Human Side of Engineering – 2000-08-01 – 2000-08-01

Vacations: August approved for Joe, but not for Bill Carpenter Grade A Bill Forest was up in arms. Utility Worker Joe Falk's request for an August vacation date had been okayed; his had been turned down.

By Raymond Dreyfack, Contributing Editor August 1, 2000

Vacations: August approved for Joe, but not for Bill

Carpenter Grade A Bill Forest was up in arms. Utility Worker Joe Falk’s request for an August vacation date had been okayed; his had been turned down.

“I don’t get it,” he complained to Maintenance Supervisor Al Fitch. “Marge and I have plans to visit Marge’s folks in August. I’ve got more than 2-yr seniority over Joe. Why should he get the nod, and not me?”

“Read the policy manual,” Fitch advised.

“I read the manual. I still don’t get it.”

“You didn’t read it carefully enough.” Fitch pulled a copy from his desk drawer and thumbed to the section on vacation scheduling. “It says here,” he read, “that ‘management will do its best to accommodate employee wishes and needs wherever practical and in accordance with business requirements.'”

“In other words,” Forest groused, “if I take my vacation in August, the company will go into Chapter 11. But if Falk’s away in August, it will remain solvent.”

Fitch smiled. “That’s a melodramatic way of putting it, Bill, but that’s the situation in a nutshell. With you away, we’ll experience a shortage of a critical skill. With Joe Falk gone, it will create no particular problem. It’s the price you pay for being important and well paid.”

Forest refused to settle for this explanation and threatened to “go over Fitch’s head.”

Question: Is Fitch within his rights to refuse Forest’s vacation request?

Plant engineer’s verdict: Plant Engineer Alexander Henshaw supported Fitch’s stand. “The company may not go broke if you approve Forest’s request. But as you pointed out, it would be hampered during the peak season without a Grade I carpenter on the floor. This situation could cause priority projects to be messed up or delayed. Precisely why it’s so important to have included that management’s right provision in the manual. It’s a tough break for Bill Forest, but he’ll have to make other arrangements.”

Can an employee elect to stay on after age 65?

Instrument Repairman Frank Celtic wasn’t exactly overjoyed about the milestone he was about to achieve in three days. Age 65, more than 30 yr on the job. But he had a lot to be grateful for. He was still in good health, and as qualified as ever on the job.

Reviewing the personnel roster with Jeff Terne, his assistant, Maintenance Foreman Mitch Kaufman frowned. “We have three instrument repairmen on the roster, one more than we need.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Terne replied. “Frank Celtic will be celebrating his 65th birthday in a few days. With him gone, we’ll be in good shape, no layoffs necessary.”

“Hey, I forgot about that.”

Celtic, however, had other plans, and no intention of stepping down. He made this clear to his boss when Kaufman approached him regarding retirement.

“Sorry,” the foreman replied, “but the pension plan defines 65 as the normal retirement age.”

“Maybe so,” Celtic agreed, “but the plan also states that an employee may elect to remain on the job until age 70 if he’s in good health and his performance is satisfactory.”

Kaufman promised to check it out and get back to him.

Question: Can Celtic be forced to retire? Or must he be kept on and a less senior person laid off?

Stone’s decision: “Celtic stays put,” Plant Engineer Phil Stone ruled. “The clause he refers to was written by the company. If management wanted to put the 65-70 extension privilege under the company’s control, it should have been so specified when the plan was drawn up.”

Performance problem: Don’t penalize hastily

I’ve been short-changed again,” Ben Andrews complained, slapping his paycheck on Maintenance Supervisor Vince Romero’s desk.

Romero reviewed the time sheets with Andrews and threw up his hands. “The overtime you worked Tuesday wasn’t credited,” he said. “You’re entitled to another $26. You’ll get it by the end of the day.”

This was the last straw, he thought, Alice Fowler’s third blunder in a week. She gets one final warning, and that’s it.

Fowler handled the department’s payroll and other paperwork. Tightlipped, Romero called her on the carpet. Looking worried, she conceded the error and apologized.

“Alice, I can’t run a department this way. We discussed this more than once. It hasn’t seemed to help. I’m going to give you one final chance. If you can’t work more efficiently I’ll have to let you go.”

“I try my best to be careful,” Fowler replied, “but like I tried to explain, the medicine I take to control migraine headaches makes me groggy in the morning. If I didn’t have to come in so early-“

” We’ve been through this before. As I already made clear, I can’t give one employee special privileges. This is my last word on the subject. Either shape up or ship out.”

Worried about losing a badly needed job, Fowler went over her boss’ head to Plant Engineer Ralph Rutherford.

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

Rutherford’s decision: Rutherford summoned Romero to his office. “The hot buzzword in today’s marketplace is flextime, and I can think of no better place to apply it than here. In fact, Fowler’s case ties right into Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines that require employers to make ‘reasonable accommodations’ for employees with medical problems. Doing so shouldn’t shake up the department too badly. My suggestion is that you go along with her request to start work at 10:00 a.m. instead of 8:00 a.m. After that, if her inefficiency continues, you’ll be justified in letting her go.”

Too busy to manage effectively

Project Leader Jeff Willis stuffed two reports he had been unable to get to during the day into his briefcase. Helen wasn’t going to be happy about this. But he’d have to spend another evening at home catching up.

On top of that, an hour before quitting time Alex Brand, a bright young engineer in his group, appeared at his desk.

“I hate to bother you with this, but I’m having a rough time working with Carson on that roofing job.”

The complaint came as no surprise to Jeff. Brand and Carson were poorly matched. Jeff had meant to switch assignments, but hadn’t gotten around to it.

Willis glanced at his watch. He had a letter to finish. “Let me give it some thought. I’ll get back to you.”

Jeff’s intentions were good, but the clock refused to cooperate. He was always behind schedule. Two weeks later, Brand resigned. During an exit interview, his reason for leaving was made clear.

Plant Engineer Mel Grove asked Jeff to come to his office with his work book.

Question: In Grove’s shoes, how would you deal with this problem?

Grove’s approach: Grove wasted no time. “Jeff, Alex Brand is the second man to resign in as many months because his problems and needs were ignored. Or do I have the story wrong?”

Jeff frowned. “I didn’t mean to ignore Brand’s problem. I was just too darned busy to get to it. I’ve been putting in hours of overtime and taking work home in the bargain. I can’t seem to catch up.”

Grove nodded. “That’s what I thought you’d say, and it’s why I think we should go over your work book together.”

The work book listed all projects assigned to Jeff’s group and the people assigned to them. It was apparent to Grove that Jeff took an undue part of the workload on his own shoulders. One by one, he reviewed the job orders with Jeff, posing the same question repeatedly: “Who else can do this job or be trained to do this job?”

Together a schedule was set up to delegate fully 50% of the tasks being handled by Jeff to other members on his staff, leaving Jeff with ample time on his hands to devote to planning and management.

“A manager’s top priority is to manage,” Grove said. “There’s no more useful management tool than delegation. Delegate effectively and you’ll put an end to excessive hours, work taken home, or, most important of all, neglecting your people because you’re too busy to deal with their problems.”

Is risk of serious injury just cause for termination?

When Merchandise Handler John Manners returned to work after a 3-wk hospital stay, his first act was to hand Maintenance Foreman Pete Griffith a note from his doctor. It stated that the employee had a “congenital lumbar anomaly” and that continued heavy lifting could result in “serious permanent injury.” In view of this condition, the physician supported Manners’ request that he be assigned lighter work.

Despite the medical diagnosis, Manners was turned down for insurance at a compensation hearing.

Griffith told the employee he sympathized with his problem, but was unable to help him because there were no openings at this time for jobs with lighter work.

“I need this job,” Manners said. “The compensation judge says I’m eligible to return to my old job. I’m entitled to prove that I can do the work, heavy lifting or not.”

“It’s not worth it,” Griffith tried to convince Manners. “No job is worth risking your health.”

“At least give me a chance to prove I can do it,” the worker persisted.

Griffith hesitated. “Tell you what. I’ll send you to the company doctor for his opinion. Let’s see what he says.”

The company physician confirmed Manners’ doctor’s diagnosis of high risk should he continue to do heavy work.

“I’m sorry,” Griffith said. “I have no choice but to let you go. If a lighter job opens up I’ll let you know.”

Dissatisfied with that answer, Manners promised to pursue the matter further.

Question: Should Manners be given a chance to prove he can do the job?

Maglin’s verdict: Plant Engineer Jerry Maglin backed Griffith’s decision. “Compensation ruling or not,” he told the supervisor, “management can’t afford to shoot craps with an employee’s health. Actually, in letting Manners go we’ll be doing him a favor whether he realizes it or not. Another serious back injury would put him in worse shape than losing his job, not to mention the safety aspect that could affect others as well as himself.”

When is a trainee entitled to a classification upgrade?

When Jerry Roth was hired as a mechanic trainee, he was informed that the training period was flexible and could last 3-6 mo. He passed the 30-day probationary period without a hitch. As his training progressed, he was assigned increasingly difficult tasks which he had no problem mastering.

Two-and-a-half months into his training period, Roth appeared at Maintenance Supervisor Alan Sheffield’s desk with a request that his classification-and consequent pay rate-be upgraded to apprentice helper.

Sheffield advised Roth to be patient, “The classification upgrade will come in time.”

Sheffield refused to settle for this answer. “Some of the jobs I’ve been doing clearly fit into the helper’s classification, and even that of mechanic grade two. There’s been no complaint about my work.”

“You’re doing a good job,” the supervisor conceded. “But upgrading a classification in so short a time is unprecedented. Cool it, pal, you won’t have long to wait.”

“I shouldn’t have to wait at all,” Roth persisted. He pointed out that under the labor agreement, reclassification is required in cases where “substantial changes in the job” have been made.

Sheffield didn’t commit himself, but promised Roth that he would check into it.

Question: Should Roth be reclassified even though his case, as Sheffield says, is unprecedented?

Plant engineer’s decision: After reviewing Roth’s work record, Plant Engineer Ralph Walton ruled, “Reclassify the guy. He’s too good an employee to risk losing. Besides, his quick promotion may inspire others to measure up to his performance.”

Overtime bypass because of heavy lifting

When General Utility Worker Emma Huff was bypassed for overtime work, she stormed indignantly up to Maintenance Foreman George Resnick’s desk.

“The contract calls for equal distribution of overtime,” she complained. “My turn is next.”

“You were bypassed,” Resnick explained, “because there’s heavy lifting involved. Company policy prohibits female employees from lifting more than 50 lb.”

“I have no problem during the day,” Huff persisted.

“Sure, but there’s always a guy on hand to help you. If you work tonight, you’d be the only one on the floor. There’d be no one around to help you.”

Huff insisted she could do the job on her own.

“Sorry,” Resnick replied. “I can’t violate company policy. Your name won’t be bumped from the overtime list. You’re still first in line.”

Huff was unhappy with the response and threatened to appeal it.

Question: In your opinion, should Huff receive the overtime?

Perlman’s decision: Plant Engineer Bob Perlman stated, “Huff will have to wait for an overtime assignment that requires no heavy lifting, or where a male employee will be on hand to assist her. If she’s permitted to work and should suffer a hernia or other injury as a result of heavy lifting, the company would be in line for a lawsuit.”

When is it reasonable to subcontract work?

When Utility Man Ed Pfister Grade II opted for early retirement, Maintenance Supervisor Lars Jensen saw an opportunity to save the company money. Evaluating Pfister’s workload as “not that heavy,” Jensen divided his tasks between the plant’s two remaining utility men, Jack Kellog and Peter Risofsky.

Two weeks later, Plant Steward Arnold Koppel appeared at Jensen’s desk. “When do you plan to hire a replacement for Pfister?”

“I don’t,” Jensen replied. “The work is well covered by Kellog and Risofsky.”

“You gotta be kidding. Those guys are busting a gut. Hire a replacement or you’ll have a grievance on your hands.”

“I’ll give it some thought.”

Instead of a replacement, he decided to subcontract the work and save the company about $500/mo.

“You can’t do that,” Koppel threatened. “Subcontracting the work would screw the union out of a job.”

“It’s management’s obligation to operate as economically as possible.”

Koppel didn’t agree and promised to “fight it all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.”

Question: Who has the right of way here: Koppel, or Jensen?

Plant engineer’s decision: “You carried your zealousness too far in trying to save the company money,” Plant Engineer Rudy Zelman told Jensen. “Forget about subcontracting, and hire a replacement for Pfister. Arbitrarily farming out work customarily performed by bargaining unit employees deprives the union of its rights and undermines workers’ security. Were the company in dire financial straits significantly improved by subcontracting, or if a clause in the contract expressly permitted this action, your move to economize might be justified.”

Can an executive get overtime pay?

Enough is enough, Joe Villani, classified as a supervisor in the maintenance department, and so off the clock, decided one day. Shamelessly exploited, fed up with the job, and seeking other employment, he felt that before bidding farewell, he should try to recover some of the overtime pay he had been deprived of for several months.

Villani carefully explored and assessed the situation before dropping the bombshell. The invoice he presented to his boss, Maintenance Manager Mel Fairchild, was for $4200 in “back overtime pay.” It included detailed documentation of extra hours worked during the week and on weekends.

“What the hell is this?” Fairchild asked irately.

“It speaks for itself,” Villani replied.

“You’re crazy,” Fairchild said.

“Either I get the money or I sue.”

Question: Off the clock, and given his executive status, how would you rate Villani’s chances of collecting on his back overtime claim?

McKenna’s ruling: Plant Engineer Hank McKenna reviewed Villani’s invoice thoughtfully.

“Ok, Fairchild, give me a rundown of the kind of work performed on the dates specified in the invoice.”

Fairchild frowned. “I dunno-everything from supervisory stuff to paperwork, checking time cards, and-you name it.”

“How much of his time would you say was devoted to nonexecutive tasks such as clerical, filling in for subordinates, etc.?”

Fairchild shrugged. “I dunno, at least 30 or 40%, I’d guess.”

“That’s what I was afraid of,” McKenna said. “Have him come up to my office. Hopefully we can agree on an amicable settlement. If not, we may have to give him the $4200. Executive status or not, if more than 20% of his time is spent on nonexecutive work, his overtime claim is well taken. Crazy as a fox to be sure.”

Prepare carefully before hiring a professional

Chief Engineer Mark Wilson approached his boss’ desk with a frown on his face. “Chuck, I think the time has come when we need to spin off some of our staff engineers into a group supervised by a new project manager.”

“I agree,” Plant Engineer Chuck Morrison said.

The frown disappeared from Wilson’s face.

“I’ve gone through the roster,” he said. “I can’t come up with a staff person qualified to take over the project manager’s job. We’ll have to hire someone.”

“I agree with that too.”

“Great.” Wilson grinned. “I prepared a classified ad with that thought in mind.”

He handed Morrison a copy of the ad. The plant engineer reviewed it thoughtfully. “I’m going to be tied up on the budget and a dozen other things,” he said. “Will you be able to interview respondents?”

“Sure. No problem.”

“How much are we prepared to pay if we find a well-qualified guy?”

Wilson’s frown was back. “Well, I’d have to give that some thought.”

“What about a job description? What are you going to tell the candidate about the company and its culture?”

“I, uh, that is…”

Question: In Morrison’s shoes, what advice would you give Wilson?

Morrison’s counsel: Hiring any employee requires a good deal of forethought. Hiring a key employee requires an extra measure. Morrison pounded this message across to the chief.

“Wages and benefits are only one subject to cover,” he told Wilson. “To do this intelligently, you have to know what the competition offers for similar jobs. It’s also important to give the applicant a feel for the company, its culture, and the image it wants to project. Finally, there’s the job itself: Its duties and responsibilities, what is expected, and what information you can obtain in determining which candidate is best qualified to fill it. Mark, please keep this in mind in rewording your ad. In my experience, too many managers are too busy to qualify themselves to interview and hire key people. Which is why so many unqualified people are hired.”

Is over-rating employees a valid motivational tool?

It was time for the quarterly employee performance evaluation report. Maintenance Supervisor Peter Weld was reviewing the department’s personnel roster with Jim Handy, his assistant. When they reached Electrician Grade II Alan Hammer’s name, Weld asked Handy, “What do you think?”

Handy grimaced. “A shade above mediocre. He’s got the smarts and potential. But his attitude leaves something to be desired. In his book, enthusiasm is a dirty word.”

Weld said, “That’s pretty much the way I see it.” He added, “I have a thought. What would happen if we gave him a glowing evaluation even though he doesn’t deserve it? Do you think it might spark his morale and boost his performance?”

“That’s hard to say, but it may be worth a try.”

When the performance ratings were published, the word “excellent” appeared after Hammer’s name. Monitoring his performance, Weld observed no perceptible change in his work output or attitude. A month later, when the department’s merit increase list was posted, Hammer’s name was conspicuously absent.

The electrician appeared at Weld’s desk. “What kind of ripoff is this?” he asked angrily. “I’m rated excellent, but denied a merit raise.”

“Don’t take that rating to heart,” Weld advised. “It was merely an attempt to boost your performance. It apparently didn’t work.”

Hammer refused to settle for the explanation. “My excellent evaluation is on the record. Either I get that merit raise or I sue.”

Question: In Weld’s shoes, would you give Hammer the raise?

Benson’s decision: “You dug yourself into a hole,” Plant Engineer Greg Benson told Weld. “Giving an employee an undeserved evaluation opens the door to a lawsuit and is a poor way to boost motivation. You rated Hammer excellent, I’m afraid you’re stuck with it. Give him the increase.”

Malingerer in your midst: What to do?

If ever he saw a faker, Maintenance Manager Bill Mackey thought, Gerald Winston fit the bill. If his job performance and goof-off history were any indication, his health claim under the Family and Medical Leave Act was as phoney as the rest of his behavior. But how to keep him from getting away with it, that was the question.

The requisite medical certification-a scribbled note from Winston’s doctor supporting his patient’s severe back pain complaints-Mackey believed, was as suspect as the applicant himself. When Mackey ordered the “patient” to visit the company physician for authentication of his alleged “serious health condition,” Winston refused to comply.

“My family doctor’s opinion is good enough for me,” Winston maintained. “He knows my physical condition better than anyone else.”

Mackey had no intention of letting it go at that. But, where do I go from here, he wondered.

Question: Convinced Winston was a malingerer, what options are open to Mackey?

Johnson’s decision: This, precisely, was the question Mackey posed to his boss, Plant Engineer Chet Johnson.

“You can’t force the guy to see the company doctor if he refuses. But you can require that he obtain a second opinion if you pay for it. But the health provider you select cannot be one who serves you on a regular basis. Should this doctor’s diagnosis differ from that of Winston’s doctor, you can retain a third opinion, again one you pay for. But this choice must be agreeable to both you and the employee.”

Mackey replied, “Sounds like a lot to go through, but if it means nailing a chiseler like Winston, it may be worth it.”