Human Side of Engineering – 2001-03-01

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 March 1, 2001

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 August 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 August 2001 issue.

Send your responses to this case by June 15, 2001 to: Uncommon Side , PLANT ENGINEERING , 2000 Clearwater Dr., Oak Brook, IL 60523; e-mail:; fax: 630-320-7145.

Uncommon side: Pregnant and livid — Part I

Raymond Dreyfack

Stockroom Attendant Marsha Livingston couldn’t believe her ears when she confronted her boss, Maintenance Foreman Joe Wagner with the news that she was expecting a child and would require a 90-day leave of absence in 3 mo or so.

“I’m telling you now so you’ll have enough time to prepare for a replacement while I’m gone.”

Marsha, her previous experience impressive, had been hired about 6-mo before. She had been trained specifically to qualify for her new employer’s special needs.

Wagner frowned, as if the company in which he owned a thousand shares of stock, had just gone bankrupt. “You can’t do this to me,” he protested. “When you were hired, you stated that you had no plans to become pregnant. In fact, you put it in writing. You signed a statement to that effect, as I recall.”

The employee struggled to retain her composure. “Are you kidding me? Since when is pregnancy a federal crime in this country?”

“Don’t get snippy with me,” her boss replied. “Let me give this some thought.”

A week later, Marsha approached Wagner again. “Did you put through that leave of absence yet?”

“I’ll let you know when I make a decision.”

Another 2 wk passed when a friend in the know informed her off-the-record that the foreman was interviewing applicants for her job.

Marsha stormed into Wagner’s office.

“Is what I heard true? Are you -“

“I’m going to have to let you go,” her boss interrupted. “A statement supposedly made in good faith on an employment agreement is contractually binding.”

“We’ll see about that,” Marsha replied and stormed out in a rage.

Question: Does the pregnant employee have any recourse? Can she legally be held to her commitment?

Send your responses to this case by June15, 2001 to: Uncommon Side , PLANT ENGINEERING , 2000 Clearwater Dr., Oak Brook, IL 60523; e-mail:; fax: 630-320-7145.

Must a bumped-down employee take a qualifying test?

Raymond Dreyfack

Minutes after the posting of the layoff list, Instrument Repairman Class I Jonas Temple appeared at Maintenance Foreman Chuck Williams’ desk.

“I can’t afford to be out of work,” Temple said. “What else have you got for me?”

“You may be able to bump down to Instrument Repairman II and replace one of the junior people if you qualify for the job. It rates $0.20/hr less than what you’ve been getting.”

“I’ll settle for that. I need the work.”

“I’ll check it out and let you know.”

Williams got Temple’s file from Personnel. His record indicated a lapse of 10 yr since he had last performed Repairman II tasks. He summoned Temple back to his desk and pointed this out to him.

“No problem,” Temple replied. “I’m fast on the pickup. I’ll be back in the swing in no time.”

“That’s not good enough,” his boss said. “I’ll have to give you a test.”

“A test to bump down? You gotta be kidding.”

Williams assured him he was serious. “I can’t send a junior man packing until I’m sure you can handle the job.”

“No way!” Temple protested. “I’m not sitting still for this.”

Question: Can the employee be required to submit to a test before being bumped down to a lower paying job?

Markham’s verdict: “Temple takes and passes the test, or else,” Plant Engineer Jay Markham ruled. “So long as the test is fair, comprehensive, and consistently administered – bumped down or not – nothing in the labor agreement prohibits management from assuring itself that the employee is qualified.”

Should internet use be restricted?

Raymond Dreyfack

It’s a common controversy these days. Some companies monitor internet use; some prohibit it; others block access to certain sites; still others leave internet use to employee discretion, neither restricting nor monitoring.

Which left Project Supervisor John Duff between the proverbial rock and a hard place. At the moment, Power Engineer Jeff McKenna was working his well-worn mouse again. Duff, irritated, viewed each click of the mouse as a blow to productivity. Should he talk to the guy? If so, should he complain about the time waste, order him to lay off, or what?

The company had no set policy. Or maybe no set policy was in itself a policy, Duff thought. E-mail was bad enough, but the internet could eat time faster than a rat munching cheese. Duff felt he had to do something. He decided to discuss the problem with Plant Engineer Alvin Bell.

Question: In Bell’s shoes, what would you tell Duff?

Bell’s response: The plant engineer responded thoughtfully. “John, you’re not alone in voicing this concern. Companies that design software to control internet use certainly endorse your concern. They believe you should know if your people are checking their stocks or tracking sports results when they’re supposed to be working. “On the other hand, a number of surveys have been made. One, conducted by the Society of Human Resource Management, reports that less than 1% of respondents feel productivity has gone down due to internet use. Considering the wealth of information on the net, more than 45% believe it has gone up.” Bell frowned. “How do I feel about it? I’m sure abuses occur. In your shoes, John, I’d assess the performance and professionalism of users in question. For those who pass muster, I’d vote for free and uninhibited use. For employees you’re not sure you can trust, I’d keep an eye peeled and clamp down where justified. Do we need a clearly spelled out company policy? My view is that this never could hurt.”

Tread gently when easing a senior’s workload

Raymond Dreyfack

As Project Supervisor Mark Lehrer learned, downsizing isn’t the only thing that worries seniors these days.

Lehrer, 38, was a savvy and sensitive supervisor. He was also a realist. People in their sixties and seventies, however skilled and experienced, sometimes tend to slow down.

At age 69, Senior Engineer Jeff Garson carried the same workload as he had at 50 or 60. Jeff was as knowledgeable and productive as ever, but to Lehrer, he appeared very tired at times, although he never complained.

With this thought in mind, the supervisor assigned a project Garson usually handled to someone else. When the engineer got the word, he appeared at Lehrer’s desk clearly upset.

“Is something wrong about the way I’ve been doing that job?”

“Not at all,” his boss assured him.

“Then why – “

“Jeff, your workload’s too heavy. I want to relieve some of the pressure.”

“I don’t feel any pressure. I have no problem with the assignment.”

Lehrer frowned. “Okay, let me think about it.”

He decided to discuss the matter with Plant Engineer Len Ross.

Question: In Ross’ place, what would you tell Lehrer?

Ross’ advice: Ross listened thoughtfully to Lehrer’s account of his conversation with Garson. “Mark, being downsized isn’t the only thing worrying seniors these days. Having observed Jeff, your conclusion that his workload’s too heavy is probably right. So why doesn’ the welcome an effort to lighten it? My guess is he’s afraid of retirement and construes this as a possible step in that direction. It might help if I have a chat with him. This company has several key people still functioning well in their late sixties and seventies. As long as he makes a positive contribution to the department and wants to work, it would be a loss to lose him. I’ll make this as clear as I can to him. After that, if he still wants that project, I’d let him have it.”

Is temporary demotion a viable prescription for chronic lateness?

Raymond Dreyfack

Maintenance Supervisor Jack Regent had a brainstorm. The department’s tardiness problem had been growing worse by the day. When Carpenter Grade I Jim McGee, a chronic late show, reported to work 2-hr late, Regent gave him two choices: “Either clock out and go home, or scrape and paint the railing outside the plant, in which case you will receive a laborer’s pay.”

“What kind of ripoff is this?” McGee protested. “I’m a craftsman, not a laborer. When I clocked out yesterday, I was in the middle of building a platform holding device.”

“I couldn’t wait for you to show up to finish it. It was assigned to someone else.”

“I phoned and notified Personnel I’d be in late,” McGee groused. “I had personal business to attend to.”

“In the past year or more,” Regent countered, “your personal business appears to have taken precedence over your job. This job may help you set your priorities straight.”

“No way will I work as a laborer,” McGee persisted.

Regent shrugged. “I gave you a choice.”

“We’ll see about that.”

Question : Is the supervisor acting within his rights demoting McGee for the day?

Levinson’s decision: Plant Engineer Ed Levinson backed the supervisor’s decision. “Management should not have to sit still for the disruption caused by excessive tardiness. No past practice guarantees a late employee his place in the production line. McGee either does the lower rated job assigned or he can clock out and be docked for the day.”

Business slump: Is cutting the work week a good idea?

Raymond Dreyfack

Absolutely!” say low seniority employees. “Absolutely not!” say longtime veterans.

When the decline in customer orders continued, the workforce – as well as management – knew drastic action was called for.

At a top level management meeting, several decisions were reached.

  1. The business downturn shows no signs of abating.

  2. One way or other, costs have to be cut.

  3. Considering the company’s investment in training, it would make more sense to cut the workweek from 40 hr to 32 hr than lay off experienced people.

    1. When the workweek cut was announced, employee response was predictable: Relief from low seniority workers who had feared being laid off; protest from longtime employees angry at having their wages reduced.

      A committee of three, representing the veterans, appeared at Maintenance Foreman Troy Ricco’s desk. Bill Sussman, the spokesman, pointed out that the contract called for a 40-hr week. “We realize the company has to cut costs. But the fair thing would be to announce layoffs to conform to the labor agreement.”

      Ricco replied, “Management studied the alternatives carefully and decided it would be in everyone’s best interest to cut the workweek. When business picks up, it will be moved back to 40 hr.”

      Sussman refused to settle for this answer and threatened to sue if the workweek was cut.

      Question: Who do you think will win if Sussman’s threat is carried out?

      Management’s decision: “Tell Sussman we’re following through with the cut,” Plant Engineer Joel Dreyer instructed Ricco. “For one thing, most arbitrators rule that if a company has a valid reason for reducing work hours instead of laying off employees, it has a right to do so . For another, a clause in the contract states and reinforces this right.”

      Must sick time be paid while plant is shut down?

      Raymond Dreyfack

      Plant Manager Jim Worthy telephoned Plant Engineer Al Wraxton at 10:00 a.m. on Thursday. Four inches of snow already had accumulated.

      “What do you think, Al?”

      “It doesn’t look good.”

      “I agree.”

      Based on their agreement, the plant was shut down for the rest of the day and the crews sent home. Employees would be entitled to a half day’s pay for the time they worked.

      The sun came out in the afternoon. Normal operations resumed the following day.

      Employees were paid Tuesday for four-and-a-half days of work the previous week.

      Electrician Dell Florin appeared at Maintenance Foreman Tom Widner’s desk with his paycheck in hand.

      “I received only two-and-a-half days’ sick leave instead of three,” he complained. “I was out Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.”

      “The plant was shut down Thursday because of the snowstorm,” Widner replied. “The crew was sent home early. They were paid 4 hr for the day same as you.”

      “Sick pay is sick pay,” Florin persisted. “It has nothing to do with the plant shutdown.”

      “Not so,” Widner disagreed.

      “We’ll see about that.”

      Question: Is Florin entitled to a full day’s sick pay for Thursday?

      Wraxton’s decision: “No extra pay for Florin,” Plant Engineer Wraxton ruled. “The purpose of sick time,” he added, “is to compensate the sick person for time lost. Since the plant was shut down and the crew sent home, no lost working time was involved.”

      Is company liable for health problem caused by approved process?

      Raymond Dreyfack

      When Maintenance Technician Amy Trusky informed Foreman George Kaufman she was planning to sue the company, his eyebrows raised in surprise.

      “What’s the problem?”

      “It’s the problems I have been having with my skin because of the cutting oil. I’ve been going through numerous treatments and I just learned I’m going to need reconstructive surgery.”

      “I’m sorry to hear that.”

      Trusky had a poor complexion she claimed was aggravated further by boils and blemishes resulting from exposure in her maintenance work to a heavy cutting oil.

      “We’ve been through this before,” Kaufman replied. “You were shown the results of tests done by both OSHA and an independent laboratory. That cutting oil was evaluated as nontoxic and safe. You were also offered another job where you won’t be exposed to the oil. You turned it down.”

      “The job paid much less,” Trusky said. “Besides, I wasn’t sure at the time that the oil was the cause of the problem. Now my doctor thinks it is. He says my skin is particularly sensitive.”

      “I can’t dispute his opinion,” Kaufman said. “But since the company has done everything in its power to ensure the job’s safety, it can’t be held responsible for the problem, especially since you were offered other work where you won’t be exposed to the oil. All I can do at this point is repeat that offer.”

      Trusky refused to settle for that.

      Question: Does Trusky have a valid case against the company?

      Stottle’s opinion: “I don’t know what else we could have done in response to Trusky’s problem?” Plant Engineer Mark Stottle said. “Even the company doctor advised Amy to accept the job offer. I think she’s grasping at straws.”

      Extended vacation: What discipline is justified?

      Raymond Dreyfack

      In months past, employees had taken advantage of vacation entitlement, stretching it by days, and at times, by a week or more. So much so that an announcement was posted: UNAUTHORIZED TIME ADDED TO VACATIONS SHALL BE PUNISHED BY DISMISSAL AT THE DISCRETION OF MANAGEMENT. Thus, when Stockroom Attendant Gloria Rainey extended her 2-wk vacation by a week, it was no surprise to anyone that she was handed a termination notice upon her return by Maintenance Supervisor Ned Hamilton.

      Gloria was an above-average employee with 6-yr seniority. She liked and needed her job. Hamilton regretted having to lose her and he told her so, but as he saw it he had no choice. The recently posted rule left no room for compromise. Extending her vacation by an entire week was more than a casual abuse.

      “I wish I could overlook the infraction,” Hamilton told Gloria in response to her appeal for more lenient discipline. “But setting an example like that would put my head in a noose.”

      “Even if under the circumstances the week’s extension was justified?” Gloria asked.

      “You’d have a tough task selling anyone on that,” Hamilton replied. “Your failure to return on time left a key job unoccupied. You didn’t even call in.”

      “I couldn’t; I was too upset to think about that. I was trying to save my marriage. I thought another week might do it.”

      “Did it?” Hamilton asked.

      “I’m not sure. Maybe.”

      Hamilton frowned. “Let me see what I can do. I can’t make any promises, but I’ll try.”

      “That’s all I ask.”

      Question: Under the circumstances, do you think dismissal is too harsh?

      Downey’s decision: After listening to Hamilton’s rundown of Gloria’s justification and reviewing her record, Plant Engineer Charles Downey instructed Hamilton to alter her discipline to a 2-wk suspension. “However important job priorities may seem, at times personal priorities take preference.”

      Can insubordination be justified?

      Raymond Dreyfack

      Can it be assumed automatically that women are as “rugged” as men? “Not only would such an assumption be false,” states American Arbitration Association panel member Leonard J. Smith, “but by the same token, it can’t be assumed that all men are equally rugged. Some can endure more severe hardships than others.”

      The huge floor of the Wisconsin metal products manufacturing plant was maintained during the winter at a mean temperature of about 65 F. Employees wore heavy clothes and there were few complaints. Company rules were strict and strictly enforced. An order was an order. Insubordination was never tolerated.

      One cold January morning, the heating system was turned off for repair. By noon, the temperature had declined to 30 F. Despite a heavy sweater, Greta Novack was too cold to work. “I’m taking off,” she announced.

      “That makes two of us,” Alice Reich, a coworker, added.

      Maintenance Foreman Mike McNab refused to approve the workers’ clockouts. “The guys can take it,” he said, “so can you.”

      By 1:00 p.m., Novack complained that her fingers were freezing. She and Reich clocked out and went home. When they returned to work the next day, they found disciplinary suspensions waiting for them. The women made a beeline for their labor representative.

      Question: Should the suspensions be upheld?

      Belk’s decision: Plant Engineer John Belk’s response was to tear up the suspension notices. “Tough is tough,” he said, “but there’s a limit. We’re running a plant here, McNab, not the winter Olympics.”

      Can you force an unwilling employee to work overtime?

      Raymond Dreyfack

      Tuesday was Carpenter Grade I Troy Haley’s bowling night, and no way was he going to put in overtime despite Maintenance Foreman Fred Zakin’s insistence on the importance of getting the clamping unit ready in time for use by the day shift.

      When Zakin’s reasoned appeal for cooperation didn’t work, he decided it was time to get tough.

      “I was hoping you would cooperate voluntarily for the job,” the foreman said. “But since you won’t, I will have to insist.”

      “On what basis?” Haley asked.

      “On the basis of departmental need. No matter how important you regard your bowling commitment, the job has to come first.”

      Haley persisted in his refusal. “Read the labor agreement,” he said. “I’m within my rights in refusing. The contract states that a change in the work schedule must be agreeable to both labor and management. Overtime constitutes such a change, and it’s not agreeable to me.”

      “That’s nonsense, and it’s quibbling,” Zakin replied.

      Haley refused to back down. “I got a team of eight guys depending on me. I can’t let them down.”

      He clocked out at the usual quitting time. When he showed up for work the next day, he found a 3-day suspension notice waiting for him, discipline he quickly protested.

      Question: Is Haley within his rights in refusing the overtime?

      Jackinson’s verdict: “I’d have to say that ‘quibbling’ is the right word for Haley’s response and lack of cooperation,” Plant Engineer Ralph Jackinson ruled. “The overtime requested was a one-time assignment of limited duration, and could in no way be regarded as a unilateral change in the work schedule. The suspension stands.”

      Flawed attitude in a sharp mind? Take care

      Raymond Dreyfack

      Some staffers said, “Jim Kelly’s smart.” Others disagreed. “He’s brilliant,” they insisted.

      The distinction was immaterial, Chief Engineer Cliff Koppel thought. The project leader was one pain in the butt. Smart or brilliant, his attitude left much to be desired. Kelly was always convinced that his word, his way, his idea, was the be-all and end-all. If Jim Kelly said red was green, red was green.

      What do you do with a guy like that? Koppel wondered. No one, however knowledgable, can be right all the time. No one, however bright, can be too self-sufficient to benefit from the suggestions and opinions of others.

      The problem of the moment was poor morale and dissatisfaction in Kelly’s group. Two good professionals had resigned in the past 6 mo; two others had requested transfers. It was no secret that the source of the problem was the project leader’s know-it-all attitude. The question, Koppel mused, was what to do about it. His wise decision was to talk it over with Roy Draper, his boss.

      Question: In Draper’s place, what advice would you offer?

      Draper’s counsel: The plant engineer listened carefully to the chief’s rundown of his dilemma. Draper asked, “It’s not a new problem. How have you handled it thus far?” “Not very effectively, that’s for sure. I can’t seem to get through to the guy.” “How have you tried to get through?” “I tried to get across to him the effect of his attitude on others, how unpopular it was making him. To impress on him that you don’t win cooperation and support by antagonizing people.” Draper nodded. “In other words, you appealed to his emotions. Maybe that’s the trouble. It’s no secret around here that Jim is a bright guy with a strong intellect. I’ve found in my experience that the more intelligent people are, the less likely they are to be swayed by arguments that appeal to their emotions; the more they can be swayed by reasoning based on fact and logic. Try depersonalizing your approach. Tie it more to the job itself and to work objectives, and less to personal feelings. I offer no guarantees, but it may be worth a shot.”