Human Side – 2004-12-10

By Raymond Dreyfack, Contributing Editor December 10, 2004

Monitoring your people

How far should you go?

Maintenance Foreman Jim Davis glanced at his wrist. The Valentine jig construction job should have been done by now. Ralph Perkins was running late. It wasn’t the first time.

Davis picked up the phone and called Section B. The phone rang four times before someone answered.

“Let me talk to Perkins.”

There was a hesitation. “I don’t see him around.”

“Darn it! He’s supposed to be constructing a jig.”

Davis slammed down the phone and took off for the other wing. The jig was still incomplete, and the carpenter was nowhere in sight. He showed up five minutes later.

“This was supposed to be a rush job,” Davis barked. “Where were you for the past half hour?”

“I had to go to the bathroom. A guy’s entitled…”

“Well get cracking. You’re holding up the works.”

Perkins was notorious for holding up the works, and he wasn’t the only one. ‘Had to go to the john’ was the usual excuse. Translation: he had taken off for a smoke, had grabbed an illicit cup of coffee, or was simply gabbing around the water cooler.

It set Davis to thinking about the ad he had seen from a “mobile services” company touting a product that tracks employees’ whereabouts on the job.

A monitoring gizmo like that, the foreman reasoned, would let him keep tabs on goof-offs like Perkins and make sure they kept their noses to the grindstone. Davis decided to suggest the idea to Plant Engineer Ralph Belinksy and get the company to look into it.

Question : In Belinksky’s shoes, what would you tell Davis?

Belinsky’s response : “Jim,” the plant engineer replied, “your idea may make some kind of sense. But I’d rather stick with Emerson who wrote, ‘Trust men, and they will be true to you.’ Tracking employees like you suggest would invade their ‘locational privacy’ and would probably cause more harm than good. It would tell the workforce that the company doesn’t trust them and trigger justifiable resentment among the crew, most of whom are conscientious. Frustrating as it may be, I’m afraid you’ll have to monitor the bad apples by more conventional means and crack down on an individual basis.”

Employee on sick leave

How long should seniority accrue?

Sick leave typically runs a few weeks or months. But in some circumstances, it can last longer, much longer. If such is the case, should the employee’s seniority extend as long as his illness, or be cut short at some point, and if cut short, after how long?

Complicating the seniority accrual decision further is the question of what caused the illness or injury. Was it work related, sustained on the job, or did the leave result from nonoccupational, or personal, illness?

In a Denver machine parts plant, the respiratory illness of Maintenance Department tool room attendant Martha Goldmark progressed from bronchitis into pneumonia and ultimately resulted in a leave of absence that lasted 14 months.

When Goldmark finally returned to work with a medical okay, she was dismayed to learn that her seniority entitlement had been cut eight months shorter than she had expected it to be.

Goldmark headed for her boss’s desk.

After checking into the situation, Maintenance Supervisor Nick Polasky informed her that six months was all she was entitled to.

The attendant insisted there had to be a mistake.

Question : What gave the company the right to cut Goldmark’s seniority eight months?

Dunlap’s response : Plant Engineer Chester Dunlap instructed Polasky to send the attendant to his office.

“Unless a disability is job related,” Dunlap explained, “it is unreasonable to continue seniority indefinitely while the person is on leave. If you check Clause 672B of the labor agreement, you will note that while a job-related disability provides for accumulated seniority for as long as two years, if the illness is not job-related, it accrues for a maximum of six months.”

Can a male employee be required to cut his hair?

It’s a free country, right? Maintenance Department Mechanic Alex Santanya wasn’t so sure. How free was it if the company could order an employee to cut his hair and restrain him from wearing his favorite earrings?

The issue exploded the day Richard Bentley, the company’s sales vice president, conducted a prospective customer on a tour of the plant. After passing by Santanya’s workstation, the customer whispered an aside to the executive. “Do you have many weirdos like that guy working here?”

The allusion was obvious. Few, if any, women in the plant wore their hair as long as Santanya, or for that matter, sported larger or more ornate earrings.

Embarrassed, Bentley shrugged. “If he wasn’t doing a good job, he wouldn’t be employed here.”

The customer brushed off the reply. “Only kidding,” he said.

Nonetheless, the executive took it to heart and reported it to Santanya’s boss, Maintenance Manager John Sussman.

“For God’s sake, get the man to cut his hair and get rid of those ear rings. He’s spoiling the company image.”

Sussman made a beeline to Plant Engineer Bill Romano with the sales executive’s request in mind.

Questions : Can Santanya be required to cut his hair and discard the garish earrings?

Romano’s decision : After pondering the situation, Romano summoned Santanya to his office and brought him up to date on the customer’s comment and the sales executive’s reaction.

“Customers are the lifeblood of this business and any business,” Romano told the mechanic. “Mr. Bentley is understandably concerned about the company’s image. Alex, I respect your right to dress as you please. So I’m going to allow you to choose between cutting your hair and disposing of the earrings, or transferring to the Gates Avenue plant across town where no customers visit.”

It was no secret that the main plant was the most desirable facility in which to work. Santanya showed up to work next day with his hair a more reasonable length, and the earrings gone. He had been given a choice. It was a free country after all.

Just the man for the job

When Senior Electrician Greg Kennedy resigned to go into business with his brother, the vacancy was posted on the bulletin board. Four junior electricians put in for the job.

Maintenance Foreman Chuck Winkler reviewed the applicants’ records with Harry Munroe, his assistant. Two were quickly eliminated. No way would they make the grade.

That left 63-yr-old Cyrus MacDonald, a qualified electrician who had chalked up more than 30 years on the job.

MacDonald was qualified, but neither brilliant nor exceptional.

This was in sharp contrast with the remaining applicant, 32-yr-old Tom Torgeson who, regardless of his status as junior electrician, was one of the bright stars in the plant and as productive as any senior on the roster.

“If anyone deserves a promotion, it’s Tom,” Winkler told Munroe.

His assistant agreed. “Tom’s just the man for the job.”

Not surprisingly, MacDonald disagreed vehemently. “I’m long overdue for promotion,” he groused, “and I’m in line for the job.”

Winkler tried to dissuade him by comparing his and Torgeson’s performance records for the past six months.

“That doesn’t matter,” the electrician insisted. “I’m entitled to a crack at the job in line with the company’s stated promotion policy.”

MacDonald threatened to sue if he wasn’t given a chance.

Question : Must Winkler bypass the superior performer in favor of the older man?

Given’s decision : “The job goes to MacDonald,” Plant Engineer Ben Given ruled. “Company policy calls for giving a promotion to the employee with the greatest length of service so long as he is qualified to the job. Cyrus fills the bill in this case. It would be wrong to disregard policy because you feel the other man is better qualified.”

Take advantage of powerful human relations tool

Plant Engineer Harold Morris summoned Maintenance Supervisor Frank Fergusen to his office. Fergusen eyed the Quarterly Turnover Report on his desk apprehensively, suspecting why he had been called. His suspicions were quickly validated.

“Frank, three voluntary resignations in the past three months, all well-rated employees. What’s going on?”

Fergusen flatly admitted, “I wish I knew.”

Morris asked, “Were these three employees given exit interviews?”

“Two of them were. The third guy, George Miller, refused to be interviewed.”

The plant engineer asked, “What did you learn from the two quits who were interviewed?”

“Very little. Both told me they had resigned to accept better offers from other employers. A standard response.”

“So you conducted the interviews yourself. Did you believe them? Do you think they told you the real reason?”

Fergusen shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Probably not. There’s no way of knowing.”

“Thanks, Frank. I’ll do a bit of snooping on my own, and get back to you.”

Morris talked with two supervisors and other key employees. The next day he summoned Fergusen to his office again.

Question : Hazard a guess. What do you think Morris might have told the supervisor?

Plant engineer’s response : “Frank,” the plant engineer said, “exit interviews help pinpoint trouble spots and identify trends. It can be a powerful human relations tool, but only if properly used. For one thing, care must be taken to create an environment that doesn’t inhibit or intimidate the employee. From what I could gather, the employees who quit probably did so because they were unhappy with the way they were treated, one by you. He felt you unfairly bypassed him for promotion. The other two couldn’t get along with your assistant whom they found to be dismissive of their needs.

“Many experts feel an HR person or other manager should conduct exit interviews and that the person’s direct supervisor shouldn’t even be present. The trick is to create an atmosphere that encourages the employee to disclose his real reason for leaving.”

Fergusen was nodding thoughtfully. “I think I get the message.”

Should you take steps to postpone an employee’s jury duty?

When Instrument Mechanic Joe Molinaro, age 58, heard he was selected for jury duty, anyone would think he had won the Pulitzer Prize.

“It’s the first time I was ever called,” he crowed. “I was beginning to think there was something wrong with me.”

Joe’s boss, Maintenance Foreman Rudy Chen, didn’t share in his enthusiasm. With two men out sick and one on vacation, the crew was badly shorthanded. Joe’s good news was like a kick in the stomach.

“We’ll have to see about that,” he said darkly.

Molinaro gave him a look. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he snapped. “I’m going to serve. It’s the law.”

Question : How do you feel about Joe’s attitude with his department in a bind?

Kulick’s response : Chen hotly dumped his problem on his boss’s desk.

“The guy refuses to cooperate. Considering the bind the department is in, I’m sure that if I telephone the judge, he will grant Joe a postponement.”

“You’re probably right,” Plant Engineer Mark Kulick replied, but his first suggestion to Chen was that he relax and calm down.

“People can be mighty sensitive when it comes to things like serving on jury duty. Especially if the boss tries to take over. Instead of your calling the judge, try appealing to Joe’s sense of reason and good will as a member of the team. Make sure he understands the bind you are in. Then make it equally clear that getting the postponement is Joe’s decision, not yours. Winning his cooperation might be a lot easier that way.”

How much leave should an employee be granted?

Don Redlich, a supervisor in the plant engineering department, was conscientious, hardworking, and ambitious. He was always reading books and taking courses via the Internet and by mail.

One day, Redlich approached his boss’s desk with an anxious look on his face. He was unable to complete a course he had signed up for because he didn’t have enough time to study for it.

“A three-month leave of absence would help me get the work done.”

Glassner, who ran a tight ship, frowned. “I wish I could accommodate you. But you’re a key man in the department, and things are tight around here.”

Redlich’s frown deepened. “I shelled out a lot of cash for that course. I’d hate to see it go down the drain.”

The manager sighed. “Can you get by with two months?”

Redlich nodded. “Yeah, I’d be busting a gut, but I think I can make it.”

It took some fancy shifting to cover for the supervisor in his absence, but Glassner relented and okayed the two-month leave.

Thing proceeded smoothly for four months or so, but at that time, Redlich appeared at his boss’s desk again with that familiar look of anxiety on his face.

“I need a four-week leave of absence.”

His father, he explained, had decided to go overboard on a Mediterranean cruise for the family.

“Forget about it,” Glassner snapped, “there’s no way I can do it.”

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

When the supervisor was adamant, Redlich decided to appeal to a higher authority.

Question : In Plant Engineer Larry Foster’s place, what would you tell Redlich?

Foster’s response : The plant engineer’s reply was short and sweet. “Sorry, Don, I’d like to oblige you. But if you’ll check page 284 in the labor agreement, you’ll understand why I can’t do it.” He displayed the clause in question for Redlich to read: ‘Under no circumstances will an employee be granted more than a single leave of absence within a one-year period.'”

A dismissible employee who’s competent

What to do when a qualified worker you want to fire insists he’s overdue for a raise? One alternative is to tear your hair out. But that option didn’t appeal to Maintenance Manager Harry Richfield.

Yet even Richfield would have had to admit Senior Maintenance Mechanic Charley Evers was a qualified mechanic. However, that didn’t make him a qualified human being. To characterize him euphemistically, the guy was obnoxious. If the vote were for most hated man in the company, Evers would have won hands down.

Evers groused to Richfield that he hadn’t been put in for a raise because Richfield was prejudiced against him.

Richfield decided to dump the problem in Plant Engineer Frank Keller’s lap.

Question : In Keller’s shoes how would you solve Richfield’s dilemma?

Keller’s response : The following day, Keller said, “Evers didn’t show up for work today, did he?”


“Good riddance. He’s out of here.”

Richfield’s jaw dropped. “How?”

“I made him an offer he couldn’t turn down,” Keller said. “Severance pay can be a valuable tool in situations when it is otherwise awkward to get rid of a spoiler.”