Human Side of Engineering

Names used in Human Side of Engineering are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons is coincidental.
By Raymond Dreyfack , Contributing Editor May 1, 2000

Names used in Human Side of Engineering are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons is coincidental.

&HEADLINE>Can you retire an employee’s job with him?&/HEADLINE>

Maintenance Foreman Roy Switzer welcomed Instrument Repairman George Bussy’s retirement as an opportunity to chop the payroll in response to the plant manager’s current cost-cutting crusade. A review of the work schedule confirmed that Bussy had extra time on his hands. On top of that, in recent months, the department’s workload had diminished. Switzer decided that dropping Bussy’s job classification wouldn’t impair the operation. With a little training, his duties could be distributed among other workers in the department.

Two weeks after Bussy’s departure Plant Steward Harold Hamilton approached Switzer’s desk. “Your department’s short one man. When are you gonna replace Bussy?”

“Maybe when business picks up,” the foreman replied. “At the moment, we can handle the workload very well with the existing crew.”

“No way!” Hamilton protested. “It’s in violation of the contract. When a vacancy occurs, you gotta fill it by bid.”

Switzer disagreed. “It’s management’s right to eliminate a job classification when it’s no longer needed.”

“Yeah, provided qualified workers are on hand to take up the slack.”

Hamilton threatened a grievance unless the vacancy was filled.

Question: Is Switzer within his rights in refusing to replace the retired instrument repairman?

Henshaw’s decision: “Replace Bussy,” Plant Engineer George Henshaw instructed Switzer. “You’re correct in asserting management’s right to eliminate a job in response to economic conditions. But that condition applies only if the transferred duties fall into the job classification of the employees they’re transferred to. That doesn’t apply in this case. Especially since you’ll have to train those guys to acquire new skills in order to qualify.”

&HEADLINE>Does an area transfer constitute a job change?&/HEADLINE>

Industrialist Charles Kettering wrote: “The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress.”

Carpenter Grade I Ed Riley didn’t see it that way. He was stunned when Maintenance Supervisor Greg Fargo informed him he was being transferred from Building 2 to Building 4 to replace a senior man who took early retirement.

“You gotta be kidding,” he protested. “I’ve been in Building 2 since I started on this job 9-yr ago. I like it here.”

“You’re an easy man to get along with, Ed. The Building 4 crew is just as nice. You’ll adjust quickly enough.”

“No way! Some of my best buddies are in Building 2. How about assigning one of the new men to Building 4?”

“The reason’s obvious here, Ed. They’re not experienced enough. We need someone with your savvy and skills.”

The flattery didn’t have its desired effect on Riley, who persisted that the transfer constituted a job change, and was thus in violation of the labor agreement. As such, it couldn’t be made unilaterally.

When Fargo refused to back down, Riley threatened to file a grievance.

Question: Is Riley’s claim that the transfer constitutes a job change valid?

Chang’s ruling: “No precedent or contract provision prohibits management from transferring a worker from one work area to another where conditions are alike and no reduction in pay is involved,” Plant Engineer Don Chang told Fargo. “Send Riley to my office. Maybe after I explain that he’s the best man for the job and that this change will be a career plus for him, it will make him feel better.”

&HEADLINE>Can he work? How do you deal with a difference in medical opinion?&/HEADLINE>

Minor back sprain,” the company physician assured Utility Worker Harry Storch after he was hurt loading some crates on the job. “You should be back in shape in a few days or so. I’ll authorize a week’s sick leave for you.”

After a week, Storch telephoned the company doctor. “My back’s still killing me,” he complained and asked for another week of sick leave.

“Come on in,” the doctor replied, “I’ll take a look at you.”

Instead of coming in, Storch called Ben Channing, his union delegate. Channing suggested he pay a visit to the doctor retained by the union. There, Storch received a letter stating he had suffered a compression fracture and would be incapacitated for an indefinite period.

Storch came into the plant and showed the letter to Maintenance Foreman Al Schacht, who sent him to the medical office for confirmation. After taking x-rays, the company doctor said he saw “no evidence of a compression fracture.”

“As far as I’m concerned,” he told Storch, “you’re fit for work now.”

The worker refused to settle for this. He appealed to the union for support. “The guy’s entitled to more time to recover,” the plant steward told Schacht. “His back’s still not healed, and the union doctor’s report confirms this diagnosis.”

“The company doctor’s diagnosis denies it,” Schacht replied, convinced Storch was a malingerer. “Let’s send him to an independent physician and get this thing settled once and for all.”

Storch refused to go along with this suggestion. Supported by the steward, he insisted on at least another 3 wk of sick leave, and threatened to grieve if he didn’t get it.

Question: If this were up to you to decide, would you grant Storch the additional time off?

Bleeker’s decision: “Send Storch to my office,” Plant Engineer Ralph Bleeker instructed Schacht.

“I’ll give you a choice,” Bleeker told the worker. “Since you say your back still bothers you, I’ll extend your sick leave another week. If you feel that’s not enough, I’ll give you a leave of absence until you feel well enough to return. Either that, or get a diagnosis from an independent physician as Schacht suggests.”

Storch thought it over, a disgruntled look on his face. “I’ll take the week,” he mumbled.

&HEADLINE>Can you demote a longtime employee for incompetence?&/HEADLINE>

Senior Grade Electrician Jim Kelsey was a 9-yr veteran of the maintenance department. Checking the record, Maintenance Supervisor Chuck Dewitt noted that in recent months, his performance had declined steadily. In addition, he was argumentive, uncooperative, and didn’t get along with his coworkers.

Dewitt pointed this out to Kelsey and advised him to “get on the ball, or else.” The worker repeatedly promised to “shape up,” but no improvement was seen. Finally, Dewitt decided he’d had it with the guy.

“Jim, I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” he said, “but I’m demoting you to junior grade.” He cited his attitude, behavior, declining productivity, and general incompetence as the reason.

Kelsey protested vehemently. “The fact that I’ve been employed by this company 9 yr, during which I advanced from helper, to junior grade, to senior grade, is proof enough of my competence. You can’t suddenly decide to demote me.”

“There’s nothing sudden about it,” Dewitt replied. “I’ve spoken to you repeatedly about your work.”

“You can discipline me with a layoff, but a demotion’s too harsh,” Kelsey persisted.

Dewitt refused to discuss it further. “Be thankful I’m giving you a break. You’re lucky I’m not firing you.”

“I worked here for years without any complaints about my work or my attitude. I’m not sitting still for this,” Kelsey threatened.

Question: Is Dewitt within his rights demoting a longtime employee for incompetence?

Berner’s ruling: Plant Engineer Bill Berner backed the supervisor’s decision. “Conditions change,” he told Dewitt, “and so do employee capabilities and work attitudes. Because Kelsey qualified for senior grade for several years doesn’t give him the right to perform now under lesser standards and still expect to retain his senior rating. As you made clear to him, he’s lucky to still have his job.”

&HEADLINE>Is a baseball pool illegal gambling?&/HEADLINE>

At a producer of baby food products, the company’s president was especially sensitive to public opinion. As a result, rules of good conduct and upright behavior were strictly enforced.

The evils of alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual misconduct, and gambling were explicit no-nos specified in the company manual. But when Electrician Grade II Charley Rauser was handed a termination notice for organizing a baseball pool in the maintenance department, he blew his top.

“Gambling!” he protested. “You gotta be kidding. No way is a baseball pool gambling. And no way can it be considered bad conduct.”

Maintenance Supervisor Jerry Logan disagreed. “Gambling is gambling. Ten employees throw in $2 apiece every week during baseball season. Nine of them lose, one wins. If that’s not gambling, what is?”

Rauser threatened to fight the dismissal.

Question: Do you agree with Logan’s stand that “gambling is gambling?” Is Rauser’s decision unfair?

Murtagh’s verdict: “Kill the dismissal,” Plant Engineer Phil Murtagh instructed Logan. “I’m all for good conduct and behavior, but even morality can be carried to ridiculous extremes. What’s more, if management views conducting a baseball pool as illicit gambling and a breach of good conduct, a policy statement to this effect should have been issued instead of firing an employee for a first offense.

&HEADLINE>Bend over backward to avoid discrimination taint&/HEADLINE>

Viewing his job as dead end, maintenance department Utility Man George Johnson couldn’t apply fast enough when a mechanic trainee opening was posted. Maybe this was his chance to get ahead.

With the company’s equal opportunity policy in mind, Maintenance Foreman Steve Castle accepted Johnson’s bid with reservations. “You realize,” he explained, “that acceptance is subject to the 30-day probationary period.”

“No problem,” Johnson replied. “I know I can make it.”

Unfortunately, no one else shared this knowledge. On the job, one mistake followed another. After nine days, Castle broke the bad news. “Sorry, George, I’ll have to drop you from the program and assign you back to the utility job.”

“That’s not fair,” Johnson responded. “The probationary period’s 30 days. With a little more training, I can get the hang of this job.”

Castle refused to back down. “It’s obvious mechanic isn’t your cup of tea. The company can’t afford to train you for a job for which it feels you won’t qualify.”

The black employee replied bitterly, “I’m not sitting still for this. I’d get a better crack at that job if I was white.”

Question: What do you think? Should Johnson be given more of a chance?

Kaplan’s decision: “Extend his probation,” Plant Engineer Al Kaplan instructed. “I don’t dispute that Johnson probably won’t make the grade. But given his desire and resolve, he deserves the chance. Aside from that, we should bend over backward to avoid either his perception, or anyone else’s, that color is a factor in cutting short the trial period.”

&HEADLINE>Take the time to manage creativity&/HEADLINE>

Victor Hugo was right on target when he said: “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” Hugo’s conclusion applies as much today as it ever did.

Which gave Chief Engineer Tony Verde something to frown about. Performance wise, Bill Hanna, a shy young engineer hired 6-mo before, stood up with the best of them in the plant engineering department. It thus bugged Verde that when it came to the company’s suggestion program, Hanna ranked high as a nonparticipant. He wondered why. A guy with his savvy should be brimming over with ideas. Hanna appeared to be well motivated where the job was concerned. But when new thinking was needed to break a road block or solve a problem, he was the first to tune out. Verde decided to discuss it with him.

The engineer shrugged. “I do the best job I can; that’s all that’s required of me.”

Verde nodded. “Maybe so. And I’m more than satisfied with the job you do. But you may be missing out on promotion Brownie points for one thing, and suggestion award money for another. You have the brains and knowhow to come up with innovative ideas. I can’t understand why you don’t take advantage of it.”

Hanna hesitated. “I guess I don’t want to risk being made a fool of when a bright idea of mine bombs.”

Verde smiled. “A bright idea of Thomas Edison’s bombed hundreds of times before it finally worked. It’s called the electric light.”

Question: What would you tell Bill Hanna to induce him to turn on the idea tap?

Locke’s counsel: Verde mentioned his discussion with Hanna to Plant Engineer Joe Locke. “Send him to my office,” Locke said. “I’ll have a chat with him.”

Locke ordered coffee and tried to make their meeting as informal as possible. “Tony Verde clued me in on your little talk. Your apprehension about being subjected to ridicule if an idea bombs is fairly common. It takes a thick skin to be creative. And it takes imagination ordinary people sometimes interpret as oddball. It also takes dedication, commitment, and guts to propose and sell new ideas. But let me ask you something, Bill. Are you ambitious?”

Hanna frowned. “Yeah, I guess so.”

“In that case, take it from me that it’s worth all the hassle and hardship. Because in my experience I know of no better and faster stepping stone to success than coming up with ideas, far-out or not, and the more the better.” Locke smiled. “Think about that.”

Hanna returned the smile. “Yeah, I will. Thanks.”

&HEADLINE>Job opening: Must laid-off employee get preference?&/HEADLINE>

When laid-off Electrician Gary Kent learned that another electrician had been hired from the outside, he saw six shades of red. That afternoon the irate employee stormed up to Maintenance Supervisor Jake Arno’s desk.

“What’s going on?” he demanded. “I’ve been out of work 6 wk only to find out I was bypassed in favor of an outsider when an opening finally developed.”

“I’m sorry about that,” Arno replied. “The job opening called for skills you don’t have.”

Kent wouldn’t settle for that. “I’m an experienced electrician with a good work record. Under the contract preference is supposed to be given to employees on layoff.”

“That situation is generally true,” Arno agreed. “But the contract also specifies that the laid-off employee must be at least more or as well qualified as the outsider. You don’t even come close to the guy I hired.”

“An electrician is an electrician,” Kent persisted. “I already proved my ability.”

Question: Must Kent be given preference over the outsider in filling the job?

Jorgeson’s verdict: “Kent remains on layoff,” Plant Engineer Jack Jorgeson ruled. “The job in question calls for special skills and experience he lacks. Fortunately, we’re covered by a contract clause that specifies exception to the general preference policy where the laid-off employee is significantly less qualified than the person hired, or where special qualifications not held by the laid-off employee are called for.”

A handy clause to have around.

&HEADLINE>For maximum productivity, let them finish the job&/HEADLINE>

Mulling over a recently released productivity report, Plant Engineer George Jerrold was at a loss to understand why some employees in selected areas-instrument repair, carpentry, electrical work, etc.-were more productive than others. A student of famed psychologist Abraham Maslow, the problem touched off a long dormant thought in Jerrold’s mind.

Dr. Maslow is best know for his “hierarchy of needs” and writings on “self-actualization.” Less recognized, according to Wall Street Journal writer Thomas Petzinger, Jr., and other Maslow aficionados, are his taped reflections after a summer sabbatical at a Del Mar, CA, company called Non-Linear Systems. Later transcribed in a journal called Summer Notes, these centered on a theme in which Dr. Maslow coined the phrase “enlightened management.”

Central to the theme was the psychologist’s conclusion from the Del Mar experience that workers were most productive at the “end of the line, where the finality of the assembly provided a sense of accomplishment.”

Deep in thought, Jerrold called Maintenance Supervisor Al Levinson. “Do me a favor, Al. Let me see the work sheets of these eight men for the past 6 mo.”

Question: Can you guess what the records revealed?

The evidence: As Jerrold suspected, almost invariably the most productive workers were those usually selected to wind up assignments that had been started by their less productive counterparts.

No better time, the plant engineer decided, to subject Levinson to a short course on Maslow and the psychological advantages of assigning job completion to employees wherever possible.

&HEADLINE>Weather man goofs-Must you pay?&/HEADLINE>

It was 1:00 p.m. The weather was cloudy, cold, and threatening; and the swing shift was due in at 4:00. Maintenance Foreman Lee Sagmore smelled a snowstorm in the wind. He called the weather bureau and was informed that a snowstorm was predicted within the next 3-4 hr.

Sagmore relayed the information to his boss.

“Let’s play it safe and call off the swing shift,” Plant Engineer Ralph Lebow replied.

A clause in the labor agreement specified that employees who reported to work and were sent home were entitled to 4 hr of work or 4 hr of pay. An exception applied if the shutdown was beyond the company’s control. To avoid the cost of reporting pay, Lebow instructed Sagmore to phone swing shift workers and instruct them not to show up. As an added precaution, he called the local radio station and got them to announce the plant shutdown over the air.

Three maintenance employees who had missed both the phone call and radio announcement reported for work. By that time the sun was out. When informed of the shutdown, they demanded 4 hr of reporting pay.

“Sorry”, Sagmore replied, “a snowstorm is an act of God. The reporting pay clause doesn’t apply where the situation is beyond the company’s control.”

“What situation?” a spokesperson rejoined. “The sun is shining. We’re entitled to be paid.”

Question: Do the three men have a valid claim?

Lebow’s verdict: “Pay the men,” Lebow instructed. “A management decision based on a mistaken weather report can’t be construed as a situation ‘beyond the company’s control’ as specified in the contract.”

&HEADLINE>In a bind? Delegate!&/HEADLINE>

The test of an executive’s effectiveness is the way he or she delegates. A poor manager rarely delegates. A mediocre manager delegates, but without adequate thought or control. A good manager delegates with employee development and a timetable in mind.

Plant Engineer Armand Egan was becoming increasingly concerned over the state of Project Leader Ben Kiernan’s operation and, at least equally important, his health. As competent, conscientious, and hard working as anyone in the plant engineering department, Ben was looking more and more jaded these days, the lines under his eyes deepening, and a nervous tic more pronounced. It was time for a talk, he decided.

Question: In Egan’s place, what would you tell Kiernan?

Egan’s counsel: The plant engineer wasted no time on preliminaries. Attacking the problem head on, he asked, “What’s the problem, Ben?”

Kiernan frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I think you know what I mean. You’re working all kinds of hours. You’re looking beat. I’m worried about your health.”

Kiernan let out a sigh. “No matter how hard or long I work, I can’t seem to get caught up.”

“That’s what I was afraid you might say. Indulge me, Ben. Let’s go over your workload together.”

They did so. After reviewing several items, Egan asked, “Is your staff that bad, Ben?”

“What do you mean? I have some good people working for me.”

Egan nodded. “But not good enough to take over responsibility for this item, this project, or that task? I’ll stop here for now…”

“Well, on some of this stuff I’d feel more confident-“

“-if you did it yourself, right? Back to my original statement: What’s the problem? ‘I suspect you may have the answer yourself. Any questions?”

There were none.

&HEADLINE>When you can’t afford overtime pay&/HEADLINE>

The small New England company had come on hard times. When Assistant Maintenance Supervisor Keith Tristam submitted a heavy overtime schedule to his boss, Cal Quigley’s recently acquired frown deepened.

“This is gonna kill us,” Quigley said. “The company’s in a hole; we can’t afford it.”

“I know! But unless that electrical work is done in the lab, and those tanks are scoured out, it will backlog the whole operation. We’ll have guys standing around idle. The way I see it, we have no choice but to put through the overtime.”

Quigley nodded. “It seems we’re between a rock and a hard place. I’ll have to take this up with the boss.”

Question: What is a manager to do when overtime is necessary, but the company can’t afford it?

Bogle’s solution: Plant Engineer Fred Bogle told Quigley, “I agree that we have no choice but to authorize that overtime. But maybe there’s a better answer than shelling out time-and-a-half.”

Bogle called a general meeting with all of the company’s employees. He explained the company’s current financial bind and the importance from a security standpoint to all employees, from the top down to the rank and file, to come out of it intact and solvent. He also pointed out what a devastating effect the time-and-a- half burden had on the company.

“That’s why I’d appreciate your consideration of a alternative I’ve come up with. Instead of time-and-a-half pay, I’m inviting you to accept comp time-1-1/2-hr off for each overtime hour you work. Your acceptance of this idea is voluntary. Please indicate by a show of hands how many of you are willing to go along with this idea.”

Approximately 70% of the rank-and-file workforce raised their hands in agreement with the idea. A secretary recorded the names and the financial bind was was solved-or at least alleviated.