Human Side of Engineering – 2001-11-01

By Raymond Dreyfack Contributing Editor November 1, 2001

Be careful what you ask in an interview

Maintenance Supervisor Glen Gorsham had doubts about applicant Lou Polikoff sent to him from Personnel from the moment he set eyes on him.

His application showed the experience required for the stockroom attendant’s job. But for one thing, he struck Gorsham as shifty-eyed and somewhat sullen. For another, the guy walked with a severe limp which could slow him down on the job.

Gorsham asked, "As a supervisor I’m obligated to inquire if you have any current or past medical problems that that could adversely affect your job performance?"

The applicant’s face flushed. "No, I don’t."

After a couple of additional questions, Gorsham turned him down for the job. Instead of leaving, the tightlipped applicant decided to visit the personnel office.

"My interview with Mr. Gorsham was discriminatory and illegal," he charged.

"How so?" the personnel manager asked.

"He inquired regarding my current and past medical history. That’s forbidden under the Americans with Disabilities Act."

"Please wait here a few minutes," the manager asked, and hightailed it to Gorsham’s desk.

The supervisor denied rejecting Polikoff for any health or medical reason. Instead, he explained that he didn’t care for his attitude.

Question: Do you think Polikoff has any kind of a case?

Calvin’s opinion: "He most certainly could have a viable case," Plant Engineer Jerry Calvin agreed with the personnel manager when apprised of the facts.

"Under the Act, not to mention EEOC guidelines, asking disability-related questions during a pre-employment interview is forbidden. You need a better reason for rejection than vague feelings regarding the applicant’s attitude."

Must you pay "call-in" premium on a technicality?

The labor agreement called for 4-hr of call-in pay when employees on request reported for work on other than their normal starting time.

One Tuesday, Ben Gallo, a mechanic in the plant engineering department who was scheduled to work the 4 p.m.-midnight shift, had trouble with his car.

"You better have it towed down to the service station," his wife advised.

Gallo did so and got a ride to work with a neighbor who was glad to oblige, but had to take him at 2 p.m.

That gave him some time to kill but he had no choice. Gallo arrived at the plant at 2:20 and sat down to have coffee in the company cafeteria. When a supervisor who happened to be passing through saw him, he asked what he was doing here.

Gallo explained.

"Hey, that’s a break," the supervisor said. "I got a rush job and I’m shorthanded. How’d you like to earn a little overtime?"

"Sounds good," Gallo said.

He worked 11/2-hr overtime for which he received time-and-a-half on his pay check. Minutes later he appeared at Maintenance Manager Joe Forzik’s desk.

"I should have received call-in pay for that extra time I worked Tuesday. It says so in the contract."

Forzik disagreed. "You weren’t called in special to do that job."

"It makes no difference," Gallo persisted.

Question: Is Gallo entitled to the extra pay on a technicality?

Grogan’s decision: "No way!" Plant Engineer Phil Grogan ruled after reviewing the case. "It would defeat the whole purpose of the provision.

"Call-in pay is provided for employees who endure the inconvenience of showing up early for a special assignment. It doesn’t apply to a guy who is already here."

Extenuating circustances: Justification for repeated errors?

Electrician Grade II Jason Valente was more than stunned. He was distraught. His wife left him for a man who had been her lover for more then 3 yr.

This had happened 5 mo ago, and Valente’s performance had gone downhill ever since. It not only took him too long to complete assignments, but he committed serious work errors as well. A line in the lab shorted out because the electrician had gotten two wires crossed. A piece of expensive production equipment had been damaged as a result of another mistake. Elsewhere, in response to a hurry call, a wrong breaker had been replaced.

Valente had been warned repeatedly both orally and in writing by Maintenance Foreman Ben Etri that his performance was unacceptable. Each time Valente promised his boss that he would shape up and do better. Etri finally said, "Jay, if these errors continue, I’ll have to let you go." Valente lowered his eyes. "I’ve been depressed lately," he replied, "but I’m definitely gonna shape up." Etri suggested that the worker seek counseling, and offered to set this up for him if he wished. Valente did not respond.

The foreman was familiar with and sympathetic to the employee’s personal situation. But when an error occurred that resulted in a 30-minute shutdown of a production unit, he felt the limit of his patience had been reached. When he regretfully handed Valente a termination notice, the electrician appeared stunned but didn’t reply.

Minutes later Al Brimly, a bargaining unit official, appeared at Etri’s desk.

"Hey, Ben, you gotta give this guy a break; he’s been going through a difficult period.

"I know what he’s going through, Al, but I’ve have a responsibility to fulfill. I’ve given him repeated breaks, but it can’t go on indefinitely."

Brimly refused to accept this response and threatened to file a grievance.

Question: In view of Valente’s personal problem, do you think Brimley’s threatened grievance will stand up?

Gardner’s response: Informed of Brimley’s threat, Plant Engineer Matt Gardner told Etri, "It’s a sad situation, Ben, but you already bent over as far backward as you can. It reaches a point that whatever extenuating circumstances might exist for an employee’s unacceptable performance, management has an obligation to consider its impact on the bottom line and productivity. The dismissal stands."

Take care when testing minorities

When a group leader job vacancy opened, Maintenance Supervisor John Durling decided to test the three applicants who had applied for the opening. Most experienced and with the best seniority was Peter Moore, an African-American and the only minority candidate. Close on his heels was Vince O’Brien, and not far behind was Alan Rosen, by far the brightest of the trio.

Two tests were used. The first consisted of questions that were relevant to the job’s requirements. The second test was a home-brewed modification of a standard intelligence test, and contained two sections. One of these featured spelling, the other word definitions. These were of questionable importance from a job effectiveness standpoint.

From a general ability perspective all three applicants appeared to Durling to be qualified for the job. All did equally well on the job-related test. Moore fell far behind his two Caucasian opponents in the spelling and word definition sections. One could almost toss a coin to determine which of the other two applicants did better. The supervisor decided to pick O’Brien for the job since his seniority was better than Rosen’s.

Moore promptly charged discrimination when the choice was announced.

"On what grounds?" Durling said.

"On the grounds that I’m at least as well qualified as Vince, and I have much better seniority."

"I’m not questioning your seniority," the supervisor replied. "But seniority isn’t the only factor to consider in promoting an employee. O’Brien did much better than you in the spelling and word definition parts of the test."

"I’m not questioning that," Moore said. "But with regard to those aspects the playing field is tilted against me. Considering how and where Vince was brought up, as opposed to my own background, he would be expected to test better in spelling and word definition. What makes it even more discriminatory is that spelling and word definition have little if any relevance to the group leader job."

Question: Does Moore have a valid claim of discrimination?

Johnson’s decision: "Moore gets the job," Plant Engineer Andy Johnson ruled. "Management has every right to test employees as an aid in making work assignments. But it is barred from using tests that have an adverse impact on minorities or have no significant bearing on the job in question. In this regard, Moore has a legitimate beef."

Job transfer after 14 years on the job? Was it age discrimination?

After 14 years on the job, Rose Lennox enjoyed, if not an outstanding record as a secretary to Arthur Mellin, at least one whose performance was above average. She got along well with the project supervisor and had been treated well in return. That’s why, when she was transferred to another project supervisor in another department, she objected vehemently.

"The only reason I was transferred was because of my age," she maintained.

Lennox was 61 years old.

If she had any doubts regarding management’s motivation it took little time to fix them solidly in her mind. John Cullinan lacked Mellin’s patience. Where her former boss was easygoing, Cullin tended to be snappish and irritable. His expectations were greater, her instructions less comprehensive.

Mellin tried to explain to Rose that the transfer was due to a plant restructuring, something over which he had no control. Nonetheless, she became increasingly convinced it was a plot to get rid of her.

Both Cullinan and Mellin pooh-poohed this notion as ridiculous.

Rose wasn’t convinced. She threatened to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) based on age discrimination.

Question: How do you rate Rose’s chances of winning if her complaint goes through?

Entin’s response: Plant Engineer Jerry Entin summoned Rose to his office. "Rose," he told her, "you’re too valuable an employee to lose. Here, let me show you something." Withdrawing a chart from his desk, he pointed out a number of organizational transfers similar to hers that had been made within the last few weeks. "It’s obvious that your transfer has nothing to do with age or any other form of discrimination, and that if you filed a case on this basis you would have no chance of winning.

"The main problem, I think, is that you’ve settled into a comfortable groove working for Arthur Mellin over the years. He’s an easygoing person, much more so than John Cullinan. Let me have a talk with John. My feeling is if you both relax and have patience with each other, it won’t be long before you work into the same kind of groove. Are you willing to give it a chance?"

"I certainly am, Mr. Entin. Thank you so much for talking to me."

Can management insist on its right to make a temporary transfer?

If there’s one thing many employees regard as sacred it’s the sanctity of their job classifications. Instrument Repairman Hal Delmonico was no exception. His classification enjoyed considerable status in the maintenance department. In his opinion it was a level or more above that of maintenance mechanic.

Sometimes however, sanctified or not, management has a temporary vacancy that must be filled. Such was the case when Maintenance Mechanic Joe Davis called in sick with the flu on the same Monday that Maintenance Mechanic Al Rogoloff took off on his two-week vacation. Since the third member of the 3-man crew was also on leave, it left the department without a maintenance mechanic.

Maintenance Supervisor Ed Nostrom tried calling Rogoloff at home in the hopes of getting him to postpone his vacation. He even planned to offer him an extra two days as an inducement. But Rogoloff was already gone.

Delmonico was not only a crack instrument repairman, but a qualified all-around mechanic as well. Nostrom summoned him to his desk.

"Hal, I want you to do me a favor."

Delmonico’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.

"I’ve got all three maintenance mechanics out. I’d like you to fill in on that job for two weeks. No loss of pay or anything else."

"That’s not my job," Delmonico protested.

"I never said it was. But I’m in a spot. A breakdown with no mechanic on hand could shut down a line. I’d prefer to have you cooperate voluntarily. But if you don’t, I will have to insist."

The worker refused. "I don’t want to set a precedent," he replied.

Delmonico recruited the unit representative who supported his stand. "You can’t transfer a man unilaterally," he said.

"It’s only temporary," the supervisor pointed out.

"Makes no difference. A transfer’s a transfer."

Question: Can Delmonico be forced to cooperate, or else?

Bernrer’s verdict: Plant Engineer Arnold Berner was blunt in responding. He told Nostrom, "Inform Delmonico he’ll receive a two-week suspension if he persists in his refusal to cooperate. The labor agreement specifies that it is management’s right to make a temporary transfer where reasonable so long as no loss in pay is involved."

Is possession of marijuana a dischargeable offense?

Pipefitter Joe Novins and Welder Bill Sandow were long time enemies. The bad blood between them dated back from before they were hired. On that fateful day, Maintenance Supervisor Al Plunkett interceded in the locker room before the fight between the two came to blows. They didn’t come to blows on this occasion, but they did come to words. Sandows’ parting sally was to call Novins a drug addict.

"What the hell do you mean by that?" the supervisor demanded.

"Just what I said," the welder accused. "It’s not enough that he dopes himself up on marihuana; he also sells it. Check his locker if you don’t believe me."

"That’s a lie and you know it," Novins snapped back.

"What’s a lie?" Plunkett wanted to know. "That you use it; or that you sell it?"

"I don’t sell it. I occasionally use a little; so what’s the big deal?"

"If that’s so, how come the police picked you up for it?" Sandow taunted.

This was all news to Plunkett.

"They picked me up and let me go," Novins groused. "The quantity was too small to amount to anything."

"That’s what you say," Sandow said.

The supervisor checked Novins’ locker and found a half ounce of marijuana and some drug paraphernalia. Plunkett shook his head. "You guys could win the Buddies of the Month Award." He turned to Novins. "I’m sorry, Joe, but possession of marijuana is a public offense. I’m going to have to let you go; you can thank your pal here for that."

Sandow wasn’t unduly upset, but Novins protested vehemently.

Question: Is Novins’ so-called "public offense" sufficient cause to terminate a 12 year employee with an above average record?

Albert’s verdict: Plant Engineer Louis Albert found no evidence of Novins having sold marijuana and, as he claimed, he had been arrested and released. With these thoughts in mind Albert made a deal with the pipefitter. He agreed to dispose of the charge through a trial rehab program which Novins readily accepted.

"This takes you off the hook," Albert told the supervisor. "You need just cause to fire an employee. Public offense or not, possession of a small amount of marijuana is not defined as just cause for discharge in the labor agreement."

Spell out the urgency

Production Manager Joel Enright telephoned Maintenance Supervisor Mike Pilgrim that a rush order had been delayed because power was cut off on a special milling machine.

Pilgrim went to the lab where Electrician Grade I Mark Stroheim was installing a new line.

"Stop what you’re doing," Pilgrim ordered, "and check out the problem Enright has in Production."

"Okay," Stroheim replied.

Thirty minutes later, Pilgrim received another call from Enright. "What the heck is going on over there? This is an emergency."

"I know; I sent a guy over to check it out right after you called. What happened to him?"

"How should I know?"

Livid, Pilgrim called the lab. "Is Stroheim there?"

"I thought I told you —"

That day Pilgrim handed Stroheim a week’s suspension for failing to respond to an emergency.

Stroheim asked. "What emergency?"

Question: Is the suspension justified?

Belknap’s verdict: Plant Engineer Bert Belknap instructed Pilgrim to withdraw the suspension. "I have no doubt that an emergency situation existed. But it’s apparent the message didn’t get through. When an emergency exists, you have to make it clear."

Scared — Part I

At a Wisconsin plant, new production department equipment was scheduled for installation in three months. Maintenance Department Group Leader George Nelson was the logical person to take over responsibility for maintenance and repair of the new machines.

Nelson’s boss, Maintenance Supervisor Al Greer, approached him with an email from the supplier. A three-day training course on the equipment had been scheduled in two weeks.

Greer asked, "George, would you like me to book a flight?"

Nelson paled. "No way am I flying to New York with what’s going on in the world.

Greer couldn’t believe his ears. "You have got to be kidding."

"I’m not kidding. I’m sticking right here in Wisconsin."

Greer said, "I’m sending you to the nurse who will set up an appointment for you with a psychologist."

Nelson wanted no part of that suggestion. He wouldn’t fly or drive there.

Question: In Greer’s place what action would you take?