Human Side of Engineering – 2000-04-01 – 2000-04-01

In this issue, Human Side of Engineering offers another case of "The Uncommon Side." This feature presents incidents drawn from actual situations faced by plant engineers that are of a special or unusual nature. Each presentation is in two parts.

By Raymond Dreyfack Contributing Editor April 1, 2000

In this issue, Human Side of Engineering offers another case of “The Uncommon Side.” This feature presents incidents drawn from actual situations faced by plant engineers that are of a special or unusual nature. Each presentation is in two parts. The first part explains the problem and the question involved; the second part, which will appear in the August 2000 issue, will offer the suggestions of labor relations experts, along with a summary of reader opinions on how to solve the problem.

Cases for “The Uncommon Side” are drawn from actual plant experiences. If you have a problem in human or labor relations on which you’d like professional comment, as well as the viewpoints of other managers, we’d like to know about it. Names and situations are changed to protect the privacy of the person who submits the problem. If your problem is chosen for publication, we’ll send you a check for $100.

We also welcome your comments on how you would solve this “Uncommon Side” problem. Reader suggestions will be reviewed by editors and summarized with our experts’opinions for publication in the second part of this feature.

Problems and solutions should be directed to Uncommon Side, Plant Engineering, 2000 Clearwater Dr., Oak Brook, IL 60523; e-mail: cfirestone@; fax: 630-320-7145. Please submit comments on this case by June 14, 2000.

The daytime surfer-Part I

The web site experiences its heaviest traffic during the workday. Angela Villani knows why. She rates online shopping as one of her most important fringe benefits. “It gives me more time to spend with the family because I don’t have to surf the internet when I’m at home. Not only that, but it’s good for the company because it makes me more computer smart. It’s a good learning experience.”

Reports state that about half of American workers cybershop on company time. Others go so far as to conduct online business during office hours. That situation spells bad new for employers with profit objectives in mind. Workers are paid to work, not surf on the web. So what can employers do about it? Fret, of course. But more than 67% of U.S. companies also engage in electronic surveillance of employees.

When called to account for her so-called “learning experience,” Angela replies, “What’s the big deal? Everybody does it.” But that excuse just doesn’t wash, Newsweek writer Keith Naughton says.

The Uncommon Side’s question is, what does wash? Angela is a valued employee. When caught in the act, so to speak, what action, if any, should her employer take? Should Angela be suspended or fired if the behavior continues? Should the company just continue to tolerate the situation? Where and how do you draw the line?

Assume Angela’s employer finally decides he’s had it with the cyber-abuse and its profit-draining effect. Assume he suspends or fires Angela. But suppose too that others in the company were guilty of similar, or worse, abuse, and got away with it. Does precedence absolve Angela of punishment? Are there legalities involved?

Question: If you were Angela’s employer, what steps, if any, would you take?

Please send your responses to this case by June 14, 2000, to: The daytime surfer 4/00, Plant Engineering, 2000 Clearwater Dr., Oak Brook, IL 60523; e-mail:; fax: 630-320-7145.

April fool: How to handle an impractical joker

Should you tolerate an April Fool’s Day prankster? Perhaps so. Up to a point.

The date was April 1. Maintenance department Warehouseman Herbie Sinclair was unloading materials in Building C when a bright idea occurred to him. He said to a coworker, “Today’s April Fool’s Day. I’m gonna have some fun.”

“What kind of fun?”

“You’ll see.”

Sinclair picked up the phone and called Maintenance Supervisor Jim Andrews. “Hey Jim, call out the militia. There’s been an explosion in the storage room. The place is on fire. One guy has been killed.”

There was a hesitation. “Is this your idea of a joke?”

“No way! This is an emergency.”

Andrews, jolted, hung up the phone and called his boss, Plant Engineer Herman Kraft, who telephoned the general manager, who in turn called the president, security chief, and company attorney.

A few minutes later Sinclair telephoned Andrews again to reveal that the whole thing was just a little harmless April Fool’s fun.”

“Fun!” Andrews exploded. “I’ll tell you something that’s funnier. You can pick up your termination check from Personnel. You’ve had it, buddy.”

Sinclair was stunned. “Hey, it’s April Fool’s Day. Can’t you take a joke?”

“Not that kind of joke. Clock out when you pick up your check.”

Question: Is dismissal to severe for Sinclair’s “harmless” joke?

Kraft’s decision: “The dismissal stands,” Plant Engineer Kraft ruled. “Anyone dumb enough to be unable to distinguish between a harmless joke and one that’s disruptive, alarming, and a waste of top executive time deserves to be fired.”

Sick employee? Suggest, butdon’t prescribe

Electrician Bob Graham poked his head into Maintenance Supervisor Tom Redding’s office and asked, “You wanted to see me?”

Redding replied, “Yes I do. Have a seat. I’ve been checking your attendance, Bob. Your continued absences are affecting your work and disrupting the operation.”

“Yeah, I know,” Electrician Bob Graham said in a worried voice. “I had to call in sick a number of times in the past few months. I’m under a doctor’s care and am on medication.”

“That’s what I want to talk to you about. How many pounds overweight are you?”

The worker’s face turned red. “Uh, I don’t know,” he stammered. “About 70 or 80, I guess.”

“My purpose isn’t to embarrass you, but it seems to me that if you could shed some pounds, maybe your health problems would also be resolved.”

Graham’s frown lines deepened. “I tried, but nothing seems to help.”

“Well, something better help. I’ll give it to you straight, pal. It’s either slim down or check out. Otherwise I’ll have no choice but to let you go.”

“You gotta be kidding. My weight doesn’t affect my job,” Graham protested. “I have a good work record.”

Question: Can Tom force Bob to lose weight, or else?

Palmer’s verdict: When the dispute came to Plant Engineer Ralph Palmer’s attention he summoned Tom to his office. “You’re going about this all wrong,” he said. “If you want to fire Bob for his absences, you’ll have to make a case against his attendance, not his health. So far as his health is concerned, you can give him suggestions, but no ultimatums. And if you want to give him advice, refer him to a professional who is qualified to deal with his problem.”

When good news is bad news

Good news, Mike!” Day shift Maintenance Foreman Pete Lemon greeted Mechanic Grade II Mike Gossett as he punched in at the time clock. “A Grade I spot just opened on second shift. As senior man, you’re elected.”

Gossett’s face fell. “Good news! You gotta be kidding. No way would I work the second shift.”

“Not even for an extra $30 a week above your current wages?”

“Not for $50! I just won’t work that shift.”

Lemon frowned. “You may have no choice, Mike. If the right to waive a promotion isn’t spelled out in the contract, management has a right to promote a person whether he likes it or not. The only exception would be if the promotion jeopardizes the employee’s job security or seniority.”

“This promotion would jeopardize my family life,” Gossett persisted. “I wouldn’t get to see my kid when he comes home from school or turns in for the night, and those hours would mess up my social life as well. Get someone else for this great opportunity.”

Lemon shook his head. “You’re the best-qualified man for the job.”

Gossett refused to back down.

Question: Can Gossett be forced to accept the promotion despite his objection to it?

Gottfried’s decision: “I’ll grant you that Mike may be the best man for the job,” Plant Engineer John Gottfried told Lemon, ” And I’ll concede that according to the contract management can insist that he take it. But forcing a man into a situation he is so vehemently opposed to makes no sense from either a human or practical standpoint. Since Mike is so dead set against that promotion I’d give it to someone else who, hopefully, will appreciate it more.”

Does outside experience qualify an employee for another job?

When a force reduction was announced, Instrument Repair- man Cliff Howard was first in line at Maintenance Supervisor Gil Quentin’s desk. As a senior man, he put in a request to bump Repairman Don Schapper, a junior employee.

Quentin conceded that he was qualified to bump a lower ranking employee, but only if he had proven ability to perform the other man’s job.

“No problem,” Howard replied. “I can handle Don’s job as well as he, if not better.”

“I can’t simply take your word on that, Cliff.”

He pointed out that Howard lacked experience with a complex chemical testing machine that occupied a major portion of Schapper’s time.

“It’s true I never worked on those units in this company,” Howard conceded, “But I have 3-yr experience operating and repairing them on my previous job.”

“That won’t wash. I have no way of evaluating your performance on a previous job, or even knowing for sure you had the experience you claim.”

“All you have to do is check with my former boss.”

Quentin shook his head. “That won’t be good enough. Companies these days won’t report anything negative about a former employee for fear of being sued.”

Howard persisted that he deserved a crack at the job, and would file a grievance if he didn’t get it.

“File away,” Quentin replied.

Question: Should Howard be given a crack at the junior man’s job?

Benson’s verdict: “You’re correct in stating that you can’t evaluate Howard’s ability to maintain and repair that machine based on what a previous employer might report,” Plant Engineer Oliver Benson told Quentin. “But he has a right to bump Don Schapper if he can prove that he does have the ability. That ability can be determined simply enough by a brief provisional test period in which he either meets specified performance standards or not.”

Employee health fears can’t be taken too seriously

When Utility Worker Ben Groton complained about noxious fumes emitting from a lab vat he had been assigned to clean, it was one annoyance too many for Maintenance Foreman Larry Crone.

“If you want lily clean work,” he snapped back, “you should get a clerical job.”

“I’m not looking for clean work,” Groton replied, “I just don’t want to get sick.”

“You’re not the first man assigned that job,” the foreman said. “Those fumes may be unpleasant, but no one ever got sick from them.”

“No one but me. The last time I cleaned that vat, I had to throw up in the men’s room.”

Crone was losing patience. “I can’t stand here arguing with you. Either do the work you’re assigned, or clock out and face a charge of insubordination.”

Groton didn’t reply. He stomped off to recruit the plant steward’s support.

A short time later, trailed by Groton, the steward appeared at Crone’s desk. “You can’t compel a man to do a job that makes him sick.”

The foreman repeated what he had told Groton. The fumes might be noxious, but didn’t constitute a health hazard.

Question: If the steward files a grievance, what are his chances of winning?

Jaynard’s decision: Plant Engineer Russ Jaynard listened to Crone’s rundown of the dispute, and his position supported by the record which indicated no prior illness caused by inhalation of the noxious fumes.

“Nonetheless,” Jaynard pointed out, “this employee claims that on a previous occasion he got sick enough to have to throw up.”

“He’s probably lying,” Crone replied, “in an effort to get out of a dirty job.”

“That’s possible. But I don’t think you can afford to dismiss his complaint out of hand. Chemical balances vary from person-to-person. Because other workers didn’t get sick doesn’t prove Groton’s complaint isn’t valid. I can recall one case a few years back where an employee collapsed over a vat and died from poisoning caused by the inhalation of cyanide fumes. The company was sued for millions and criminal sentences were involved.

“Larry, I’d take Groton at his word. If you’re convinced he’s lying, I’m sure you can find another assignment for him that’s almost equally unpleasant.”

Gun toting employee: Grounds for dismissal?

A locker search was called on the heels of missing cash and jewelry complaints in a small manufacturing company. Conducted by Maintenance Supervisor Joe Begley and his assistant, the search disclosed no stash of cash or jewelry. But in Utility Worker Joe Sisko’s locker, a loaded Smith&Wesson 38 caliber revolver was found.

What to do?

Begley’s first impulse was to fire Sisko for bringing a concealed weapon to the workplace. But second thoughts made him hesitate. The company’s weapons policy had never been clearly defined. Did a gun in a man’s locker qualify as a concealed weapon? Was its presence in Sisko’s locker illegal?

Begley’s assistant was no better informed than his boss. The supervisor decided to get the counsel of Plant Engineer Fred Fenster.

Question: What action, if any, would you take in response to the weapons disclosure?

Expert’s opinion: “A clearly defined and stated weapons policy is long overdue in this company,” Fenster told Begley. He picked up the phone and consulted Debra Richards, the company’s labor relations attorney.

“In the absence of established policy on this subject,” Richards replied, “I wouldn’t advise disciplining Sisko for bringing a gun on the premises. What I would suggest is that the company set and publish a policy as soon as possible.”

“Any ideas in this regard?” Fenster asked.

“I would look into the so-called criminal trespass’approach under which all persons who enter the plant would be prohibited from bringing a weapon onto the premises, except under special circumstances which would have to be determined. Since weapons laws vary widely from stateto-state, with a host of stipulations involved, I would suggest calling an executive meeting where we can sit down and review what does and does not apply to this plant. And I could not agree more that such action is long overdue.”

Medical privacy: Take care-the word gets out

The subject of protected medical information is receiving more attention than ever these days. One reason is recent developments in genetic testing. The testing now determines an individual’s potential risk for a variety of illnesses ranging from heart trouble and Huntington’s disease to colon and breast cancer.

One concern, as defined by some advocacy groups, is that genetic information disclosed to employers could be used to discriminate against job applicants as well as employees already on the payroll.

In an Atlanta plant Assistant Maintenance Supervisor John Harrow approached his boss’desk with a frown on his face.

“What’s the problem?” Ed Grabow asked.

“I’m not sure it’s a problem, but Joan Caldwell…”

He went on to explain that word on the rumor mill had it that the storeroom attendant was refusing to undergo genetic screening because her mother suffered from Huntington’s disease and she was afraid of losing her health coverage, or even her job.

It was the supervisor’s turn to frown. “Keep mum about this,” he instructed Harrow. “I’ll look into it.”

Question: In Grabow’s shoes, how would you respond?

Plant engineer’s response: Grabow filled in Plant Engineer Bill Suskin on Harrow’s visit. Suskin’s response was a trip to the medical office. There he reviewed the medical records filing system in general and Joan Caldwell’s file in particular. Sure enough, a notation of her mother’s Huntington disease was included. Two realities were of concern to Suskin. One was the easy accessibility of employee medical records. The other was the company’s “inadequate training and briefing about the privacy requirement as it related to medical records.”

A problem, the plant engineer decided, that would have to be dealt with at once.

Tech overload: Does it ring a bell?

Question: What’s one thing teenagers and grownups have in common?

Answer: Both endure onslaughts of data, technobound to the hilt. What don’t they have in common? Most kids seem to thrive on it while an untold number of adults are stressed out on technology. “Eighty-nine percent of teens,” a Newsweek poll reveals, “use computers at least several times a week.” Have-not kids as well as haves.

The survey doesn’t cover adults. But recent reports indicate that increasing numbers of key plant and office personnel are buckling under data overload, much of it technology based. And while computers may be at the core of it, the problem goes a giant step further, running a gamut from e-mail and voice mail to fax and beeper info pileup. Take Ben Bostwick, assistant plant engineer in an Atlanta plant, as a case in point.

Ben’s problem came to Plant Engineer Clyde Graham’s attention via Graham’s wife Ann following her 30-min phone chat with Alice Bostwick.

“She was crying,” Ann reported through tight lips.

Graham frowned. “What happened?”

“Ben can’t catch up with his work. He puts in 10 hr/day and lugs home a briefcase at night. He’s busy weekends with e-mail, faxes, and whatnot, not to mention all the reading stuff he brings home. His kids are forgetting what Ben looks like.”

Graham held up his hand. “I get the picture.”

Question: Obviously, super-conscientious Ben has a problem. In Graham’s place, how would you crack it?

Graham’s advice: Graham didn’t wait to get to the office. Ben lived 20- min away. Graham hopped into his car and drove over. He found Ben in the den, laptop screen on, doing battle with a stack of e-mail and faxes. He gazed up bleary-eyed at Clyde’s entrance. “What’s up?”

“A critical project.”

Ben’s cheeks paled. “Clyde, I just can’t-“

“I know you can’t. That’s what this one’s about. First thing tomorrow we’re gonna sit down and reorganize your workload. For starters, I want you to get rid of your cell phone and check e-mail twice a week instead of every day. We can have Ed Wilson monitor the web for you and keep you informed on a need-to-know basis. You can also set up specific times to be paged except in emergency. Ben, we’ll either work out a way for you to spend time with your kids, or I’ll come over a couple of times a week and play with them myself.”

Can you deny an employee a second job?

When Maintenance Foreman Ralph Rosen heard via the grapevine that Electrician Jack Wade was employed part time by Empire Machine Parts across town, he knew he had a problem. Rosen took a hard line with Wade. “Sorry, pal, but you’ll have to quit that second job?”

“No way!” Wade protested. “I need the extra bread. Nothing in the contract says a guy can’t work part time to earn extra income.”

“That’s true,” Rosen conceded. “But this case is different.”

“How so?”

“Empire’s our biggest competitor. We’ve had run-ins with them in the past. We’re at knife’s edge with each other.”

“I have no beef with them. We get along fine.”

Rosen shrugged. “Sorry, Jack, I’ll have to insist.”

“And I have to insist on my rights. Other employees work extra jobs. There’s no reason I should be an exception.”

“Unfortunately there is a reason. If you don’t quit, it could cost you your job.”

Wade refused to back down.

Question: Is Rosen within his rights insisting that Wade quit his part time job with a bitter competitor?

Wachtel’s verdict: Plant Engineer Irv Wachtel supported Rosen’s stand.

“It’s true as Wade says that no specific contract provision prohibits part time work. But you were right in pointing out that a difference applies to this case. Giving our fiercest competitor access to one of our people could lead to all kinds of problems. We just can’t take the chance. Wade either quits that job or he’s through. It might be some consolation to him if you offer to give him a good letter of reference that might be useful in seeking alternative part time work.”

What price status?

When a company is hit by rising costs and competitive inroads something has to give. Sometimes it’s status.

Every workplace has a status hierarchy determined by job pay and importance. High up in the maintenance department in question were service equipment mechanics.

One day, economically pressed, a directive was handed down by Plant Engineer Joel Margretti that from now on service equipment mechanics would be required to clean up their work area after completing assignments and performing other job-related tasks. A chore they hadn’t had to do in the past. This action would allow the company to make do with less janitorial personnel.

Not surprisingly, the elite crew was up in arms.

“We don’t do janitorial work,” spokesman Bill McClintock protested to Maintenance Foreman Harold Lubarsky. “It’s beneath our dignity. That kind of work was always handled by lower level personnel.”

“Times change,” Lubarsky said, “and we have to change with them. It helps us all if we help the company remain competitive.”

“Not at our expense,” McClintock persisted. “Making us do low level work is a form of demotion.”

“That’s not the intention at all. In any case, I have to go by the directive.”

McClintock threatened to grieve.

Question: What do you think? Is management within its right in requiring the mechanics to clean up their areas?

Margretti’s verdict: “They can grieve if they wish,” the plant engineer told Lubarsky, “but when conditions change, a company has no choice but to change in response. You might tell Bill McClintock that out of respect for his group’s standing, cleanup work and other tasks now required will relate exclusively to their assignments. This approach will in no way diminish their status.”

Does it make sense to rehire?

The ad for an experienced instrument repairman had been in the local paper over a week with no satisfactory response.

Assistant Maintenance Foreman Jay Glover approached his boss’desk with a thoughtful look on his face.

“I heard via the grapevine that Al Koster is unhappy on his new job and wants to change. According to a buddy of his, he’d be glad to come back to work here.”

“It’s a thought,” Greg Hackman replied.

Koster was an experienced and qualified repairman who had resigned 6-mo before. With disappointing response to the ad, Hackman reasoned it wouldn’t hurt to feel Koster out “Yeah, I guess I wouldn’t mind coming back,” the repairman replied, “if I could get my old status and seniority.”

“That might be arranged,” the foreman said. “I’m not making any promises. I’ll let you know.”

The more Hackman thought about it, the more he liked the idea. Koster had the needed experience, and was trained for the job. He decided to check it out with his boss before finalizing his decision.

Question: Is it a good idea to rehire a former employee?

Plant engineer’s verdict: “I agree it’s a thought,” Plant Engineer Ken Stringer told Hackman. “But rehiring an ex-employee isn’t always as simple as it sounds. For one thing, you have to determine why he left, assuming he wasn’t terminated for cause.”

“He wasn’t. He resigned.”

“Okay, let’s review Koster’s termination interview so we can find out why he resigned.”

The foreman returned minutes later with the interview printout. Under REASON FOR LEAVING, it read: “Advancement’s too slow around here. The way I see it, this is a dead end job.”

Stringer nodded. “Easy as the rehiring solution may seem, my recommendation is to keep trying to find someone else. Feeling as he does, at best, Koster would be settling. If he was disenchanted before, he’ll probably be disenchanted again, and will be seeking greener fields before you know it.”