Human side – 2005-08-01

By Raymond Dreyfack, Contributing Editor August 1, 2005

When promoted, how long does past seniority last?

Bill Chernoff had been a hardworking and conscientious member of Tony Royal’s work group for more than three years. It was thus no surprise when, upon Tony’s retirement, Maintenance Supervisor Arthur Sondheim, appointed Bill to take over the group.

At the outset Bill was happy to receive the promotion and especially pleased with the pay raise that went with it. At least that’s what he told himself. His ego was boosted when friends and associates, and his wife in particular, congratulated him on his career advancement.

But it is not unusual when life’s fortunes turn positive to have a negative element or two thrown in. In time Bill faced the reality that while he enjoyed the recognition and status that went with his new job, he didn’t like the job itself. For one thing, he was uncomfortable giving orders. For another, he was advised by Sondheim to keep a discreet distance from his subordinates — in short, stop going to lunch with them and chumming it up during work breaks. He missed the bunch of fellow workers he had long looked upon as his buddies.

When Bill confided his feelings to his wife, Sophie was sympathetic and understanding. “If that’s how you feel about it, tell Arthur you want your old job back. We got along before; we’ll get along again.”

Bill’s face brightened. Next day he approached his boss with a request to appoint someone else to group leader and return him to his old job.

Sondheim advised him to think twice about his decision.

“I already thought more than twice.”

The supervisor shrugged. “If that’s the way you want it. By the way, you realize your seniority will have to start from scratch again.”

Bill was surprised. “That’s a rip off,” he complained. “I’ll see about that.”

Question: Is Bill being ripped off as he alleges?

Burnside’s Verdict : When Bill beefed to Edgar Burnside, the plant engineer confirmed Sondheim’s information. “Check the contract,” he advised the employee. “A clause in the contract states that when an employee is promoted or transferred, his former job classification ranking will cease to exist after three months. You are four months gone out of there.”

When work rules slow down productivity

It happened in an Ohio manufacturing plant. A top-level management meeting was in progress. The subject: Productivity. The key question was expressed by the company’s CEO: “Why, despite our push to tighten staff and improve performance is productivity and our bottom line continuing to shrink? I’d like to know the reason and what we can do about it.”

The pronouncement was met by an embarrassed silence from the nine executives around the conference table.

The CEO’s lips tightened. The silence continued.

Finally, Plant Engineer Chet Weinstein ventured a comment. “Maybe we’ve been pushing too hard.”

The CEO frowned. “What is that supposed to mean?”

Weinstein pulled in a breath. “I’ve been wondering from what I hear from John Morrow, a buddy of mine with Superior Products, Inc. across town, why productivity appears to be improving for Superior while it’s going downhill here. The two plants are approximately the same size. The product lines aren’t all that different. The wage level’s comparable. Yet Superior seems to be doing much better. Why?”

“Good question,” the CEO replied.

Weinstein said, “I’ll go have a talk with John. Maybe I can pick up an idea or two that accounts for the difference.”

Question: Can you guess what Weinstein’s inquiry might yield?

Weinstein’s Findings : At a second meeting two days later the plant engineer took the floor.

“In a nutshell,” he said, “my thought about our pushing too hard may have some validity. I’ve been talking to some of our people. A common complaint is that they’re being pressured by work overload. John tells me that’s no problem at Superior which might explain why turnover there is minimal, and here it’s excessive. Same thing for absenteeism. Another gripe is that the rules here are too rigid, while at Superior flexibility in general and flextime in particular is more the rule than exception.

“To sum it up, my guess is that Superior bends over backwards to achieve good work/life balance, while here we pay it scant attention.”

More than one managerial head nodded agreement.

“That certainly gives us something to think about,” the CEO said.

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Evaluate training when looking at performance

First, in an effort to improve productivity among mechanics in the maintenance department, time estimates were set up for each job assigned. Next, in order to evaluate performance, a comparative judgment was made periodically by Maintenance Foreman Edgar Blount and his assistant of the department’s eight mechanics. Based on this assessment Maintenance Mechanic Grade II Alan Tarnoff was returned to his old lesser classification when, after nine weeks on the job he was unable to measure up to other employees in the group.

Tarnoff protested his demotion on the grounds that, for one thing, the performance standard was unfair, and for another, he hadn’t been given enough of a chance to make good.

When Blount disagreed, the mechanic threatened to grieve.

The foreman shrugged.

Question: If Tarnoff follows through on his threat, hazard a guess what his chance of winning will be?

Gellman’s Ruling : The first question Plant Engineer Arnold Gellman asked Blount was, “In addition to evaluating Alan’s productivity, did you assess the quality of the training Tarnoff received to prepare him to qualify?”

When the foreman admitted he had not, Gellman instructed him to reinstate Tarnoff to his Mechanic II rating. “Not only was his training in question,” he said, “but it’s not fair to compare the work of a relatively inexperienced man with the work being done by employees with much more experience. I would suggest that first, you give Tarnoff some guidance in an effort to help him qualify and after that more of a chance to make good.”

How long does a probationary period last?

When Jeff Tarnapol applied for a job in a Connecticut auto parts plant, he was offered employment and placed on probation for 30 days. After three weeks he developed a severe cold. Maintenance Foreman Ed Glassner advised him to take off and return to work when he felt better.

In the meantime Glassner sat down with John Weld, his assistant, to review Jeff’s performance thus far.

“What do you think?” he asked Weld.

His assistant shrugged. “I think there’s a chance he might make it, but I can’t say for sure.”

Jeff returned to work eight days later.

After two weeks passed Glassner again consulted with his assistant to get a reading of Jeff.

“I’m still not sure,” Weld replied. “I’d like to check in another week or so.”

The next day Jeff appeared at Glassner’s desk. “How come I wasn’t placed on seniority and notified that I passed my probationary period. I put in more than the required 30 days.”

“I’ll let you know in a week or so.”

Jeff was disgruntled but tried not to show it. A week later he was discharged.

“I’m not sitting still for this,” he complained.

Question: Do you think Jeff has a valid complaint?

Mellnor’s Response : “Jeff’s probationary period had to be extended,” Plant Engineer Clint Mellnor, told Glassner. “If he questions it further, show him Clause 1583 in the labor agreement that defines the probationary period as 30 days of continuous employment.”

A handy clause to have on hand.

Pay frequency change a right of management

“You can’t make that decision unilaterally!” Union Delegate Lewis Grissom charged angrily. Grissom was referring to the company’s recently posted announcement that effective the following month a switch would be made from weekly to biweekly pay periods.

Plant Engineer Harry Roth disagreed. “Management is entitled to make any change it wishes if it is economically feasible and doesn’t impinge on the rights of the workforce as spelled out in the labor agreement.”

“It can’t alter a system that’s been in existence for years,” the union official insisted.

“Not only can it make the change, it is obligated to do so. Management has a responsibility to its stockholders and employees to take any action it decides upon to improve the company’s bottom line performance.”

“Do me a favor,” Grissom asked. “Check it out with Natalie Goldmark.”

Roth agreed to do so and got the company’s labor attorney on the line.

Question: Does the union have a legitimate gripe?

Goldmark’s Response : The lawyer backed the plant engineer’s stand. “For one thing,” she said, “pay frequency isn’t mentioned in the contract; thus there is no conflict with contract terms. For another thing, because a weekly pay period was in existence for years doesn’t automatically assume it is written in stone. Finally, the issue was never raised in the past. ‘Mute acquiescence’ does not establish a binding past practice.”

Grissom said, “Well, that shuts me up. We’ll have to settle for the biweekly pay period.”

Note: The example cited above pertains to this particular set of facts. Where any doubt exists, the counsel of a professional attorney should always be sought.

When on company email, watch your opinions

Maintenance Supervisor Chris Darvan, having been summoned to Plant Engineer Roy Rockford’s office, found his boss rip-roaring mad. Rockford, an email in hand, was shaking his head in disbelief.

“How in the world could you have sent a message like this?”

Darvan lowered his eyes. It had slipped his mind that email transmissions were monitored.

The email in question was in response to Bud Maxwell’s inquiry. Maxwell, a close friend, and a supervisor in a plant across town, had been approached by Jerome Shea, in search of a job. Shea, fired by Darvan three months before, had submitted his previous employer’s name as a reference. In no uncertain terms Darvan emailed Maxwell his opinion.

An excerpt read as follows: “Dumping that low-grade moron was the best move I ever made. I wouldn’t recommend that productivity killer for a dishwasher’s job.”

“It was my honest opinion,” Darvan said sheepishly. “I was just trying to steer a buddy clear of that dud.”

“Via email for Pete’s sake! If Shea got his hands on this he could sue us for a million dollars.”

Question: Is Rockford, in calling Darvan on the carpet, overstating the importance of his transmission?

The Decision : “I wasn’t kidding about a million dollar lawsuit,” Rockford told the supervisor. He pulled open a desk drawer and extracted a recent newspaper clipping. It described a $965,000 award won by a 63-year-old Dallas woman who sued when a fast food chain manager stated in an email that she was “a lazy cowhand in the saddle too long.”

Darvan, having gotten the message, blew out his cheeks. Lesson of the day: In sending email, you can’t be too careful these days.

Employee’s lie leads to discharge

One February day Maintenance Department Utility Worker Frank Mitchell requested a three-day leave to visit his mother in Chicago who was seriously ill. Maintenance Supervisor Charley Schwartz readily acquiesced.

When Mitchell returned Schwartz asked him how his mother was doing.

“She’s much better,” the employee replied. “My visit was just the medicine she needed.”

“Great,” his boss said. “I’m glad we could accommodate you.”

One day a few weeks later Assistant Maintenance Supervisor Al Pistrito approached Schwartz with a funny look on his face.

“Frank Mitchell has a big mouth,” he said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Remember that leave you gave him to visit his sick mother in Chicago?”

“Sure. Frank said she made a fast recovery.”

“No thanks to Frank. According to plant scuttlebutt, Frank’s been bragging how he put one over on the company. He never went to Chicago. He was on a skiing vacation with a couple of his buddies.”

Schwartz confronted Mitchell with that information and got him to admit he had tricked the company. His boss promptly responded to the admission with a discharge notice.

Mitchell acted stunned. “What’s the big deal; it wasn’t a paid leave.”

When Schwartz refused to back down Mitchell threatened to sue.

Question: Is the supervisor justified in firing Mitchell?

Chin’s Verdict : Plant Engineer Walter Chin backed Schwartz’s decision. “I couldn’t agree more. A bald faced lie and misrepresentation like that deserves the maximum penalty.”

Testing for promotion must be fair for all

A southern textile company included a clause in its labor agreement that read as follows: “Tests are useful tools in helping management to assess an employee’s qualification for hiring, promotion and assignment. The form and content of such tests shall be at the sole discretion of the company and may not be challenged by the labor force.”

One day Maintenance Department Utility Worker Jamie Cortez put in for a promotion to Mechanic Trainee in response to a posting that announced vacancies in that classification. After having taken a test, he was informed by Maintenance Supervisor George Parker that he had failed and was not a candidate for the job.

Cortez, who possessed mechanical skills acquired elsewhere, was surprised by the news and threatened to grieve on the grounds that he considered the test unfair and discriminatory.

Parker disagreed. “The test was prepared by a professional testing organization. It is both fair and objective.”

Cortez persisted in his complaint. “The test places undue emphasis on subjects like English language skills, and education. If I had been tested on my knowledge of the job and its specifics my ability to do the work wouldn’t have been questioned. What’s more, this company has a long history of discrimination in both hiring and promotion. Forty percent of the work force are minority workers; 94% of these are in menial and dead end jobs.”

Question: Is the clause forbidding employees to challenge tests sufficient to invalidate Cortez’s case if he sues?

Taft’s Decision : After reviewing the case and comparing Cortez’s qualifications to those of other applicants, Plant Engineer Harold Taft instructed Parker to assign the utility man to the job. “Challenge restriction clause or not, he’s correct in charging that the test he failed was inappropriate for the job.”

Military leave time accrues for vacations

Vacation-entitled forms were being passed out. Instrument Repairman Mark Schirmer handed his in at once. Having recently returned from four weeks military leave, he was looking forward to a real vacation.

Two days later, when the form was returned, the anxious mechanic made a beeline for his boss’s desk.

“What’s the problem?” Maintenance Foreman Arthur Shostovich asked.

“The problem is I’ve been short-changed a week on my vacation entitlement.”

“Let’s check it out,” his boss said and accompanied Schirmer to the payroll department.

Payroll Supervisor Marge Devon checked the record and explained that, since vacation time was pro-rated, the lost time had occurred because of the four weeks Schirmer had spent on military leave.

“That’s a rip-off,” Schirmer charged. “I shouldn’t be penalized for serving my country.”

Question: Is Schirmer entitled to his full vacation time?

Barney’s Decision : “Give Schirmer his full time,” Plant Engineer Max Barney instructed. The time a person spends on military leave counts the same as working time towards his vacation.”