Human Side – 2003-12-10 – 2003-12-10

By Raymond Dreyfack, Contributing Editor December 10, 2003

Workers protest

Incentive plan deemed unfair

To say that the workforce objected to the company’s recently announced incentive plan would be the understatement of the year. The union kept haranguing management with worker protests of unfairness.

Since the plan was part and parcel of the collective bargaining agreement, Union Delegate Frank Delgrasso demanded detailed information related to the time-study analysis on which it was presumably based.

Although annoyed by what he regarded as harassment, Plant Manager Al Levinson complied.

His compliance didn’t satisfy Delgrasso.

He persisted in claiming that there were too many loopholes and too much confusion. As patiently as possible, Levinson tried to explain every item presented to the union delegate’s satisfaction.

Delgrasso kept shaking his head. “We don’t like the way you’re slicing the pie. We want to bring in our own expert to review your decisions.”

That’s where Levinson drew the line. “It’s management’s right, not the union’s, to make compensation determinations based on time-study analysis.”

Delgrasso threatened to sue for compliance.

Question : Does the union have a right to insist on its own expert’s involvement?

Attorney’s response : “Let the union’s expert come in,” Labor Attorney Marcia Greene advised Levinson, “with the proviso that he doesn’t cause any production disruption. Assuming that he operates in good faith it will be in line with precedence on the one hand, and will hope fully clear the air on the other.”

Business attire

Are your employees dressed too casual?

What is this world coming too? The world of the workplace, that is.

Has your plant gone too casual, asks Personnel Policy Service policy and compliance experts in its HR Matters E-Tips.

“Are you seeing more skin, tattoos, and piercings than you think are appropriate?”

If so, are you a proper judge of what is and what is not appropriate? You may have more discretion than you imagine in setting a dress code for your operation. While tattoos, male-sported earrings, piercings and the like may be statements of self-expression, PPS points out, they are not official indications of race or religion, and are thus not subject to federal discrimination restrictions.

The trick, in setting a dress code appropriate to the kind of business you administer, is to take care in so doing not to target a particular group of employees: blacks, Hispanics, women, Muslim, Jews, etc. So while you have a good deal of flexibility, there are lines that need to be drawn. And to avoid conflict and protest, dress code policy should be spelled out in writing, with business-related justification specified.

Specifically, what can you prohibit? Any clothing or ornamental item that:

  • Reflects an adverse image to customers, suppliers, or the public

  • Generates work distractions that interfere with productivity

  • Violates safety rules.

    • In one plant in the process of being organized by a local union, Frank Merrick, a maintenance supervisor, was bugged by an aggressive worker’s wearing of a union-issued jacket adorned with various union insignia. On top of that, he distributed union buttons to any coworker willing to wear them.

      When Merrick told the worker to “knock it off” while on the job, the man snapped back, “No way!”

      Question : Can the employee be forced to restrict his wearing of the insignia?

      Burnside’s response : “Lay off the guy,” Plant Engineer Chet Burnside advised Merrick. “Management’s right to rule on dress code adherence doesn’t extend that far. Prohibiting the wearing of union insignia is a no-no.”

      New plant, same old union

      The company, a small manufacturer, was going downhill. Located in a depressed area, the plant was run-down and ramshackle. Its plumbing and heating were defective. It was in danger of polluting the environment. Its two buildings were beyond salvage and management lived in constant fear of a visit from OHSA. Over the past 4 or 5 yr the payroll had dwindled from 260 to 140 employees.

      Nonetheless, the machine parts the company produced were of acceptable quality and fairly priced. A contingent of loyal customers had been gathered over the years.

      In recent months, rumors had circulated that management was deliberating whether to shut down operations or relocate plant facilities. Although not unexpected, employees were stunned one day by a bulletin board announcement that in response to an attractive site access opportunity a decision had been made to relocate to a town about 60 miles away. Employees were encouraged to go along with the move and stay with the company. Most workers declined.

      The local union was inclined to stick with the company or, more accurately, to have the company stick with it.

      “We represented employees in this plant for years,” an official argued. “This move is no more than a continuation of normal business. There is no reason we should not continue to represent them.”

      Management disagreed. “Most of the workforce represented at the former location are no longer employed here. We have no objection to conducting an election to let employees decide who they want to represent them, or if they want representation at all.”

      The official protested, claiming an election should not be necessary.

      Question : Should this matter be left up to a vote by employees?

      The ruling : “Conduct the election,” an appeals judge ruled. “If continued representation of the union is approved by a majority of employees, so be it.”

      Anti-company obscenity

      Maintenance Foreman George Rose told Murray Adams, the plant’s unit representative, “Keeping the operation profitable in these difficult times is tough enough without having to tolerate the blasphemous abuse of an employee working against his employer’s best interests.”

      The exchange occurred following an obscene outburst against the company in general and its president in particular by Fred Farrow, a maintenance department utility employee. Farrow, an aggressively militant worker, had been on a one-man crusade to get coworkers to sign up with a union that was attempting to organize the plant.

      In response to the outburst, Rose presented Farrow with a termination notice at which time the employee made a beeline for the union official’s work station.

      “You can’t fire a man for a remark made in the heat of the moment,” Adams protested. “The guy deserves another chance.”

      “I’ll tell you what,” Rose replied. “If Farrow apologizes I’ll reduce the discipline to a 3-day suspension and warning note that goes into his file.”

      “I’ll talk to him,” Adams said.

      He returned minutes later to inform Rose that Farrow refused to apologize.

      “That does it,” Rose said. “The dismissal stands.”

      Question : Is the termination justified? Can Rose make it stick?

      Granville’s verdict : “The dismissal stands,” Plant Engineer Sam Granville ruled. “If Farrow’s conduct wasn’t the final straw, his refusal to accept management’s offer of a reprieve most certainly is. This guy is a sour apple. Good riddance.”

      Seniority and right of self-promotion

      Maintenance Department Mechanic George Rolfe had filled in from time to time as Instrument Repairman on an ad hoc basis. When, in response to lagging orders, management was forced to announce layoffs on the bulletin board, Rolfe found his name on the list.

      The mechanic made a beeline for his boss’s desk to protest his inclusion.

      “It’s a tough break,” Maintenance Supervisor Jack Reynolds conceded, “but we have more mechanics than we need. There’s not a thing I can do about it.”

      Rolfe disagreed.

      “I have 2 yr seniority over Charley Gross. Since I can handle his job, I’m entitled to bump him.”

      “You have got that wrong,” Reynolds said. “Instrument Repairman is a higher-rated job. According to the labor agreement, seniority gives a man the right to bump down, not up.”

      Rolfe refused to settle for that explanation.

      Question : In your opinion does the mechanic have a valid case?

      Balkin’s verdict : Plant Engineer Art Balkin told Reynolds, “Tell George, ‘good try but no dice.’ For one thing, promotion is a function of management, not the work force. For another, no contract provision gives a worker the right to promote himself on the basis of seniority.”

      Employee too old to be trainable?

      When maintenance department Group Leader Tom Bolden opted for early retirement, Arthur Fiske, a 56-yr-old man, was hired to fill the vacancy.

      Maintenance Supervisor Gerald Korff decided after three months that Fiske wasn’t working out because “he lacked the leadership skills required for the job.”

      He was offered a lower-ranking job on the line and a young man of 35 was hired to replace him.

      Fiske turned down the offer, deciding instead to sue the company under the Age Discrimination Act.

      Korff insisted age had nothing to do with his decision. The younger man qualifies for the job, he said, because he had “received academic training in leadership skills, whereas Fiske had not.”

      Fiske claimed in rebuttal that: 1. He had been hired in the first place because of his prior supervisory experience and that, 2. On-the-job experience constitutes more than adequate training.

      Question : In your opinion, is Fiske’s argument viable?

      Brinley’s decision : Reviewing the case, Plant Engineer Fred Brinley instructed Korff to reinstate Fiske.

      “For one thing,” he told the supervisor, “Fiske is correct in claiming that actual on-the-job experience is usually a more useful training tool than classroom instruction, and for another, if he could cite specific training that Fiske lacked, he was entitled to receive it. What’s more, 56 years of age is not too old for a person to be trainable.”

      Finally, Brinley said that in his opinion three months was too short a period for Korff to have decided that the older man wasn’t qualified for the job.

      “Whether you’re aware of it or not.” he concluded, “age bias probably is a factor to be considered.”

      Firing someone for off-duty drug use

      The company’s drug policy stated that an employee who tested positive for drugs was subject to termination.

      Thus, following her recent test, Supply Room Attendant Mildred Brokowski was summoned to her boss’s desk.

      “Marijuana showed up on your test,” Maintenance Foreman Arnold Hermani informed her. “I have no choice but to let you go.”

      Brokowski neither confirmed nor denied use of the drug, but vehemently denied using it on the job. She also claimed that under the terms of the labor agreement, employees couldn’t be fired “right off the bat without prior warning or notification.”

      “That doesn’t apply where drugs are concerned.”

      The attendant said she would contest the dismissal.

      Question : In your view is Brokowski’s dismissal justified?

      Rudin’s decision : “Reinstate the attendant,” Plant Engineer Charles Rudin instructed Hermani. Consulting the company’s policy manual, he cited a provision to support his decision. “Dismissal without prior warning applies only in cases where gross misconduct on the job is involved. No evidence exists to charge Brokowski with use of the drug during working hours.

      “It has been determined,” he added, “that traces of marijuana can persist in the system for days after use. Void the dismissal and issue the employee a warning notice for whatever good it might do that drug use is not tolerable behavior, and keep a sharp eye on her.”

      Job duties aren’t clearly defined

      Service Equipment Mechanic Harry Keller had it up to his collarbone with the job. He was being shunted all over the plant with no apparent purpose, plan, or design. One day, he was assigned to monitor refrigeration equipment, the next day fire protection sprinkler systems. He installed piping, regulators, and valves, and repaired and reassembled systems. He periodically checked a variety of gauges, pressure readings, and thermostats. He was asked to perform tests by comparing instrument readings against established standards. His job was a hodgepodge. A job description for his classification had been created more than 10 yr ago.

      Keller wasn’t sure where his responsibility, authority, and accountability began and ended, what functions he could perform on his own, and where authorization from his boss was required. He had asked Maintenance Manager Ralph Gaynor more than once for an updated job description, but had been put off repeatedly.

      Keller was well organized and ambitious. How could he bid for a higher-level job or advanced training without knowing fully and specifically what duties he was expected to fulfill? How could he evaluate whether he was being taken advantage of, overloaded with work, or given assignments above his level without being properly recognized and compensated?

      One day, when Gaynor put him off for the umpteenth time, Keller decided to file a grievance. The maintenance manager responded angrily. “I have a hundred things more urgent than composing your darned job description. I’ll get to it when I get to it, but nothing in the labor agreement requires me to do so.”

      Keller refused to settle for this response. He put through the grievance.

      Question : How do you rate the mechanic’s chances of winning?

      Hillman’s response : “You’re right. It’s not a valid grievance,” Plant Engineer Fred Hillman told Gaynor. “What you told Keller is correct. Nothing in the contract mandates that a written job description be furnished. But anything that enables an employee to perform his job more efficiently is a plus for the department as well as the person whose responsibility it is to perform it. When people are confused and uncertain regarding their duties and responsibilities, it leads to all kinds of misjudgment and errors. My advice is that you move that job description to a higher priority on your things-to-do list and let Keller know that you’ve done so.”