Human side – 2004-10-10

By Raymond Dreyfack, Contributing Editor October 10, 2004

Anti-company behavior

Don’t sit for it

When Electrician Grade II George Miller was bypassed once again for promotion by Foreman Al Clement, he went ranting and raving all over the place.

“I got the seniority,” he groused, “and I got the experience. It’s a clear case of prejudice.”

“Against what?” a coworker asked him. “You’re 35 years old, and you’re not a minority member.”

“He’s prejudiced against me. He hates my guts.”

The coworker shrugged and moved on, shaking his head.

Miller didn’t intend taking his perceived abuse calmly. He’d get even with, not only his dumb boss, but with the whole darn crummy company. When he confided this intention to a crony, instead of sympathy, he got a piece of advice.

“If you hate this outfit so much why don’t you quit and get another job.”

“Nuts to that,” Miller retorted. “That’s what they want.”

The electrician launched himself on a crusade. He defamed his foreman as a prejudiced, incompetent idiot to anyone who would listen and berated the company’s top brass. Even that wasn’t enough. Customers occasionally came into the plant for service or parts. He grabbed every ear he could, advising customers they could get a better deal at a competitor across town.

One day an employee confided in Clement that Miller had been defaming him. The foreman tightened his lips. He had just about had it with

the guy. The last straw appeared when a customer called and reported that

the electrician was undermining the company.

“That does it,” he told Miller. “You’re gone.”

“We’ll see about that,” the worker replied.

Question: Is Miller’s behavior sufficient grounds for dismissal?

Turner’s response : “It certainly is,” Plant Engineer Ralph Turner told Clement, “with no ifs, ands, or buts. Grousing goes with the territory. But there’s a limit. Our boy Miller went a giant step too far.”

Restructuring is expected

Be sure to lay out a plan in advance

With the economy and industry in flux, the company held a high level meeting to determine what changes had to be made. Although the details were still to be spelled out, it was generally conceded that at least two plants would be shut down and two others merged into one.

Needless to say, the primary consideration centered on the effects of the changes on personnel in general and key personnel in particular.

“I hardly need to point out,” the plant manager said, “that our objective will be to hold on to as many of our good people as possible.”

Several heads nodded in assent.

“To ensure that goal,” Plant Engineer Mort Haber added thoughtfully, “a comprehensive plan will have to be laid out.”

“And the sooner the better,” Production Chief Ben Entin emphasized.

With this purpose in mind, the need to handle transfers efficiently was highlighted at a meeting.

Question: If you were a participant at this meeting, what stipulations would you deem most important?

Factors stipulated : The company’s high level planners came up with the following rundown of employee rights and restrictions. How many items can you add to this list?

  • In situations where the impact of the dislocation is minimal, a terminated employee with at least one year of seniority shall have the right to request a transfer. If the impact is significant, employees with three or more years of seniority shall be granted this right

  • Laid-off employees who are qualified for jobs at the new plant shall be offered employment before new workers are hired

  • Seniority will be a key factor in qualifying employees for transfer. Other factors shall include performance record, experience, training, and physical condition

  • Depending on prevailing conditions, management shall determine the acceptable time period during which an employee must give notice of intent to transfer

  • Refusal to accept transfer may result in a laid-off employee’s forfeiture of rights to reemployment

  • Employees who refuse transfer at the company’s election may be denied severance pay

  • A transferred employee’s wage rate shall be in line with the prevailing wage structure at the new location.

    • Can you ignore seniority and promote the fastest man to the job?

      When Electrician First Grade Sam Brewer opted for early retirement, Maintenance Supervisor Bill Albright smiled happily, viewing it as an opportunity to promote Electrician Second Grade Art Egan to fill his shoes. Brewer, 61, was a shade above mediocre. Art was a virtual whiz, the fastest man in the department. The switch should increase productivity significantly.

      When Albright made his intentions known, it didn’t take long for Electrician John Simpson to appear at his desk.

      “It’s not fair,” Simpson protested. “I have at least ten years more seniority than Egan.”

      “Seniority isn’t the only factor in deciding a promotion. Performance record is equally important. You’re a good man, John, and I value you as part of the crew. But Art is much better qualified for the Grade I slot.”

      Simpson, 58, was a steady conscientious employee. But Egan exceeded his work output by at least 30 percent.

      Simpson refused to be mollified. “I may not be as fast as Egan, but I can hold my own any day of the week. After all these years on the job, I’m entitled to a chance to get ahead.”

      When Albright refused to back down, the electrician threatened to sue on the basis of age discrimination.

      Question: In your opinion, does Simpson have a viable case?

      Harkin’s verdict : “Give Simpson a crack at the job,” Plant Engineer Mel Harkin instructed Albright. “If John follows through with his threat to sue, he’ll have a good chance of winning. That Art Egan is faster doesn’t rule him out as a contender. John is still a loyal and productive employee. Arbitrators tend to agree that the senior experienced and competent employee is entitled to a chance to prove himself. Art Egan will get his promotion, but he’ll have to be patient.”

      Can you promote a better qualified employee from outside the department?

      Few would argue that it is in management’s interest to assign the best-qualified employee when a key job opens up. This option usually satisfies everyone except for the less-qualified worker who is bypassed for the job.

      When Group Leader Frank Federer informed Maintenance Manager Alex Filmore that at age 62 he was opting for early retirement, his boss knew he had a tough decision on his hands. Federer’s assistant was 64 years old and scheduled to retire himself before long, which ruled him out.

      Running down the roster, Filmore wound up with only one possible candidate, John Borkowski, who could take over the job. But when the vacancy was posted, sure enough it was Borkowski who applied. The manager winced at the thought. Granted, a crew member for eight years, Borkowski had the experience. And from a technical standpoint he was competent. But that’s where his qualifications stopped cold. His attitude left much to be desired. On top of that, Borkowski was an abrasive individual who was disliked by his coworkers.

      Filmore set his brain wheels spinning. What alternatives did he have? Could he go outside the company? In this plant, that was frowned upon by management except as a last resort. What if he went, not outside the company, but outside the department? The name, Nat Marcus, sprung to mind, and prospects began to look brighter.

      Marcus was a smart young assistant group leader in Production. Hardworking, well liked, ambitious. An ideal replacement for Federer if Production Supervisor Al Kahn didn’t object to the raid.

      Kahn didn’t object, and Marcus was delighted. But not surprisingly, John Borkowski blew his top.

      “You can’t go outside the department,” he charged, “when one of your own people qualifies.” Borkowski threatened to sue.

      Question: Can Borkowski stop Filmore from assigning Marcus the job?

      Lee’s verdict : “Marcus gets the promotion,” Plant Engineer Tom Lee ruled when the problem was dumped in his lap, and suggested that the manager refer Borkowski to Clause 654 B in the labor agreement. “When a job vacancy occurs, if no departmental employee is sufficiently qualified, it may be filled from outside the department.”

      Lee smiled. “A handy clause to have around.”

      Off-time activity: Is it the company’s business?

      Group Leader Ed Hampton (all names disguised) was miffed, to understate his reaction. A conscientious hardworking supervisor, he put in his 40+ hours. What he did on his own time was his own business. Or was it?

      The problem was that Hampton was liberal to the core. Compared to him, the Reverand Al Sharpton was a conservative. Not that he had communist leanings. But the administration’s right wing leanings burned him to a near crisp.

      What put Ed at jeopardy was that he made his feelings known to anyone who would listen. Hampton was a prolific Letters To The Editor correspondent. He contacted Newsweek , Time , the local press, and anyone else likely to heed and publish his missives blasting the injustices being foisted by the administration on the country he loved.

      “You won’t win any popularity contests around here getting that stuff published,” his boss, Maintenance Foreman Joe Bishop, told him.

      Bishop had in mind the company’s CEO, top executives, and directors. Not only were they staunchly conservative, but regular contributors to the Republican National Party as well.

      Hampton asserted that he was conscience driven to speak his mind.

      One day Bishop got a hot-under-the-collar call from CEO Fred Kramer. “I just got off the phone with Travis Cole. He wants to know how a supervisor of this company can aggressively undermine his employer. Either Hampton stops sending those poison pen letters, or he’s out of here.” Kramer slammed down the phone.

      Cole was president of a key account. Hampton’s response when notified was equally hot under the collar. “What I do on my own time is my own business, so long as it’s legal.”

      Question: Can management dump Hampton if he refuses to cease and desist?

      Carlin’s response : When Bishop notified his boss of his call from the CEO, Plant Engineer Jeff Carlin informed him that no way could Hampton be fired for his anti-administration spoutings. I’ll have a talk with Mr. Kramer and see if I can straighten him out.”

      Can you bypass a dud for promotion?

      Maintenance Supervisor Frank Nichols told Charley Bean, his assistant, “Three guesses. Who do you think put in a bid for mechanic grade I?”

      “Beats me,” Charley said.

      “Joel Seaman.”

      “You have got to be kidding.”

      “Seaman’s the most uncooperative guy in the department. He wouldn’t work overtime if a key account depended on it, and he goofs off every chance he gets.”

      Seaman had been hired four years before as a mechanic grade II and grade II he remained. Nichols shook his head at the sheer nerve of the bid. “He’s the last guy I’d put in for promotion.”

      When he broke the news to Seaman in no uncertain terms that he was unqualified for the job, the worker complained to Max Roach, his unit representative. Roach went to bat for the disgruntled employee.

      “Seaman has the seniority,” he informed Nichols, “and he’s the next man in line. There’s no reason he shouldn’t get a crack at the job.”

      When the supervisor refused to back down, Roach threatened to grieve.

      Question: Is Nichols within his rights refusing Seaman the promotion?

      Turner’s response : “Give him a chance at the job,” Plant Engineer Fred Turner instructed the supervisor. “That he’s uncooperative and goofs off from time to time doesn’t mean he’s unqualified. Seaman’s problem is poor attitude and motivation, not incompetence. The promotion might change his attitude from negative to positive. Keep a sharp eye on him and record his performance and behavior. If they continue to be unacceptable, work up a case against him on that basis and you will be justified in firing him.”

      Who gets trained? What is fair when change takes place?

      When the management of a New England company decided to computerize certain plant operations, a memo was posted on the bulletin board. Included was the information that a comprehensive program was being planned to train qualified employees in the technical aspects of the transition, and to operate the equipment that would be installed.

      No sooner was the announcement posted then sacred cows started mooing all over the place.

      Sacred cows come in a variety of breeds. From the viewpoint of rank-and-file workers, no cow is more sacred than seniority. From management’s perspective, the most scared of cows when assigning employees is to select the best person for the job.

      The list of training program participants in the maintenance department was posted the next day. This precipitated a beeline of a half dozen disgruntled employees to Foreman Charley Griffen’s desk.

      Griffen didn’t have to be told what had triggered the onslaught.

      Cutting short the gripes, he explained that in compiling the list a number of factors were considered.

      “Baloney!” exploded one miffed employee. “The contract clearly states that the guy with the best seniority gets the preference.”

      “Not necessarily.”

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

      Question: Under what circumstances can seniority be held secondary in assigning personnel?

      Jeffer’s ruling : “The list stands as posted,” Plant Engineer Mike Jeffer informed Griffen when brought up to date on the threat. “Anyone who doesn’t like it can be referred to Clause 118 C of the labor agreement. ‘Management shall possess the sole and exclusive right to make training or assignment decisions in response to changes that occur in the manufacturing process.’ Case closed.”

      Can bulletin board be used as propaganda tool?

      One day Unit Delegate Art Crystal decided that management was exceeding its bonds, becoming too hard-nosed and restrictive. He had a point. The number of grievances had been increasing steadily.

      A couple of the shop stewards agreed. “The idea in a viable labor-management relationship,” said one, “is to talk over disputes amiably and try to settle them without arbitration.”

      “That’s not happening here,” replied Crystal. “We’ve got a bunch of grievances pending. It wouldn’t surprise me if they all went to arbitration with management being as stubborn and hard-nosed as ever.”

      “So what can we do?” asked a steward.

      “I think we should work up a list of all the grievances on the docket and post them on the bulletin board to give workers the lowdown about what’s going on around here and get the message through to management that’s its recalcitrance is breaking down morale and hurting the corporate image.”

      The others agreed, and the posting was put into effect.

      It didn’t take long for Maintenance Manager Harry Sullivan to object. “That posting,” he charged, “is in violation of the contract.”

      “No way!” Delegate Crystal replied.

      Question: Is Sullivan correct in his assertion?

      Bernard’s verdict : “The posting comes down,” Plant Engineer Charles Bernard ruled. “While the message is something for management to think about,” he told Sullivan, “you were right to object to the means. The bulletin board’s function is confined to union-related information and educational items. Union propaganda is outside these limitations. On top of that a clause states that posted notices must be submitted for approval to management.”

      Excessive absence: Where do you draw the line?

      Maintenance Supervisor John Bogue told Harry Vaughn, his assistant, “There’s got to be a limit.”

      Vaughn agreed. The reference was to Carl Demarest, a Grade II mechanic whose absenteeism had grown out of hand. Nor was Demarest the only one. The mechanic had plenty of company.

      “We have to take action,” Bogue declared.

      “Like what?” asked Vaughn.

      “I’ve been thinking. Maybe we should establish a ‘no excuses’ policy. Three absences, and that’s it. No excuses accepted after that.”

      “Sounds good,” Vaughn said, “but can we get away with it?”

      “I don’t know. Let’s run it past George and see.”

      In response to Bogue’s call, Plant Engineer George Spatz told them to drop by his office.

      Question: Can a longstanding policy under which employee absence excuses were routinely accepted be changed at management’s discretion?

      Spatz’s decision : The plant engineer frowned in response to Bogue’s proposal. “I like the idea,” he said, “but it’s not that easy. For one thing, exceptions would have to be made.”

      Bogue nodded. “Right. For absences caused by death in the family, jury service, emergencies, and that kind of thing.”

      Vaughn added, “And absence related to military service.”

      “Exactly,” Spatz replied. “And not to overlook carrots to balance the sticks, we could deduct one absence credit for each month of perfect attendance.”

      “Sounds good,” Bogue said.

      “Finally,” the executive concluded, “to ensure acceptance without too much of a hassle we would have to justify the tightened policy with written evidence showing the adverse effects of absenteeism on profits, productivity, and efficiency.”

      “I’d have no problem with that,” Bogue replied. “I can draw up a report.”

      “Okay,” Spatz agreed, “let’s try it.”

      Newly created job: How do you evaluate it?

      In response to the introduction of several new instruments to the lab and elsewhere within the past year, a new job classification, Special Instrument Mechanic, was announced. Bids were made for the job, and Joe Pffening won out, mostly on the basis of seniority.

      On June 3, Pffening started his 30-day probationary period. Twenty days later, Maintenance Foreman Pete Schiffo approached him with the bad news. “I’m sorry, Joe. I’m afraid you’re not going to make it.”

      Pffening looked stunned. “I think you have your dates mixed up. My probationary period still has 10 days to run.”

      “I know exactly how long it has to run,” Schiffo replied. “But it won’t take me another 10 days to know that this job isn’t for you.”

      “That’s not fair,” Pffening pro-tested. “Sure, I’m a little slow. Anyone would be. This is a completely new job with new and unfamiliar equipment. It takes time to get the hang of it. I can’t pick it up overnight. It doesn’t make sense to shoot for speed and risk damage at the outset. Give me the chance I’m entitled to.”

      “I’m sorry, Joe. I have enough experience as foreman to judge if a man’s going to make it or not. I need this job covered by a competent mechanic. Keeping you on those extra days would mean a loss of time and productivity.”

      Pffening persisted in his protest and rallied Phil Marcus, a unit representative, to his support.

      “You can’t cut the guy’s probationary period short,” Marcus argued. “This is a new job. Performance standards haven’t been set yet. You have no basis for judgment on whether Joe will make it or not.”

      Schiffo stuck to his guns. “My experience and instinct is basis enough.”

      Marcus replied, “In that case we’ll be lodging a grievance.”

      “Lodge away,” Schiffo said.

      Question: If Marcus follows through with his threat, how do you rate his chances of winning?

      Merkle’s response : Schiffo brought Plant Engineer George Merkle up to date on the controversy.

      “Let Pffening complete his probation. You can’t cut him short without established standards and a fair basis of comparison to go by. Your instincts are probably right, but without evidence to support them these guys could have a good case.”

      Military man reemployed at his own request?

      Ten years ago, Jeff Valdez found his machine repairman job at an automotive parts plant boring and enlisted in the Navy. But 10 yr was enough, he decided. He wanted to get back to his hometown. When Valdez requested and was granted a discharge, he returned home and showed up at the plant to reclaim his old job.

      His replacement, Maintenance Foreman Harry Richter, informed Valdez, “If you want to apply for a job, you’ll have to go through Personnel.”

      Valdez replied, “I’m not applying as a new hire. I’m getting back my old job.”

      “There are no vacancies in the department at present,” Richter said.

      The applicant refused to settle for that answer. “I’m a veteran,” he persisted. “You have to reemploy me. It’s the law.”

      Question: Is Valdez correct?

      Benson’s verdict : “Valdez has the veteran’s reemployment law all wrong,” Plant Engineer Floyd Benson said. “The law’s purpose was to accord the reemployment privilege to individuals who were called upon to interrupt their civilian careers in order to serve their country. It doesn’t apply to people who voluntarily opt to quit their jobs to seek a military career.”