Human side – 2004-07-08

By Raymond Dreyfack, Contributing Editor July 8, 2004

Employee’s life is made miserable

Is company liable?

Jessica Kelly was a clerical employee in the maintenance department. Her life was made so miserable by John Brandon, her supervisor, that she had fainting spells, suffered a nervous disorder, and had to undergo medical treatment. Both her family doctor and a psychologist recommended Jessica quit her job. But she was a longtime employee with heavy financial commitments, in a specialized job, and at her age felt she would be unable to find other employment at a comparable income.

Kelly charged that Brandon’s pressure tactics had turned her life into a nightmare. He yelled at her repeatedly, and his tone of voice was often sarcastic. He insulted her before coworkers, and on occasion threatened to fire her for one reason or another.

Brandon’s boss, the assistant maintenance manager, brushed aside Kelly’s complaints about her treatment. He refused to fire Brandon because of his good record as a cost-effective supervisor. Jessica, whose job it was to audit freight bills, utility bills, and employee time cards, was a key employee in this regard. Although her profit improvement efforts were not acknowledged, coworkers agreed that she “was saving the company a fortune.” Two witnesses consented to testify, if necessary, if she followed through on her decision to sue her employer for supervisory abuse.

Question : Given the above scenario how would you rate Jessica’s chances of winning a suit against the company?

Dunster’s response : When Jessica’s intention was called to Plant Engineer George Dunster’s attention, he conducted a thorough investigation. Based on what he learned, he blamed himself for having been too removed from day-to-day operations to know what was going on. Embarrassed by the extent and effects of Brandon’s mistreatment, he apologized to Jessica on behalf of the company and approved a well- deserved raise in appreciation of her good performance and as partial compensation for the mistreatment she had suffered. His next step was to fire Brandon and call his boss, who had turned a blind eye to the supervisor’s abuse on the carpet. He made clear to the manager that any future sign of employee mistreatment under his watch would land him out on his ear.

Uncontrolled temper

Is it a dismissible offense?

Some people seem created to reason and rationalize; others seem put on earth to rant and rave. Maintenance department painter Mike Milligan was of the latter variety. With Mike, a simple conversation could turn into a brawl. Ditto his boss.

A right-most employees covet is a place on the overtime list. One day Milligan stormed up to Foreman Arch Kosak’s desk with chin outthrust and demanded to know why Oscar Deutsch was scheduled for overtime and not him.

Kosak and Milligan had engaged in head-ons before.

Kosak checked the overtime list. “Because Oscar’s name is ahead of yours,” the foreman replied.

“If it is it’s a mistake.”

“Who said?” Kosak countered.

Mistaken or not, Milligan decided to stand up for his rights.

“Get back to work,” his boss ordered.

Kosak’s peremptory tone pushed the painter’s boiling point about six degrees higher. “You aren’t ripping me off and getting away with it.”

Kosak brushed him off. “For the last time, get back to work.”

“When I get what’s rightfully mine.”

The supervisor’s patience was running thin.

The painter uttered an obscenity, and one thing led to another. As the climate heated he challenged his boss to a fight, and said he would wait for him after work.

“That does it, Milligan! You’re out of here.”

Question : Is Kosak justified in firing Milligan for his outburst of temper?

Durner’s verdict : Despite his lack of control Milligan was a longstanding, conscientious employee.

“This isn’t Gilligan’s first flare-up, is it?” Plant Engineer Mel Durner asked.

“No sir, it isn’t.”

After listening to Kosak’s account of the incident, Durner said, “Unless I’m wrong, Gilligan’s flare-up was probably fueled by your own response.”

The supervisor’s lowered gaze was answer enough.

“Was he warned that his temper could result in dismissal?”

“Not exactly.”

“Then I’d suggest you change the discharge to a week’s suspension. Hand him a final warning along with it, and try to control your own temper as well.”

Does bargaining unit have say in picking supervisor?

When Maintenance Department Group Leader Jack Bancroft quit unexpectedly, Maintenance Manager Al Schimmer was beset with a rash of rank and file applicants who felt qualified for the job.

Schimmer ran his eyes down the list and eliminated the hopefuls one by one. The best man, he decided, was Pete Kowalski

“Both of these guys have better seniority than Kowalski, and both of them are better qualified for the job.”

“Maybe in your judgment or theirs, but not in mine.”

“Take a look at the record,” Bernard snapped.

“That’s exactly what I did, which is why I tapped Pete for the job.”

“We’ll see about that,” the unit rep threatened.

Question : Can Schimmer be forced to promote one of the applicants who has better seniority than the man he’s chosen?

Brewer’s ruling : “Kowalski gets tapped for the job,” Plant Engineer Art Brewer ruled. “If you want to get Bernard off your back, refer him to Clause 1223 B of the labor agreement.”

Thumbing through the contract, Brewer read aloud: “It is management’s complete and sole right to promote an employee to a supervisory position. Although consideration will be given to applicants from within the bargaining unit, the choice shall be at the sole discretion of the employer.”

Firing employee for turning customers against company

A group of employees worked with union organizers to bring their local into the plant. Bill Richardson, a mechanic, was one of this group.

In recent months the company had run into hard times, and Richardson, along with two other workers, was laid off.

One day Project Leader George Keller was in conversation with Charley Redlich, a customer’s plant manager who was visiting the plant in search of a solution to a technical problem.

“Bill Richardson’s a neighbor of mine,” he told Keller. “He claims he was laid off because of his union activity.”

“That’s not true,” Keller replied. “Bill and two other men were laid off because orders had fallen off. When business picks up they’ll be recalled.”

Keller relayed what the customer had told him to Maintenance Supervisor Ronald Houghton.

Houghton instructed Personnel to remove Richardson’s name from the recall list for poor-mouthing the company. “Spreading the word that we are laying off people for union activity is harmful to the company’s image.”

Weeks later the two employees laid off at the same time as Richardson were recalled. Next day the mechanic showed up to find out why he had been omitted. When Houghton told him the reason Richardson all but blew a fuse.

“No way did I poor-mouth the company,” he insisted. “Why would I do that while I was waiting to be recalled?”

Question : Can an employee be discharged for poormouthing his employer?

Seigel’s decision : “Recall the mechanic,” Plant Engineer Ed Seigel instructed Houghton. “While it is true that poormouthing one’s employer is a dischargeable offense, two factors must be taken into consideration. One is intent. No evidence exists to assert it was Richardson’s purpose to hurt the company. Nor does any evidence exist to assume that the company was injured in any way by whatever statement he made to the customer.”

Johnnie loves Jane: Can they date?

What happens when a state regulation is in conflict with a company regulation? It depends.

A case in point occurred when Jerry, a maintenance department group leader, and Alice, an executive secretary, struck up a mutual attraction and decided to date. The budding romance caused Maintenance Supervisor Ed Pellegrino to think hard about whether he should step in and object. His concern centered on Alice’s exposure in her job to information classified as CONFIDENTIAL by management, data that involved executive compensation as well as corporate actions and plans.

The two regulations in conflict were:

1. A state ruling that prohibits interference with or discrimination against any activity deemed to be recreational or political.

2. A company regulation that prohibits dating between married and unmarried employees.

In the case in question the group leader, Jerry, was married; Alice, the executive secretary was single.

Morality aside, Pellegrino’s apprehension dealt with the confidentiality aspect of Alice’s job. He sat down with Jerry for a heart-to-heart talk.

“Jerry, you know the company rule about dating.”

“It doesn’t apply to me,” Jerry asserted. He called to mind the state regulation regarding recreational and political activities.

Pellegrino disagreed. “The company regulation holds.”

Question : Can Jerry be forced, with his job at stake, to stop dating Alice?

Russin’s verdict : “They stop dating, or else,” Plant Engineer Alan Russin ruled. “For one thing, dating qualifies as neither a recreational nor political activity. For another, a legitimate corporate concern relating to Alice’s exposure to confidential information is involved.

Tip : If for some reason you wish to prevent employees from dating, what rights do you have? It depends in large measure on your state’s position on the subject. If in doubt, check with your attorney.

Compensating employee who is almost qualified

When a vacancy for Instrument Repairman was posted six maintenance department employees applied for the job. Maintenance Foreman Sherman Leiberman reviewed each applicant’s work record and experience and awarded the promotion to Mechanic Grade I Joe Clement.

Although Clement’s competence as a mechanic was highly rated, a significant qualifications gap existed between mechanic and instrument repairman.

To narrow the gap, a six-week training period was prescribed.

Happy as the mechanic was to be awarded the promotion, Joe’s brow wrinkled in disappointed puzzlement when he received his first paycheck.

Within moments he appeared at Leiberman’s desk with the check.

“What’s the problem?”

“My pay is 15 cents an hour short,” Joe complained.

“The shortfall is temporary,” his boss explained. “You will receive the full rate for the job when the training period is successfully completed.”

“I don’t get it. I was promoted to Instrument Repairman; I’m entitled to receive the rate specified for the classification.”

“I agree,” Leiberman said, “but you’ll have to be patient.”

Clement wasn’t a patient person by nature.

Question : Should Joe have received the full rate for the job?

Duffy’s verdict : “The 15 cents per hour reduction applies,” Plant Engineer Phil Duffy replied when Joe’s complaint was brought to his attention.

Duffy suggested to Leiberman that he refer Joe to Clause 182 B in the labor agreement that read as follows: “During the period in which a promoted employee is being trained to perform the higher rated job, an amount predetermined by management will be deducted from the full rate until the time he becomes qualified.”

“The point being,” Duffy added, “that Joe won’t really own his new title of Instrument Repairman until his training is satisfactorily completed.”

Can strike time be converted to vacation time?

Both sides tried to agree, but one or the other or both didn’t try hard enough. The inevitable consequence was a walkout and strike that lasted more than a month.

Eventually, as is always the case, management and the bargaining unit arrived at a settlement and the plant was in operation again. As the weeks passed a notice was dispatched to employees advising them of their vacation eligibility. This resulted in a storm of protest from several workers.

The number of days they were on strike was subtracted from the accrual days for vacation.

Bargaining Unit Representative George Del Prado appeared at Maintenance Manager Ed Renfro’s desk. “These guys are being ripped off. An employee on strike is still an employee. There’s no reason those days off the job shouldn’t be counted as earning vacation time.”

Renfro disagreed. “Vacation time is like wages. Its purpose is to reward employees for service performed for the company. When a worker is on strike the only service performed is aggravation. He shouldn’t be rewarded for that.”

Del Prado disagreed and threatened to grieve.

Refro shrugged. “That’s your prerogative.”

Question : Do you think time spent on strike should be deducted from vacation entitlement?

Murdock’s verdict : “The deduction remains,” Plant Engineer Frank Murdock ruled. “Vacation time is payment for services rendered. No clause in the labor agreement provides compensation for time lost while on strike. Fair is fair. A corporation is not a charitable organization.”