me,” Sherman persisted. “My mother…”

“I don’t care what the reason is,” Keebler interrupted, “the answer is no.”

Sherman stayed out for a week despite his boss’s refusal. When he returned to work he was informed that the unapproved absence would cost him his seniority.

“Your new seniority,” Keebler said, “will date from your day of rehire. That’s today.”

“That’s a rip-off.” Sherman made a beeline to his unit representative.

Bill Davis, Sherman’s unit leader, agreed that Keebler’s action was unfair. He took the protest to the foreman’s boss.

Question : Is Keebler within his rights to deprive Sherman of his seniority?

Palmer’s verdict : After listening to Davis’s complaint, Plant Engineer Mark Palmer summoned the foreman to his office. “Why did you refuse Sherman’s request for leave?”

“We were up to our necks in work. I couldn’t spare him.”

“Did you listen to his reason from requesting the leave?”

Keebler admitted he hadn’t.

“For your information,” Palmer said, “he needed to help his mother relocate to another area following his father’s death a few months ago. Since the leave was for good cause and absolutely essential, it should not have been denied no matter how backlogged you were. Restore his full seniority.”

Layoff recall

Things were finally looking up and management decided to recall nine production employees and three maintenance workers.

The controversy that arose centered around Felix Delgrado, a welder with 18 months experience. When Welder Bill Frisbe learned that Delgrado had been recalled and he was still on layoff, he stormed into the plant and made a beeline for his boss’s desk.

“How come Felix is working, and I’m still on layoff? I have a year’s seniority over him.”

“Seniority is a key factor in recall,” Maintenance foreman Joe Faber replied, “but it’s not the be-all and end-all.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Felix has experience on the new precision welders. You don’t, and that’s what we need for the moment.”

Frisbe groused that it wasn’t fair and set off in search of Charley MacDonald, his unit representative. Charley demanded to know why a junior man was given recall preference over a senior man. Faber repeated his explanation to Frisbe.

MacDonald countered, “That’s no excuse. A few days training will qualify Joe to operate the new welding equipment.”

When Faber wouldn’t comply with his demand, MacDonald threatened a grievance.

Question : Can Faber be compelled to recall Frisbe ahead of Delgrado?

Fellini’s decision : “Delgrado gets the recall,” Plant Engineer Ray Fillini ruled. “While seniority is a key factor in deciding who works, the ability and experience are at least of equal importance.”

Is worker entitled to funeral pay?

Dave and Jan Michelson had always wanted to see the Grand Canyon. They finally got the chance in July when the trip was scheduled during Dave’s one-week vacation. Sadly, a few days after they arrived at the Canyon, Dave received a telegram informing him that his father had died.

The Michelsons flew home the same day. They helped with the funeral arrangements and the following day attended the funeral. Dave took an extra three days off to stay with Dave’s mother and siblings.

When he returned to work, the merchandise handler’s first move was a visit to his boss’s desk. He informed Maintenance Foreman Greg Nulty of his father’s death. Nulty expressed his condolences.

Dave thanked him and promptly put in for the three days funeral pay specified in the labor agreement.

Nulty expressed his regrets. “Check the contract. Funeral pay only applies if you notify the company in advance.”

“That’s not fair. The shape I was in the last thing that occurred to me was to notify the company.”

“I’m sorry, Dave. I don’t make the rules. I just try to enforce them. That’s all.”

He asked his boss to check it out with the plant engineer, and Nulty promised to do so.

Question : Is Dave entitled to funeral pay?

Pankowsky’s verdict : “No funeral pay for Dave,” Plant Engineer Fred Pankowsky ruled. “He had ample time to notify Personnel in person or by telephone after returning home. It’s a bad break, but Dave has to pay the price for failing to do so.”

Fight grievances but don’t retaliate

You can win and lose simultaneously. According to Personnel Policy Service’s H.R. Matters , “Retaliation claims now represent almost a third of the suits filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).”

As an example, you can win an employee grievance charging discrimination and subsequently get slammed by the court if you respond by retaliating. Fortunately, George Harper, plant engineer in Atlanta, was savvy enough to keep a level head when reasoned judgment was called for.

Grade I Mechanic Marjorie Whitecalf had filed a sexual harassment claim that was rebuffed by the judge. Her response was bitter and unladylike.

Whitecalf was clearly in the wrong, in the opinion of her boss, Maintenance Supervisor Arnold Houghton.

Also, the mechanic’s job performance, Houghton decided, was marginal at best. No better time to make her pay for her insolence. When Whitecalf received a memo informing her that she had been demoted to Mechanic Grade II because of unsatisfactory performance, she was livid.

“There’s nothing wrong with my work,” she claimed. “You’re demoting me because I filed a grievance.”

Question : What advice would you give Houghton?

Harper’s response : “Reinstate Whitecalf to Grade II,” Harper instructed. “Even if the demotion was justified on the grounds of unacceptable performance, this would be a bad time to do it.”

Poor attendance and denying promotion

Six maintenance employees applied when an invitation to bid for a group leader vacancy was posted on the bulletin board.

Maintenance Supervisor Arnold Chilton ran down the list of applicants and selected Charley Rayburn, a four-year employee with a good work record. The announcement of Charley’s promotion brought Jim Davidson to Chilton’s desk with the speed of an express train.

“I’ve been ripped off. My qualifications are equal to Charley’s, and I have better seniority.”

“Seniority is just one factor in making promotions,” Chilton replied.

“Not according to the contract. Clause 714 states that all things being equal, seniority is the determining factor.”

“That’s true,” Chilton conceded, “but all things aren’t equal enough. Your lousy attendance record did you in.”

Davidson brought his case to Unit Representative Joe Montaglia in an effort to gain support.

“The group leader’s job should go to Davidson,” Montaglia maintained.

Chilton repeated his reason for turning him down.

“That’s double jeopardy,” the unit rep rebutted. “Jim was already disciplined for his poor attendance. You can’t punish a man twice for the same infraction.”

Question : Should Davidson be given the job?

Grieg’s response : Plant Engineer John Grieg backed the supervisor’s decision. “Neither the labor agreement nor past occurrence denies management’s right to evaluate a candidate’s qualifications based on his ability to do the job, his past behavior, or attitude.”

Mediocrity: Don’t let it do you in

A staff meeting had been called by Assistant Plant Engineer Howard Wolfe. Present were two project leaders and six engineers. The subject at issue was a proposed mentoring idea that would have application for new and junior employees.

Wolfe and his boss, Plant Engineer George Rudin, were basically sold on the proposal. But Rudin had suggested that his assistant run the idea by some of his key people in the hope of generating enthusiasm and support.

The session turned out to be disappointing.

With the help of Tom Caspar, the senior engineer who had proposed the idea, Wolfe spelled out at the meeting how it would work. The response Wolfe hoped would be positive was lukewarm at best.

Jim Spector, a veteran engineer who was conscientious and technically qualified, all but wrinkled his nose at the proposal.

“I don’t know,” he said, “it could waste a lot of valuable time.”

Another engineer, Ben Lukowsky, appeared equally doubtful. “A buddy of mine was involved in a mentoring system. It turned out to be a disaster.”

“What was the problem?” Wolfe asked.

Lukowsky was vague. “I don’t know. It just didn’t work very well.”

The meeting’s purpose was to gain support for the idea. Instead it had just the opposite effect.

Question : Can you hazard a guess as to why the meeting bombed?

Rudin’s opinion : When Wolfe reported the staff’s reaction to the proposal to his boss, the plant engineer frowned thoughtfully.

“Who was there at the meeting?” he asked.

When Wolfe replied to the question Rudin’s frown slowly unfurrowed. “Joe Spector and Ben Lukowsky could be the key to the problem.”

“What do you mean?”

“Simply this. While those guys are technically competent, they lack the imagination and intellect to respond to new ideas and innovation. Change makes them uncomfortable. In that respect you might call them mediocre. In my experience, if you want to foster a positive response, you’re best bet is to steer clear of mediocrity. Those guys shouldn’t have been at your meeting.”

Don’t underestimate value of feedback

How are you doing? There’s only one way to find out. Get other peoples’ reaction.

Favorable feedback is the easiest to take. But unfavorable feedback is the most constructive. It offers clues that will help improve future actions.

What’s the best way to get feedback? The easiest way is to ask for it. But that’s not always advisable. For one thing, bluntly asking an associate or subordinate, “How am I doing?” may expose your anxiety. Or reveal self-doubts.

While asking may be the easiest way to get feedback, it is not the only way as recently appointed Project Supervisor John Diamond learned in a conversation with his boss. John felt insecure supervising eight engineers and two clerical people. His insecurity must have showed. One day Engineering Chief Rudy Lieberman asked if he could spare a few minutes for a chat.

“Sure,” John replied nervously.

“Fine. Let’s step into my office.”

When they were seated Lieberman said, “John, I have the feeling something is bothering you.”

John smiled faintly. He confided how he felt to his boss.

Question : In Lieberman’s shoes, what would you tell John?

Lieberman’s response : The chief sighed. “My instinct tells me you feel insecure.”

John nodded. “Yeah, and I’m reluctant to ask about how I’m doing.”

“You may not have to ask. Do your people come to you for advice?”

“Sure. Every once in a while.”

“Good. Do they come to you with their problems?”

“Yeah. Every so often.”

“Easy problems only? Or at times are they tough?”

“At times they’re darned tough.”

“There’s your answer. You’re doing fine.”

Clamping down on absenteeism

A meeting of top staffers had been called at a Tennessee plant that long had tolerated a liberal sick leave policy. General Manager David Green had just reviewed the plant’s dismal Quarterly Attendance Report. “It’s time we took aggressive action in response to this problem,” he growled.

“With renewal of the labor agreement coming up,” Green said, “there’s no better time to take action than now.”

Personnel Manager Kaye Froelich took the floor. “I’ve suggested this before but it was shelved. An employee shouldn’t receive sick leave benefits if he is absent for just one day due to illness.”

Green nodded his agreement.

“Let’s do it,” Green said.

Plant Engineer Ralph Morehouse raised his hand. “In many plants the sick leave policy is a lot tougher than that. For example, the first two days of leave are paid retroactively only when the employee loses at least two consecutive weeks due to illness.”

Froelich blew out her cheeks. “We’d have a battle royal initiating that.”

“Agreed,” Morehouse said. “But after trying to get that clause into the contract, your one-day restriction should slide by without resistance.”

Question : How do you feel about the ideas proposed?

What happened : The labor group looked like it was about to call in the militia when Morehouse’s two-week restriction was proposed. Management reluctantly agreed that this might be too harsh in view of the company’s existing policy. As predicted, the one-day proposal breezed through.