Human Side

By Reymond Dreyfack, Contributing Editor July 1, 2005

In office dating, first determine if there’s a conflict

When two employees in the same department date each other it is often a source of concern to management. More so than ever when the romantic couple are a supervisor and subordinate. It is thus not surprising that some companies establish policies designed to ban such relationships.

Declaring such practices verboten may seem a simple solution, but experience proves it can be anything but. For one thing, as Personnel Policy Services, Inc.’s HRmatters e-tips points out, restrictive “policies are controversial, difficult to enforce, and can generate potential legal claims.” On top of that, employees resent interference in their personal lives and are sensitive regarding invasion of privacy, especially involving activities conducted outside of the workplace. This tends to place some managers between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

In one plant, Assistant Maintenance Foreman Harry Young approached John Gruber, his boss.

“You won’t believe who I ran into last night.”

Gruber waited patiently. “Joe Sweeney. Gloria and I were having dinner at a small restaurant in Yonkers, and there was Joe, three or four tables across from us.”

Sweeney was a group leader in the department. “So what’s the big deal?”

“No big deal, except that his dinner companion was Alice Brown.”

Alice, as you probably guessed, was a member of Sweeney’s group.

“Hmmmn.” The news produced a frown on Gruber’s face.

Question: What action, if any, would you take in Gruber’s place?

Hallman’s Response : Gruber dumped his concern about the supervisor dating a subordinate in Plant Engineer Al Hallman’s lap. Hallman replied thoughtfully, “My suggestion is that you do some checking if you can. How long have they been dating? Does Alice appear to be getting favored treatment in Sweeney’s group? Do other members of the group seem to resent the relationship?”

Gruber reported back the next day. “Negative on all counts. They’ve been dating about two years. Both are well liked. No resentment seems to exist. In fact, I was told that wedding bells might be soon sounding.”

“Good,” Hallman replied. “Forget you ever saw them. As E-Tips suggests, ‘Focus on the conflict and not on the relationship’. Since no conflict exists, leave well enough alone.”

Wage progression: Merit vs. length of service

The contract was coming up for renewal and, once again, not surprisingly, disagreement was rife. The workforce was pushing hard for automatic increases based on length of service. The company was holding fast for earnings boosts tied to merit based on performance.

It was an age-old battle between labor and management.

General Manager Jeff Sawgrass stated the company’s position succinctly enough during a meeting of top-level managers. “Automatic wage progression spells an end to good old fashioned incentive. Some employees, once they know they can expect an automatic raise at the end of a given period, will make little if any effort to increase their productivity and efficiency. “

“On the other hand,” reasoned Human Relations Manager Harold Swank, “We can’t overlook the value of length of service and experience.”

No one disagreed with that.

“So what’s the answer?” someone asked.

“A compromise, what else?” Plant Engineer Tony Morano replied.

“Keep talking,” Plant Manager Horace Rumboldt said.

“Well, what about a little of both: a combination of both service and work performance.”

“Makes sense,” Swank replied. “Let’s work it out.”

Question: Do you agree with Morano’s solution that both performance and experience should be determinants in approving wage increases?

Final Decision : The plan ultimately agreed on by labor and management provided for automatic wage progression up to a specified point. Beyond that, increases would be made solely on the basis of merit.

Age discrimination: keep a wary eye peeled

Maintenance Department Welder Grade II Joel Shaine was rip-roaring mad. Second time in a row he had been bypassed for a wage progression. Shaine told himself it was because of his age. He had turned 62 three weeks before.

“Your age has nothing to do with it,” Foreman Carl Ultrecht assured him. “I go by the record. Boost your performance to standard and you’ll get the recognition that goes with it.”

“Yeah, sure,” the welder grumbled irritably. He had set his mind on a lawsuit, and made sure his boss knew it.

In today’s market climate would you rate Shaine’s chances of launching a successful suit good, bad, or indifferent? Good question. Pondering the flurry of age discrimination lawsuits that erupted on the heels of the recently expanded Supreme Court protections, Ultrecht was a shade short of uneasy. One current newspaper headline stated bluntly, “It’s now easier to sue the boss.” A labor attorney friend of Ultrecht’s confided that he was putting in a lot of overtime these days.

Unsettling news, but it didn’t change the foreman’s opinion of Joel Shaine, or the deliberations that induced him to bypass the welder for the wage progression.

Question: In Ultrecht’s shoes would you give Shaine the increase and thus avoid the chance of a lawsuit that the company might lose?

Mandell’s Verdict: The foreman made a beeline for his boss’s office. A smart gutsy supervisor, he came armed with the grievant’s personnel file over the past two years. After taking a hard look at Shaine’s record, Plant Engineer Don Mandell lost no time in backing Ultrecht’s decision.

“It probably is easier to sue the boss these days. But that makes standing up for your convictions more important than ever. In responding to discrimination charges, management’s decision will still hold water if it is based on reasonable and well documented evidence. That certainly applies in Shaine’s case. His main antagonist isn’t the company; it’s his performance record.

“This guy’s lucky he is still on the payroll.”

Exit dud, enter trouble

It can happen. It almost did happen in an Ohio plant that prefers to be unnamed. Maintenance Foreman Clark Griffen rued the day four years ago that he had hired Ernie Koch. Koch barely managed to hang on to his misdesignated classification of Mechanic Grade II. He was as insolent as he was indolent, a marginal performer at best. Griffen longed for the day when he could fire Koch. But hiring poorly classified workers is often easier than getting rid of them. Lord knows Griffen had tried, thus far unsuccessfully. Koch was as slippery as he was sub par. But the foremen refused to give up. That’s how badly he wanted to unload this dud.

Perhaps too badly.

One day when he received a call from the lab, Griffen saw his chance. Lab Chief Al Burdock and his assistant, Joe Burke, confronted him with an expensive custom-built measuring machine.

“What’s the problem?” Griffen asked.

Burdock turned on the machine. Dials spun, gauges registered. Strange sounds could be heard. But the machine didn’t measure.

“What happened?” Griffin said.

“The machine is kaput. It was dropped.”

Griffen frowned. “By whom?”

Burdock and Burke exchanged glances. “Your all time favorite right hand man,” Burdock replied.

Ernie Koch.

Griffen’s lips pursed. “How do you know he’s the one?”

“Two guys saw it happen. Koch begged them to keep their mouths shut.”

Griffen concealed his flash of joy. “That does it! He’s out of here.”

Question: Is Koch’s “felony” sufficient to get him fired?

Haber’s Response : “It won’t fly,” Plant Engineer Don Haber told Griffen when he presented Koch’s discharge notice to be signed. “For one thing, the labor agreement specifies that for dismissal a justifiable cause must be proven; it’s questionable whether Koch’s dropping that machine qualifies. Second, the handbook stipulates that employees who screw up must be given a second chance. Finally, given the slightest breach of contract, a disgruntled worker can sue an employer to the hilt, and Koch is just the guy to do it. Sometimes getting rid of a dud can produce more trouble than gain.”

If a customer harasses an employee: Are you obligated to take action?

It happened in a New Jersey manufacturing plant. Maintenance Clerk Marion Belgrave was an attractive married woman in her late thirties. Her desk was one of several located in a large office.

Customers frequently visited the plant to purchase needed replacement parts or conduct other transactions. To make payments they were required to sign out at the cashier’s desk that was in the same office as Belgrave’s. To get to the cashier, they had to pass Belgrave’s desk.

One frequent customer — we’ll call him Molestino — a family man and sharp dresser who favored yellow bow ties, had his eye set on Belgrave. On his way to the cashier, he made it a habit to stop at her desk, flirt with her, and proposition her. In no uncertain language Belgrave let him know she wasn’t interested. That didn’t deter the harasser who refused to give up. He stopped off again and again and repeatedly upset the clerk. It reached the point where Belgrave complained to Joe Siegel, her supervisor.

Siegel tried as tactfully as possible to make Molesting cease and desist.

“She’s making a big deal out of nothing!” the customer snapped back. “I was just trying to be friendly.”

Siegel felt he had no choice but to accept the explanation.

Despite the encounter the harasser continued to bait Belgrave. He seemed more determined than ever to prove how irresistible he was.

When the clerk complained again, Siegel blew out his cheeks. Molestino’s employer was a big-ticket customer.

“Did anyone see him proposition you? Do you have any witnesses?”

Belgrave admitted she had none. Nonetheless she persisted she had no intention to sit still for the harassment.

Question: Is Siegel obligated to take further action? What would you do in his place?

Carlson’s Response : Siegel made a beeline for his boss’s office and brought him up to date on proceedings. “Is an employer obligated to take action when an employee is harassed by a customer?” Plant Engineer Lou Carlson said rhetorically. He replied to his own question. “The answer is yes, and the sooner the better if court action is to be avoided. However, this is a ticklish situation. I’ll tell you what let’s do,” he said thoughtfully…

The next time Molestino visited the plant Belgrave was nowhere to be seen. Her desk had been moved to another location. No big deal. Case closed.

“No work today!” How much notice required?

A major plant beautification program had been started three days before. Several shrubs and trees had been ordered from Columbine Nursery with this project in mind. Two extra utility employees had been called in on the swing shift to do the outside work.

At one pm of the third day Maintenance Supervisor Lance Bolger received a call from Columbine. The nursery had run into mechanical problems with two of its trucks. The delivery of shrubs and trees would not be made until the following day.

Bolger glanced at his wrist. The extra utility men, due in at three-thirty, had been scheduled to do the plantings.

Bolger got on the phone and called the two men. He reached only one, Ed Firth, who was informed that the Columbine shipment had not arrived and was told not to show up for work until the next day. The other man, Carl Strothus, was not at home when Bolger called. The supervisor explained the situation to his wife who said she would notify him.

That day, as instructed, Firth didn’t show up. Strothus clocked in, claiming he had not received the message. He demanded two hour’s reporting pay to make up for the inconvenience.

“Sorry,” Bolger replied. “Reporting pay is not due.”

Question: Can Strothus compel the company to give him the reporting pay?

Bone’s Decision : “No reporting pay for Strothus,” Plant Engineer George Bone informed Bolger. “Refer him to Clause 463 B in the labor agreement which states that the company’s notification obligation will be discharged if it notifies the employee or his immediately family by telephone or telegram within two hours or more of the required starting time.”

What happens when sick leave and vacation overlap?

Sick leave and vacation leave are two entirely separate entitlements. But what’s an employee to do if, at the time she is due for vacation leave, she finds herself on sick leave? That’s the question maintenance department Supply Room Attendant Paula Cochrane had to deal with one hot August day. She had been looking forward all year to taking a vacation trip with her family on the 15th. But here she was on sick leave, in bed with the flu.

Paula returned to work the following week and made a beeline for Maintenance Supervisor Andy Lee’s desk.

Lee was sympathetic.

“That’s a helluva way to spend a vacation,” he agreed.

“So what happens to my vacation leave?” she wanted to know. “I have two weeks coming to me.”

“Good question. I’ll check into it.”

Question: “Is Paula entitled to her vacation leave as well as the sick leave she received?

Pangborn’s Response : “Reschedule Paula’s vacation,” Plant Engineer Lance Pangborn instructed Lee. Either that, or give her the option to receive vacation pay. Employees are entitled to both sick leave and vacation leave. The unfortunate coincidence shouldn’t do Paula out of it.”

Are you really an equal opportunity employer?

Maintenance Supervisor Harry Conrad checked the department roster carefully. Then he checked it again before making his final decision. Three candidates for promotion had been in contention for the promotion: Jerry Cochran, Ned Washington, and Sam Ringer. Ringer was eliminated at the outset. It took a bit more thought to rule out Washington. When he posted his final choice for group leader on the bulletin board, the supervisor was convinced Sam Ringer was the right man for the job.

Ned Washington didn’t agree with him. Not by a long shot. Nor was he shy about making his opinion known.

“For one thing,” he claimed. “My performance record is every bit as good as Sam’s. For another, I have better seniority. For a third — if Sam has any edge over me it’s because he happens to be lily white and I’m tar black.”

“Color doesn’t enter the picture,” Conrad protested indignantly. “I reviewed the record carefully. In my opinion Sam’s the best man for the job.”

That’s not the way Washington saw it. The outraged employee threatened to sue.

Question: Does this supervisor fill the bill as an equal opportunity employer? It’s a thought to ponder.

Duffy’s Decision : When the complaint was kicked upstairs to Plant Engineer Tom Duffy, the executive examined the records of the two main contenders.

“Give Washington the promotion,” he instructed Conrad. “Not only does he have an edge in performance; he also has an edge in seniority. No question that the job should be his. It might look like a close call, but only if you don’t look closely enough. I suggest you review your assessment and ask yourself if you made this decision with complete objectivity. In short, did you limit your conclusion to performance appraisals, disciplinary history, and attendance records and make certain that no other considerations clouded your judgment?”

Conrad lowered his eyes. He got the message and it touched a sensitive nerve.