Human Side of Engineering – 2000-12-01

Tightening up on gun control With public concern over firearm-related violence mounting, companies are tightening up on enforcement of gun- toting rules.

By Raymond Dreyfack Contributing Editor December 1, 2000

Tightening up on gun control

With public concern over firearm-related violence mounting, companies are tightening up on enforcement of gun- toting rules.

Management has a right to prohibit employees’ possession of guns on company property, experts agree. They agree too on the need to clearly communicate this policy to the work force. In one plant, Rafe Ingersol, a maintenance utility worker arriving at work, got into a brawl over a parking spot with John Durfee, a production employee. During the course of the argument, Ingersol threatened Durfee with a Colt ’38 revolver. Durfee summoned a guard, who challenged Ingersol. “Is that a real gun?”

“Damn right it’s a real gun.” Ingersol produced the weapon and fired it into the air. The guard turned heel and marched into the plant.

By the time the utility man reached his work station, Maintenance Foreman Jeff Malen was waiting for him.

“You’ve had it, Ingersol. You can pick up your check at the cashier.”

“What for? I’ve got a license for that gun.”

“Not to carry it on company property,” Malen retorted.

“That was outside the plant.”

“Makes no difference. The parking lot is company property.”

Ingersol threatened to sue.

Question: If he follows through on his threat, what are his chances of winning.

Seltzer’s verdict: “Ingersol stays fired,” Plant Engineer Tom Seltzer ruled. “As you pointed out, the parking lot is company property.

Sexual harassment claim: Plan response carefully

Supply Room Attendant Alice Miller was livid. Electrician Grade II Gary Shea had harassed her and she wasn’t going to stand for it. She wanted him fired-or worse.

Maintenance Supervisor Fred Shaefer tried to defuse Miller’s anger.

“Tell me what happened,” he said calmly.

“Shea’s filthy mouth was bad enough,” she began, “but when he started to paw me…”

She described his behavior in increasingly lurid terms, Shaefer jotting notes on a pad. Miller’s rage was probably justified. This wasn’t the first report he had received about the electrician’s sexual misbehavior.

“Those are serious charges,” he said.

“To put it mildly,” Miller snapped. “What I want to know is what you intend to do about it.”

“I can give you my word it will be dealt with without delay. The behavior you describe is inappropriate to say the least. I’ll get back to you just as soon as I can.”

“You’d better, before I get my own lawyer to handle the case,” Miller threatened.

Question: What action would you take in Shaefer’s shoes?

Johnson’s decision: Shaefer wisely decided to discuss the matter with his boss, Plant Engineer Mel Johnson. When Plant Engineer Johnson heard a rundown of Alice Miller’s complaint, he picked up the phone and summoned Martha Jones, the company’s labor attorney, to his office.

Jones’ first question to Shaefer was, “What did you tell Alice in response to her claim?”

I neither agreed nor disagreed with the charge,” Shaefer said. “I took it seriously, and told her the behavior described was inappropriate. I also said that her claim would be investigated without delay.”

Jones complimented the supervisor. “You couldn’t have handled it better. The word ‘inappropriate’ was the right one to use. The important thing is that you didn’t agree with her and admit company culpability. Had you done so, in the event of a lawsuit, that would have been grist for her attorney’s mill. We certainly will investigate the charge and take whatever action is necessary. If it turns out Shea’s dismissal is the proper action, we’ll do it. But committing one’s self before a thorough investigation is made is rarely, if ever, advisable.”

Marketplace fact of life: Chintzy costs more

It’s no secret that in some companies, employees work for peanuts. But as Newsweek asks in a feature article: “How About a Pizza?” The question was touched off by a giant fast food chain saving a bundle (it thought) by paying for overtime work with pizza parties instead of dollars.

Talk about dumb penny ante gimmicks. “…the fight over illegal overtime,” writes Andrew Murr, “has become one of the most significant workplace issues.” Result, companies-and not only retailers-getting sued left and right. Time worked off the clock is against the law. Anyone who goes in for it invites legal action. The practice is largely confined to hourly workers, and most insidiously to hourly employees who are “promoted” off the clock and are then expected to do the same job at pretty much the same rate and no overtime pay.

What often instigates the abuse is the crushing bottom line pressure imposed on many managers and supervisors. This problem is compounded by worker fear of being downsized. Supervisors, egged on by cost cutting drives, hiring freezes, and overtime restrictions, are in a bind. With projects backlogged it’s their job by hook, and sometimes crook, to get the work out.

It was thus no surprise when Maintenance Foreman Joe Lee found himself between the proverbial rock and a hard place. The department was falling further and further behind. Management’s mandate to cut overtime, plus a hiring freeze had him chewing his fingernails.

In desperation he turned to Jim and Bill. “Hey, guys, the overtime ban is killing me. But that unit in the lab has to get built in a hurry. Just this once do me a favor and do the job off the clock.”

Jim blew out his cheeks. Bill looked nervous and worried. But they reluctantly obliged.

The word got out and reached Plant Engineer Paul Usoff.

Question: In Usoff’s shoes what, if anything, would you do?

Usoff’s response: Usoff told the foreman, “You should be skinned alive for pulling a stunt like that. But you’re in a bind, so I’ll go easy. About that unit having to be built, I’m gonna dump the problem in the controller’s lap and let him decide. If management wants to get the work out, it will have to loosen up on the screws and find some other solution. Whatever the case, asking employees to work off the clock will inevitably backfire. Even if you get away with it, the morale cost will put you on the losing end of the bargain.”

Ailing parent: Can you cut a worker’s leave short?

Maintenance Supervisor Ed Fallon was in a bind. His small department was hurting. He had been shorthanded ever since Frank Grossman went on leave to care for his father who had suffered a stroke. Now with Jim Hearst taking early retirement, they were in worse shape than ever.

Fallon sympathized with Grossman’s plight. An unpaid leave to care for an ailing parent was no picnic. But Grossman already had been out more than 7 wk. The work had to get out. Much as he hated to do it, he’d have to get him back on the job.

He called the mechanic at home. “How’s your dad, Frank?”

“Having a rough time of it.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. He’s a senior citizen. Won’t Medicare send in an aide to help?”

“Medicare’s been great. But the time allotment is limited. Dad needs me with him not only for personal needs but for moral support as well.”

Fallon pulled in his breath. “We have a small operation, Frank. I hate to ask you this, but we’re hurting pretty bad in the department. With Jim Hearst gone we’re way behind. I need you here. Maybe you can get a relative or friend of the family to help with-“

“No chance!” Grossman cut in. “My father needs me. There’s no way I could come in.”

“Sorry, but I’ll have to insist.”

“And I’ll have to refuse. I’m entitled to 12 wk of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).”

Question: Can Fallon force Grossman to return to work?

Markham’s decision: “Even forgetting the moral aspect of this situation, which we can’t, there’s no way you can insist that Grossman come in to work. As he says, he’s entitled to 12 wk of leave under the FMLA.”

“But we’re a small company.”

“Not that small. Eighty-six employees more than exceeds the FLMA specification of entitlement that applies to employers with 50 or more employees. The only suggestion I can make is that you hire a couple of temps. It’ll cost, but we have no choice.”

When is a crackerjack performer unpromotable?

Mechanic Grade I Bill Hart’s face was red. He was so hot under the collar he was fit to be fried.

“What is this I hear about Frank Firstner being considered for that leadman job?” he wanted to know. I forgot more about this operation than he’ll ever know. I’m senior man in the department. All it takes is a look at my record to know I’m the best man for the job.”

Maintenance Foreman Clyde Manfretti listened impassively. “Simmer down, Hart. No one is arguing with you.”

“Then, what the-!”

“I said simmer down. It takes more than technical skill to qualify for a supervisory job. You’re a top notch performer from an assignment point of view. But in other aspects, you bomb out.”

“What aspects?”

“Your temper for one thing. Look at yourself now. If you had a wrench in your hand, you would probably whack me with it.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Maybe so. But how many brawls have you gotten into in the last year or so? Your temper is no secret around here, and it is an undesirable characteristic for a supervisor to have. On top of that is the hard time you seem to have getting along with people. A trait also to be avoided in selecting a supervisor. I’m sorry, Bill, but you just won’t do.”

Unwilling to accept this explanation Shea threatened to grieve.

Question: Do you think Manfretti is justified in his turndown?

Marshall’s verdict: Plant Engineer Andy Marshall backed Manfretti without hesitation. “Send Bill to my office,” he suggested. “I’ll reinforce your explanation with my own and tell him that if he reforms his behavior, he may be in line for consideration the next time around.”

Language problem: Grounds for promotion rejection?

Juan Alvarez, tight-lipped, was having difficulty controlling himself.

“What’s the problem, Juan?” Maintenance Supervisor Lewis Bennett asked, when the Grade II carpenter approached his desk.

“I wanna know why I was passed over again for promotion to Grade I. I got the seniority and experience, and my work is as good as any Grade I carpenter.” The Hispanic employee trembled with rage, his reply heavily accented.

Bennett grinned. “Take it easy, Juan. Don’t get yourself into an uproar.”

“I wanna know-“

“Okay, just calm down. I have no complaints with your work. The reason you were passed over is, well, you might say it’s a communications problem.”

“You mean my accent? What’s that got to do with how good I make a jig or put up shelving-?”

“I said calm down. Sometimes it takes you too long to understand instructions. And I get complaints from other departments. They want to know how their project is coming, or when a jig will be ready. When you answer the telephone they have trouble understanding you. Maybe if you took a few English lessons-“

“I don’ need no lessons to do my job!” Alvarez said, and stormed off to find a union representative.

Question: Is Bennett justified in holding Alvarez back because of his accent?

Barry’s ruling: “Promote the man to Grade I,” Plant Engineer Ralph Barry instructed Bennett, when Alvarez’s protest reached his desk. “His productivity is above average, and if his difficulty in making himself understood is a problem for people in other departments, there are enough other employees on hand, so that Alvarez doesn’t have to answer the phone. Just tell him this as gently as possible, and let’s get on with the job.”

Should you overlook a threat made in jest?

Up yours, pal!” That was Utility Man George Wilson’s response to Maintenance Foreman Jonathon Dillard’s instruction to clean up the dog poop on the plant’s front lawn. Wilson looked as if he’d had a couple of beers too many during the lunch hour.

“The job has to be done, George. That lawn is a mess.”

“You can do it yourself. I’ve taken all the demeaning jobs I intend to take. Everyone around here knows you’re on my back.”

“That’s nonsense, and you know it.”

“Don’t tell me what I know. Just watch your step if you know what’s good for you.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“You’ll find out what I mean.”

“Look, Wilson, I’m not gonna argue with you. Either do the job you’re assigned, or punch out.”

“I’ll punch you out, that’s what.” Wilson’s face was getting redder by the minute.

Employees nearby had gathered to watch the exchange and now they had amused smiles on their faces. An unexpected free show.

“You’re skating on thin ice, buddy. I’ll tell you one more time-“

“-and I’ll tell you… I got friends in the Mafia. I’m gonna get one of them to take care of you. You better watch your back from now on.”

“That does it, Wilson. You’re fired.”

“We’ll see about that.” The utility man stomped off and out of the plant.

Next day he showed up at work as if nothing had happened.

“You no longer work here, Wilson. Your check will be mailed to you.”

Wilson grinned. “Because of that dumb crack I made yesterday? Don’t tell me you took it seriously. I had a drink too many at lunch time. I was kidding around.”

“I didn’t find it funny. The dismissal stands.”

Question: In Dillard’s place, would you overlook Wilson’s threat as just “kidding around?”

Turner’s decision: “Wilson stays fired,” Plant Engineer Max Turner ruled. “Threatening a supervisor is grounds for dismissal. That the comment was made in the presence of other employees adds fuel to the fire. Wilson’s history of past violence clinches it.”