Human Side of Engineering – 2001-07-01

A dollar buys more than status I remember it well. Early on in my career, in my twenties, I was approached by my boss. He complimented me on my work, told me how vital I was to the department, and offered to make me a supervisor. I turned him down. The "career boost" would have qualified me as an exempt employee.

By Raymond Dreyfack Contributing Editor July 1, 2001

A dollar buys more than status

I remember it well. Early on in my career, in my twenties, I was approached by my boss. He complimented me on my work, told me how vital I was to the department, and offered to make me a supervisor.

I turned him down. The “career boost” would have qualified me as an exempt employee. As a supervisor, I would still work the same long hours. As a rank-and-filer — getting time-and-a-half for overtime — I would earn more. A dollar buys more than status.

Maintenance Mechanic Joe Spence and three coworkers apparently felt the same way. Informed that they were being upped a level to Mechanic Specialist, they appeared as a group at Maintenance Foreman Jeff Clifford’s desk, with Spence acting as spokesperson, to protest the action. The “advanced” rating would mean a token pay raise, but put them on straight salary.

Clifford tried unsuccessfully to talk them out of it. The purpose of the “promotion,” they insisted, was to classify them as exempt to avoid paying overtime. If it went through, they would sue.

Question: Can management force the mechanics to accept the upgrade in status?

Dormer’s decision:In response to Spence’s disclosure of the mechanics’ threat, Plant Engineer Don Dormer called Corporate Attorney Sue Schirmer for her opinion. “My advice,” Schirmer said, “is to proceed gingerly — very gingerly. Class-action lawsuits involving several hundred employees have been filed against NationsBank in the past year alleging misclassification of workers to avoid overtime pay. The cost could add up to millions. “The 60-yr-old law requiring employers to pay time-and-a-half for hours worked past 40 hr per week is being challenged and tested all over the place these days. In 1997, companies paid over $63 million in back wages and penalties for overtime violations, a number that appears to be headed no place but up. If you are seeking to classify these people as supervisors, managers, or administrators, you’d better make darned sure these are the roles they’ll be filling.” “On second thought,” Dormer told Spence after hanging up, “maybe we’d better kill that directive.”

Is propagandizing a slowdown just cause for dismissal?

The consulting firm spent several weeks analyzing work habits and procedures in the maintenance department. Following the study, a new set of performance standards was developed and published. Not surprisingly, it set off a storm of protest from the crew.

Electrician Grade I Neil Osgood was particularly aggressive. “They’re trying to rip us off,” he insisted. Osgood slowed down himself, and conducted a one-man crusade in an effort to persuade coworkers to disregard the new standards.

Inevitably, word of his propagandizing reached Maintenance Foreman Bud Amos.

“You better knock it off,” he told Osgood, “if you want to stay out of hot water.”

When the electrician refused to comply, Amos handed him a dismissal notice for “violating the contract and causing disruption and disharmony in the department.”

Osgood promptly challenged the discharge and recruited bargaining unit Committeeman Alan Gorman as his advocate.

“You can’t fire the guy,” Gorman told Amos. “He was simply speaking his mind.”

“We’ll see about that,” Amos replied.

Question: Is Amos justified in terminating Osgood? Can he get away with it?

Plant engineer’s decision: “Reinstate Osgood,” Plant Engineer Burt Dollinger instructed Amos. “While you’re correct that he violated a contractual provision in refusing to accept the new standards and encouraging others to slow down, the dismissal was too precipitous. For one thing, Osgood has a better-than-average performance record himself. For another, and most important, you failed to apply the time-honored rule of progressive discipline. Osgood should have been warned more than once in writing, and should have been put on notice regarding the consequences of continued violation.”

Supervision: “When In Rome”

A gentlemanly, soft spoken supervisor in charge of a rough and tumble work crew often triggers his own unique kind of problems.

No one on the work force could have recalled Maintenance Supervisor Peter Jensen ever having uttered a word more crude then “darn.” So when Jensen observed Utility Worker Chuck Moran and Electrician Grade II Alex Ullman engaged hot and heavy in a verbal battle which threatened to wind up with blows, he stepped in to halt the exchange.

The blows never occurred, but temperatures raised to the boiling point are not easily lowered. Moran, justifying his behavior to Jensen referred to his adversary in language that was vulgar and obscene. Ullman, no less aroused, matched Moran’s vulgarities epithet for epithet. Since this took place in the presence of several onlookers, some of them female, it made the performance all the more unacceptable, in Jensen’s view. His response was to slap both men with a one-week suspension, which they promptly protested.

Question:Is Jensen justified in issuing the discipline? Can he make the suspensions stick?

Morton’s decision: “Cancel the suspensions,” Plant Engineer George Bernard instructed after summoning Jensen to his office. The executive chuckled. “You may be a gentleman,” he told the supervisor, “which is of course to your credit. But let’s face realities. This is a rough and tough crew you manage, with crude vulgarities as much a part of the vocabulary as polite urbane language — among some of the women no less than the males. “Without disputing the social unacceptability, the question of its being a disciplinary offense centers on the effect of the language on employees and most specifically on whether or not their response hampers production and productivity. Since such consequences are either nonexistent or minimal in my opinion, I think most arbitrators would agree that discipline beyond a reprimand is not called for in this case.”

Assault on supervisor: Does employee have a chance?

Most people will agree that America has come a long way in the battle against racial, religious, and gender discrimination. Many would also concede that as a nation, we have a long way to go before bigotry is even close to being eliminated.

Few would agree more vehemently with this observation than Arthur Nelson, a black carpenter employed in the maintenance department of a machine parts manufacturing company. Departmental abuses suffered by Nelson during his 2 yr with the company ranged from the outspoken slurs to more subtle insults, such as conversations stopped abruptly at his presence, and easily interpreted smirks exchanged by coworkers in his presence. Most members of the crew didn’t participate in the abuse. Some were even appalled by it, but not enough to protest openly. Others withheld their opinions.

Nelson was a qualified carpenter. But more than once coworkers refused to work with him for no reason other than the color of his skin. Jobs for carpenters were scarce in the area. Nelson had a family to support and so he stuck it out. A couple of times, however, with the injustice of his treatment and his anguish hard to contain, he complained to Maintenance Foreman Tod McIntyre.

The busy foreman’s response was mainly annoyance and impatience. He had more important matters to address. The first time he told Nelson, “What the hell do you want me to do about it?” Tightlipped, the carpenter walked away.

The second complaint found McIntyre at a bad time. “Nelson, don’t you know when you’re not wanted? Why don’t you just pack it in and quit?”

For Nelson that was the final indignity. He hauled off and hit the foreman, missing his jaw, but connecting hard on his head.

McIntyre’s response was a termination notice to which Nelson promptly submitted a grievance.

Question: Striking one’s supervisor is clearly a dischargeable offense. How do you rate Nelson’s chance for success?

Hilton’s verdict: Plant Engineer Ralph Hilton’s response was three-pronged. After investigating the situation and interviewing selected employees, he called McIntyre on the carpet and bluntly informed him that a repetition of this treatment would find him out on the street. He further posted a memo spelling out to the crew the consequences of future abuse, and initiated a training program designed to motivate respect for human rights regardless of race, creed, or religious belief.

Can you rule out peak period vacations?

In order to ensure acceptable productivity, production, and the fulfillment of customer orders during our fall “rush” season, the company finds it necessary to prohibit all vacations from June 15 through June 30. — Grant Fricke, General Manager

The bulletin board announcement produced a storm of protest from a handful of employees.

“We made reservations to visit my parents in Florida.”

“That’s the time we participate in a golf tournament.”

“It’s the only time my wife can get away from her job.”

So ran comments from disgruntled employees.

Fricke expressed his regrets, but explained at a general meeting, “It’s a necessary provision. We tried temps and increased overtime; it just didn’t work out. The temps couldn’t cut it; the overtime resulted in too many errors.”

Maintenance Instrument Repairman Joe Groat, who served as spokesman for the protesting employees, wasn’t open to reason.

“The edict violates the contract agreement,” he insisted to Maintenance Supervisor Mark Hirsch. He produced a copy of the contract. “It says here that vacations can be taken throughout the year from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31.”

Hirsch replied, “The contract also states that it’s both a management and employee responsibility to act in the company’s best interests in order to remain competitive and profitable.

If we don’t do that, we all go down the drain.”

Groat threatened to grieve, persisting that management couldn’t unilaterally block out weeks during which vacations would not be approved.

Question: Is the edict spelled out in the announcement a management prerogative?

Plant engineer’s verdict: Plant Engineer George Merchant, when informed of Groat’s threat, held firm to management’s decision. “Only sickness can justify absence during the weeks specified,” he told Hirsch. “As the labor agreement makes clear, management’s first responsibility is to respond where necessary to competitive pressures in its efforts to remain profitable. It’s myopic and unrealistic of Groat and his bellyachers to think or act otherwise.”

High crimes and misdemeanors

Setup Mechanic Grade I Jeff Reiner, 46, a 9 yr veteran employee, was a top-rated performer. A family man with one son in college. It was general knowledge in the department that Jeff and his wife didn’t get along. Departmental scuttlebutt was that they had slept in separate bedrooms for years.

Long time Stockroom Attendant Mary Klose, 44, was a widow, also well rated.

When Maintenance Supervisor Patrick Root heard via the rumor mill that Jeff and Mary were dating in violation of a company rule against “inhouse fraternization”, he decided they would have to be disciplined. A more difficult decision was what discipline to impose. Would termination be too harsh, especially in view of the fact that Jeff was a married man? Root, a family man himself, and conscientious churchgoer, favored the supreme penalty.

His indecision was because he couldn’t base the discipline on a rumor alone. But when a maintenance employee confided in Root’s assistant, Bob Cochran, that Jeff and Mary were observed entering a motel together, it cinched the case in Root’s mind.

The foreman summoned Jeff to his office and asked him point blank, “Are you and Mary sleeping together?”

Jeff’s face flushed. “No way! Where did you hear that?”

“Never mind where.”

Further investigation proved that Jeff and Mary were indeed dating. Root promptly issued termination notices for the lovers and sent them to Plant Engineer Bill Ryan for approval.

Question: Is dismissal justified? In Ryan’s shoes how would you rule?

Ryan’s verdict: Ryan reviewed the case along with Jeff’s and Mary’s performance records. Root stood by waiting for him to sign his approval. Ryan asked, “Pat, who is being hurt by this affair?” Root frowned. “What do you mean?” “I’ll put it more simply: Is the department or company being damaged in any way?” “I don’t know. But not only are they shacking up, but Jeff lied about it.” Ryan tore up the termination notice. “If it’s not having an adverse effect on the business we conduct here, I’d say it’s none of our business. Send Jeff to my office. I’ll talk to him.”

Beware the Gastineau syndrome

Newsweek writer Leslie Kaufman alerts employers to the danger in a feature article titled “Toxic Employees.” A man named Kim Gastineau, she reports, sued after having been fired following his refusal to have sex with a female colleague who “liked to perch atop his desk in skimpy outfits and tease his crotch with her foot.” The jury found against him because it was learned that Gastineau, not the colleague, had made the advances. And most significantly, because Gastineau had sued three previous employers.

Like the practiced accident “victim” who fakes flops in front of cars, some people get rich with phony sexual-harassment settlements.

It can work either way: male-female or female-male. A young maintenance department clerical employee, Kate Satchel charged Group Leader John Arlen, a 40-yr-old married man with repeated harassment despite numerous rejections to his “groping,” suggestive language, and persistent propositions.”

Arlen vehemently denied the accusation, protesting his innocence. His denial didn’t faze Satchel. She said she had witnesses and produced them. A female clerical employee confirmed that she had seen Arlen attempting to “practically rape” Satchel one day in the stock room. A male mechanic testified to having heard him proposition Satchel more than once.

Satchel, sobs barely restrained, told Maintenance Manager Jim Cooley that she would sue the company for “its last ounce of blood.” Cooley, stunned, decided to take the matter to his boss, Plant Engineer Howie Wallace.

Question: With two live witnesses, Kate Satchel would appear to have an airtight case. Or did she?

Wallace’s response: Plant Engineer Wallace was no less stunned than Cooley. Both knew Arlen as a well-rated employee who also coached a Little League baseball team. “But two witnesses,” Cooley said, shaking his head. “I guess you never can tell.” “Maybe yes, maybe no,” Wallace replied thoughtfully. He hired a private detective to check out Satchel’s background. The mechanic who testified turned out to be her boyfriend. As for the other witness, she tearfully admitted under pressure that Kate had offered her 15% of “the take,” and was promptly fired . Case closed.

Tough on theft control

Random inspection of lunch boxes and outgoing packages by exit guards had long been a standard plant practice. Over several years an estimated 40[en]50% of employees had been checked. Managers, supervisors, and union officials were routinely passed through.

Recent months, however, disclosed a significant increase of missing products, tools, and supplies. In response, a notice was posted that in the future all containers that could conceal stolen items would be checked at the gate.

Exit guards were employees of an independent security firm. Their inspection of everything from briefcases to lunch boxes was conscientious and thorough.

This provoked a protest to Plant Engineer Gordon Grasse by Plant Steward Ned Narcissus. He claimed that on the one hand, the new procedure was nothing more than a ruse to harass union officials, and on the other, the inspection of officials’ briefcases in particular was intolerable because they often contained “privileged union documents.”

A final objection was voiced on the grounds that the full inspection, a unilaterally made decision, was in violation of the labor agreement.

Question: In Grasse’s shoes, how would you respond to these complaints?

Grasse’s response: All three objections were contested by the plant engineer. “For one thing,” he told Narcissus, “the inspection is nondiscriminatory since it is applied fairly and equally to all employees. For another, the privileged document claim holds no water since the guards do not read or even remove papers from briefcases and as employees of an independent firm, have neither interest in nor understanding of so-called privileged documents. And finally, management’s right to protect corporate assets is inviolable and does not require union consensus to be enforced.”