Human Side of Engineering – 2001-09-01

Is morale a miracle productivity cure-all?Is good employee morale the magic touchstone that ensures high productivity? Not necessarily. No question, morale's effect on performance cannot be disputed. But viewing it as a be-all and end-all solution to productivity problems is a mistake made by too many managers.

By Raymond Dreyfack, Contributing Editor September 1, 2001

Is morale a miracle productivity cure-all?

Is good employee morale the magic touchstone that ensures high productivity? Not necessarily. No question, morale’s effect on performance cannot be disputed. But viewing it as a be-all and end-all solution to productivity problems is a mistake made by too many managers. Take Ed Driscoll, for example.

As a plant engineering department project supervisor, Driscoll had exemplary human relations in his group. Harmony ruled. Professionals who reported to Driscoll were for the most part happy and cheerful.

But as he learned the hard way, a contented employee isn’t necessarily productive. Case in point: Roy Heller, a construction engineer in Driscoll’s group.

Heller was friendly, cooperative, and well-liked by the crew. But his performance fell short of established standards. In discussions regarding his output, Heller was every bit as concerned about the problem as his boss.

He consistently promised to do better, and to all appearances he tried. At times there was slight improvement for a while. But it didn’t last long. Driscoll was a strong believer in motivational strategies. But nothing seemed to work with Heller.

One day, frustrated, Driscoll sought his boss’s advice.

“I don’t know what to make of the guy,” he admitted. “His morale is good. We get along fine. He likes his job and likes the company. You would think…”

Smiling, Plant Engineer Ralph Rudin held up a hand. “I know just what you’re going to say…”

Question: Can you guess what advice Rudin offered to the project supervisor?

Rudin’s counsel: “Good morale and high, even acceptable, performance don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

For one reason or other — employees with limited capabilities, square pegs in round holes, workers without proper training or background, whatever — even the best motivated and best intentioned person may fall short of expectations.

My guess is that the answer for people like Roy Heller lies more with reassignment, training, or a change of work assignments than it does with clever motivational ploys. Failing that, he might be better off elsewhere.”

When does “temporary” become unreasonable?

Instrument Repair Specialist Barney Faulkner loved his job. Tops in his trade, he took pride in his work and won the respect of crew members and supervisors alike.

When Setup Man Sam Rivington opted for early retirement, it put Maintenance Supervisor John Foote in a spot. The best of three setup men, replacing him would be a tough vacancy to fill. Only one man on the crew was qualified to tackle some of the tough assignments Foote had been called on to handle: Barney Faulkner who, prior to becoming an instrument repair specialist, had excelled at setup work.

Foote approached Faulkner. “Barney, you’ve got to help me out until I can find a replacement for Sam.”

The request was bad news for Faulkner.

“It’s only temporary,” Foote reasoned. “You’ll be back at your regular job within weeks.”

But the weeks stretched into months. When the instrument repairman complained, Foote’s response time and again was, “Any day now,” or “I’ve got a good man in mind to replace Sam.”

When this persistently failed to occur, Faulkner threatened to file a grievance charging discrimination.

Question: Can Faulkner win? How long can “temporary” apply?

Wilson’s decision: “Either hire a replacement fast or spread the setup assignments among others in the crew,” Plant Engineer Fred Wilson instructed Foote. “You can’t expect a temporary transfer to fill a permanent vacancy for an unreasonable length

of time.”

Temporary layoff: must you conform to seniority?

It was 10:00 a.m. on Monday. Maintenance Mechanic Grade I Paul Meynor was summoned to Foreman Tom Dooley’s desk.”Paul, I’m two men short in Instrument Repair. You can handle the job. I need you there in a hurry.”

No problem. No pay loss. In fact, the instrument repair rate was 15 cents an hour higher. Mechanic Grade I Harry Newman was assigned to cover Paul’s regular work.

Three days later, with the two absent instrument repairmen back on the job, there was no work for Meynor to do, and he was sent home for a day. Back on his regular job, Newman continued to work.

When Meynor clocked in the following day his anger was barely suppressed. Storming up to Dooley’s desk, he complained, “What kind of rip off is this? I have more than nine years seniority; Harry Newman has less than six. How come he worked yesterday?”

Dooley tried to cool him down. “The reason’s simple, Paul. Harry was in the middle of an urgent job. If you were put on it in his place, it would have meant lost time in the turnover. On top of that I would have had to do a lot of reshuffling. It was only one day; no big deal.”

This failed to appease the mechanic.

“To me the loss of a day’s pay is a big deal. It’s not fair. The contract specifies that when layoffs occur, seniority has to be followed.”

“That’s true. But it doesn’t apply to temporary layoffs of three days or less.”

“Temporary or not, a day’s pay is a day’s pay.” Meynor threatened to file a grievance.

Question: How do you rate Meynor’s chances of winning if he follows through on his threat?

Sacket’s decision: “Tell Paul to take another look at the contract,” Plant Engineer Lou Sacket instructed Dooley. “A provision on page 46 in particular takes management off the seniority hook where short layoffs are involved. It’s a handy clause to have around. And to calm Meynor down, you might tell him you’ll try to toss a little extra overtime his way when you can to compensate for the day’s pay.”

Can management change a longstanding break policy unilaterally?

Merchandise handlers assigned to the maintenance department had a tough, grueling job. Cases, cartons, and barrels were heavy. The work was strenuous. Rush assignments were commonplace. In consideration of this situation, management had been lenient regarding break periods. Time structures weren’t rigidly monitored.

This policy seemed to work for awhile. But as the company grew and the department expanded, Maintenance Supervisor Don Garson became increasingly bugged because more and more workers abused the break time privilege. Some employees took as much time relaxing as they did on the job. It reached the point where corrective action was called for.

One morning Garson called the handlers together. “Listen, you guys, you’ve got a good thing going so far as the company’s break policy is concerned. But if you continue taking advantage of it, the good deal will be called to a halt.”

For awhile the abuses tapered down, but they soon resumed again. Okay, no more nice guy, Garson decided. He posted a notice on the bulletin board announcing the new break policy. Specific time periods for morning and afternoon breaks were spelled out. The announcement concluded with a statement informing the handlers that violation of this policy would result in disciplinary action.

A storm of protest followed the posting. A bargaining unit official countered by threatening a grievance. “The flexible break period,” he told Garson, “is a longstanding practice. Management has no right to change it unilaterally.”

The supervisor disagreed. “When a policy is anti productive and no longer feasible, management has no choice but to change it.”

Question: How do you think the protesters will fare if the grievance is filed?

Etri’s verdict: “The policy change holds firm,” Plant Engineer Ben Etri told Garson when the opposition was called to his attention. “They can grieve to their heart’s content. But thanks to a strong ‘Management Rights’ clause in the labor agreement they don’t have a leg to stand on. When a past practice, however longstanding, becomes outmoded and anti productive, management must stand up for its right to take corrective action.”

How do you give a reinstated employee his just due?

Life in the industrial workplace was never easy. When Maintenance Foreman Harvey Ventnor fired Carpenter Grade II Joel Dietrich for insubordination, submarginal performance, and a little bit more, he thought he had seen the last of the guy.

No such luck.

Dietrich fought the termination, and after a bitter battle won. Three months later he was reinstated. The verdict: “Reinstatement with back pay.” The carpenter was issued a check covering his wage during his time away from the plant.

One would think this should have satisfied Dietrich. It didn’t.

After receiving the check, he appeared at Ventnor’s desk.

“I’ve been ripped off again,” he groused.

There was a heavy wrench nearby, but the foreman restrained himself from using it on Dietrich’s skull. “How’s that?” he growled.

“This check covers my weekly wage for three months, but it doesn’t include the overtime I would have made during this period.”

“Get back to work now!” Ventnor roared.

Dietrich slunk off, but not without a threat. “You haven’t heard the last of this.”

“Preposterous,” the foreman mused. But with this bird he was taking no chances. Lips still pursed, he headed for his boss’s office.

Question: Back wages with overtime! Is the reinstated carpenter dreaming?

Black’s verdict: Plant Engineer Ben Black did his best to calm down Ventnor. “Cool it, Ben. Keep a hawk’s eye on this guy. Record every infraction diligently, however small it might be. Before long we’ll get rid of him.” “Yeah, but in the meantime…” “In the meantime back wages is all he gets. No overtime. Back pay is for time lost. Since overtime is voluntary it doesn’t figure into the picture. Had it been compulsory, it might have been a different story.”

Don’t automatically reject a functionally limited job applicant

With layoffs widespread nation-wide, personnel’s ad for an experienced instrument repairman drew a flurry of replies.

Among those best qualified for the job was Alan Sender, except for one hitch in Maintenance Supervisor Pete Hickey’s opinion. Sender had longer and more impressive work experience than most other applicants. But he also had a badly crippled left arm. Some of the machines instrument repairmen were called upon to service and trouble-shoot required heavy lifting and moving. Sender’s disability would be too much of an impediment. With that thought in mind, Hickey thanked the candidate for his interest and turned him down.

A short time later, John Fuller, another applicant, was hired for the job. Within minutes, Sender reappeared at Hickey’s desk.

“I know John Fuller,” he said. “I used to work with him. He’s a nice guy and a competent mechanic. But I’m at least as good as he is, and I have longer experience. It’s only fair that I get a crack at the job.”

Hickey hated to do it, but felt he had to level with Sender. He spelled out his concerns relating to the mechanic’s disability.

The applicant quickly responded, “That’s a very minor problem if it’s a problem at all. From time to time on my last job equipment was too heavy for me to lift or move by myself. There was always someone nearby more than willing to help me. We’re talking about a matter of minutes. Rejecting me on this basis is a violation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

Hickey frowned. “Okay, I can’t promise anything, but I’ll check it out.”

With those words he made a beeline to his boss’s office.

Question: Is Sender entitled to a crack at the job?

Wilson’s verdict: “Cancel John Fuller and give Sender a chance,” Plant Engineer Herb Wilson instructed the supervisor. “We’re dealing here with the issue of essential job functions. Aside from the human aspect, under ADA guidelines a major consideration is how the handicap in question affects the job. In this regard a key deciding factor is the amount of time involved. In this plant, the need to lift and move heavy equipment is occasional, and in any case insignificant.”

Fed up with excessive absences: What to do?

Maintenance Foreman Al Drimmer roared in a rage one Monday morning, “enough is enough!”

Scowling at the department’s roster he calculated that no more than 75% of the work force was on hand.

The situation had been growing from bad to worse in recent months. The foreman had tried everything from suspensions and negative postings to individual performance records, to terminations in extreme cases. Dire threats appeared to be no more effective than Brownie points awarded for absence-free attendance in keeping the toll down.

Drastic action took the form of a notice posted on the department’s bulletin board. The announcement’s headline summarized the message.

Absence in this department will no longer be tolerated The notice stated that a company cannot operate profitably with its work force cut unacceptably short. It went on to explain that, with the exception of bereavement, jury duty, medically certified illness, family emergency, and work-connected injury, excuses will no longer be acceptable. Employees will be permitted 3 absences per year. Each month of perfect attendance will serve to cancel one absence. Excessive absence in the future will be greeted with discipline leading to termination if not corrected.

Shop Steward Ralph Vincent appeared at Drimmer’s desk. “The new policy is preposterous, inhuman, and unacceptable to the union,” he protested. “It disregards hundreds of perfectly legitimate personal, health, and family reasons for absence.”

Drimmer disagreed. “Employees are permitted 3 days of absence for any reason whatsoever. They also have an opportunity to extend that total for each month of perfect attendance. The new policy is not only practical, it’s generous.”

“Some generosity! We won’t sit still for it.”

Question: Can the union successfully oppose the new policy?

Heffner’s decision: “The new policy addresses all employees equally and is basically fair,” Plant Engineer Brad Heffner said, supporting Drimmer’s decision. “Only one thing needs to be done in response to the grievance that is almost sure to be filed. A report must be issued proving that the absence rate is excessive, that it creates inefficiency and is anti productive, and that it not only causes the company to lose money, but also jeopardizes the job security of employees who are toeing the mark. Given the present state of affairs, working up such a report should be no problem at all.”