Human Side – 2004-11-10

By Raymond Dreyfack, Contributing Editor November 10, 2004

Good people keep quitting

What can management do to address it?

Gazing at the latest Manpower Status Report on his desk, Maintenance Foreman Donald Fritchie was disturbed by the figures. Voluntary resignations of qualified employees during the past six months had exceeded the number of departmental discharges for cause or failure to satisfactorily complete the probationary period. More and more of the good guys were quitting, and they were getting tougher and tougher to replace.

Fritchie conceded he was not employed by a notoriously high paying plant. His own income was testimony of that. In fact, he himself had displayed recent interest in what the marketplace had to offer. Still, it wasn’t a bad company to work for. He had chalked up a lot of hard years and come a long way. He liked most of his associates, got along well with management, and had some good people working for him.

The problem was how to keep conscientious noses to the grindstone. If too many qualified employees copped out, departmental productivity would run down. Was his concern overstated? Fritchie decided to have a chat with his boss.

Question : In Plant Engineer Harry Klein’s place, how would you respond to Fritchie’s apprehension?

Klein’s response : “Great minds work the same tracks,” Fritchie’s boss replied when the foreman expressed his concern. Klein tapped the copy of the Manpower Status Report on his desk. “I’ve been mulling over the same figures.” He added, “I recall reading a Newsweek report on the subject. A worrisome number stands out in my mind. In the first quarter of 2004, a whopping 4.2 million people posted their resumes on Monster, the big online job board.”

Friechie blew out his cheeks. “So what do you make of it?”

The plant engineer’s somber gaze met his eyes. “It sort of sends out a message. We have to review our compensation policy. But that’s just one piece of the pie. We also have to take a harder look at the company’s image and employee morale, and respond more diligently where we can to individual desires and needs. Some companies throw in extra vacation days, or award special bonuses for outstanding performance and perfect longtime attendance. We have to review our training programs and employee-supervisor relationships. Most important, we’ll have to communicate more often and more effectively to pinpoint employee gripes and needs. I’ll have a talk with Human Relations. If we do this right, it should serve the bottom line as well.”

Key workers on layoff

Can you subcontract work?

Maintenance Supervisor Art Bowman and General Foreman Charley Rostoff agreed that it was apparent after last week’s snowstorm that Building Two’s roof was in need of repair. The problem was that both employees who normally would have been assigned the work were unavailable. Special Utility Man Burt Griffin was on vacation, and John Coach was out with the flu.

“What do you think we should do?” Bowman asked.

“I hate to postpone a job like this,” Rostoff replied. “I’ll get in touch with a contractor and see what kind of deal we can get.”

Rostoff called a couple of numbers, came up with a deal he liked, and made arrangements to subcontract the roof repair.

When the news reached the maintenance crew, Rostoff received a visit from an angry unit representative.

“That’s bargaining unit work,” he protested. “You can’t farm it out.” He pointed to a clause in the labor agreement supporting his contention.

“That may normally be correct,” the general foreman replied, “but with the qualified personnel unavailable we have no choice.”

The rep refused to settle for that and threatened a grievance.

Question : Does Rostoff have a right to farm out the repair job?

Gomez’s verdict : Plant Engineer Fred Gomez summoned Rostoff and Bowman to his office. “Let’s go have a look at that roof,” he suggested.

When this was done, Gomez said, “There’s no question that the roof is in need of repair. But I don’t see any emergency. I don’t think the plant will collapse by the time Griffin gets back from vacation and Coach recovers from the flu. Postpone the job and give it to our own people when they return. There isn’t a valid reason to consider this an emergency situation.”

Must a steward be paid for representation after hours?

Recently appointed Shop Steward George Makos worked the 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift. Assistant Steward Murray Flakowitz worked the 2-10 p.m. shift

Every Wednesday at 1 p.m. a union-management meeting was scheduled to review current cases, grievances, and other matters. For the first time Makos was present at this meeting to represent the maintenance department. The session went well. Pressing problems were solved. At meeting’s end, Makos shook hands with Maintenance Foreman Arthur Shultz and Plant Engineer Richard Wang. Wang congratulated Makos on the way he had conducted himself.

The following Tuesday after paychecks were handed out Makos appeared at Shultz’s desk.

The foreman grinned, “Hey, that meeting went well. What can I do for you, George?”

“You can get Payroll to pay me for the two hours overtime I’ve been shorted on my check.”

“What two hours?”

“My shift ends at three. I hung around for that meeting.”

“That’s not how it works. Your shift ends at three; you don’t get overtime for voluntarily hanging around.”

“That’s my job. My responsibility is to represent the union’s interests.”

Flakowitz shrugged. “Your predecessor always filled in on his own. If you feel you should be paid for the time, you can put in a chit to the union.”

Makos refused to settle for that explanation.

Question : Should Makos be paid for the two extra hours?

Wang’s decision : “Technically, we may be able to beat Makos out of the time,” Plant Engineer Dick Wang told Shultz. “But considering the goodwill and morale aspect it hardly pays for a crummy two hours a week. Pay him the overtime.”

Is litigation getting you down?

Forget technicalities. Set aside right and wrong considerations. Let’s talk about corporate image and morale. Let’s talk about productivity.

These thoughts ran through Plant Engineer Ernie Froelich’s head when Maintenance Supervisor Al Chernoff came to him with Frank Molino’s gripe and veiled threat to sue the company.

Molino, a carpenter, had been promised six hours overtime if he worked on Saturday. He had finished the job in four hours. When he received his paycheck the following Tuesday he griped that he had been underpaid.

“How do you figure that,” Chernoff asked.

“I was only paid for four hours.”

“That’s all you worked. We’re not running a charitable institution here.”

“You promised me six hours. I never would have come in if I’d known it was only four hours.”

Chernoff shrugged. “You win some, you lose some.”

“We’ll see about that,” Molino snapped.

Question : Is Molino entitled to the extra two hours pay?

Froelich’s decision : “Give him the two hours,” the plant engineer instructed Chernoff. “Sometimes it costs more to adhere to technicalities than to dismiss them. According to the Labor Department, American companies spend more than $2 billion a year litigating overtime disputes. Often as not, even when you win you lose. For a lousy two hours overtime it doesn’t pay to lose a good man’s good will.”

Take care when checking up on job applicants

Chief Engineer Mark Wilson asked, “Well, Don, what did you think of the applicant?” The question was addressed to Project Leader Don Aronson who had just finished interviewing a young engineer for a staff job.

“He’s an affable guy and seems to have the qualifications we’re looking for. His references look good, but these days you can never be sure. I’d like to do a background check on him.”

“Good idea. Better safe than sorry.”

“I’ll put in a request for the agency to run a consumer report.”

“That’ll do it. Is he still in the office?”

Aronson nodded. “I told him to hang around until I cleared it with you.”

“Fine, then go ahead. Just one thing: Did you inform him you were going to run the report?”

“Well, no. Do I have to tell him I’m doing it?”

Wilson shook his head. “Absolutely.”

Question : In the Chief’s place, what else would you tell the project leader?

Wilson’s response : Don, not only must you tell him, but you have to do it in writing. And what’s more, you have to get his authorization as well, and this too must be in writing. Finally, you have to inform the agency you complied with Fair Credit Reporting Act requirements, that you plan to use the information for employment purposes, and that you will not use it in any way that violates state or federal equal opportunity laws.”

Is monitoring e-mail an invasion of policy?

Maintenance Supervisor Al Gleister told Carpenter Grade II Henry Richter, “I don’t want to make a big deal of this, but not only are you sending too many e-mail messages that have nothing to do with your job, some of your language is offensive as well.”

The carpenter was issued a written warning that continued violation of e-mail use would result in disciplinary action.

Richter tightened his lips, at a loss as to what to reply. He made a beeline for Charley Corcoran’s workstation.

The angry unit rep was at no such loss when he appeared at Gleister’s desk 15 minutes later.

“Management has no right to snoop into personal messages exchanged by plant employees.”

“The proper word isn’t snoop; it’s monitor. For your information, management has every right to keep track of how employees are using the company’s computers on company time.”

Although the machine parts manufacturing plant monitored e-mail use on a regular basis, it had long had a liberal policy in this regard.

“Henry Richter does a good job,” Corcoran persisted. “He has a satisfactory performance rating. Reprimanding him for sending occasional e-mail messages is an invasion of privacy.”

When Gleister disagreed, the unit rep threatened a grievance.

Question : Is Corcoran within his rights to protest the supervisor’s reprimand?

Dobbs’s response : “It’s about time we clamped down on e-mail use around here,” Plant Engineer Greg Dobbs told Gleister. “We wished this problem on ourselves by not having a published policy that spells out what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. We have to get across to employees that computers are installed for business — not personal — use. We also have to make it clear that offensive language is verboten. And employees should be made to know that e-mail is not private but is open to company scrutiny. I’ll talk to Human Relations about getting to work on an official policy. If workers don’t abide by the rules we’ll have to employ disciplinary measures that we were reluctant to use in the past.”

Is lying grounds for dismissal?

Electrician Class II Harvey Richman didn’t show up for work and failed to call in. Work was piled up and Maintenance Foreman Tony Gentoso didn’t get around to calling his home until 11 a.m.

“I got a toothache,” Richman complained. “I have to go to the dentist.”

“I’m sorry to hear about that, but when you can’t report to work it’s your responsibility to call in so we can make scheduling adjustments.”

“I know, but I’m in a lot of pain. I didn’t think about it.”

“Okay, go take care of your tooth.”

Richman had a satisfactory performance rating, but he had lied in the past and Gentoso didn’t trust him. He asked a coworker who was close to the electrician, “Do you know who Richman’s dentist is?”

“Yeah. Dr. Anderson is out by the Turnpike.”

Three o’clock that afternoon Gentoso called the dentist.

“Is Harvey Richman there?”


“Has he been there earlier?”

Another negative.

The next morning Gentoso confronted Richman who admitted he had lied. “I had some personal stuff to attend to.”

“That’s it, Richman; you’ve had it.”

He handed the electrician a discharge notice. Richman promptly threatened to sue.

Question : Do you think Richman’s dismissal was warranted?

Dunlap’s response : The first thing Plant Engineer Ron Dunlap asked when handed the discharge to approve was, “Was Richman given adequate warning that his behavior might result in termination?”

“Not specifically,” Gentoso said, “but he had been caught lying in the past and was reprimanded for it.”

” ‘Specifically’ is an important word,” Dunlap said. “You can’t fire a man without building up to it with progressive written warnings and discipline. Reduce the penalty to a week’s suspension. Then issue a final warning with the prospect of dismissal if it happens again.”

Is refusal to risk icy conditions grounds for dismissal?

It was snowing again with the weather expected to worsen as the day progressed. The roads were turning slick and icy.

There was a backlog of projects in general and carpentry work in particular in the maintenance department. Of three carpenters on the roster, one had clocked in, one was out with the flu, and John Nevin, the third man, telephoned that he wasn’t coming in because of the weather.

“That’s unacceptable,” Maintenance Supervisor George Marcus replied peevishly. “Every time it snows you opt out. The department’s in a bind. Bill Malen made it, and he lives further from the plant than you do. There’s no reason you can’t make it as well.”

“Bill’s 35 yr old; he has a heavy vehicle with four-wheel drive. I’m 64 and I drive a light two-door Chevy.”

“That’s no excuse. If you drive carefully and take your time.”

“I’m sorry, George. Coming to work in this weather could make a nervous wreck out of me.”

“Trying to get the workload of three men done with only one could make a nervous wreck out of me. If you can’t carry your share, I’ll find someone who can.”

“I’m sorry. I’m not risking my life.”

Marcus hung up on him and issued a termination notice.

Question : Is Nevin’s refusal to brave the snowstorm sufficient grounds for dismissal?

Reynold’s decision : Plant Engineer Tom Reynold tore up the dismissal slip when it was handed to him for approval.

“You’re making a mountain out of a molehill,” he told Marcus. “Nevin lives a half hour away from the plant. If you need him that badly, dispatch Mike in the pickup to get him and drive him home at shift’s end.”

Employee threatened becomes threatener

Stockman Wade Handler was moving a skidload of parts down an aisle when his path was blocked by Utility Worker George Duke who was repairing a sweeper unit in the aisle.

“How about moving it so I can pass?” Handler demanded.

“Hold your water. I’ll move when I’m finished. If you’re in such a hurry, go around the other way.”

Angered by the reply, Handler used harsher language, which drew more of the same from the utility man.

Handler, a big man with a hot temper, advanced toward Duke. “Move your butt, or I’ll kick it across the plant.”

Frightened by the threat, Duke pulled out a pocket knife about four inches long, and snapped it open.

“Hit me, and I’ll cut you.”

Jack Boros, a group leader, appeared, before the incident could explode into violence. “Ditch that knife,” he ordered. “What the heck is going on here?”

Handler decided to cool it. “Nothing much. Just a small disagreement.”

“It doesn’t look that way to me,” Boros replied.

Duke folded the pocket knife. He explained what had happened. “He threatened me. I pulled the knife to defend myself.”

Handler didn’t deny it. “I only wanted to scare him,” he said.

Boros reported the incident to his boss, Maintenance Foreman Pete Rizzo, who wrote up a 5-day suspension and brought it to his boss for approval. Duke protested the discipline.

Question : Do you think the suspension is justified?

Ronson’s decision : Plant Engineer Al Ronson instructed Rizzo to withdraw the suspension and issue written reprimands to both men instead. “For one thing, since Handler provoked Duke’s response with the threat, Duke wasn’t the aggressor. For another, a small penknife isn’t exactly a lethal weapon. Had an assault actually occurred, it might have had a different outcome.”

Management misassigns overtime

The ways of management are unfathomable at times. It was 5:45 p.m. The quitting buzzer had sounded 45 minutes ago. But Carpenter Grade II Jerry Lloyd was still working. Well, not exactly working.

He was finding things to do: Straightening out a couple of bins, putting items back in place on shelves, sorting some of the stock. Mostly make-work chores. But Lloyd had no complaints. He liked the overtime.

Overtime for make-work? The carpenter didn’t understand it; but he didn’t question it either.

However, Maintenance Supervisor Joe Denning did. Passing by on his way out, he spied Lloyd rearranging a shelf. “What are you doing here? The buzzer sounded 45 minutes ago.”

“I know. I’m responding to an overtime assignment notice. Three hours. Here it is.”

Lloyd reached into his pocket and produced the sheet of paper. Denning’s eyes skimmed over it.

The supervisor made a wry face. “This is an obvious computer error,” he said. “The notice was probably meant for Frank Lloyd in the lab.”

The worker shrugged. “I get a notice, I show up for the work.”

Denning tried to hide his irritation. “Well, you can take off now. You’ll get paid for the time you put in.”

“No way,” Lloyd protested. “The notice said three hours. I had to cancel my bowling game because of overtime.”

Denning insisted that he clock out. Lloyd said, “You’re the boss. But I’m going to get paid for that overtime.”

Question : Can the carpenter succeed in getting three hours overtime?

Tuttle’s decision : “Pay him for the three hours,” Plant Engineer Jack Tuttle said. “The company swallows the cost of the computer error. The mistake is management’s responsibility.”