Human Side of Engineering – 2001-08-01

Can you reject a recall based on a possible problem? Maintenance Utility Man Joe Fenning had a history of back trouble. When he and others had been laid off, Foreman Harry Nadler's undisguised feeling was "Good riddance!" Now with a recall in the works, Nadler wanted to avoid rehiring Fenning if possible.

By Raymond Dreyfack, Contributing Editor August 1, 2001

Can you reject a recall based on a possible problem?

Maintenance Utility Man Joe Fenning had a history of back trouble. When he and others had been laid off, Foreman Harry Nadler’s undisguised feeling was “Good riddance!” Now with a recall in the works, Nadler wanted to avoid rehiring Fenning if possible.

But with the employee on the rehire list, Nadler had to follow established procedure and order a medical exam for him, along with other rehires.

The examining physician found Fenning to be in good health. When asked, “How’s your back holding up?” Fenning replied, “That’s a thing of the past.”

The doctor included this comment on his medical report. Nadler didn’t believe it. If Fenning was recalled, he felt, it wouldn’t be long before he would be chalking up more absences with his “aching back” as an excuse. With this in mind, his recall was rejected.

Fenning protested indignantly. “I’m in excellent health. I’m entitled to my recall, and I’m gonna sue if I don’t get it.”

Question: If Fenning follows through on his threat, what are his chances of winning?

Weiner’s decision: “Rehire Fenning,” Plant Engineer Walt Weiner instructed Nadler. “You may be right in your judgment, but since the physical shows him to be in good health, rejecting him on the possibility of a recurrence of back trouble is too flimsy an excuse to hold up.”

One hand washes the other

It’s an old Chinese proverb. A simple corporate interpretation might be: What helps the employee helps the employer as well.

Applied to the granting of extended health care benefits to same-sex and unmarried partners, a growing number of companies seem to subscribe to this axiom: Xerox, Mobil Oil, American Express, Monsanto, Aetna, NationsBank, to cite a few. As business writer Ellen Forman points out in Florida’s Sun-Sentinel , you can’t get any more corporate than that.

“Are we ready for this?” The question was raised at an executive meeting of a boating equipment and supplies manufacturer. The plant engineer and human relations VP thought so. The president and financial VP weren’t sure.

The PE pointed out, “Bandwagon hoppers have multiplied since the Village Voice introduced same-sex benefits in 1982.”

The financial VP wondered, “Is it a good idea to encourage homosexuality?”

The CEO asked, “Would you engage in a sexual practice that ran against the grain because of benefits you would get in any case?”

“I guess not,” he replied.

The CEO said, “What concerns me is, can we afford it?”

“According to KPMG Peat Markwick,” the plant engineer said, “13% of employers and 23% of the largest corporations now offer health coverage to unmarried partners. They must feel they can afford it.”

Question: Do you think extending health care benefits to same-sex and unmarried partners, is economically sound?

CEO’s decision: The human relations officer said, “Studies indicate a growing number of managers feel that with competition for well-qualified employees heating up, companies with the most attractive and flexible benefit programs will be ahead of competitors.” He added, “Nonetheless, many companies are taking care to be neutral regarding moral issues involved. I’m all for that approach.” “There’s also the question of loyalty,” the plant engineer said. “If I lived with a same-sex or unmarried partner, extended health care benefits would inspire my loyalty as much as anything I can think of.” The CEO sighed. “Okay, let’s give it a try.”

Is dishonesty ever excusable?

Gertrude Stein might have put it this way: A crook is a crook is a crook.

Maintenance Mechanic Bill Porter never heard of Gertrude Stein. But he could have inspired her comment. The company furnished tools for its maintenance personnel. If a tool was broken or lost, it was normally replaced by Supply. On occasion, if the needed tool wasn’t in stock, an employee would be permitted to purchase it locally and be reimbursed by the company.

One day, Porter, aware that Supply was out of stock on the item, told Maintenance Foreman Joe Pollen that his spanner wrench was missing.

“Did you check around to make sure no one borrowed it or took it by mistake?”

“Yeah, I did. I’m sure it’s missing, and Supply is out of stock.”

Pollen authorized purchase of a replacement. Porter visited a local supplier and paid $58 for a wrench he needed for a home plumbing job. “Just mark the invoice ‘wrench,’ ” he instructed the clerk. “Don’t specify what kind it is.”

Porter handed the invoice to Pollen for reimbursement.

Pollen happened to mention the transaction to his assistant who frowned in response. “Something’s fishy,” he said. “Are you sure it was a spanner wrench he replaced? I saw a spanner in his toolbox yesterday morning.”

Pollen phoned the supplier. “Did you sell a guy named Bill Porter a spanner wrench yesterday?”

The supplier checked his records. “No, I sold him a special pipe wrench.”

Called to account, Porter confessed he had attempted to defraud the company. Pollen made a beeline for Plant Engineer Joel Morton’s office.

Question: How would you respond in this case?

Morton’s verdict: “No ifs, ands, or buts,” Morton ruled, “the guy is out of here!”

Is whistle blowing a crime or a service?

George Karlitz, a maintenance department painter, complained on three separate occasions to his supervisor, Rudolf Werner, that scaffolding he was required to climb was “too wobbly and unsafe.”

The first time Werner promised to check it out and said if it needed repair he would see to it. The second time, Werner assured Karlitz that the unit was checked out and was found to be perfectly safe. Karlitz didn’t believe him, and another employee agreed that the scaffolding was unsafe. At the third complaint Werner told the painter, “You’re becoming a pain in the butt, Werner. If you persist with this nonsense I’m going to tell you to clock out and go home.”

Disgruntled, Karlitz stalked off without further protest. The following week he observed an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspector walking through the plant with his boss. Among other things, he took a look at the scaffolding, and the two men seemed to be discussing it. Minutes later, Karlitz saw Werner pass an envelope to the inspector.

An obvious bribe, he concluded, to get the defective scaffolding approved. He had no time to lose. Karlitz made a beeline to the personnel office and accused Werner of bribing the inspector to remain silent about a dangerous workplace hazard. He was assured by the personnel manager that she would look into it immediately. Minutes later, Karlitz saw the manager in conversation with the OSHA inspector and Werner. The inspector took an envelope from his pocket and showed it to the personnel manager. An hour later Karlitz was fired by Werner.

Question: Was the discharge justified?

Wilson’s decision: Plant Engineer Harold Wilson summoned Werner to his office. Werner explained that Karlitz was “a pain in the butt.” “The scaffolding is safe, and I told him so. That wasn’t good enough for him. On top of that, he had the nerve to embarrass me and an OSHA inspector with his accusation of bribery because he saw me give the inspector an envelope which contained information he had requested. I figure enough is enough.” Wilson instructed Werner to tear up the dismissal notice. “Despite your and the inspector’s innocence in this situation, Karlitz honestly believed he was blowing the whistle in what appeared to him a dishonest transaction. He felt he had caught a crime in the making and would have to act fast to catch the miscreant. Misguided or not, I can’t fault his intentions. Company policy is that whistle blowing is not a crime but a service.”

Repeated tries to conform fail. Is discipline called for?

Management required plant employees to wear safety shoes. When Welder Stuart Merkle, who wore a size 12 shoe, complained to Maintenance Foreman Gus Slocum that the pair issued to him was “killing his feet,” Slocum authorized another pair from Supply.

That afternoon Merkle appeared at his desk again. “These damn shoes don’t fit either,” he groused. “Here, take a look.”

“I don’t have time to fool around with that stuff,” Slocum replied. “I’ll authorize one more exchange.”

When the third pair didn’t fit, Merkle took it to a local shoe retailer to see if adjustments could be made. The shoe clerk tried but was unable to make the shoes fit properly. He told Merkle he could see no way to alter the shoes so they’d fit.

Next day the welder appeared on the job in his regular street shoes. When Slocum observed the absence of safety shoes, he issued Merkle a 5-day suspension.

Slocum grieved that the suspension was unfair. “It’s the company’s responsibility,” he maintained, “to issue safety shoes that fit properly.”

Question: Was Merkle’s suspension justified?

Rostowski’s ruling: “Kill the suspension,” Plant Engineer Don Rostowski instructed Slocum after checking to make sure the shoes in question did not fit properly. “The guy did everything in his power to comply. Either find him shoes that fit, or authorize him to buy a pair on his own and reimburse him for the cost.”

Is it legal to probe criminal record?

Maintenance Supervisor Ken Chao was in urgent need of a skilled mechanic with experience reading drawings and blueprints. Having already interviewed several applicants who, for one reason or another, failed to qualify, he was encouraged after reviewing the application form of the latest candidate sent to him by personnel. John Whelan, who had worked 4 yr for a competitor, seemed to be made to order for the job.

Whelan was a quiet man in his 30s who volunteered no information unless he was asked. Chao subjected him to a series of tests in which he did well.

“Why did you leave your former job?” Whelan asked.

“I felt I could do better elsewhere.”

Hmm, Chao thought. The guy looked all right. But you never know. With all the kooks and shady characters in the job market these days, you can’t be too careful.

Chao didn’t like his next question, but felt he had to ask it. “Were you ever convicted of a crime? And if so, was it under the name on this application blank?”

Whelan turned red. “That question’s discrimatory and illegal,” he charged. “I don’t have to answer it.”

The charge gave the supervisor pause. “Wait here a minute, I’ll be right back.”

Chao headed for his boss’ office.

Question: Was the applicant correct in his assertion that Chao had asked an illegal question?

Merkle’s response: When Chao filled in Plant Engineer Craig Merkle on what had transpired, he was assured that the question was proper and nondiscriminatory within the framework of state law. “You can ask about criminal convictions,” he said, “but you can’t inquire regarding arrests which did not result in convictions.”

Don’t sit still for stolen time

There are three kinds of corporate theft: Money, merchandise, and time. Time, translatable to money, is no less a bottom line buster than the other two.

This was of small interest to maintenance department Carpenter Hank Oster. He stole time in 10 and 15 min. chunks every chance that he got. He extended his lunch hour, stretched rest periods, reached his work station late in the morning, arrived early to clock out at quitting time.

Maintenance Supervisor George Rich called Oster on the carpet repeatedly and at one point had started recording his reprimands and inserting them in his personnel file. When it reached the point that Rich felt discipline was called for, he issued Oster a one-week suspension.

The carpenter was at his desk within minutes. “Rules aren’t clear on this stuff,” he claimed. “I’m not the only one who beats the clock at times. Why pick on me?”

“Because you’re a chronic abuser,” Rich replied, “and you’ve been warned more than once about the practice.”

Unwilling to settle for that explanation, Oster threatened to grieve.

Question: How do you rate Oster’s chances of winning?

Merchant’s verdict: “The suspension stands,” Plant Engineer Ralph Merchant ruled. “Oster is being paid at his normal work rate for the time he steals. When he steals time, he steals money. His attitude and continuing abuse demonstrate no desire to improve his behavior. I would add to his suspension notice that continued theft of time will result in dismissal.”

How do you deal with a supervisor whose performance is slipping?

When Maintenance Supervisor Jim Brandt reported to Plant Engineer Art Hale’s office as requested, the first thing to strike his eye was the Quarterly Performance Report on Hale’s desk. “I guess I’ve had it,” was the thought that ran through Brandt’s mind.

Hale tried easing the tension. “Don’t look so devastated, Jim; it’s not the end of the world.”

Brandt’s responding smile was half hearted. A 20-year veteran employee, half of that in supervisory roles, his department’s ratings on productivity and other key bottom line indicators had slipped consistently over past months. He didn’t have to look at the report to know what it contained.

Hale got right to the point. “What’s the problem? I have the feeling I’m not looking at the same guy I thought I knew so well. Fifty isn’t that old. What happened to all that old enthusiasm and drive?”

Brandt sighed. “I wish I knew.”

“Level with me, Jim. Is it family problems? Health? Are you in a financial bind?”

“No, nothing like that.”

“What then? The job itself?”

Brandt frowned. “I’m not sure, but maybe that’s the answer. The same routine day after day. The same screw-ups and petty squabbles.

I don’t know. The job has grown deadly dull. It’s not a challenge any more.”

Question: In Hale’s place, how would you respond?

Hale’s response: The plant engineer nodded thoughtfully. “That’s more or less what I suspected. Call it job burnout, or whatever. What you may need is a change of venue, a fresh perspective on your job and role. Let me give this some thought.” Ordinarily, the solution to a problem like this might be to suggest that the employee seek employment elsewhere and possibly help in this effort. But Brandt was a veteran employee with a good work record, a substantial training investment, plus long and valuable experience with company needs and operations. With this in mind, Hale explored viable alternatives. The final resolution, in everyone’s best interest, was transfer to another division where new responsibilities, a new work force, and new challenges would hopefully result in renewal and a recharging of batteries.