Human Side of Engineering – 2000-09-01 – 2000-09-01

In the April 2000 issue of Plant Engineering, Human Side of Engineering presented "Uncommon side: The daytime surfer-Part I.

By Raymond Dreyfack, Contributing Editor September 1, 2000

In the April 2000 issue of Plant Engineering, Human Side of Engineering presented “Uncommon side: The daytime surfer-Part I.”

Angela Villani is a valued employee who happens to spend a portion of her workday “surfing” the internet for personal use, such as shopping.

When called to account for the situation, Angela says her use of the internet at work is a “good learning experience” and that it is good for the company because it makes her more “computer smart.” Besides, she says, “everybody does it.”

Reports indicate that about half of American workers cybershop on company time. What is a company to do? Should it tolerate the situation? Should it take action? If so, how?

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

Cases for “Uncommon side” are drawn from actual plant experiences. If you have a problem in human relations or labor relations on which you’d like professional opinions and the viewpoints of others, we’d like to hear from you. Names and situations are changed to protect the privacy of the person who presents the problem.

If your problem is chosen for publication, Plant Engineering magazine will send you a check for $100. To submit a case idea for consideration, write to Plant Engineering’s Human Side of Engineering, 2000 Clearwater Dr., Oak Brook, IL 60523, e-mail: cfirestone@, fax: 630-320-7145.

The daytime surfer-Part II

On one point, all respondents agree with Uncommon Side’s two experts, and the experts agree with each other: A clear policy should be spelled out early on and a level playing field established.

Are precedential issues involved here? Should Angela be fired? Absolutely, says Michael Tricarico, an attorney with the international law firm, Proskauer Rose, LLP.

“Anytime a company singles out an employee for punishment on the basis of a policy inconsistently applied or enforced, the company exposes itself to potential liability if the terminated employee is the member of a protected class under the law.” Because Angela is female, he adds, she may have a gender bias case if she can prove comparably placed male surfers were not fired. Similarly, if she was disabled, or over age 40, she could also have a case. Or if the state recognizes her claim of wrongful discharge.

“A wise manager,” says Maintenance and Engineering Manager Steve Ross, “avoids the appearance of singling anyone out. As long as policy is clearly defined, and all employees are aware that the past is just that, ‘everyone does it’ doesn’t wash.”

Manager of Manufacturing Services Gary C. Mitchell carries it a step further. “A memo needs to be published company-wide” he says, “with signoffs required. The memo should detail the perceived abuse, state that it will no longer be tolerated, and specify the consequences should continued infractions occur.”

Respondent Lakeysha Garrett agrees-sort of. Garrett feels that Angela being caught surfing while others escaped detection shouldn’t necessarily absolve her from discipline. “If a trooper pulls you over for speeding, the excuse that you’re not the only speeder on the road won’t hold much weight with him.” Garrett also maintains that “in this digital age, internet surfing” should be strictly verboten.

Should surfing on company time call for discipline? And if so, how tough? Human Side expert Leonard J. Smith makes a case for using the criterion of job performance to decide.

“If it suffers as a result,” he says, “discipline is warranted. If performance is unaffected or minimally affected, the surfing privilege could constitute a fine fringe benefit.”

Experts Smith and Tricarico advise publishing a strong policy and enforcing it day-to-day on a consistent and equal basis. Anything less, they say, will spell trouble down the road.

Can a laid-off worker request a transfer?

About 3-wk after being laid off, Materials Handler Bill Malden received a call from Personnel.

“A vacancy just occurred at Warehouse II. You can come to work Monday.”

Malden wasn’t thrilled at the news. “All my buddies work in Warehouse I,” he groused. “I feel more comfortable there. I’d just as soon wait until things pick up at Warehouse I again.”

Two weeks later, Malden heard via the grapevine that lower seniority materials handlers had been recalled to Warehouse I while he was still on layoff.

“What gives?” he wanted to know when he called Personnel.

“You were placed at the bottom of the list,” he was informed. “You waived your right to recall when you turned down the Warehouse II opening.”

“That’s not fair,” Malden protested. “I’m not required to accept a transfer while on layoff.”

Personnel disagreed.

Question: Who has the right of way in this disagreement?

Jordan’s verdict: Plant Engineer Ralph Jordan sided with the employee. “In the absence of a specific contract stipulation,” he told Personnel, “a worker doesn’t have to accept a transfer when on layoff. I could cite more than one case where a transfer was refused with no sacrifice of seniority on the employee’s part.”

Malden was reinstated the following day.

Honest oversight in overtime assignment

Sometimes with the best of intentions, a supervisor goofs in assigning work.

Mechanic Grade II Harry Tubman didn’t know until the next day that he had been bypassed for an emergency overtime assignment. When he got the word, he headed for Maintenance Foreman Chuck Lindquist’s desk.

“Sorry about that,” Lindquist apologized. “I’ll make it up to you as soon as I can.”

“Like when?” Tubman pressed. “I’m short this month and can use the extra bread.”

“Within a reasonable time,” Lindquist snapped back.

A week passed with no overtime assigned in the department. Then one day, a rush job came through, and again, Tubman was bypassed.

He accused Lindquist of discrimination.

“That’s ridiculous,” his boss replied.

“Oh yeah? Then how come you assigned Riley to that lab job instead of me? I thought I was supposed to be next in line to make up the time I lost.”

“You are next in line. I picked Riley for this job because he’s more familiar with the project. Stay cool. Your turn will come.”

Tubman said through tight lips, “You promised me the makeup work within a reasonable time.”

“It’s only a little over a week.” Lindquist tried to curb his irritation. “It’s still a reasonable amount of time.”

Tubman refused to settle for that reply and threatened a grievance.

Question: Do you think Tubman is the one who’s unreasonable?

Britner’s response: “Give the guy his overtime,” Plant Engineer Al Britner instructed Lindquist when he was told about the dispute.

“Pest or not,” he may have a point. “I can recall cases where a commitment was supposed to be made ‘within a reasonable time,’ and where the arbitrator interpreted that promise to mean ‘at the first opportunity.'”

Question: When is a rule not a rule?

Answer: When it’s meant to be broken.

The machine parts manufacturing plant in question was liberal when it came to granting employee leaves for a variety of reasons-educational and otherwise. But historically, a strict limitation of 1 yr was attached to such permissions.

When Ed Milner, a welder in the maintenance department, sustained a severe back injury one of his major concerns was that his job status might be jeopardized as a result of the accident.

“Don’t worry,” Maintenance Supervisor Art Gordon assured him. “Let me know when you receive a certificate from your doctor approving your return to work.”

Neither Milner nor Gordon imagined that the welder’s involuntary leave of absence would run 14 mo. After this time, when he presented Gordon with the medical certificate, the supervisor rejected it, citing company policy that specified the 1-yr leave limitation.

Milner persisted in his right to be reinstated in his former job. “This isn’t an ordinary leave,” he told Gordon. “It’s a special case.”

“Maybe so,” Gordon replied. “I’ll check it out with Mr. Hastings.”

Question : Should the 1-yr leave limitation be waived in Milner’s case?

Hastings’ verdict: “Absolutely,” Plant engineer Mark Hastings ruled. “Milner should get his job back. When that limitation was imposed, I’m sure no one had a forced leave of absence for job injury in mind. Every so often, you run across a rule in business and in life that’s just meant to be broken. This is one of them.”

Clamp down hard on harassment

Sexual harassment debacles and lawsuits have jolted many human resource and other executives into the realization that they’d better clamp down on the mistreatment of women, or else. Moral considerations aside, labor attorneys caution, the “or else” implies heavy legal costs, declining employee morale, and seriously adverse public relations consequences.

This message was apparently lost on a macho maintenance supervisor we’ll call Bill Williger. Williger was abusive with both his hands and his mouth; guilty of disrespectful sexual remarks, as well as being a grabber. When Alice complained to Williger’s boss, Maintenance Manager Frank Felner, Felner’s first step was to investigate the allegation. After confirming this with two other women, Williger was called on the carpet and warned by Felner that he was “skating on thin ice.”

“The message didn’t register. When Williger’s abusive behavior continued, Alice, in desperation, went over Felner’s head to his boss, Plant Engineer Arthur Redlich.

Question: In Redlich’s place, how would you deal with this problem?

Redlich’s response: First, Redlich thanked Alice for coming to him and assured her that Williger’s behavior would not be tolerated. He promised to take steps to stop it, and urged her to report directly to him if the abuse continued.

He next summoned Felner and Williger to his office. Consulting a report on his desk, he told Williger, “I see that you’re up for a wage increase next month.”

“Yes sir.”

“Well, you’re not going to get it,” Redlich said flatly, and explained why. “And one more complaint,” he added, “will cost you more than a wage boost; it will cost you your job.”

When Williger was dismissed, Redlich asked Felner to stay. “Liability concerns prevent the company from publicizing cases like this and the punishment involved. But I won’t mind if the word gets around via the grapevine. Supervisors and line people must be made to understand that they’ll have a lot to lose if they don’t shape up on this issue. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes sir,” Felner replied.

Two weeks later, Redlich followed up by summoning Alice to his office. “Any more problems?” he asked.

“No sir, not since we spoke.”

“Good. Let me know if there’s a change.”

Offer a friendly ear to whistleblowers

It’s a sad commentary on companies that fire people who blow the whistle about conditions and policies that are either unsafe or corrupt. Employees need a channel through which they can communicate concerns without fear of reprisal.

Lacking such a channel can leave a company vulnerable to a host of costly problems ranging from serious accidents to lawsuits.

Too bad Maintenance Supervisor Jack Margolies didn’t have this thought in mind when Louis Rasofsky, a painter, griped about a scaffolding that had been erected outside the Powder Room. Extremely busy that day, he replied irritably that he would have a look at it.

Margolies forgot, or never got around to, keeping his promise. Rasofsky called it to his attention again three days later.

“I’m afraid to work on that scaffolding,” he said. “I could have a serious accident.”

“Yeah, yeah, you already told me. I’ll get to it as soon as I can.”

When another week passed by with no action, Plant Engineer Ken Pinsky received an anonymous note. It read: For Your Information: Jack Margolies was notified twice with no action taken about the unsafe scaffolding outside the Powder Room. If this hazardous situation isn’t corrected within three days, I shall have no choice but to report the violation to OSHA.

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

Pinsky’s response: Pinsky examined the scaffolding referred to, confirmed its defective condition, and summoned Margolies to his office. His message was loud and clear. “As a supervisor and representative of management, your number one priority is to ensure the safety and well-being of your people. I don’t know who sent this anonymous note; I don’t want to know. And I want no repercussions of any kind to occur.”

“Considering the condition of that scaffolding and the fact that the request for repair was ignored, a call to OSHA-and the stiff fine that would have produced-would have been totally justified. The next time you ignore such a request, you’ll be putting your job on the line. Understand?”

“Yes sir.”

For Pinsky, the incident was a learning experience. A policy and Hazard Alert form, were introduced which encouraged employees with complaints to submit them in duplicate, with one copy to the person’s supervisor, and a duplicate to the plant engineering department.

Can you fire a garnishee-prone employee?

Oh no, not again!” Maintenance Foreman Ted Connor moaned when informed that Carpenter Grade II Harry Seldes, had received a wage garnishment for $795, his second since being hired 8-mo before. Connor recalled the extra time, expense, and annoyance Greg Lanahan, a previous garnishee-prone employee had caused a few years back. That worker was eventually fired. Good riddance, the foreman had thought at the time. The last thing he wanted now was to go through that hassle again with all its paperwork and disruption involved.

Connor summoned Seldes to his desk and confronted him with the garnishee notification.

“No big deal,” the carpenter said, “I went overboard on the purchase of a boat, and I’m in a bit of a financial bind. But I’ll straighten it out before long.”

Connor winced inwardly. Lanahan had used pretty much the same words. He asked, How many garnishments have you had in the past few years?”

Seldes shifted uneasily before answering. “Two here, and two or three on my last job.”

Connor nodded. This guy needed to be taught a lesson that would probably do him more good than harm. “I’ll get back to you about this,” he said.

He got back to him the next day with a termination notice. “We can’t afford garnishee-prone employees in this plant,” he told Seldes. “It’s just too expensive and disruptive.”

“You can’t fire me for this,” the carpenter protested. “It’s against the law.”

Question: Does the garnishee-prone employee know what he is talking about?

Wallach’s decision: “He certainly does,” Plant Engineer Frank Wallach told Connor. “Time was you could fire a worker for excessive garnishments, and you still can up to a point. The question is, has Seldes reached this point? A clause in the contract specifies that an employee who incurs more than two garnishments may be subject to dismissal. But garnishments incurred at a former place of employment cannot be applied as part of the total. I suggest a warning notice informing Seldes of the thin ice he is skating on.”

Play it safe if she’s pregnant

When Supply Room Attendant Sally Fiorelo requested a ladder for the supply room, Maintenance Supervisor Joe Mellon turned her down.

“We managed without a ladder for years. Why is it necessary now?”

“Because I’m pregnant. I’m afraid that if I have to stand on a chair to reach a high shelf I might fall and injure the baby.”

“Most of the stuff is within easy reach. If you need something from a high shelf, you can ask someone else to get it for you.”

“That’s not practical,” Sally replied. “People are often in a hurry for tools or supplies when they come here. If I have to-“

“Forget it,” Mellon interrupted. “We’re cramped for space around here. A ladder would only be in the way.”

Sally wasn’t happy with this explanation. “I have to think of my baby first,” she replied. “If I don’t get that ladder, I’m filing a grievance.”

Question: In Mellon’s shoes, would you give Sally the ladder?

Plant engineer’s decision: “Get her the ladder at once,” Plant Engineer Bob Lehman instructed Mellon. “Aside from being the humane thing to do, a rash of recent awards to pregnant workers who suffered job injuries from accidents, or fetal damage from hazardous substances, make it clear that courts and juries tend to side more and more with pregnant complainants these days.”

Downsizing? Keep the law on your side

You decide, for economic reasons or otherwise, to plan a reduction in force (RIF). Call it “downsizing,” “rightsizing,” or whatever. The idea is to avoid litigation, which could occur for a variety of reasons.

Numerous avenues for legal challenge exist. Ill-considered downsizing is a virtual invitation to sue. Management at a New Jersey plant learned the hard way to ask before wielding the ax: In achieving our goal, is a viable alternative possible?

The plant in question was not in dire economic straits. But anticipating a downturn in sales, the general manager ordered the plant engineer to reduce the maintenance crew by 10%. Minutes after the news hit the bulletin board, the maintenance supervisor’s desk was surrounded by union officials and committee members.

“You can’t do this unilaterally.”

“We should have had advance notice.”

“You have to spell out the reasons for the cut, and give us options to deal with the situation.”

When the union and committee threatened everything from a strike to a lawsuit, the supervisor stalled them off with a promise to check in with the plant engineer to “look into it.”

Question: In the plant engineer’s shoes, what action would you take?

Expert’s counsel: The plant engineer suggested to the general manager that before finalizing the cutback, it might be a good idea to have a chat with the company’s labor attorney. It turned out to be good advice.

“You could be sitting on a keg of dynamite,” the lawyer said. “Here’s what I’d suggest: First, spell out the business reasons you feel the cutback is necessary. Then, if you’re convinced the reasons are valid, come up with as many viable alternatives as possible, such as reduced working hours, employee transfers, and a hiring freeze. The idea, if it becomes necessary, is to convince a jury that the layoff was precipitated with sound business reasons in mind.”

Dealing with an absentee who doesn’t call in

Few employees are more aggravating to a supervisor than those who fail to call in when they’re absent.

The day Carpenter Grade I Dave Lon unexpectedly didn’t show up caused disruption throughout the department. Maintenance Foreman Carl Stoner had to shift Lon’s high priority job to someone else, delay an overdue project, and make other adjustments.

Stoner was tightlipped when Lon clocked in next day.

“Where the hell were you?”

“What do you mean-oh, darn, I forgot to call in. I’m sorry.”

“You’ll be sorrier when you’re on three-days suspension.”

“Look, I know I goofed when I forgot to call in. But you can’t suspend me. There’s no rule that says an employee has to call in. Or that special permission is needed when you have to take a day off.”

When Stoner refused to back down, Lon threatened a grievance.

Question: Is Lon’s suspension justified?

Johnson’s verdict: Plant Engineer Dan Johnson upheld the suspension. “Any employee with even a modicum of common sense should know that a department can’t function with workers who fail to show up or call in. What’s more, it’s common courtesy to call your boss when you know you’re going to be out.”

Name-calling: Don’t overreact.

When employees in Group Leader Fred Madden’s section complained about changes in the work scheduling and lunch hours, a meeting was set up with Madden and his boss, Maintenance Foreman Jerry Grove. The meeting was held with Joe Ross acting as spokesman for the workers. But at the last minute, something came up that prevented Grove from attending.

When the employees’ gripes were unresolved, Ross requested a meeting with Grove. The foreman listened but gave no ground in response to Ross’ demands. Since more heat than light was exchanged, Ross grew increasingly irritable.

During the course of the discussion, he referred to Group Leader Madden as a jerk.

“Watch it,” Grove cautioned. “Madden is a member of management.”

“Some management,” Ross snapped hotly. “You’re pretty dumb too for hiring a jerk like him.”

“That does it!” Grove barked back. “You can pick up your check at the payroll office.”

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

Question: Do you think Ross is justifiably terminated for insubordination?

Grogan’s verdict: “Change the dismissal to a three-day suspension,” Plant Engineer Mike Grogan instructed Grove. “For one thing, as most arbitrators acknowledge, emotions often tend to run high during labor disputes. Also, the remarks were made in the privacy of your office where they weren’t overheard by the crew, and thus had no adverse effect on your supervisory status in the eyes of other employees. The guy deserves to be disciplined, but termination is too harsh.”