Human Side – 2004-09-10

Question: If Martin follows through on a lawsuit, do you think he will win? Gershon's opinion: "Martin's chances are nonexistent or slim," Plant Engineer Vincent Gershon told the supervisor. "For one thing, he knew what he was getting into when he accepted the transfer. For another, he will have to prove that management knew that the transfer was hazardous to his health, was in a position to co...

By Raymond Dreyfack, Contributing Editor September 10, 2004

Question: If Martin follows through on a lawsuit, do you think he will win?

Gershon’s opinion : “Martin’s chances are nonexistent or slim,” Plant Engineer Vincent Gershon told the supervisor. “For one thing, he knew what he was getting into when he accepted the transfer. For another, he will have to prove that management knew that the transfer was hazardous to his health, was in a position to correct the problem, and failed to do so. There’s no way he could do this.”

“Do what you’re told within the next 10 seconds, or you’ll find yourself on suspension.”

Goshen, a hot-tempered employee, turned heel on his boss and stomped away.

Dorf, tightlipped, typed out a suspension notice.

Question: Must Goshen fulfill an assignment he regards as stupid?

Kaufman’s verdict : “You’re right that the rule in cases like this is to obey now and grieve later,” Plant Engineer Jack Kaufman told Dorf when handed the suspension for approval. “On the other hand, this guy deserves respect for standing up for what he believes. Give Goshen another chance to carry out your instruction. If he persists in refusing, he will be guilty of insubordination and deserves the suspension. But I’m not thrilled about the way you handled this. You could have avoided this whole unpleasantness by playing it cool, giving Goshen a full chance to explain why he feels his design is superior, and if you disagree, explaining why. Whatever the situation, it never hurts to listen and resolve disagreements harmoniously.”

Burning issue

Secondhand smoke and workers’ health

Employees in some states have been able to obtain workers’ compensation benefits for health problems associated with secondhand smoke. So states HR Matters E Tips published by Personnel Policy Service, Inc. PPS cites one example where an ailing employee transferred to a smoke-polluted office was awarded full disability pay until a comparable job in a smoke-free environment could be found.

Avoiding liability is a good reason to limit, or even ban, smoking in the workplace. An even better reason is an employer’s responsibility to safeguard employee health as much as possible.

Employer requirements to provide a smoke-free environment vary from state to state and county to county. Where in doubt, as always, your best and safest bet is to consult your attorney. Conform to applicable legislation, and you won’t get burned.

In one situation John Martin, a maintenance department carpenter who suffered from emphysema, threatened to sue his employer on the grounds that he had aggravated his pulmonary problem after having been transferred to a smoke-filled environment. His supervisor denied responsibility and offered to switch the worker to another job in a smoke-free area. The employee turned down the offer and decided to take his chances in court.

Job classification

Can you alter an existing one?

Introduction of a new product line in a Philadelphia manufacturing plant created a problem for Maintenance Foreman Greg Conrad.

Currently, two mechanic classifications existed: Grade I Mechanic and Apprentice Mechanic. As a result of increased complications related to tools and equipment used in producing and servicing the new line, Conrad felt it would be helpful to break down the classifications into Grade I and Grade II. Since Grade I mechanics would be the more skilled and experienced of the two, a wage differential was stipulated.

With this change in mind, Conrad posted the new Grade II classification on the bulletin board, and at the same time, redefined Grade I accordingly. This triggered a storm of protest from mechanics reassigned to Grade II. Conrad’s explanation of the purpose behind the reclassification did little, if anything, to impress the Grade IIs. They lost no time rallying Unit Representative Jeff Sensor to their support. Sensor made his position forcefully known to the foreman. “You can’t unilaterally alter an existing classification.”

Conrad pointed out that the labor agreement specified management’s right to establish new job classifications at will. When Sensor persisted in his disagreement, Conrad agreed to check it out with the boss.

Question: Does Conrad have the right to create a new job classification and alter an existing one?

Burnside’s ruling : “Sensor is correct,” Plant Engineer Ralph Burnside told Conrad. “Management’s right to create a new job classification does not automatically imply its right to unilaterally alter an existing classification. That change will have to be negotiated and agreed upon.”

Employee refuses an assignment

Maintenance Supervisor Brandon Dorf sat down at his desk with Carpenter Class II Bernie Goshen to explain how he wanted a special jig constructed. He had sketched out the plan on a sheet of paper. It was a complicated design.

The carpenter’s response was a prolonged frown.

“This is crazy,” he said.

“What do you mean by that?”

“For one thing, that casing should be constructed of metal, not wood. For another, that lever won’t hold up under strain.”

Dorf cut him short. “I’m busy, Goshen, and I’m not looking for a critique. Just do the job.”

The carpenter shook his head. “It would rub against my grain as a professional to build the jig like this.”

Dorf was losing patience. “I’m not running a debate society,” he snapped.

Premium pay for overtime

Sometimes employees fight for extra overtime; other times they fight against it.

When retiring maintenance supervisor Jim Henning turned over the reins to Al Partridge, his successor, one of the tips he offered involved the hardship he often experienced in recruiting overtime workers, especially on weekends.

“So what’s the solution?” Partridge asked. “When a rush job needs to be completed, overtime is sometimes necessary whenever it falls.”

Henning replied, “Sometimes a special inducement is needed. To get workers to cooperate I authorized an extra hour on their time card.”

“And Payroll didn’t object?”

“If they did I didn’t hear about it.”

Partridge didn’t like the idea.

Three weeks later, with Henning gone, a rush wiring job called for overtime on a Friday evening. Two electricians reluctantly agreed to work.

One of the men complained, “We assumed we’d get that extra hour premium pay marked in on our time cards.”

“There’s no such thing in the contract,” Partridge replied.

Question: Should they receive premium pay?

Siegel’s decision : “Give them the extra hour,” Plant Engineer Joel Siegel instructed. “In approving that premium over a long period of time, Henning established a precedent. Payroll could have refused that special arrangement but didn’t. That’s set it in stone.”

Don’t give him a raise that decreases his earnings

Under the revised Labor Department overtime pay rules, according to the local press, “workers who earn up to $23,660, or about $455 a week, will be eligible for overtime. That means employers will either be forced to pay overtime or boost the wages of eligible workers.”

What else is new? With this in mind the thought strikes me as it must have struck a great many readers: What about the good employee who deserves a raise, but in being given a raise it would place him in a category where he will no longer be eligible for overtime?

Take the hypothetical situation where Maintenance Foreman Sam Baker, under constant pressure to reduce costs, decides that here’s a good chance to score Brownie points with his boss. Under pressure as well from ace mechanic Joe Hardworker to give him a long overdue wage increase, Baker sees an excellent opportunity to kill two birds with one proverbial stone. Summoning Joe to his desk, he offers him a raise, and on top of that, promotes him to group leader as well.

Joe inquires warily, “Will I still be eligible for overtime?”

“Well, uh, no. You’ll be off the clock.”

“Forget about it,” he snaps back angrily. Joe is no math major, but he’s no dummy either. A bit of simple addition convinces him that his boss’s generous raise will cost him money.

Question: What is the solution in a situation like this?

Expert’s response : Wondering how a labor relations expert would answer that question, I called a legal specialist who had given me information in the past. His answer: “I can’t reply on the record. My clients do this all this time. What do I think personally? Don’t mention my name. But no company worth its salt would offer an employee a raise that is not a true raise. Apart from being sleazy, it would cost them more in the end.”

Get the message, Mr. Baker?

When is a transferred employee entitled to a relocation allowance?

Some employees were delighted when the new plant was erected; some were neutral; some were dismayed. It depended mostly on where they lived.

Maintenance Department Welder Bill Connor, 61, was all but ready to quit when he got the news.

“Use your head, Bill,” his wife Sally argued. “Where else are going to get a comparable income at your age?”

Connor wasn’t convinced. “The old plant is only nine miles from our house. When the transfer comes through I’ll have to drive almost 40 miles each day. That’ll kill an extra hour each day, not to mention the cost of the extra gas.”

“Settling for a 20% or 30% cut in pay at another job will cost you a lot more than that. That’s assuming you get one.”

Connor sighed in resignation. Sally was right, and he knew it.

The next day at work he signed the Acceptance Sheet when it was handed to him.

“When do I put in for my relocation allowance?” Connor asked John Dawson, his supervisor.

“How far do you live from the new plant?” Dawson asked.

“Almost 40 miles. I clocked it.”

His boss shook his head. “Sorry, Bill, but you’re out of luck there too. A contract provision specifies that a relocation allowance only applies to employees who live at least 50 miles from the plant.”

“That’s a ripoff,” Connor protested. “I’m not sitting still for it.”

Question: Does the employee have any recourse in a situation like this?

Shoken’s response : Plant Engineer Gordon Shoken invited Connor to his office. “You’re a victim of a lousy break, Bill, but it may not be as bad as it seems. The traffic department is working up a layout of all employees who live within a certain perimeter. When a car-pooling arrangement is finalized, it may wind up costing you less money instead of more to travel to and from work. We’ll let you know how it comes out.”

Connor sighed. At least the company had his interests at heart.

Don’t underestimate value of seniority

Plant and office employees prize few things more highly than seniority. It is important that management specify the circumstances under which it is likely to be threatened or lost.

When Maintenance Department Utility Worker George Strickland returned to work following an eight-day absence, he was dismayed to find that he had been shifted to the bottom of the seniority list.

“What’s going on here?” he demanded.

“You were absent over a week without calling to explain why,” Maintenance Supervisor Steve Reddy replied.

“I couldn’t call in,” Strickland replied. “I was flat on my back.”

The employee’s alcohol problem was no secret in the plant. Reddy barely held himself back from saying, “From being sick or being drunk?” Instead he asked, “Any reason your wife couldn’t call if you were unable to?”

Strickland shrugged. “She works too.”

“That’s no excuse. You’re lucky you’re not being fired. Pull this again, and you will be. In the meantime, your failure to call in is costing you your seniority.”

“We’ll see about that,” Strickland grumbled.

Question: Is Reddy justified in depriving the worker of his seniority?

Rosoff’s verdict : “Strickland remains at the bottom of the list,” Plant Engineer Gene Rosoff told Reddy when informed of the utility man’s threat. “If he wants documentation to support your action, refer him to the labor agreement where Clause 1541 states that ‘an employee who is absent for more than five consecutive days without calling in to explain the reason for the absence will lose his seniority rights.’ Incidentally, the same rule applies to employees recalled from layoff who fail to report within five days.”

Can you fire employee who moonlights?

Project Supervisor Harry Bellini said, “Cliff, you’re going to have to knock off that second job.”

“No way. Give me that wage increase I’ve been asking for,” Cliff Saunders, a young engineer, told Bellini, “and I might be able to get by without moonlighting.”

“That’s not feasible. Wages have been frozen,” Bellini replied. “For the time being at least.”

Saunders shrugged. “Then I have no choice but to work extra hours. I have heavy expenses.”

Bellini nodded. “I sympathize with your problem. But you know the company rule about moonlighting. The main problem is that you’re exposed on the job to confidential information, and the part-time work you’re doing is with Kramer, one of our main competitors. If not for that, we might let you get away with it.”

“No way would I reveal confidential information,” Saunders assured his boss.

“I believe you, Cliff. But the company can’t take chances.”

“I see your point,” Saunders said. “If I could find a comparable job with a noncompetitive company, I’d be glad to switch.”

“Maybe you should answer more ads,” Bellini replied. “If you need extra time for interviews, I’ll try to arrange it.”

“Good part-time jobs are tough to come by these days,” Saunders said. “I’ll see what I can do. But until I find something else I’ll have to hold on to what I’ve got.”

Bellini shook his head. “Security has been on my back. I’ll get back to you.”

Question: This discussion had occurred before. Can Saunders be forced to stop moonlighting for a competitor or else?

Dunlap’s verdict : Companies oppose moonlighting for a variety of reasons. For one thing there is the fatigue factor. Many managers believe a full day’s work is enough for anyone. There is the possibility of injury, due to fatigue carried over to the regular job. Finally, as in this case, despite assurances to the contrary, is the danger of a key employee revealing confidential information.

Bellini discussed Saunders’s situation with his boss. “I appreciate the problem,” Plant Engineer Arthur Dunlap said. “I’ll try to get him a moderate wage increase in spite of the freeze. If he’s unwilling to settle for that and persists in moonlighting for Kramer, we’ll have to let him go.”

Solving a human relations problem takes skill

To perform effectively as a leader, it’s important to know the employee you’re leading.

Vincent Reubens, project supervisor in a New Jersey manufacturing company’s plant engineering department, learned this lesson the hard way. Seven technical people and three clerical employees reported to Reubens. He was well satisfied with his group except for a young computer operator. When Myrna Tyler was hired six months before, he had high hopes for her. But her enthusiasm, job interest, and energy had plummeted in recent weeks. Reubens couldn’t understand why.

Question: In the supervisor’s shoes what action, if any, would you take?

Dollinger’s suggestion : Plant Engineer Dan Dollinger was a wiz when it came to human relations. Maybe his boss had a suggestion. The executive listened as Reubens spelled out his concern.

“You’re on the right track,” Dollinger replied. “When someone’s attitude or performance starts flagging with no apparent explanation, it’s something to worry about.”

“But how do you pinpoint the problem?”

“If you’re lucky, by digging.”

“I tried that. I talked to her. I asked her if anything was bothering her. I inquired about her health. Her response was noncommittal.”

“I’m not surprised. People are often reluctant to confide their feelings. Does she have any close friends in the department?”

“Ann Colby and Beth Brown. She goes to lunch with them every day.”

Reubens confided in Beth who shared a cubicle with Ann and Myrna. Something might be bothering Myrna, he explained. He was trying to pinpoint the problem and correct it if possible.

Beth was reluctant to speak until Reubens assured her his intention was to help, not make trouble. When she finally spoke, he was stunned by her response.

The telephone, she explained, was accessible to all three clerical employees. But Beth was the most articulate. When a few messages had been garbled by Ann and Myrna, Reubens had mandated that in the future only Beth should answer the phone.

“Myrna was insulted by the order,” Beth said. “She took it personally.”

Reubens frowned. “It didn’t seem to affect Ann,” he said.

Beth shrugged. “I know. She couldn’t care less.”

He thanked Beth for her help, promptly reversed the instruction, and before long things were back to normal. The plant engineer smiled when informed of the outcome. “I’ve seen it time and again. The better you get to know your subordinate when a human relations problem rears its head, the better equipped you will be to solve it.”

Take care when issuing written reprimand

It happened four months ago. Maintenance Supervisor Craig Rodman was in a bind. An electrical storm had knocked out two power lines and delayed installation of equipment in the lab and Production. Other electrical trouble shooting and repair was also badly behind scheduled.

Rodman ordered three electricians, Paul Schrager, Al Robinson, and Edna Gruber, to put in seven hours of overtime on Saturday. Schrager and Gruber welcomed the extra work; Robinson turned it down. A family outing had been planned.

The supervisor refused to accept this excuse. “The job comes first,” he insisted.

“Not in my book,” Robinson insisted.

He didn’t show up for the overtime. When he clocked in on Monday, Rodman handed him a copy of an official reprimand which had been inserted in his personnel folder.

“This is unjustified,” he claimed, but made no further issue of it.

Five months later, when merit increase review time rolled around, Robinson’s name was omitted from the list. He appeared at Rodman’s desk to protest.

“My performance over the past period was as good as anyone on that list,” he complained, “and better than most.”

“Not in my opinion,” his boss replied.

Robinson threatened to file a grievance on the ground that he had been denied the increase in retaliation for his one-time refusal to work overtime. Rodman didn’t deny the allegation.

“Your refusal to work overtime when needed is an example of poor attitude and poor performance. You got what you deserve.”

Question: Was denial of the worker’s merit raise justified?

Berner’s decision : “Give him the increase,” Plant Engineer Sol Berner instructed Rodman. “Since Robinson’s work record has been flawless apart from the reprimand, his charge of retaliation could well stand up inasmuch as other employees have turned down overtime in the past without repercussions. Like any other form of discipline, a reprimand must be consistent to hold up and be effective.”

Pregnant on layoff: Do you have to recall her?

Maintenance Supervisor George Gilmore took the call at his desk.

“What’s going on?” Hilda Turner wanted to know. “I heard there’s a recall. Why wasn’t I notified?”

Turner, a machine repair person, had been laid off with a dozen or so other employees.

Gilmore admitted that there had been a layoff, but that he had been informed Hilda was pregnant and in her fifth or sixth month. “Is that true?”

“Yes it is. I’m in my fifth month. I can work at least through my seventh month, and I need the money.”

“I wish I could help you,” the supervisor said. “But we got in some new equipment recently. It doesn’t make sense to call you back. You’d be out of here before you became familiar with it.”

The employee refused to settle for that answer. “I’m sure there’s plenty of work that doesn’t affect the new equipment. According to the labor agreement I have the right of recall, especially since I’m pretty high up on the list.”

Gilmore persisted in his refusal. “If you decide to come back after giving birth to your baby, give me a call, and I’ll see what I can do.”

Hilda refused to back down and threatened to sue if she wasn’t called back.

Question: Does Hilda have a valid case if she follows through on her threat?

Bernhard’s verdict : “Call her back,” Plant Engineer Larry Bernhard instructed Gilmore. “For one thing, the record shows we have called back pregnant women in the past. For another, she’s right in pointing out that you would have more than enough work for her without assigning jobs that involve the new equipment. On top of that, it is regarded as discriminatory under federal law to set an arbitrary date for pregnant women to stop working.”

Seniority is no substitute for experience

Utility Worker Mike Mellin was one of three maintenance department employees who bid for a recently posted forklift operator job vacancy. Mellin was the most senior applicant of the trio. He had applied several months earlier for a forklift training course offered by the company, and was put on the “wait list” to receive it.

In bidding for the job, Mellin cited “a year’s prior experience with a past employer as his qualification for making the bid. He readily agreed to take a test designed to confirm his assertion of competency.

With a production manager, union official, and two supervisors on hand, Maintenance Foreman Gus Lapinsky, instructed Mellin to “hop on that forklift and load 20 of the boxes on that pile over there; then take them over to an empty bin two aisles over and unload them.”

“No problem,” the worker replied, and climbed onto the vehicle.

In fulfilling the instruction, Mellin came close to ramming a stack of cartons filled with merchandise before reaching the pile of boxes. Lapinsky hurried over to the vehicle.

“Okay, that’s it, Mike. Get down off the forklift; you don’t have the skill that is required.”

“Hey, give me a break,” Mellin snapped back. “I’m a little stale. An hour or two on the job, and I’ll be right up to snuff.”

“I’m sorry, Mike.”

“That’s not enough of a trial,” the union official interceded. “Let him finish the test.”

The foreman reluctantly relented. Mellin loaded the boxes with some difficulty, but it soon became apparent that whatever experience he had was limited. He was turned down for the job in favor of a less senior applicant.

“It’s a ripoff,” the worker protested. “A day or two on the job…”

“Sorry, Mike, the decision’s been made.”

An angered Mellin threatened to file a grievance.

Question: In view of the applicant’s seniority, does he deserve more of a chance?

Harper’s verdict : Plant Engineer Sam Harper supported the foreman’s decision. “Running a forklift can be dangerous work without proper and adequate training and experience. Mellin could hurt himself and others, not to mention the merchandise damage he could cause. The fact of his prior request for forklift training indicates his lack of know-how and experience. Where a safety factor is involved we can’t afford to take chances.”