Human side – 2004-06-10

By Raymond Dreyfack, Contributing Editor June 10, 2004

Employee in trouble

Needs help, not lecture

A week after returning from a three-week medical leave, Utility Worker Susan Walsh appeared at Alex Carpenter’s desk.

“What now?” the supervisor asked.

“My doctor says I need two more weeks of leave.”

Carpenter rolled his eyes upward.

Walsh walked with a limp. Her medical problem as reported was related to a back injury and osteoporosis. According to plant scuttlebutt, Susan’s husband was abusive.

A longtime employee, Walsh was a marginal performer at best. Carpenter should have gotten rid of her years ago. He had enough problems without having to worry about staffers who couldn’t handle personal matters.

The supervisor stifled a sigh. “Sit down, Susan. I want to talk to you.”

He proceeded to lecture the distressed worker about how she should stand up for her rights, seek professional assistance when needed, and get her house in order. She listened with a pained expression on her face. So far as another medical leave was concerned, he told her, he would look into it and let her know.

A week and then two passed with no word. When Susan approached her boss again he said, “Yeah, I’ll get to it.”

Finally, in desperation, she went over the supervisor’s head to Plant Engineer Donald Krakower and explained what had transpired.

Question: What action would you take in the executive’s place?

Krakower’s response : Krakower summoned Carpenter to his office following his meeting with Susan.

“The woman is desperate,” he said. “What did you tell her?”

“I tried to straighten her out,” the supervisor replied.

Through tight lips Krakower snapped back, “What you need more is someone to straighten you out. You’ve been on the job long enough to have learned that when an employee is in trouble, what she needs is assistance and not a lecture. If you think she can benefit from counseling, refer her to a professional, and for God’s sake put her in for another medical leave right away.”

Getting rid of a dud

Be sure to think twice

Maintenance Supervisor Dave Vincent was asked by Charley Rice, his assistant, “In your 16 yr running this department, what’s the biggest mistake you ever made?”

His boss sighed. “Not what, but who. Ed McIntyre. Hiring Ed was the worst mistake I ever made.”

Rice wasn’t surprised at the answer. The Grade II painter was a crimp in both his and his boss’s craw. “That dud should have been gone months ago.”

“Not months, years. The trouble is that when an employee has been on the payroll that long that person isn’t easy to get rid of.”

Rice frowned. “If a guy doesn’t meet performance standards, it should be enough justification to fire him.”

“It’s not that simple.

“I don’t get it.”

“You would if you recalled the case a few years back where a plaintiff won an award of more than $10 million when he sued his ex-employer for damaging his reputation so that he was unable to get another job after being fired.”

“If a worker’s a dud you should be able to get rid of him.”

Question: In Plant Engineer John Tremark’s shoes, what would you tell Vincent?

Tremark’s response : Vincent came to his boss armed with Ed McIntyre’s dismal personnel record. Scanning the sheets specifying the painter’s substandard work, flawed attendance, and poor attitude, his boss shook his head. “This guy should have been booted long ago.”

“I’ve been afraid to fire him. There’s a good chance he’d be unable to get another job and would sue the company for damaging his reputation.”

“It’s true that the number of defamation suits have been growing lately. Still, an employee this bad shouldn’t be on the job. Getting rid of him will require special care. Work up a well-documented case, including specific infractions and progressive warnings for each. Take care not to criticize him in front of coworkers. Don’t publicize his poor performance appraisals, and give him a fair chance to disagree with your critiques.

“After he’s gone, don’t respond positively or negatively to inquiries from prospective employers. Your refusal to recommend this character will be indication enough of how you feel about his performance.”

When personality irritates others

Maintenance Supervisor Charley Dawne wondered: Did I make a mistake by promoting Joe Trayne to Carl’s job?

When Dawne’s assistant resigned to join his brother’s firm, Dawne wasted no time appointing Joe to his job. Maybe he should have thought twice about that, then once again. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but for some reason, Joe didn’t seem to command the crew’s respect and win its cooperation Carl had so easily achieved.

Dawne released a heartfelt sigh. Maybe he was imagining it, but he felt the atmosphere in the department had changed. The old warmth and rapport seemed to have bled out. Assistant Supervisor was a key man. Was Joe’s appointment the reason? Or was he being oversensitive?

He mentioned his feeling to Senior Group Leader Ann Kowalsky. Although Ann was reluctant to reply, he got her to admit, “Yeah, I noticed it too. The crew seems to resent Joe. Don’t ask me why.”

He thanked Ann and confided his apprehension to Cliff Hemmer, a close friend who was a production supervisor and had day-to-day dealings with Maintenance.

Cliff shrugged. “Hmmn, now that you mention it, there may be something going on here.”

That cinched it, Dawne thought; it wasn’t his imagination.

Question: In Dawne’s place what action, if any, would you take?

Kirchner’s opinion : “I haven’t noticed any particular change in the department,” Plant Engineer Jack Kirchner replied when Dawne confided his concern. “But if it’s okay with you I’ll check it out on the QT.”

“Fine with me,” Dawne said.

Kirchner summoned him that afternoon. “No one wants to go on record,” he told the supervisor. “But the gist of what I was able to gather is that Joe has a personality problem that causes people to resent him.”

Dawne nodded thoughtfully. “It’s his know-it-all attitude, isn’t it?”

“Right on,” Kirchner said. “Personality problems aren’t uncommon, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to pinpoint them. Some people are so cold and unfriendly that they unconsciously invite enmity.

“Others are chronic do-it-yourselfers who make others feel inadequate. Some, like Joe, act so smug and superior that they invite resentment. Joe’s a smart guy. Sit him down for a heart-to-heart talk, and you can probably make him see the light.”

Can you fire employee for lying on job application?

Alma Farrow, a woman in her 40s, was hired to perform clerical duties in the maintenance department and given a four-week probationary period.

After six weeks, Maintenance Supervisor Dan Nadler decided her performance and attitude left something to be desired. He wondered what, if anything, he could do to get rid of Farrow, despite her having passed the probationary period.

Mulling over that question, Nadler decided that if Farrow was a college graduate as she claimed at her job interview, he himself was a qualified college professor.

The supervisor pulled her application out of the file and bold as day was Farrow’s assertion that she was a college graduate with a bachelor of arts degree.

“Gotcha!” Nadler thought.

He made discreet inquiries and found that sure enough, Alma Farrow had attended no more than one year of college. Summoning the employee to his desk he confronted her with the evidence.

“So what’s the big deal,” Farrow replied. “As far as this job is concerned a degree makes no difference one way or the other.”

Nadler didn’t see it that way and gave her notice that she contested.

Question: Is the supervisor within his rights to fire Farrow for job application falsification?

Bundy’s decision : “Farrow stays on,” Plant Engineer Foster Bundy ruled when presented with the case.

The key factor is that she completed her probationary period as contracted without being dismissed. She is also correct that a college degree isn’t necessary for her job classification. If you want to get rid of Farrow you’ll have to do it based on a well-documented record and progressive warnings based on her unacceptable performance.”

Questionable fitness for work

When warehouse employee Joe Corning suffered what was diagnosed as a “severe fracture of his vertebrae,” he was hospitalized for six weeks, including three weeks of therapy. Following this, Joe declared that he felt fit and wanted to get back to work as soon as possible. His personal physician recommended two more weeks of rest.

Joe’s job was classified as “heavy work.” With his well-being, along with the avoidance of further liability in mind, the company doctor thought an additional three weeks would be a better safeguard against reinjury. Not surprisingly, the physician employed by the compensation insurance carrier with the minimization of disability benefits in mind insisted that no more than one additional week of rest would be needed.

Joe, who agreed, showed up at the plant after one week and assured his boss, Maintenance Foreman Harry Richel, that he felt fit and ready to return to work. Richel was skeptical.

“I’ll check it out,” he told the warehouseman, and made a beeline to Plant Engineer Frank Meadow’s office.

Question: In Meadow’s shoes what would you tell the foreman?

Meadow’s decision : After reaching a meeting of minds with the company doctor, Meadow approved Joe’s return to work on the proviso that he was assigned to the mail room for the next four weeks. In contrast to his “heavy” regular job, his duties there would be classified as “light work.” There would be no hustling of heavy cases and cartons during the four-week period. The compromise was regarded as a “reasonable accommodation” under ADA guidelines, and his wage rate would remain the same. This solution satisfied all parties concerned.

Can you retract a longstanding privilege?

An employee groused, “You got to be kidding! What do you mean that we can’t brew our own coffee!”

Another, equally indignant, chimed in with, “We’ve been brewing our own coffee for years.”

Maintenance Supervisor Jack Redfern shrugged. “Times change. The circumstances are different now.”

The difference referred to involved the plant’s recent relocation to the other side of town.

“Coffee is available the same as before,” Redfern said. “In the morning, during work breaks, and at lunchtime. The only difference is you can no longer brew it yourself; you have to get it from a vending machine.”

“It’s not fair,” a worker complained. “It subjects us to an expense we never had before.”

“Sorry, that’s the rule. There’s nothing I can do about it.”

“Well, there’s something we can do about it,” the disgruntled employees agreed.

To convert their grievance to action, they hightailed it to Unit Representative Chuck Mosley to go to bat for them.

Mosley arrived at Redfern’s desk. “Employees were permitted to brew their own coffee for years,” he maintained. It’s an unwritten benefit; management can’t arbitrarily cancel it.”

Question: Is Mosley right? Can management be forced to allow employees to brew their own coffee?

Cochran’s verdict : “No more brewing by employees,” Plant Engineer Cal Cochran ruled. “The circumstances have changed. At the old building, vending machines weren’t available. It was either brew it yourself, or no coffee at all. Since moving, we signed a contract with a vending supply company on the condition that employee brewing be prohibited. A past practice is sacred only so long as there’s a logical reason to sustain it. In this case, the continued approval of employee brewing would violate the agreement with the only vending machine company that’s available. This provides not only coffee but other food service as well.”

A specialist isn’t necessarily a manager

What the heck is wrong with Section Two? This was the question foremost in Plant Manager Forest Durkin’s mind when he reviewed the division’s Quarterly Productivity Report. It was the second straight quarter of unacceptable productivity performance from Joel Gregory’s section. Durkin summoned the section manager to his office and slid the report across his desk.

There was no need for words. Gregory lowered his eyes.

“What’s going on, Joel?”

Gregory shook his head. “I depend on my assistant, Carl Givens, for the day-to-day work assignment and monitoring.”

“Maybe that’s the problem. Mind if I do a bit of checking on my own?”

“Not at all.”

Durkin interviewed three members of Gregory’s crew. He made it clear that his purpose was not to establish blame, but to improve performance and productivity with everyone benefiting. He was thus able to persuade the employees to speak their minds. When Durkin began to see the light, he called Gregory to his office.

Question: Can you guess what Durkin’s probe might have revealed?

Durkin’s disclosure : “The one thing we knew all along,” the plant manager told Gregory, “is that your assistant is a top-notch technologist, which is why he was promoted to supervisor. But because a person can manage technology doesn’t mean he can manage people. The conclusion I draw from my interviews is that Carl has an aversion for disciplining anyone. He makes up for his subordinates’ shortcomings by doing the work himself. His human relations skills also leave a lot to be desired. As an executive, it is your responsibility to investigate, monitor, and assess your key peoples’ performance on a regular basis.”