Human Side of Engineering – 2000-11-01

Rules are guidelines, not straightjackets Group Leader Mark Chernoff yelled after Electrician Grade II Fred Baseman, "Hey, where are you going? It's only 3:00." Baseman paid him no heed.

By Raymond Dreyfack Contributing Editor November 1, 2000

Rules are guidelines, not straightjackets

Group Leader Mark Chernoff yelled after Electrician Grade II Fred Baseman, “Hey, where are you going? It’s only 3:00.”

Baseman paid him no heed. Punching the timeclock, he hurried out the front door.

Chernoff shook his head. “Who does he think he is?” he muttered to an employee nearby.

The employee said, “He just got a call from his wife. His daughter fell off the swing and hurt herself. She’s in the emergency room.”

“He could have explained that and gotten permission to leave. Kids are always hurting themselves. It’s part of growing up. The manual says no employee is allowed to leave work without first getting permission.”

“Yeah, but the guy…”

Chernoff didn’t hang around for explanations. A rule is a rule, he maintained. It would have taken Baseman no more than a couple of minutes to have gotten permission. He filed a Disciplinary Notice charging Baseman with “violation of a strict company rule.”

Next day Chernoff, not Baseman, was summoned to Plant Engineer Harry Richfield’s office.

Question: In Richfield’s shoes, what would you tell the group leader?

Richfield’s sermon: The plant engineer had the disciplinary notice in hand. He asked Chernoff, “Did you check why Baseman left the plant so abruptly without getting permission?”

Chernoff replied nervously, “Yeah, his kid fell off a swing or something. She wasn’t hurt bad, at least not seriously.”

“Is that how Baseman felt at the time?”

“Maybe not, but-“

“No buts, Mark. The point is that at the time, having received a panicked call from his wife, Fred was apparently worried that his kid had been seriously injured. And don’t you think it makes sense that a father’s concern for his child should hold priority over a company rule?”

Chernoff looked very unhappy. “Yeah, I guess so,” he answered miserably.

Richfield tore up the Disciplinary Notice and tossed it into the round file.

“There are times when rules are meant to be broken,” he told the group leader. “A supervisor should have the good sense to understand when and why.”

Sexual harassment: Where do you draw the line?

Where to draw the line is a critical question these days. In 1991, when Anita Hill testified in her sexual harassment case against Clarence Thomas, there were 7000 cases filed yearly. Today, that number has doubled. The effect of this problem on decent people in general, and women in particular, is interesting.

A Newsweek poll disclosed by a margin of 63-27 that men are getting the wrong message. Rather than sending a signal that sexual harassment is wrong, the mushrooming litigation reveals that the behavior is commonplace.

In the workplace, two realities stand side-by-side. Often litigation, however tough the claim may be to prove, is the only response to abuse. But litigation tends to imply that women cannot protect themselves. Often they can’t. Which, before filing a claim, raises the question: Where do you draw the line?

Plant Engineering Department Paraprofessional Jill Allison failed to consider this question, her boss, Project Leader Mel Ames, believed. When Jill complained that Senior Engineer Jack Ross was harassing her, he asked for specifics. Ross was trying to get her into bed, she claimed, and despite her emphatic refusal, Ross propositioned her a second time. What infuriated her most, she added, was that Ross was a married man with a family.

Ames promised to talk to Ross and lay down the law. That wasn’t good enough for Jill. She found it embarrassing to work in the same department with the man. She wanted him transferred or fired.

“Did he threaten you in any way?” Ames asked. “Imply it would adversely affect your job or income if you didn’t comply?”

“Well no, but I can’t stand to look at the guy. How can I work with him?”

Ames frowned. “Jill, the best I can do is talk to Ross and get him to stop the harassment. If it persists after that, or if he makes a threat relating to your job, we can take it from there.”

Jill still wasn’t satisfied. She threatened to press charges against Ross.

Question: If Jill follows through with her threat, do you think she can get Ross transferred or fired?

Jensen’s verdict: Plant Engineer Bob Jensen supported Ames’ response. He suggested sending Jill to his office. “I’ll try to make it clear to her that in cases of this kind, the drastic action she insists upon is most commonly mandated only where economic or other job-crippling threats are involved, or where the harassment persists after management’s efforts to stop it. If she herself wants to transfer out of the department, I might be able to arrange that. These cases are tough calls, but you have to draw the line somewhere.”

Fire in haste, repent at leisure

One out five lawsuits in the U.S. is brought by a disgruntled employee. It’s something to think about.

It’s something Maintenance Supervisor Bud Nadler failed to think about when he decided once and for all to get rid of Fred Rice. The carpenter was a thorn in his side. For one thing, his performance was marginal. For another, his wise guy, know-it-all attitude stuck in Nadler’s craw. He had a defiant way of responding to instructions and criticism that Nadler found hard to abide.

One day, he assigned Rice a jig construction job. Usually Nadler left details of assignments to experienced employees. But in Rice’s case, he was taking no chances. He spelled out how long the job should take, how it should be done, and handed him a list of required materials.

Rice all but yawned. “Yeah, yeah,” he replied, “this is old stuff to me.”

“Old stuff” or not, Rice messed up the job. First, it took longer than specified. On top of that, he used a No. 4 strut instead of the No. 2 strut listed.

Nadler’s temper flared. “That does it,” he snapped, and fired Rice on the spot.

“You’re living in dreamland if you think this is gonna stick,” the worker snapped back.

Question: In view of Rice’s marginal work performance and poor attitude, can Nadler make the termination stick?

Benson’s opinion: Next day, Plant Engineer George Benson summoned Nadler to his office.

“Did you investigate this case and give Nadler a chance to present his side before firing him?”

“There was nothing to investigate. The case is open and shut.”

“A case is open and shut only after investigation proves it to be so. Rice claims he used the No. 4 strut because the supply attendant couldn’t find a No. 2 strut. He also claims the job took too long because of time lost searching for the No. 2 strut. I’m not questioning your judgment about Rice’s work record and attitude, but so far as I can see, it isn’t backed by sufficient documentation.

“I’m afraid you’re gonna have to eat crow this time and retract the dismissal. If you want to get rid of Rice, you’ll have to work up a documented case against him. And never, never, fire anyone on the spot. Experience proves it can too often backfire.”

How to deal with an employee’s persecution complex

Maybe he was imagining things, but Plant Engineer Max Geller’s instincts told him something wasn’t kosher with Charley Adams. He broached the subject to Adams’ direct supervisor, Project Leader Bill Fallon.

Fallon hesitated long enough to convince Geller he wasn’t imagining things.

Adams, a staff engineer, was a 13-yr veteran.

Fallon’s expression was pained. “I’m not sure. But what I can gather from the scuttlebutt, Charley feels there’s some kind of conspiracy against him.”

“Conspiracy to do what?”

“It beats me. Maybe squeeze him out of the work team, or even get him to resign. He feels jobs that should be his are going to junior employees, guys he helped train. He thinks there’s an old boy network operating behind his back.”

“Is there any truth to that?”

“Not to my knowledge.”

“How are his performance ratings holding up?”

“The guy’s no star, but he does his job. Assignments go to people who are best qualified. Sometimes it’s Adams, sometimes someone else.”

Geller nodded thoughtfully. “Send Charley to my office. I’ll have a little chat with him.”

Question: In Geller’s shoes, what would you tell Adams?

Geller’s approach: It didn’t take Geller long to get Adams to confide what was bugging him, which pretty much confirmed Fallon’s reading.

“What evidence do you have to support your contentions?”

“Nothing specific. But I know they want to get rid of me.”

“Who wants to get rid of you?”

Adams moistened his lips. “I can’t mention names.”

Geller sighed. “Charley, let’s deal with realities. You’re a valued employee. No one wants to get rid of you. My reading is that this whole thing is no more than a communications snag between you and Bill Fallon and between you and your associates. There are positive and negative aspects to every job. My guess is that you’ve been focusing on the negative and overlooking the positive. If you feel someone is working against you, or wants you to resign, try having it out with him face-to-face. That approach usually clears the air. We’re not running a charitable institution here. You wouldn’t have lasted all these years if management felt you weren’t paying your way. The best advice I can give you is to think positive.”

Can an incentive rate be changed at will?

Maintenance department mechanics were on an incentive plan in the maintenance and repair of certain types of equipment. When the installation of special tools and labor-saving devices made the work easier and more efficient, management decided to study the effect on productivity. Eight months later, the results of the study were posted. A short time after that, an incentive rate change based on the improved methodology was announced.

The change, which mechanics claimed lowered their income, was followed by a protest from the employees involved. A three-man committee, with Mechanic Grade I Bill Kessinger as spokesman, approached Maintenance Supervisor Frank Dickerson’s desk.

“That rate change is a ripoff,” he declared.

Dickerson disagreed. “It’s based on an objective study that proves the new incentive rate is fair and objective. The change wasn’t made arbitrarily. Since new conditions exist, new calculations are called for.”

“Maybe so,” Kessinger conceded, “but not 8-mo after the changes in job content were made. We should have been notified immediately.”

“Management couldn’t guess at what the new rate would be,” Dickerson explained. “The study was required to come up with an accurate answer.”

The committee refused to settle for this explanation and threatened “to pursue the matter further.”

Question: Do you agree that the rate change announcement was “fair and objective?”

Maxwell’s decision: Plant Engineer Arthur Maxwell agreed with the supervisor. “Information based on the study was frank and forthcoming,” he said. “The employees had a chance to refute the facts with specifics if they wished. And since 8 mo is a reasonable time to review and evaluate the factors involved, I recommend that management stand by the rate change.”

Preach the value of flexibility

Jeff Clement looked unhappy and Plant Engineer Ralph Dorr wanted to know why. Clement was a bright young engineer with good prospects. Dorr surely didn’t want to lose him.

“Unhappy about what?” Project Supervisor Jack Parker asked when his boss broached the subject.

“That’s what I’m asking you,” Dorr replied. “Maybe it’s my imagination, but my reading of the situation is that Jeff’s general demeanor in recent months has gone from cheerful to disgruntled.”

Parker frowned. “Now that you mention it, I think I’ve noticed a change myself. But I can’t fathom why.”

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

“Not at all. If he’s got a gripe of some kind, I’d like to know about it.”

Clement seemed reluctant to speak when Dorr asked how things were going. “Okay, I guess.”

“That doesn’t sound enthusiastic.”

It was like pulling teeth, but Dorr finally got him to reluctantly confide.

“Maybe it’s me,” he said hesitantly.

“What do you mean?”

What he meant confirmed the plant engineer’s hunch. “I feel restricted most of the time, too confined on the job. If I come up with an idea for a different way to handle a project, or even suggest changing a job step, Jack vetoes it. ‘Stick to the written procedure and you won’t go wrong,” he keeps telling me’.”

Dorr nodded. “I can see how that might frustrate you. Let me look into it.”

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

Dorr’s decision: The plant engineer had a heart-to-heart chat with the project supervisor. He led off by extolling Parker’s competence and thanking him for the good job he was doing.

Parker was no fool. “But-” he interjected.

Dorr smiled. “You’re right, there’s more.” He capsulized Clement’s comments. “It’s a not uncommon problem,” Dorr said. “People tend to get so locked into an efficient way of doing things, especially scientific and technical people, they become stuck with their methodology to the point where they leave no room for change in their mind. Jack, there’s such a thing as becoming ultra-efficient. This condition not only closes your own door for change, but frustrates subordinates by the restrictive behavior. Jeff’s a good man; I don’t want to lose him. All I ask is that you keep your mind open to new ways of doing things even if you feel they’re less efficient than your own. Flexibility never hurt anyone. “

Can you hold back a chronic griper?

Electrician Class A Frank Matlock approached Maintenance Supervisor Jack Lasky’s desk in a stew.

“How come I was passed over for that group leader’s job? I’m the senior man in the department and I’ve got the training and qualifications needed.”

“No argument there,” Lasky replied. “But checking over your record I see that you filed 18 grievances in the past 18 mo. That’s one a month. I would say that’s a no-no for a supervisor.”

“So what? If you have a legitimate beef, you’re entitled to grieve. Read your contract.”

“You’re right, up to a point. But you didn’t win out on any one of those gripes. They were all thrown out at the outset as picayune or unreasonable. A supervisor is supposed to represent management, not be a thorn in its side.”

Matlock threatened to sue.

Question: Do you agree that chronic gripers are undesirable candidates for supervisory jobs and for this reason should be rejected?

Hartman’s verdict: Plant Engineer Gabe Hartman backed Lasky’s decision.

“Employees who complain constantly and file grievances at the drop of a hat are generally poor choices for jobs where they are expected to play ball in management’s court. Matlock can sue if he wishes. But I doubt if it will come to anything more than complaint number 19 on his record.”

Is employee on layoff entitled to holiday pay?

Maintenance Utility Worker Dino Verde was on layoff 45 days. After being recalled, he appeared at Maintenance Foreman Ralph Ruder’s desk.

“What can I do for you?”

“The company owes me a day’s holiday pay for Washington’s Birthday.”

“You gotta be kidding. You were laid off in December and still on layoff on Washington’s Birthday.”

“So what? According to the contract I’m still entitled to the holiday pay.”

Ruder disagreed. “Nothing in the contract specifies an employee gets holiday pay while on layoff.”

Verde persisted. “Do me a favor, check it out.”

“Okay, I’ll check it out to get you off my back.”

Ruder made a beeline for Plant Engineer Mark Greenwald’s office.

Question: In your opinion, does Verde have a valid claim?

Greenwald’s verdict: “Give Verde the holiday pay,” the plant engineer instructed Ruder. “It looks like we slipped up on this one when framing the new contract. You’re absolutely right in telling Verde there’s no mention of holiday pay entitlement while on layoff. But absent specification on this issue, an employee may have the pay coming to him. A handy clause to include would be to authorize holiday pay on layoff only if it occurred within 20 working days of the layoff date. I’ll make a note to include this next time around if we can.”

Layoff recall: Can you mandate new physical?

Maintenance Utility Man Nick Bonoventure had high blood pressure. It was in danger of pushing up even higher upon hearing he was required to take another physical before being accepted as a rehire.

“You can’t make me do that,” he protested.

After Maintenance Foreman Calvin Peck showed him the clause in the new labor agreement mandating a physical exam for employees recalled after an extended leave, he reluctantly complied.

When the verdict came through from Medical, Peck told Bonoventure he had been rejected.

“What kind of ripoff is that?” the employee exploded. “I’m the same guy I was 5-mo ago when I was laid off.”

“Take it easy,” Peck advised. “I don’t need you getting a stroke.”

“And I don’t need you screwing me out of a job. I shouldn’t have submitted to the physical in the first place.”

“You had no choice. I’m sorry, Nick. But your blood pressure reading’s above the acceptable unit.”

Bonoventure threatened to sue and stomped off in search of Plant Steward Sal Esky who appeared at Peck’s desk moments later with the utility man in tow.

Question: Is management within its rights in refusing to rehire the maintenance man?

Murdock’s verdict: “You were right in insisting that Bonoventure take that physical,” Plant Engineer Ed Murdock told Peck. “But the contract clause specifies that his blood pressure reading, while unacceptable for new hires, is allowable for employees already on the payroll. Thus, had Bonoventure not been laid off, he would still be working. In my opinion, that qualifies him for recall.”

Be wary of e-mail addiction

E-mail is the next employment law nightmare,” says Proskauer Rose Goetz & Mendelsohn labor law partner Allan H. Weitzman.

Lewis Maltby, director of the American Civil Liberty Union’s Workplace Rights project, echoes this sentiment. “Never, ever say anything on e-mail you wouldn’t want (others) to read because you never know who’s reading it,” he cautions.

Maintenance Supervisor Joe Koch wishes he heard and heeded this advice before sending a fateful message to a fellow supervisor.

“We gotta build up a case to get rid of Deutsch one way or another,” he e-mailed, “the guy is a deadhead.”

Informed of the message by a crony who intercepted it, Deutsch made the most of the opportunity. He filed a discrimination grievance against Koch and spread the word far and wide. Koch slapped his forehead in dismay. “Dumb, dumb, dumb!” he moaned.

Nothing came of the grievance, but Koch’s boss, Plant Engineer Eugene Griffith, had plenty to say to the supervisor.

Question: In Griffith’s shoes, what would you have told Koch?

Plant engineer’s response: Although not a lawyer, Griffith laid down the law. What he said was pretty much what attorney Weitzman and director Maltby might have said. E-mail is more or less public, not private. These experts also advise employers to draft a clear-cut e-mail policy to protect themselves and employees against lawsuits.

Can you insist on a strict dress code for guards?

A New England plant hired its own guards in preference to using a guard service.

When Jack Maguire, age 61, was employed as a guard on the night shift, he was instructed to read the company’s policy manual carefully. Special attention was directed to a statement that read: “Employees are expected at all times to present a professional business-like image to customers, prospects, and the public.”

“No problem,” Maguire, neatly dressed at his interview, assured Plant Engineering Department Supervisor Art Hale.

Over time, however, the guard’s appearance did become more and more of a problem. Within 3 mo, to everyone’s surprise, Maguire appeared to take on maverick tendencies. His hair grew longer and longer. The guard’s uniform he had been issued was baggy and unkempt, and the necktie sloppily made. An earring dangled from his left ear.

After repeated orders to dress properly were ignored, Hale issued a final mandate to “shape up or else.” When the ultimatum had no effect, Maguire was terminated.

“I’m not going to sit still for this,” he threatened. “It’s a violation of my civil rights.”

When Hale pointed to the policy manual statement requiring that a presentable appearance be made to customers and the public, Maguire replied that since he was on the night shift he had no contact with customers or the public. It thus didn’t apply to him.

Question: If Maguire sues, how do you rate his chances to win?

Ricotti’s verdict: Plant Engineer Larry Ricotti backed Hale’s decision. “Since a guard represents management as part of its security force, it is reasonable to expect he be respected by employees. His refusal to conform to established dress and behavioral standards in a way that commands such respect is, in my opinion, sufficient grounds for dismissal.”

Can you hire a job applicant who has more training?

Since this was going to turn into an important key job, Maintenance Foreman Judd Grimes was anxious to get the best possible candidate for the Setup Man Apprenticeship Program. Scanning down the department’s personnel roster, he rejected all in-house choices. Mechanic Frank Dorff, a seasoned veteran employee, was the most likely of the lot. But since Dorff lacked the prior training Grimes considered a plus for the job, he decided to go outside.

When Dorff heard that Craig Morris, an outsider, had been selected for the program, he was up in arms.

“I’m senior man around here,” he insisted. “And my performance record is good. According to the labor agreement, I’m entitled to a shot at that program.”

Grimes disagreed. “The program’s gonna lead to a key job. It’s my responsibility to pick the best man I can find. Morris’ prior training will give him a leg up on qualifying as soon as possible.”

Dorff insisted Grimes’ action was discriminatory and in violation of the contract. To prove his point, he referred to a clause specifying that promotions be based on length of service, training, and performance.

“Training,” Grimes said. “That proves my point.”

Dorff refused to back down.

Question: What would you decide in this case? Do you think Grimes is within his rights selecting an outsider because of his prior training?

Altshuler’s verdict: “Give Dorff a chance at the program,” Plant Engineer Sidney Altshuler instructed Grimes. “Apprenticeship itself is a training program. Denying an otherwise qualified employee the opportunity to participate would in effect nullify the purpose of the program. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t require prior training as a qualification for current training.”

Define “premium pay” carefully

Definitions of premium pay vary from company to company and arbitrator to arbitrator. A dispute arose in one plant over whether or not Sunday double time pay was properly classified as premium pay.

When Carpenter Class A Angelo Devito was given a Sunday assignment to complete a shelving unit in the lab he was paid the stipulated double time rate for that day. However, the following Friday he appeared at Maintenance Supervisor Bob Murphy’s desk with his pay check in hand.

“What’s the problem?”

“I didn’t receive time-and-a-half for the sixth day I worked last week.”

“You’re not entitled to time-and-a-half,” Murphy replied. “You received premium pay for Sunday. If you got time-and-a-half on top of that, it would amount to pyramiding which is prohibited by the labor agreement.”

“This is all too complicated for me,” Devito said, frowning, and took off in search of Jerry Ravich, the union rep.

Ravich supported the carpenter’s contention that he was entitled to time-and-a-half for the sixth day despite the double time for Sunday. When Murphy repeated what he had told Devito Ravich disagreed.

“Sunday double time isn’t premium pay,” he insisted.

“You gotta be kidding. If it’s pay in excess of regular earnings, it’s premium pay.”

Ravich held firm. “Check it out with the experts; you’ll see that I’m right.”

Question: Does the union official have a valid point?

Expert’s opinion: “Precedence supports his contention,” Martha Gillickson, the company’s labor relations attorney, explained. “Arbitrators could go either way. Some define Sunday double time as premium pay; others regard it as a penalty against the company. My recommendation would be to pay Devito time-and-a-half for the sixth day. It’s not worth the hassle should this develop into a case.”