Human Side – 2005-09-01

By Raymond Dreyfack, Contributing Editor September 1, 2005

A rule is a rule — and then there are exceptions

The 17th century English clergyman Robert Burton wrote: “No rule is so general which admits of no exception.” We say, kudos for Burton. And double kudos for any corporate executive or supervisor who endorses and supports Burton’s well-expressed sentiment. True, no nation, state, institution, corporation, corporate division or department could run efficiently without a custom tailored set of well-formulated rules established in an effort to regulate proper procedure and behavior. On the other hand, as experience repeatedly shows, mindless adherence to rules could be detrimental to both productivity and morale.

A case in point involves a policy clause posted in a Detroit manufacturing plant. What it boiled down to in rather harsh and stiff language was that for purposes of inventory taking, general maintenance and cleanup, the two-week vacation period set in July would run concurrently with the plant shutdown. Exceptions prompted by business requirements would be at the sole discretion of management.

When Joel Clemson, a conscientious and well-rated electrician, saw the posting he all but blew a fuse. Hurrying to his boss’s desk he voiced his vehement protest. “My wife and I have visited her sister’s family in August for the past 10 years. It’s the only time my wife can get off from work, and the only time her sister can get off from her job. I can’t take my vacation in July.”

Maintenance foreman John Knox shook his head sympathetically. “I wish I could help you, but a rule is a rule.”

“We’ll see about that.”

QUESTION: Should an exception be made in Joel’s case?

DELANO’S VERDICT : When the electrician’s complaint reached plant engineer Sam Delano, the executive summoned Knox to his desk. “It’s true,” he agreed, “that a rule is a rule. But when a rule is self-defeating or under the circumstances dumb for whatever reason, an exception should be made. I’m sure you can find plenty for Joel to do during plant shutdown. Approve his vacation for August.”

When technology changes change pay rates

One thing you can bet on: Change the nature of the job with the plant’s bottom line in mind, and the beefs you hear from the crew will sound like a chorus of werewolves.

As one chief executive puts it, “Completing a technology innovation is only part of the battle. To make the new setup work, you must convince employees the new system makes sense and is fair. In short, you have to sell what you’ve done.” At times this can be tougher than completing the technical aspects of the change.

A study conducted in a Connecticut plant, following the introduction of two new machines, convinced management that it would be reasonable to revise the job rate downward 10% for the classification involved. Not unexpectedly, the wolves started to howl. The chorus proceeded as follows.

“It’s a rip-off.”

“They don’t give a damn for the worker.”

And leading the chorus: “The wage rate can’t be reduced unilaterally,” instrument mechanic George Corfman maintained.

QUESTION: Is management justified in lowering the rate?

PETRILLO’S DECISION : Plant engineer Al Petrillo explained the situation to corporate attorney Ann Rutherford.

“There’s no guarantee this will stand up under arbitration,” Rutherford replied, “but for our decision to hold firm, it must be based on specific criteria. First, the company’s past practice in similar cases; second, the prevailing practice in comparable plants in the area; third, its effect on the wage structure of the company’s branch operations.”

Petrillo blew out his breath. “Thanks, Ann. This gives us something to think about.”

Arbitration costly for everyone

Right or wrong, win or lose, arbitration can be costly. Still, when employees feel ripped off or mistreated, they are entitled to file a grievance. Nothing you can do about that, right? Maybe not…

Welder Jim Calder was rip roaring mad when maintenance supervisor Harold Margolies refused to approve his overtime pay.

“I worked two hours past the bell. I’m entitled to two hours overtime at time-and-a-half.”

“Correct,” Margolies replied, “except for one detail. The overtime wasn’t assigned. You can’t simply decide to work extra hours when the spirit moves.”

Calder didn’t agree. He flounced off in search of unit representative Charley McLaughlin.

McLaughlin neither agreed nor disagreed. “So what do you want me to do?”

“Sue them. Let’s see what an arbitrator says about this.”

“You want to file a grievance?”

“You got it, pal.”

McLaughlin shrugged. “It’s your call.”

QUESTION: It’s Calder’s right to grieve, right? And it’s the unit rep’s obligation to honor his request, correct?

BERMAN’S RESPONSE : Plant engineer Bernard Berman summoned McLaughlin to his office. “Between the two of us, Charley, Calder doesn’t have a chance in a thousand to win this case if it goes to arbitration.”

“You may be right,” the unit rep replied, “but he has the right to file.”

“No question about that. You’re aware of the relevant clause in the labor agreement making the loser responsible for the cost of the arbitration. If Calder loses, you guys shell out $600 or more.”

“I didn’t think about that.” He looked thoughtful for a split second, then said, “Thanks for calling that to mind. I’ll try to talk the guy out of it.”

Consider performance before rehiring

Welder Grade II Ed Phillips was among 13 maintenance department employees laid off during a slump four months ago. Some had been rehired; others were still jobless. None had Phillips’ poor performance ratings.

One day, maintenance supervisor Lou Lester was approached by his assistant Bill Fritsch.

“What’s on your mind?”

“I just got a call from Ed Phillips. He wants his job back.”

“What did you tell him?”

“That I’d check it out with you and call him back.”

“You can tell him thanks but no thanks in as polite language as you can muster. The department has had enough of that guy.”

“That’s what I figured you’d say.”

Fritsch relayed the message to Phillips explaining that all vacancies had been filled.

“That’s a rip-off,” he welder snapped. He appeared the next day to back up his accusation.

“The contract says that employees who lose their jobs due to layoff will get preference to outsiders who apply. I happen to know outsiders have been taken on, which violates this clause.”

QUESTION: Is management obligated to rehire Phillips?

DUFFY’S DECISION : “No way!” Plant engineer Cliff Duffy declared in support of the supervisor’s decision. “Phillips was a troublemaker and spoiler. When he was laid off his record was stamped “Do Not Rehire.” His personnel rating reads, “Below Standard.” While the preference clause gives laid off employees an inside track when in competition with applicants of an equally satisfactory rating, it doesn’t give a disqualified candidate the right to win out over one who qualifies for the job.”

There’s no right to arbitration

Maintenance foreman Joe Donovan was a tough, hard-bitten supervisor in charge of a group of tough, hard-bitten employees. One of those employees, utility worker Roger Dolman had taken his boss’s abuse and lack of respect long enough. He was filing a grievance.

Having made the decision, Dolman lost no time making tracks for unit representative Art Lobel and communicating his desire to the union.

Lobel was immediately leery. “He doesn’t talk any different to the rest of the crew than he does to you,” Lobel pointed out. “If he was abusive others would complain.”

“That’s no concern of mine,” Dolman groused. “I don’t like the way he talks to me and I have a right to get my case arbitrated.”

Lobel disagreed. “The union isn’t obligated to make a federal case out of every harebrained gripe.”

QUESTION: Does Dolman have a right to bring his beef to arbitration?

BURKE’S RESPONSE : Plant engineer George Burked instructed Lobel to call Dolman’s attention to a clause in the contract specifying that an employee does not have an absolute right to sue. “Arbitration is expensive. It’s no place for frivolous grievances.”

Co-workers’ complaints can prevent reinstatement

“He made his own bed; let him lie in it.” Assistant Maintenance Supervisor Chet Goolsbee vehemently agreed with this view expressed by his boss, Joel Chin.

The recipient of the grim judgment was Amos Shultz; a maintenance department carpenter arrested the day before for causing a disturbance and exposing himself in a neighborhood bar.

When word came through Friday morning that Shultz was being released from jail and would be back at work on Monday, an ad hoc committee of employees — two female and one male — appeared at Chin’s desk.

One of the women handed the supervisor a petition signed by 12 crew members objecting to Shultz’s reinstatement.

“He harasses female employees,” the woman protested, “uses foul language, and has roaming hands. We’re not going to subject ourselves to that abuse.”

“You won’t have to,” Chin replied. “He won’t be reinstated.”

Chin telephoned the carpenter to give him the news, but Shultz showed up Monday morning nonetheless.

He admitted he’d had too much to drink at that bar, apologized for his behavior, and assured his boss it wouldn’t happen again. Chin showed him the petition.

Shultz refused to back down. “You can’t discipline me for behavior that took place when I was off duty.”

QUESTION: Is Shultz within his rights to insist on reinstatement?

PERNOD’S VERDICT : “Shultz is out of here,” Plant engineer Frank Pernod ruled. “When co-workers refuse to work with an employee as a result of immoral or other reprehensible conduct, management has no option but to support that refusal.”

Showing veteran workers you care can pay dividends

Does loyalty pay off in your company? Is the ship-jumping of qualified employees a problem?

“Retention,” says Lynn University’s Robert E. Levinson, “is usually much less of a problem if you show your people that you care about them.”

A policy clause cited in an Ohio-based company comes to mind: “Vacations are not cumulative. They must be taken or paid for within a 12-month period of being credited.”

One day plant engineer Bradford Deming, having lunch with human resources manager Emil Hoffman, referred to that clause.

“For some reason it bothers me.”


“I’m not sure. It sounds kind of harsh. Cold.”

Hoffman shrugged. “There’s a good reason behind it.”

“I know. It makes sense for the main body of workers. But what about our longtime senior employees, like the experienced guy who’s pushing 60 and might be thinking of early retirement, or moving to a less demanding job. A guy like that could have a different mindset from younger coworkers.”

“That’s true. So what would you suggest?”

“Well, a buddy of mine told me that in his plant older longtime employees are permitted to defer their vacation time another year.”

“Hmmn. That’s an interesting idea.” Hoffman said. “Let’s discuss it with Dave.”

QUESTION: Does this special bending over backwards for senior employees make sense to you?

KRAMER’S RESPONSE : General manager Dave Kramer liked the idea. “It’s no big deal, but could serve to motivate some seniors.”

The following statement was added to the vacation clause: “Employees past age 55 with service of 10 years or more, upon submitting a written application, will henceforth have the option to defer all or part of their vacation time for one year beyond the 12-month period normally permitted.”