Human Side of Engineering – 2000-07-01 – 2000-07-01

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

By Raymond Dreyfack, Contributing Editor July 1, 2000

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

Job opening: Must you run the risk of assigning an almost-qualified candidate?

When a Special Equipment Mechanic vacancy was posted, Mechanic Pete Rose’s hopes jumped several notches. He couldn’t wait to bid for the job.

Maintenance Foreman Charley Wiggams dashed those hopes almost as fast as they had risen.

“Reread the vacancy notice,” Wiggams advised. “It calls for on-the-job experience, plus specialized industry or trade school training. Far as I can see, you have neither. We’ll have to go outside to fill the job.”

“That’s not fair,” Rose replied. “I filled in on some of those special machines from time-to-time.”

“Few times and far between,” the foreman conceded. “How much training have you had?”

Rose admitted he’d had none. “So what’s the big deal?” he persisted. “A few hours of instruction would bring me right up-to-date.”

“The vacancy notice specifies ‘qualified,'” Wiggams retorted. “If you require training, you don’t fill the bill. Sorry, Pete, but I’ll have to turn you down.”

Rose didn’t give up easily. “The contract says employees have a right to bid for any new opening.”

“No argument there. But management has a right to pass judgment on an applicant’s suitability for the job.”

Rose promised to “pursue the matter further.”

Question: Can the worker force Wiggams to give him a crack at the job?

Esternazy’s verdict: Plant Engineer Frank Esternazy backed the foreman in his refusal to be pressured into giving Rose a chance at the job. “The labor agreement states clearly enough that ‘management has the right to determine applicants’ job qualifications including, skill, ability, experience, education, and physical fitness.’Send Rose to my office; I’ll show him a copy of the contract.”

Does bereavement pay apply on vacation?

Nothing can spoil a vacation more than a death in the family? When Welder Grade II Arnold Booker received a wire at his hotel that his brother had died, he and Sue rushed home to attend the funeral. This situation chopped three days from their vacation.

The morning he returned to work, Booker appeared at Maintenance Supervisor Ed Hurley’s desk.

“Welcome back. Did you enjoy your vacation?”

“Are you kidding?” Booker explained that his brother had passed away while he was on vacation and Hurley sympathized with the news.

“Thanks. I’m requesting that you put me in for bereavement pay as soon as possible.”

“I can’t do that, Arn. You’re not covered for bereavement pay while on vacation.”

“Then at least extend my vacation time by the three days I lost.”

“I can’t do that either. Bereavement entitlement applies to loss of working days only.”

“That’s a ripoff. Do me a favor: Check it out with the powers that be.”

Hurley promised he would.

Question: Is Booker entitled to bereavement pay?

Boudini’s verdict: “No pay for Booker and no vacation extension,” Plant Engineer Joe Boudini told Hurley. “The purpose of bereavement entitlement is to protect employees from loss of pay during regularly scheduled working hours caused by death in one’s immediate family. Give Booker my condolences and tell him that if he wants me to, I’ll go over the policy manual with him.”

Is part-time supervisor exempt from overtime pay?

Two-years ago, Electrician Grade I John Russell was in charge of three people and classified as a supervisor. Today, due to technological changes and a business decline, only two workers reported to Russell. Still, his supervisory status remains unchanged. As a “management employee,” he’s off the clock and exempt from overtime pay.

But one change did take place in John Russell’s working life. In months past, he had spent most of his time supervising his three subordinates. Today with the group cut from four to three, a majority of his time was spent doing work he formerly supervised. Instead of putting in an average of 2-3 hr of overtime each week, he now puts in at least 7-8 hr.

When Russell complained about this to his boss, Maintenance Manager Fred Reddy replied, “Wouldn’t you rather be a supervisor than a line employee?”

“Not if it’s gonna cost me a bunch of overtime pay I’m entitled to.”

“You got a point,” Reddy said, “but I don’t know what I can do about it. As a member of management you’re off the clock.”

Russell refused to settle for that answer and threatened to take his grievance to a higher authority.

Question: Does Russell have a valid case if he sues for overtime pay?

Lasky’s response: “The guy’s entitled to receive overtime pay,” Plant Engineer Ralph Lasky ruled. “Doing line or production work more than 50% of the time removes his overtime exemption regardless of his managerial title.”

Alleged criminal conduct: What to do?

Innocent until found guilty is a sacrosanct rule of discipline. But management faces a tough decision when keeping a violence prone worker on the job threatens to jeopardize employee safety and well being.

When maintenance department warehouseman James Schultz assaulted fellow worker Mark Lowen with a heavy wrench causing severe head injury and hospitalization, Maintenance Supervisor Joe Gordon’s on-the-spot response was to fire Schultz. Schultz quickly recruited Shop Steward Roy Chalmers to his support.

“For one thing,” Chalmers argued, “the incident was provoked by Lowen who taunted Schultz and made a profane reference to his mother. We have two witnesses to prove it. What’s more, this thing wouldn’t have been blown up into a big deal were Lowen white instead of black. Finally, the case is gonna be tried in court. You can’t convict the guy before hearing the court verdict. It puts Schultz in double jeopardy.”

“Your witnesses aren’t worth a damn,” Chalmers replied. “They’re Schultz’s buddies. What’s more, anyone else who witnessed the incident would be too scared of Schultz to speak up. The dismissal stands.”

“We’ll see about that,” Chalmers threatened.

Question: Is management obliged to await the court decision before firing Schultz?

Green’s verdict: “The dismissal stands,” Plant Engineer Steve Green ruled, after reviewing Schultz’s personnel file. “The argument against firing him would have more validity if he had a reasonably unblemished record. But Schultz’s history is laden with incidents of violence and includes prior warnings relating to his violent behavior. In the interests of worker safety and employee relations, we have no choice but to let him go regardless of how the court case turns out.”

Can worker choose sick leave instead of maternity leave?

The labor agreement specified “unpaid maternity leave if requested.”

When maintenance department stockroom attendant Elaine Taylor became pregnant, she decided that this was a good time to put in for sick leave.

Maintenance Foreman George Davis turned down the request. “We’re talking apples and oranges,” he told Taylor. “Maternity leave applies only to pregnancy.”

“I don’t see why,” Taylor persisted. “If you’re sick, you’re indisposed; if you’re out having a baby, you’re indisposed. What’s the difference?”

When Davis held firm, the employee threatened to grieve.

Question: Is Taylor entitled to sick leave under the contract’s provision?

Murray’s verdict: Plant Engineer Alan Murray supported the foreman’s decision. “Indisposed and sick aren’t necessarily synonyms. Permitting Taylor to substitute sick leave for maternity leave would defeat the intent of the maternity clause. Pregnancy isn’t a sickness. If the maternity leave clause covered sickness, it would render the maternity provision meaningless.”

What if July-August is your peak work period?

Maintenance Supervisor Max Becker reviewed the rundown of vacation requests with Bill Dorf, his assistant.

Dorf shook his head. “Looks like we’re gonna have to make a lot of people unhappy.”

Becker nodded. Eighty-five percent of the requests were for vacation time in July and August, the department’s peak months.

“A skeleton crew would be bad enough,” Becker said. “If we go along with all these requests, this place will look like a ghost town. We’ll have to get this message across.”

That day, Becker posted a notice on the bulletin board, explaining that the department couldn’t operate during peak months stripped of personnel. He appealed to the crew to be reasonable and to resubmit their vacation requests with this problem in mind.

Becker’s appeal was unappealing to most employees. The 85% figure went down to 83%. Still unacceptable.

Dorf said, “Looks like we’ll have to reject summer vacation requests on a seniority basis.”

“We may have no choice,” Becker said, “but first I’m gonna check it out with the boss.”

Question: What action would you take in response to this dilemma?

Wexler’s solution: “The problem’s a common one in many plants where peak business occurs in the summertime,” Plant Engineer Greg Wexler told Becker. “But before mandating off- season vacations for low seniority people, let’s try an idea that works in some plants. What are the two things employees want most?”

Becker knitted his brow. “Hmm, I guess it would be money-and time.”

“Right on! Let’s post a notice offering a $50/wk bonus to employees willing to take their vacations in off months; we may be able to trade some time for cash.”

Funny thing about money. When this was tried the summer vacation requests dwindled down to 60%. With temps called in, it was a figure the company could live with.

Even compassionate accommodation has its limit

Whether mechanic Juan Gomez was a hypochondriac or depressive neurotic was a subject for debate. A note on his medical record read, “Suffers from periodic depression.” A doctor’s letter confirmed this diagnosis. Whatever the case, Maintenance Supervisor Gary Arnold realized Gomez had a health problem and wanted to help him. Thus when he returned from a 10-day sick leave and asked to be transferred from Unit B to Unit C where he felt he would be under less pressure, Arnold went along with his request.

In the new unit, Gomez’s performance, long rated marginal, declined further.

“What’s the problem?” Arnold asked.

Wearing a frown, Gomez shook his head. “Finley is hard to get along with. He’s prejudiced against Latinos. Unit C is no less stressful than Unit B. It’s causing my condition to worsen.”

Holding his feelings in check, Arnold asked, “What do you want me to do?”

“I’d like to try Unit A?”

Arnold had little faith that another transfer would help, but wanted to give Gomez every chance. “Okay, we’ll give it a shot, but this is your last transfer.”

True to his instincts, in Unit A Gomez again complained about excessive stress. His performance went from bad to worse.

“Arnold informed the worker he would have to let him go.

Gomez’s angry response was a threat to sue the company for failure to make an adjustment as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Question: If Gomez follows through, how do you rate his chance of winning?

Durkin’s verdict: “The dismissal stands,” Plant Engineer Harry Durkin ruled. “For one thing, no one could deny you bent over backwards in response to Gomez’s problem. For another, neither ADA nor any other law can eliminate all stress from every job. You went as far as you could to accommodate the man. There has to be a limit.”

Make sure promises to employees don’t boomerang

Shakespeare wrote, “A promise made is a debt unpaid.”

Good advice to keep in mind. Failure to do so can cost you dearly.

Managers tend to get careless with commitments they make when business is booming. In a New England plant, sales were rolling in so fast it put the president in an expansive frame of mind. “I want to share some of our good fortune with our employees,” he announced.

The board of directors approved increased fringe benefits. In a newly published policy manual, a statement specified that “should a decline in sales or other adverse economic hardship necessitate a reduction in work forces, laid off employees shall receive dismissal pay equal to 2-wk normal wages. This provision shall not apply to employees who quit or are discharged for cause.”

As occurs in the stock market, what goes up must come down. About 6-yr later, when major contracts were lost, profits plummeted. A product line was discontinued. Two of five plants were closed. Among the casualties were seven maintenance department employees who were laid off indefinitely.

The policy manual, never revised or upgraded, had stopped being distributed years earlier. When Instrument Repairman Harry Bern, speaking for the laid off workers, called Maintenance Foreman Jerry Vilanni’s attention to the omission of the two weeks’ dismissal pay from their final checks, Vilanni laughed it off.

“You gotta be kidding. That commitment was made years ago when business was booming. The economic bind we’re in now, it doesn’t make sense.”

Bern refused to settle for that answer and threatened to sue for the money.

Question: How good a case do the laid off employees have?

Jeffer’s verdict: Calling the company attorney to make sure, Plant Engineer Art Jeffer told Vilanni, “Like it or not, we’re going to have to make good on our promise. A statement in company literature has the status of a legally binding contract. Next time management will think twice before making commitments that could boomerang in the future.”

Get real! Face up to post-traumatic stress disorder as a compensable illness

Recent jury awards establish post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) suits as a major management concern in plants and offices nationwide. Big money changes hands. In one case the damages came to $300,000, in another $1.4 million was awarded to four of eight patients.

A variety of problems and workplace situations can trigger PTSD: stressful working conditions, job loss anxiety, etc. But as Maintenance Supervisor Glen Sherman learned the hard way, the cause that is most costly in terms of both emotional and financial impact, and may be especially prevalent, is that old bugaboo, sexual harassment.

When Stockroom Attendant Martha Brandt first complained that her supervisor’s unwanted advances were making her “nervous and distraught,” Sherman’s response was to more or less brush her off.

“Phil Torrey’s a great kidder,” he told Brandt. “Don’t take him seriously.”

When Torrey’s “kidding” turned to pats on the rear and sneaking-up kisses on the back of her neck, Brandt complained again that his advances were making her unable to sleep at night.

Sherman sighed resignedly. “Okay, I’ll talk to him.”

In the course of a busy day, the promise slipped his mind. The last straw for Brandt arrived with a furtive hug in the stockroom and promise that Torrey “would make it worthwhile” if she went to a motel with him. Brandt went over Sherman’s head and tearfully complained to his boss.

Question: If this problem were dumped in your lap, what action would you take?

Crandell’s response: Plant Engineer Mel Crandell’s first move, after calming Brandt down and assuring her he would “look into it” was to summon Sherman to his office. The supervisor shamefacedly admitted he had neglected to follow through on Brandt’s complaints. Next, when an investigation disclosed that other women had suffered incidents of harassment from Torrey, the stockroom supervisor was fired.

Finally, Crandell laid down the law to Sherman. “I’m going to make this short and sweet, Glen. One more incident like this and you’ll be out on the street with Torrey. When an employee complains of harassment, whether female or male, you’d better damn well drop anything else you may be doing and make it your highest priority.”

Turned down for promotion: Specify why

When the announcement of Ed Spergil’s promotion to Pipe Fitter Grade I appeared on the bulletin board, Don Quill stormed Maintenance Supervisor Ben Gershon’s desk in a rage.

“How come I was bypassed for that promotion?”

“Simmer down,” Gershon advised. “The answer’s simple. Ed is better qualified.”

“Bull!” Quill snapped back. “I was the senior bidder for that job and I’ve got more experience than Spergil. That job’s made to order for me.”

Gershon shrugged. “Sorry, Don, I call them the way I see them.”

“We’ll see about that,” the worker threatened.

When Plant Engineer Bill Kaplow was informed by Shop Steward Mel Hough that Quill was planning to sue for discrimination, he summoned Gershon to his office.

Question: How can the supervisor justify bypassing a senior and more experienced employee for promotion?

Kaplow’s decision: “What’s the story here?” Kaplow asked Gershon. “I checked with Personnel. Quill’s clearly the senior employee, has longer experience, and his record shows satisfactory performance.”

“That may be true,” Gershon agreed. “But what the record doesn’t show is Quill’s lousy attitude.”

Kaplow shook his head. “If the record doesn’t show it, it doesn’t exist.”

“What do you mean?”

“Simply this. When a senior employee is bypassed in favor of a junior, the reason must be clear cut and specific. For one thing, nowhere in the labor agreement does it state that attitude is a factor in defining ability, a point we may have to address. On top of that, Quill’s poor attitude is not even documented. Give him a crack at that job. Then, if his attitude continues to hamper his performance, it might warrant taking action to correct the situation.”

Do dirty jobs deserve extra pay?

Stop your bellyaching,” Maintenance Foreman Mike Skelly told Utility Worker Paul Stokowsky when he complained that cleaning sludge from the lab tanks was bad for his health. “That gook was checked by the medical department. It may be unpleasant and dirty, but nothing in the sludge is toxic or health-threatening.”

“That’s not what my doctor says. He thinks I could develop skin sores. If I have to do that kind of work, I should at least get premium pay.”

“If we had to pay premium pay for all the dirty work around here,” Skelly scoffed, “the company would go into Chapter 11. You want a clean job, go get one somewhere else.”

“Very funny,” Stokowsky replied, “except I’m not laughing.”

Skelly shrugged. “It’s your decision, pal, no one is forcing you to work here.”

Stokowsky stomped off, disgruntled, to return a half hour later with Fred Nettles, a committee leader, in tow.

“This guy has a point,” Nettles argued. “Cleaning those tanks is one of the dirtiest jobs in the plant. He’s entitled to extra pay.”

“Like I told Paul, if we had to pay extra-“

“I know, the company would go into Chapter 11. Do me a favor, Mike, at least check it out.”

Skelly sighed. “Okay, I’ll check it out.”

Question: Does dirty work like cleaning those tanks warrant premium pay?

Sharfin’s verdict: “No extra pay for Stokowski,” Plant Engineer Glen Sharfin ruled. “I’ll grant that under certain circumstances, dirty work may warrant premium pay, but only if the work is excessively onerous, out of the ordinary, and not part of the employee’s regularly assigned tasks. If Stokowski had been able to show that the job did indeed cause him to have skin sores, or was injurious in some other way, a case for premium pay, or assignment elsewhere might be justified.”

Can turning down a well-qualified applicant get you into trouble?

The ad offered good pay for an experienced senior engineer with a college degree. George Sanchez was one of 36 men to apply. After several interviews and tests, the field was narrowed to 2. The last two candidates were Sanchez and Alex Griffin. Plant Engineer Phil Matlock and the president of the company interviewed each of the duo.

Following his final interview, Sanchez was called in, complimented on his outstanding qualifications, thanked for his patience, and informed that Griffin had been hired for the job. Sanchez was offered a lower-paying job in the plant engineering department with a promise of advancement if his performance lived up to his qualifications.

Sanchez turned down the offer and threatened to sue on the grounds of discrimination. He argued, “I have a masters degree; Griffin only has a bachelors degree. I have 8 yr of experience as opposed to Griffin’s 5 yr. The only reason he won is because I’m a Latino.”

“Not so,” Carter replied. “Griffin was chosen because his experience was more specific to the job’s requirements. If management was prejudiced you never would have made it this far.”

This explanation failed to impress Sanchez.

Question: Due to Sanchez’s admittedly outstanding qualifications, is the company obligated to give him the better job?

Matlock’s verdict: After consulting with Personnel Manager Carter, Plant Engineer Matlock ruled that the decision to hire Griffin stands. “In view of the way he was treated, and in the light of the alternative job offer, plus the fact that this company has a number of minority employees in key management and technical positions, the charge of discrimination would not stand up in court.”

Liar, liar-What price must he pay?

Bill Adams’ employer went belly up 10-yr ago. After more than 2 mo of job seeking, in desperation Adams, a qualified carpenter, shaved 7 yr from his age on job application forms. Within a week, he was hired.

Recently, Adams let it slip to a coworker that he was actually almost 65, but had no plans to retire. The word got around and the carpenter was confronted by his boss, Maintenance Supervisor Cliff Oxham. “Bill, according to the scuttlebutt, you lied about your age on your application form when you were hired.”

Adams reluctantly confessed. “I had no choice. “It was the only way I could get a job. Does this mean I may be fired?”

“I don’t know. I’ll check it out and get back to you.”

Question: Should Adams be fired for lying about his age?

Goodman’s decision: “I wouldn’t consider firing the guy for misrepresenting his age under the circumstances,” Plant Engineer Bernard Goodman told Oxham. “But the lie will disqualify him for the pension plan when he retires next year under the compulsory retirement policy. Tell Bill that the good news is he stays on; the bad news is that he loses out on the pension.”