Human Side of Engineering – 2000-10-01 – 2000-10-01

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.

By Raymond Dreyfack Contributing Editor October 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 February 2001 issue, offers the suggestions of labor relations experts, along with a summary of reader opinions on how to solve the case.

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, which will appear in the February 2001 issue.

Send your responses to this case by December 31, 2000 to: Uncommon Side I, Plant Engineering , 2000 Clearwater Dr., Oak Brook, IL 60523; e-mail:; fax: 630-320-7145.

Uncommon Side: The fearful fringe freak-Part I

Three years ago, my wife Tess and I, while in France, visited a Paris museum. We were shocked beyond belief by the appearance of a young man, 18 or 20, in full Nazi regalia, with a swastika band on his arm. It was like something out of a war movie.

Our eyes met. The young man’s eyes projected unspeakable arrogance, hate, and potential violence. They transmitted a chilling message: Juden! Had his sick eyes been capable of radiating death, there is no question in my mind that would have been our fate. We hurried from the room. Scared. Shaken. We did nothing. What could we do?

One hears stories of racism and fascism still rampant throughout Europe, America, and the rest of the world. The Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam devotes an entire wing to its existence. An hour spent there is sufficient to pound the reality home that Adolph Hitler lives in the hearts and minds of an untold number of twisted souls. The Ku Klux Klan and dozens of ultraright organizations are dedicated to the spread of hatred and violence, their lexicon chillingly clear.

African Americans, Latinos, Jews, gays, and so on have all been victims of targeted hate. Anyone “different” is a target.

You view the atrocities in the press and on television. But unless you see it in person, as we did in that Paris museum, the effect and implications are watered down. You are chilled momentarily, then it slips from your mind.

Recently, I received a letter from a plant engineering department executive concerning “John,” a crew member in the maintenance department with a harshly negative attitude and grating personality. John showed up for work one day in a shirt that displayed a swastika and a picture of Hitler.

“Our plant has no dress code,” the executive wrote. “No stated policy excludes a specified manner of garb. Neither John’s supervisor, nor other plant personnel, commented on this incident. Although John’s supervisor does not report to me,” he concluded, “I feel I cannot let this situation go unchallenged. How can I cope with it?”

Question: How would you respond in this case? What are the moral imperatives-and legal restrictions, if any?

Send your responses to this case by December 31, 2000, to: Uncommon Side I, Plant Engineering , 2000 Clearwater Dr., Oak Brook, IL 60523; e-mail:; fax: 630-320-7145.

When “love” turns sour

Maintenance department clerical employee Sue Calhoun had to concede that her supervisor, Bill Parker, was not without sex appeal. But his appeal to her went a bit further than that. Calhoun was ambitious. She figured Parker was in a position to get her a nice promotion and wage boost. He had virtually promised her as much if she succumbed to his romantic advances. So, after persistent wooing, she finally gave in.

After 6 mo or so of the hots for Parker, Calhoun’s ardor started to cool.

She was more disappointed in his failure to keep his promise to her satisfaction than in his prowess as a lover. All he had succeeded in getting for her was a paltry $10 increase.

“We’re operating on a tight budget, baby,” he kept telling her. “You gotta be patient. I’m doing my best.”

Parker’s best wasn’t good enough for her. She held out another 2 mo. When no additional increase came through, Calhoun decided enough was enough and put an end to the love affair.

Parker, however, wasn’t ready to call it quits. He kept after her to keep seeing him. When Parker refused to lay off, Calhoun initiated a grievance on the grounds of sexual harassment.

Question: Can an employee charge a spurned lover with harassment?

Altshuler’s verdict: Plant Engineer John Altshuler wrinkled his nose at the disclosure that Parker had been having an affair with a subordinate. “You’re skating on thin ice,” he told him. “But so far as harassment is concerned, Calhoun’s grasping at straws. For one thing, she hadn’t complained about harassment in the past. For another, she didn’t lose out financially because of the relationship. Third, since the original affair was consensual, it doesn’t qualify as harassment. So you’re off the hook in that regard. But you’re not off the hook where I’m concerned. I’m transferring her to another department. Any more problems with her, you can kiss your job goodbye.”

Absent on “personal” business

When Electrician Grade II Sam Malen returned to work after being out one day, Maintenance Supervisor Chuck Daystrom wanted to know why he was absent.

“Like I said when I called in yesterday morning,” Malen replied. “I had personal business to attend to.”

“That’s not good enough,” Daystrom said. “Personal business can mean anything from taking off on a shopping trip to going to a baseball game.”

“I wouldn’t take time off for something like that.”

“Then why did you take the day off?”

“It’s confidential. I can’t tell you.”

“You better tell me if you don’t want a suspension. The department’s been hurting because of too much absence. It’s time I put my foot down.”

“Well, don’t put it down on me. I wouldn’t have taken the day off if I didn’t need to.”

“That’s all you can tell me?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Okay, pal, you’ll be hearing from me.”

Question : As a supervisor, do you have to settle for “personal business” as an absence excuse?

Egan’s verdict: Before suspending Malen, Daystrom decided to check with his boss. Plant Engineer George Egan asked, “Does the guy have a poor attendance record?” “Not particularly,” the supervisor replied. “In fact, it’s a little better than average. But I-” “What about his performance? How is he rated?” “Also above average.” “In that case, I wouldn’t press him on this. Malen sounds like a conscientious, trustworthy employee. If his business is of a nature that’s confidential or embarrassing to reveal, I’d suggest that you respect his feelings. If the guy were a chronic absentee or marginal employee, it might be a different situation.”

Ridiculing the company: Can you fire him?

Mechanic Bill Klapper wasn’t the only member of the maintenance crew who was disgruntled about the expected wage boost that didn’t come through. But he was the only one whose disappointment went beyond grumbling.

Klapper had a flair for drawing cartoons and took this means to express his feelings. At home he produced a 10 3 12-in. cartoon displaying the company’s wealthy high paid CEO arriving at work in his chauffeured Mercedes alongside a poor deprived employee arriving on a broken down bicycle. In large block letters were the words: IS THIS JUSTICE? Klapper reproduced the cartoon six times and, without permission, posted his work of art in strategic areas of the cafeteria and plant.

When Bill’s boss, Maintenance Foreman Andy Houghton, saw the posters, he quickly pulled them down and issued Klapper a discharge notice.

Klapper, at best a troublesome employee, blanched. “Hey, this was no more than a practical joke. Firing me is too harsh a penalty.”

When Houghton disagreed, Klapper threatened to appeal his decision.

Question: Do you think Klapper’s action is just cause for dismissal?

Sheffield’s verdict: Plant Engineer Bob Sheffield supported the foreman’s decision. “Publicly ridiculing the company in the way Klapper did is going a step too far. He deserves to be fired.”

When child care commitments conflict with one’s job

When Molly Clawson decided to resign, it came as a blow to Maintenance Foreman George Randall. Mollie’s reason for leaving: Her ailing mother was no longer able to spend so much time caring for her single daughter’s two children. With Mollie’s 5-yr-old attending kindergarten and her 8-yr-old taking music lessons, she was needed at home a good part of the time.

Theoretically, no employee is supposed to be indispensable. But if anyone came close, it was Mollie. She handled the department’s clerical chores from time cards and the auditing of bills to selected special reports.

Discussing Mollie’s decision with his boss, Randall thought he might have to hire two people to replace her.

“Is replacing her absolutely necessary?” Plant Engineer Greg Traynor asked thoughtfully.

“What do you mean? She’s leaving. What choice do I have?”

“None, if there’s no way to avoid her departure. But have you discussed this with her? Does she have to leave?”

“She’d prefer not to. She loves her job. But she’s needed at home.”

“Send her to my office,” Traynor instructed. “I’d like to have a chat with her.”

Question What might Traynor tell Molly that could induce her to stay?

Plant engineer’s solution:” You’re one of our most valued employees,” Traynor told Molly. “Losing you will really hurt.” “It will hurt me too,” Molly said. “I like this job, and I need the money, but I have no choice.” “Tell me something,”Traynor said. “Is it possible for your work schedule to be revised in such a way that you could be home when you’re needed?” “You’re talking about flex time?” “Exactly.” “I see no reason why not,” Molly said. “I could adjust my hours to come in early some days and do a lot of the routine work at home.” “Great! Let’s see what we can work out.” As Traynor told Randall after meeting with Molly, “It’s a new workplace, George. The adaptation of flex time solves more and more problems these days. So long as the job gets done properly and in time, and when it doesn’t interfere with others getting their work done. it often makes no difference when and where people work.”

How to deal with a smelly situation

Instrument Repairman George Rankin and Electrician Harry Ruder approached Maintenance Supervisor Pete Cochran’s desk with pained expressions on their faces.

“What’s the problem?”

Rankin served as spokesman. “We’ve been elected to perform an unpleasant task.”

“Fire away.”

Rankin moistened his lips. “It’s Philip Brea. He, well that is…”

Cochran held up a hand. “You don’t have to finish the sentence.”

“What do you want me to do about it?” he asked.

When Rankin hesitated, Ruder filled in. “Transfer him to another department.”

They didn’t have to explain why. Brea’s body odor was so objectionable that one employee had compared it to a sewer in which a skunk had been buried.

Cochran pulled in a sigh. “Let me think about it,” he promised.

Question: In Cochran’s place, how would you cope with this situation Solway’s solution:? The supervisor wisely sought his boss’ advice. “Transferring the guy won’t solve the problem,” Plant Engineer Ray Solway said, “it will simply switch it to somebody else. The question is: Does Brea’s odor stem from a health problem of some kind? Or is it simple neglect, an aversion to soap and water?” “How do we find out?” Cochran asked. “Should we send him to the medical department?” “We may have to do that. But first, let’s try sending him an anonymous note signed ‘A Friend’. This would tip Brea off as tactfully as possible that his personal hygiene has been causing complaints. Unless he’s a complete dummy, if the problem’s neglect, he’ll take the hint. I wish I could think of some other way to spare him embarrassment. If that doesn’t work we’ll have to send him to medical and let them take it from there.” Fortunately, the “friendly tip” was enough to do the job.

Give creative people ample time to create

What’s the trouble with Chris Peterson?” Plant Engineer Frank Merrick asked Project Supervisor Mal Dietrich.

“What do you mean?” Peterson was a young operating engineer with a “high potential” personnel rating.

“For one, he looks a little frazzled around the edges. For another, Chris used to come up with all kinds of bright ideas, some a bit wild, but most of them bright. I haven’t seen anything from him along those lines recently.”

Dietrich frowned. “I don’t know, Frank. He’s been pretty busy lately.”

“Hmmm. Mind if I have a chat with him?”

“No, I’d welcome it if you feel something’s the matter.”

Question: Even without much of a solid tip, do you suspect what the problem might be?

Merrick’s disclosure: The plant engineer’s suspicions panned out pretty much as he’d thought they would. Confronting Peterson, he wasted no time on chit chat. “How are you doing, Chris? Any problems you want to discuss?” Peterson hesitated. “No, why do you ask?” “Well, for one thing, if I’m reading you right you’ve been looking a bit hassled lately. For another, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen one of your brilliant suggestions.” “Are you kidding? Take a look at this.” He showed Merrick his current work schedule, a long list of tasks ranging from preventive maintenance on pumps, compressed air and hydraulic systems to the repair, overhaul, and adjustment of pressure controls and a steam generator.” I’m lucky if I can get out of this place by 7:00 p.m., let alone devote time to dreaming up brilliant ideas.” “That’s what I was afraid you might say,” Merrick said. “Let me see what we can do about that.” The plant engineer’s follow-up was swift and to the point. “Creative guys like Chris,” he told Dietrich, “require special handling to keep them happy, creative, and productive. One look at Chris’s schedule is enough to explain why the idea flow suddenly stopped. My advice is to ease up on his workload. Creative people need ample time in which to function creatively.”

Don’t compromise with theft

When Sal Battaglia was caught punching Bill Terkel’s time card at quitting time, Maintenance Foreman Steve Kelly’s first step was to investigate. A number of pertinent facts surfaced.

For one, Terkel had left the plant an hour earlier. For another, Battaglia had been caught 8-mo prior committing an illegal punchout and had gotten off with a 2-wk suspension. Battaglia’s performance rating was marginal; Terkel’s was average with no serious blemishes to date.

Confronted with the evidence, Battaglia protested that he had simply done his friend a favor.

“The guy was finished with the job he’d been working on. He would have been sitting around anyway.”

“That’s not the way it works around here,” Kelly replied. “When you complete an assignment, the proper procedure is to report to your boss for another one. Time is money. That means you robbed the company of approximately $11, Terkel’s hourly wage, plus benefits. Since stealing is a dischargeable offense, especially the second time around, I have no choice but to let you go.”

Terkel was given another chance. He was let off with a 2-wk suspension and warning notice.

Battaglia, supported by his union representative, filed a grievance on the grounds that: 1. The penalty was too harsh for a relatively harmless offense. 2. Discipline hadn’t been imposed equally. If Battaglia was fired, Terkel should have been too.

Question: Do you agree with the union’s position?

Martin’s verdict:” The dismissal stands as imposed,” Plant Engineer Jeff Martin ruled. “In disciplining workers, a number of considerations enter into the decision. Recidivism is certainly one of them, the fact that this is the second time the offense was committed. Another is the employee’s record; Battaglia’s is poor, Terkel’s average. Finally, there is the importance of hammering the message home to the rest of the crew that stealing of money, time, or anything else in this plant will not be condoned by management.”

Work record a key factor in determining discipline

Instrument Repairman Grade II Matt Kemp was a chronic complainer. So was his boss, Maintenance Foreman Jeff Painter. The difference between the two was that Kemp’s gripes were about the raw deal he was getting. Painter’s were about the lousy job Kemp was doing.

Today’s assignment was typical. As far as Painter was concerned, Kemp was taking twice as long as the job should have been taking. As patiently as possible, Painter tried to explain what he was doing wrong and how to correct it. Kemp’s response was barely restrained annoyance. When Painter left, he continued doing the job the old way, and in so doing, he damaged the instrument he was using.

Considering that Kemp had ignored previous warnings, along with blatant disregard of instructions, Painter decided that this was the last straw. He handed Kemp a termination notice and in-formed him that his final check would be mailed to him.

The employee was either stunned or put on a good act. “You can’t fire me for one lousy mistake,” he exploded. He took off in search of Plant Steward Mike Ratzoff, who threatened Painter with a grievance unless the dismissal was retracted.

“No way!” Painter retorted. ” The termination stands.”

“We’ll see about that.”

Question: Is dismissal too harsh a penalty to impose upon Kemp?

Villani’s verdict: Plant Engineer Nick Villani supported Painter’s decision.” If there’s any question at all about the justification of Kemp’s dismissal, his documented record of unsatisfactory performance added to his poor work attitude should be more than enough to dispel it.”Names used in Human Side of Engineering are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons is coincidental.