Human Side of Engineering – 2001-10-01

By Raymond Dreyfack Contributing Editor October 1, 2001

How Open is Your Bulletin Board?

The company had a longstanding reputation for freedom of speech. In fact, in the interests of good employee relations, management encouraged workers to speak their mind to get either helpful suggestions or gripes off their chest. With this goal in mind, the company bulletin board in the cafeteria was a primary source of communication.

Bernie Altsheimer, 48, was a chronic complainer. No one in the plant seized the opportunity to express his outrage more often and eloquently than the Grade II electrician. Bernie griped about everything from his low rate of pay to working conditions, specific and general. What he had to say was usually hostile and inflammatory. Bernie was warned three times that his messages were disruptive and antiproductive. His response was “No comment.”

One day Maintenance Foreman Gus Beaver decided enough was enough. This conclusion was reached following a particularly belligerent posting to the effect that: 1. Management was prejudiced against older employees. 2. Its promises don’t mean a damn thing. 3. Around here it’s who you know, not what you know.

Handing Bernie a dismissal notice, Beaver said, “That’s it, Bernie, you’ve had it.”

The electrician exploded, “You aren’t going to deny my free speech and get away with it.”

Question: Does the upstart have a valid case against management?

Weiner’s verdict: “You’re absolutely right,” Plant Engineer Ed Weiner told Beaver. “Enough is enough. We tolerated this trouble maker long enough. Free speech is one thing, but when an employee consistently lobbies against his employer in a derogatory and inflammatory wa y, it’s quite another.”

Is Demotion a Viable Form of Discipline?

When maintenance department Stock Handler Jeff Oliver crashed his utility vehicle into a stack of merchandise it toppled several cartons stamped GLASSWARE, HANDLE WITH CARE, injured an employee who was passing by, and caused damage of about $3,000.

Oliver had failed to see the stack because his vehicle was piled excessively high with boxes being transported to another aisle. It was a thoughtless and hazardous infraction, and Oliver conceded his guilt.

Maintenance Supervisor Harry Freeman’s dilemma was how to discipline the guy. Employees had been fired for less. Except for this violation of safety and common sense, Oliver had a spotless record.

A warning would be inadequate for so serious an offense, Freeman felt, and a suspension wasn’t tough enough.

Reflecting on his options, the supervisor decided to demote Oliver for “just cause.”

The employee protested. “I know what I did was stupid and wrong, but I didn’t mean to hurt anyone or destroy company property. I’ve been employed three years by this company and have an excellent record.”

“That’s why I decided to demote you instead of letting you go. I assumed you would thank me instead of beefing about it. That you didn’t mean to cause damage is besides the point. It happened.”

“Please do me one favor,” Oliver appealed. “Check it out with Mr. Graham. See how he feels about it.”

Freeman reluctantly agreed to do so.

Question: If this were your decision, how would you rule?

Graham’s verdict: “Suspend Oliver for three weeks,” Plant Engineer Bill Graham instructed Freeman when he was brought up to date. ” ‘Just cause’ isn’t applicable when demotion is used in place of discipline. It adversely influences an employee’s seniority, opportunity for advancement and, depending on the circumstances, could even cost him his job. Suspension is a more fair and reasonable punishment.”

Over-specialize at your own risk

The more often people do a job, the better they get at it. True? Not necessarily.

Psychologist Mortimer R. Feinberg refers to the “supremacy of specialization” as an enduring myth. “It looks good on paper,” he says, “but work is performed by human beings who do not always conform to flow charts or mathematical models.” When you find people losing interest or becoming ‘turned off,’ he adds, “what can you do about it? You can restructure their jobs so that they do a greater, not a smaller, chunk of the work.”

Or try assigning a chunk or two with which they are not so familiar.

Murray Ratzoff, a bright young, recently hired engineer, did so fine a job on his first assignment, preparation of a cost estimate report, that his direct supervisor, Project Leader Ben Farley, figured he had a good thing going for him. Two talents were at play in completing the assignment: an ability to crunch numbers, and a way with words. Ratzoff was endowed with both. Cost estimates were avoided where possible by most engineering staff members.

Farley complimented Ratzoff on his work, which made him glow with pride. There was enough cost estimate reporting in the offing to keep him glowing for months.

Unfortunately, the glow wore off. By the time Ratzoff’s tenth or twelfth report was handed in, a noticeable change took place in the young engineer. He became sluggish. His bright smile seemed to fade. Plant Engineer Harry Sylvester, ever alert, was one of the first to notice the difference.

“What gives with young Ratzoff?” he asked Farley.

The project leader frowned. “I’ve been wondering the same thing.”

Question: What is the problem here?

Sylvester’s counsel: “I can’t guarantee that this is the answer,” Sylvester told Farley, “but I’d lay odds that I’m on the right track. Have you been giving Ratzoff any assignments other than preparing cost estimates?”

Farley frowned. “Well, no. He does such a great job with them that.”

“No need to say more. Specialization makes sense; over-specialization can be deadly. Try flavoring Ratzoff’s assignment menu with a bit of diversification from time to time. My guess is that it might make all the different in his spirit and attitude.”

Don’t defer hard response to violent behavior

With violence in the workplace getting worse, management usually has no choice but to get tougher.

Maintenance Utility Man Oscar Hamilton couldn’t believe his eyes. Turned down again for a merit increase. Muttering an unprintable epithet, he smashed his huge fist through a wall. Literally. The wall was plasterboard. A worker on the other side half jumped out of his skin.

Plant gossip had it that Hamilton packed a pistol at times. Fortunately, he wasn’t carrying a weapon at the time. Had he been, it was anyone’s guess what his response might have been.

The utility worker had a history of violence in and outside the plant, evidenced by on-the-job fist fights and reported barroom brawls. The heavily muscled, 6-ft, 2-in worker had received two written warnings and one suspension to date.

When Maintenance Supervisor Jim Brown got word or the incident, his response was swift and conclusive. “That does it!” he barked, and pecked out a termination notice on his word processor. Handing the pink slip to Hamilton, he informed him that he would receive his final pay in the mail.

Seething, the utility worker made a beeline for Plant Committeeman Jerry Olstead, who accompanied Hamilton to Brown’s desk.

“I’m not saying Oscar shouldn’t be disciplined, maybe even suspended. But let’s face it, you can’t blame the guy for losing his temper. Employees less qualified than he got the merit raise. Termination is too harsh a penalty. This is a clear case of discrimination.”

When Brown refused to back down, Olstead argued, “At least let’s check into the record. If we can prove Oscar’s been unfairly treated, it will show his behavior was justified.”

The argument didn’t move the supervisor. “The dismissal stands.”

“We’ll see,” Olstead threatened.

Question: If evidence can be cited indicating management was unfair in turning down Hamilton’s merit increase, should his dismissal be rescinded?

George’s verdict: “The termination stands,” Plant Engineer Arthur George ruled. “Whether Brown’s judgment in denying Hamilton the increase was fair or not, is not the issue here. What is at issue is Hamilton’s record of violence for which he already received written warnings and one suspension. Management cannot afford to tolerate behavior like this.”

Is ‘making a few bucks on the side’ valid cause for dismissal?

Assistant Maintenance Supervisor Tom Dooly approached his boss one day and asked, “Do you have any objection if I make a few bucks on the side every once in a while?”

Maintenance Manager Fred Swarthy frowned. “What do you mean by ‘a few bucks on the side?'”

“No big deal. Like selling some of the stuff in the disposal bin to scrap dealers, items we’re gonna get rid of anyhow. Or like getting a tip for working with supplier truckers to check off shipments. Stuff like that. A couple of guys I know across town make money that way. Like I said, no big deal. Their boss doesn’t object.”

Swarthy hesitated. “Well, I guess I can go along with it if it doesn’t get out of hand.”

“It won’t. Thanks a lot.”

Swarthy forgot about his somewhat leery approval of Dooly’s request until one day, months later, when he was approached by Harry Hartfeld, a manager in Production.

“Maybe it’s none of my business,” Hartfeld said, ‘but did you know that your boy Dooly has been cashing in on a bonanza lately.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Well, if the scuttlebutt is to be believed, he’s netting over a hundred dollars a week from the sale of disposal items and other stuff, some of which can be only marginally classified as scrap.”

“Thanks, Harry, I’ll look into it.”

Swarthy did more than just look into it; he conducted a thorough investigation of his assistant’s activities. It revealed that his permission some months before for Dooly to make a few bucks on the side had indeed gotten out of hand.

The guy had gone into business for himself. He was conducting a crooked and disreputable operation. Clear grounds for dismissal.

Question: Is Dooly’s little sideline a dischargeable offense?

Berner’s verdict: “Kill the termination notice,” Plant Engineer Bill Berner instructed Swarthy, “and give the guy a tough cease-and-desist or else warning notice. Your okay months back to engage in presumably petty private enterprise on the side was ill advised. But it was a green light nonetheless. Dooly can validly claim you approved. Crooked is crooked, Fred; there’s no such thing as a little bit dishonest.”

Is it management’s right to transfer a longtime worker?

Welder Grade I Joe Willis couldn’t believe his ears. Maintenance Foreman Steve Naidus had just informed him that, effective in 2 wk, he was being transferred from Building One where he had been assigned for 23 yr to the new production facility set up in Building Three.

Attempting to recover from his astonishment, Willis pleaded, “You can’t do this to me.”

“What’s the big deal?” Naidus replied. “Your pay rate’s not changing. Your work will be the same as always. You’ll even wind up with a better parking space.”

Willis was a shade short of apoplectic. “I like it here. I feel at home. All my buddies are in Building One — the guys I bowl with, the guys I eat lunch with.”

His boss shrugged. “Sorry about that. The department’s needs and objectives come first.”

Willis kept shaking his head. “Why me?” he demanded.

“Because I need a Grade I welder in Building Three. And you’re the logical choice. End of discussion, get back to work.”

Instead of getting back to work, Willis headed across the plant where Shop Steward Al Hankshaw was at work on his shaping machine. When he related his tale of woe, Hankshaw’s response was quick and sympathetic. “I don’t blame you for beefing; they can’t do this to you. Management can’t unilaterally mandate a drastic change in an employee’s job, especially a longtime employee.”

Question: Do you agree with the steward? Can Hankshaw put the kibosh on the welder’s transfer?

Stoner’s verdict: Hankshaw lost no time in bringing this to Plant Engineer Paul Stoner’s attention, demanding justice for Willis, and threatening a grievance if he didn’t get it.

“Transferring a person from one area to another,” Stoner told the steward, “does not constitute a job change according to the terms of the labor agreement.”

The transfer went through without further dispute, but Stoner made it clear to the foreman that his handling of the situation left much to be desired. “Instead of mandating the transfer as a fait accompli, it would have been better diplomacy to approach Willis, butter him up as the best man for the job, and ask him to go along with the transfer as a special favor to both himself and the company. Flattery goes a long way in winning an employee’s cooperation.”