Human Side of Engineering – 2001-02-01

In the October 2000 issue of Plant Engineering, Human Side of Engineering presented "Uncommon side: The fearful fringe freak-Part I.

By Raymond Dreyfack Contributing Editor February 1, 2001

In the October 2000 issue of Plant Engineering, Human Side of Engineering presented “Uncommon side: The fearful fringe freak-Part I.”

The case recounted a situation where “John,” a crew member with a negative attitude and grating personality, showed up for work in a shirt that displayed a swastika and a picture of Hitler.

Neither John’s supervisor, nor plant personnel, commented on the incident, but his supervisor did feel that the situation should be dealt with in some way. The question was posed: If this were your decision to make, how would you handle the situation?

Cases for “Uncommon side” are drawn from actual plant experiences. If you have an unusual or complicated 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. The 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:, fax: 630-320-7145.

Uncommon side: The fearful fringe freak – Part II

The story of “John,” a young maintenance worker who showed up on the job in a shirt displaying a swastika and picture of Hitler, triggered a flood of reader response. Despite the inflammatory nature of the employee’s display, most comments were down-to-earth practical.

Virtually all agree that John’s behavior was disruptive and antiproductive.

For examples of hatred extremis and its consequences, one need only look to Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Yugoslavia, and scores of other locations throughout Africa, Asia, and the rest of the world.

While nonviolent and largely undercover, hate flourishes at home as well.

Witness our recent national election and the years preceding it. Sadly, on occasion, hate rears its ugly head in the workplace, which brings us back full cycle to John’s sick behavior.

One reader writes, “Why not just fire the guy? Too many good men sacrificed their lives so we shouldn’t have to look at swastikas.”

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.

A manager writes, “We are at work to produce, not to conduct social commentary sessions.” Another advises: “Ignore the dress. People like that seek the attention that confrontation brings.” All true, but it’s not that easy either.

The reality is that management can neither ignore aggressive displays of hate nor respond with mindless anger, indignation, or reprisal.

One executive, Paul Odom, writes, “The real problem is that John hinders the safety, quality, and production of the organization.” Violent conflict could result, affecting safety. Workers could be distracted, affecting quality and productivity.

“The key,” concludes Odom, “is not to reprimand the Nazi, but to address the issues affected.”

Plant Engineer Drew Butler stresses the importance of a published dress code. He adds that every workplace is required by Federal law to maintain a “nonhostile environment.” He equates John’s garb with the issuance of a hostile action, in the same category as sexual harassment, posting nude pictures, etc. This type of behavior is not to be tolerated.

Senior EHS Coordinator Glenn Hendricks recalls court cases that have found employers liable for failing to address employee behavior that creates a hostile work environment. He suggests directing John to leave the premises and not return until he has changed in to acceptable clothing. If he balks, standard disciplinary procedure would be applied, leading to suspensions, and ultimately, termination if necessary.

“An employer,” writes respondent Scott Courtney, “is duty bound to provide an environment free of undue stress and harassment.” A nazi shirt, or KKK garb, he adds, would prove distressful to some employees. He agrees with Hendricks as regards managerial response. Senior Engineer Jeff Lentz believes that the same procedure applicable to sexual harassment applies here as well. “The moral imperative,” states Maintenance Manager John S. Walsh, “would be that people shouldn’t have the right to offend others with their dress or behavior.”

Swastika, hammer & sickle, KKK insignia, and the like are objects of hate, John W. Crawford, a shift manager with U.S. Steel, points out. To determine how to respond to such displays, he says, one need only refer to the laws governing the creation of a hostile work environment. Clearly such behavior is unacceptable. “In restricting John’s behavior as disruptive,” states Human Side expert John Q. Gaffin, an attorney, and president of Miami, Florida’s HR Associates, “it is important that the employer be able to cite a valid business reason for the dress requirement.” John’s boss might well bring this case to top management’s attention as an example of why a reasonable dress code is needed. Company policy could state: “Employee attire while on the premises, must be appropriate to the extent that no distracting or disruptive attention or reaction on the part of others is anticipated or caused.”

Human Side expert, consultant, educator, and AAA panel member Leonard J. Smith, says, “However repulsive and repugnant John’s behavior may be, firing him outright in anger is not recommended. It could leave the company open to an unwelcome grievance and lawsuit. John could claim, for example, that he only meant it as a joke. “Anyone, however obnoxious,” adds Smith, “is entitled to his day in court and the right to appeal management’s indictment.”

He concludes with the responding majority, that standard disciplinary procedures are in order. Warning, suspension, barring the miscreant from the workplace if he persists in noncompliance, and, ultimately, dismissal.

Ah, for the good old days when, if someone like John appeared in the workplace, one could simply boot him out with a swift kick in the rear and be done with him. But sadly, it would seem, “them days is gone forever.”

Rules aren’t necessarily sacred

Society couldn’t survive without rules. But sometimes, good old common sense and simple human consideration can and should supersede rulebook fixations.

Plant Engineer Craig Arnold was dismayed to hear that Stockroom Attendant Kim Raynor had been replaced. During her 7-yr on-the-job, she had won an almost encyclopedic reputation as a mnemonic wiz. Despite a huge inventory, she usually knew without having to look it up or search the shelves exactly what tools and parts were on hand.

“What happened?” Arnold asked Maintenance Supervisor Jim Durkin. “Was her husband transferred out of the area?”

“Kim didn’t quit; she was fired,” Durkin said.

Arnold did a double take. “Kim was fired?”

“I had no choice,” Durkin replied. “A rule is a rule. I couldn’t set a bad example for the rest of the crew.”

Durkin explained that Raynor’s sister-whom she hadn’t seen in 10 yr-was planning a visit. It was the only time they could make it, according to Kim. She put in for a week’s vacation so she could spend it with her sister.

“I had no choice but to turn her down,” Durkin said. “For one thing, it was our peak busy period. For another, vacations are prohibited at this time. When Kim insisted on taking the week off regardless, I warned her against doing so. When she didn’t show up for work, I called to give her another chance. When she still refused to come in, I fired her over the phone. Like I said, I had no choice. The job comes first before personal needs. The manual says that if a worker doesn’t agree with an instruction, the proper procedure is to do what you’re told and grieve later if you have to.”

Question: If you were in Arnold’s place, what would you tell Durkin?

Arnold’s response: Arnold tried hard to restrain his anger. “For heaven’s sake, Kim was one of the best people we had. Apart from her special talents, she represents a big investment in training. Jim, no rule is sacrosanct. There are times when a rule must be bent or even ignored. And there are times when a human need takes priority over a corporate need. There are times too when common sense is more useful to decision making than even the best rule. Please keep this in mind in the future.”

Framing labor agreements: Every detail can be crucial

One Saturday morning, four maintenance employees reported to work to perform a special project. Maintenance Supervisor Bob Golden met them at the time clock and instructed them not to punch in.

“We just got a bomb scare,” he said. “The police are on their way down to check it out. You guys can take off and go home. We’ll complete the project on Monday.”

When payday rolled around, Maintenance Electrician Judd Robaire, acting as spokesperson for the foursome, complained that their checks failed to include the reporting pay to which they were entitled.

“The contract specifies 4-hr call-in pay,” Robaire pointed out, “for employees who report in and are sent home because work isn’t available.”

“That’s right,” Golden agreed. “But it also states that this provision doesn’t apply if the failure to provide work is due to circumstances beyond the company’s control. A bomb scare certainly fills that requirement.”

“I can’t argue that,” Robaire said, “but a bomb scare isn’t specified in the contract.”

When Golden refused to back down, Robaire asked him to check it out with the boss. Golden promised to do so.

Question: Are the men entitled to reporting pay?

Enterman’s verdict: Plant Engineer Barry Enterman pulled out his copy of the labor agreement after listening to Golden’s rundown of the call-in controversy. “Authorize the reporting pay,” he instructed. “The contract specifies fire, flood, riot, tornado, power failure, and other examples of circumstances beyond the company’s control, but does not include bomb threats. Those guys may have a point that an arbitrator who’s a bug on detail could go along with. When framing a labor agreement, the smallest detail can be crucial. It’s not worth the time and hassle to argue the case.”

“I quit!” Is vacation pay due?

Maintenance Supervisor Hank Storr decided it was no great loss when informed that Mechanic 2nd Grade Garth Anders was quitting.

“I’ll give you 2-wk notice,” Anders said. “Is that okay?”

“No problem,” Storr replied.

When Anders was issued his final pay check, he appeared at Storr’s desk to complain. “There’s a mistake in my pay,” he said. “I’ve worked here more than a year. I’m entitled to 5-days vacation pay.”

Storr disagreed. “The purpose of vacation pay is to give employees a chance to relax, take it easy for a while, and recharge their batteries. It’s a fringe benefit like sick pay or holiday pay. When you quit, you’re no longer an employee and thus not eligible.”

“That’s a ripoff,” Anders protested. “Vacation pay is more than a fringe; it’s a part of my regular wages. It’s something I worked for and earned.”

Storr didn’t view it that way.

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

Question: In your opinion, is the worker entitled to vacation pay?

Hoffman’s decision: “Give Anders his vacation pay,” Plant Engineer Ben Rosmore instructed Storr. “Most arbitrators view vacation money as deferred earnings to which an employee is entitled. Anders gave fair and adequate notice before quitting, and violated no company policy . I can see no grounds on which to deny him the pay.”

Do your people abuse their work breaks?

Extended and unauthorized breaks cost industry untold millions each year. But change designed to correct long established habits isn’t easy. Especially if employees perceive the change as depriving them of a benefit to which they’re entitled.

For years, maintenance personnel had been permitted to take two breaks per shift timed to their convenience. When John Durham took over the maintenance department following his predecessor’s retirement, he was dismayed by the degree to which the “honor system” was being abused. After monitoring the system for a week, he found that some workers stretched their breaks to 30 min or more, others took more than two breaks per shift. As a new supervisor, Durham wanted to make a good showing. But how could he do so with productivity so badly damaged? He decided to clamp down on the abuse.

Durham drew up a memo announcing a mandate with regard to breaks in the future. His proposed change eliminated periods taken at random. From now on, the memo stated, employees would be entitled to two 10-min breaks per shift, one at 10:30 a.m., the other at 3:30 p.m. Those who failed to comply would be disciplined.

Durham viewed this arrangement as fair, and calculated it would add several productive hours each week. Explaining his rationale, the supervisor submitted his proposal to Plant Engineer Jerry Gentoso for approval.

Question: In Gentoso’s place, would you okay the proposed change?

Gentoso’s decision: “I appreciate your concern,” the executive told Durham. “And I agree with your conclusion that something must be done to end the abuse. But I don’t think dictatorially imposing the change is the most effective way to win acceptance and cooperation. I suggest instead that you call a meeting, spelling out the abuses, documenting the cost involved, and explain in logical terms why the honor system isn’t working. “Finally, considering the lineups at the coffee and other vending machines in the employee cafeteria, I think extending the break period you propose from 10 to 15 min would be more reasonable. Convince employees of the change’s reasonableness, and I think you’ll get much better cooperation and acceptance.”

Sometimes management decisions get hairy

Setting hair length standards is discriminatory, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. On the other hand, haircut cases are often difficult to sustain and fraught with emotion.

So where does that leave a supervisor who refuses to sit still for an employee’s long hair? Stated bluntly: Between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

Which is exactly where Maintenance Supervisor Jim Blount found himself. Mechanic Grade II Mitch Greco’s copper blonde hair hung 12-in. below his shoulders. The company had no published grooming or dress policy, but Blount felt Greco’s insistence to wear his hair “outlandishly long” as he put it, was simply another way to display his defiance of everyone and everything. When he talked to Greco about the hazard of long hair “flying loose around machinery,” he refused to concede it was a hazard.

“I wear my hair in a ponytail,” he replied. “It don’t fly around.”

Barely repressing his anger, Blount laid it on the line to the worker. “Either trim your hair to a normal and sensible length, or you can kiss this job goodbye on the grounds of insubordination and a safety violation.”

“In which case you can expect a lawsuit on the grounds of discrimination,” Greco replied in a huff.

Question: If this hassle fell into your lap, what action would you take?

Sparnett’s response: Plant Engineer Alexander Sparnett supported Blount’s stand. “Hair length is a touchy subject at best, one that can get pretty emotional. My personal preference is to respect the individual’s choice whether you like it or not. In this case, however, while the insubordination issue may be testy, your other point is well taken. Ponytail or not, I would say that long hair worn around moving machinery is a clear safety hazard.”

Can you make an employee accept a temporary transfer?

If one thing gets employees edgy, it is messing with their established job classifications. But sometimes, this can’t be helped.

When Instrument Repairman Frank Norris informed Maintenance Foreman George Dorman he would need a hip replacement, it put the supervisor in a bind. Norris’ job had to be covered.

Running down the roster, Dorman decided the most logical man to fill the bill would be Mechanic Grade I Don Whalen who had the needed experience on a previous job. His wage rate would remain stable. But it would mean a temporary shift from one classification to another.

“No way!” was Whalen’s immediate response when approached. “For one thing, I like what I’m doing; for another, my instrument repair skills are stale.”

“If you run into a problem, you’ll get help,” Dorman promised.

This didn’t sway Whalen.

“Look, Frank, the job has to be covered. I’ll have to insist.”

When Whalen refused to budge, Dorman threatened to suspend him.

Question: Can Dorman make a suspension stick?

Borelli’s verdict: “Whalen has no choice in the matter,” Plant Engineer Ray Borelli ruled when informed of the mechanic’s recalcitrance. “A clause in the labor agreement makes clear that the company has a right to temporarily switch employees to a different classification so long as the switch is reasonable and will not harm the worker. Send Whalen to my office; I’ll try to talk some sense into him.”

Wanna get rich quick? Cash in on sexual harassment

The above addressed to female victims of harassment may be tongue-in-cheek. But unless you take it seriously, you could be in for the roasting of your life-as Maintenance Supervisor Ben Ritchie learned the hard way.

Ritchie supervised a rough and bawdy crew. At times the men’s behavior exceeded bawdiness. Some of the department’s female workers were rough and tough as the men; the obscene language and too intimate touching seemed to slide over them. Others were sensitive and resentful. Some displayed barely repressed anger and indignation.

Ritchie’s common response to the increasing number of harassment complaints was, “Don’t be so touchy; it doesn’t mean anything.” If the complainant persisted, he promised, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll look into it.” Sometimes he did halfheartedly, talking to individuals charged and telling them “to cut it out;” other times he forgot about it.

Stockroom Attendant Beth Riley was ready to explode. If Ritchie ignored her complaint about Jerry Bean’s sexual insinuations and pats on her rear one more time, she would go over his head.

That time came soon enough. Plant Engineer John Wilson summoned Ritchie to his office.

Question: In Wilson’s shoes, what would you tell Ritchie?

Wilson’s mandate: Wilson got right to the point. “From what Beth Riley tells me, these unwanted touching and other incidents of sexual harassment are commonplace in the department. She claims to have complained repeatedly, and says others have too. Is that true?” Ritchie wet his lips nervously. “Yeah, I guess. But the guys don’t mean anything. They-” Wilson cut him short. “For Pete’s sake, don’t you read the papers? It’s not so long ago that Mitsubishi Motors shelled out $34 million to settle the largest sexual harassment case in history. The payout per claimant ranged from a few thousand dollars to $300,000. The situation here is no different than it was at Mitsubishi. Pervasive harassment, permissive supervision, and complaints unanswered. Do you know how long you would last if this thing blows up into a massive lawsuit?” Ritchie, sweating, lowered his eyes. He is still sweating to think of it.

Can “poor attitude” be grounds for dismissal?

Carpenter Second Class Paul Lopez’s performance rating of “average” was a euphemism at best. No less so Maintenance Foreman Sid Allard’s characterization of “indifferent” in his personnel folder. Allard had figured he would give the guy the benefit of the doubt, however slim, since it tied in with company policy that encouraged supervisors to give blacks and Latinos every opportunity to make good.

But Lopez was stretching his limit, Allard thought. What irritated him even more than his mediocre performance was his defiant don’t-give-a-damn attitude. This morning while turning over an assignment, Allard found him staring off into space. “Paul, did you hear what I just said?”

Lopez blinked and grinned. “Hey, sorry man, I was thinking of something else.”

Just this morning, Allard had instructed him to hold off on what he was doing to handle a rush assignment. When he returned to check 30-min later, Lopez was still on the job he had been instructed to delay in favor of the rush job.

In response to the supervisor’s tightlipped reprimand, Lopez replied, “Hey man, I’ll get to it; what’s the big rush?”

Allard decided he’d had it with this guy and filed a termination notice. Cause: Poor work attitude.

Question: In your opinion, does Lopez’s “poor work attitude” constitute sufficient grounds for termination?

Charleton’s verdict: “I can appreciate your irritation and frustration,” Plant Engineer Frank Charleton told Allard when he submitted the termination notice for approval. “But where’s the supporting evidence?” Allard frowned. “What do you mean?” “Just this. Attitude is primarily a subjective judgment relating to the other person’s responses and thinking. Especially where a minority employee is involved it could be an invitation to a lawsuit on the basis of discrimination. ‘Poor attitude’ is a tough charge to make stick unless supported by strong evidence proving how and why that attitude adversely affected his or others’ performance or, in some other way, undermined the company’s profit goals. With regard to Lopez, the charge might be valid , but the documentation is missing.”

Don’t assign supervisory work to line employees

Either an employee is a supervisor or a rank-and-file member of the work force. Normally, a company can’t have it both ways.

When Assistant Maintenance Foreman Pete Wentworth opted for early retirement, the plant manager huddled with Plant Engineer Fred Early and Foreman Grant Richards.

“My understanding,” the plant manager said, “is that a good part of Wentworth’s duties have changed over the past few years.”

Early and Richards agreed. “What’s your point?” Early asked.

“Just this. I don’t have to tell you things are getting tight around here, and the workload cut down. What’s to prevent you from shifting some of those duties to a couple of your good line people, and eliminate the assistant supervisor job? Could you live with that, Grant?”

The foreman frowned. “Conceivably.”

The plant manager turned to Early who looked leery. “I don’t know. We should check it out with Janet Golden.”

“Why don’t you do that,” the executive replied.

Question: In Labor Attorney Golden’s place, what advice would you offer?

Golden’s response: “I wouldn’t advise tampering with job classifications in an effort to eliminate the assistant supervisor spot,” the lawyer told Early. “Either a worker’s a line person or a supervisor; he can’t be both. In most cases, it’s as bad an idea to assign line people supervisory tasks as it is to have a supervisor perform rank-and-file duties.”

Can employees demand removal of a violent co-worker?

A committee of three approached Maintenance Supervisor Marvin Falk’s desk, two men and a woman. Rosie Blukoff acted as spokesperson.

“The man is a menace,” she declared.

“That’s understating the case,” one of the men said.

The subject at hand was Utility Worker Karl Krowell. Since his date of hire 6-mo earlier, Krowell had initiated a number of fist fights, had allegedly pulled a knife on a co-worker, and ended a dispute with another employee by warning him to “watch his back.”

“He’s got half the people in the department scared to death,” Blukoff said. “We don’t have to sit still for that stuff.”

Falk, always too busy for his own good, glanced at his watch. “What do you want me to do?”

“We want him out of the department,” Blukoff said.

“I can’t fire him without a thorough investigation,” the supervisor replied.

“We heard that before. We want him out of here now.”

“Okay, get back to work. I’ll look into it when I get chance.”

“No way! This has been going on for months. We’re not working here with that menace on the job.”

So saying, the three employees clocked out and went home. The next morning, the three workers were handed suspension notices.

Question: Can Falk make the suspensions hold?

Margate’s ruling: Upon receiving the suspension notice for his approval, Plant Engineer Philip Margate summoned the three employees to his office. After hearing their story, he tore up the suspension notices. “What I want you to do,” he instructed the trio, “is to document what you told me in writing, with witnesses named, and specifics spelled out. How soon can you get that to me?” “An hour or two at most.” “By day’s end, two termination notices were issued: One to Krowell for his violent behavior; the other to Falk for “allowing an intolerable situation to get out of control to the point where workers were forced to take matters into their own hands.”

Must you waive a test for a bumped-down employee?

Times were tough and getting tougher. When Mechanic Class II Bill Robeson’s job was eliminated, he elected as a 5-yr employee to bump down to a boiler room attendant’s job despite its lower pay rate.

“That’s a smart decision to make,” Maintenance Foreman Chuck Grogan said. “A lower-paying job is better than no job at all. The question is, are you qualified?”

“No problem,” Robeson replied. “I’ve done that kind of work before.”

“How long ago?”

Robeson shrugged. “I don’t recall exactly. I’d say 10 or 12 yr.”

“The equipment and state of the art have changed since then. I don’t know if you can handle it.”

“Sure I can. I’m a fast learner. After a week or two, it’ll be a piece of cake.”

“I hope so. But before I can authorize the job, you’ll have to take a test.”

“No way!” the worker protested. “At least not until I get a week or so to break in and refamiliarize myself with the work. Besides, nothing in the labor agreement requires employees who bump down to take a test.”

Grogan refused to go along with Robeson’s stand.

Question: Can the applicant be required to take a test before being bumped down to the boiler man’s job?

Delray’s decision: “Robeson takes and passes the test or it’s no dice,” Plant Engineer Frank Delray ruled. “In the interest of safety, if for no other reason, that’s essential. So far as a reasonable break-in time is involved, this situation would apply only to jobs awarded on the basis of bids. A bumped down employee must be immediately qualified.”