Human Side of Engineering – 2002-01-15

By Raymond Dreyfack Contributing Editor January 15, 2002

Does workday start at the clock or work station?

Tardiness was a costly problem at a New England manufacturing plant. Most employees clocked in on time, but by the time they reached their work stations, 10 or 15 min was lost.

At a management meeting it was pointed out that the labor agreement specified a workday of 8 hr with 45-min allocated for lunch.

“If that’s what it states in the contract,” General Manager George Casey maintained, “that’s what we should enforce.”

He suggested posting a notice informing employees who arrived at their work stations after the morning buzzer sounded that they would be docked for the time. Most executives present agreed, but the plant engineer looked leery.

“What’s the problem, Tom?”

“Well, for one thing, the contract doesn’t specify whether the workday starts at the time clock or at the work station. For another, employees were never docked in the past. For a third, they were never disciplined without first having been issued a succession of warnings alerting them to the consequences.”

Question: Do you agree that unilaterally setting a new standard, however well justified, might backfire as a result of employee protests and grievances?

Casey’s decision: Casey nodded thoughtfully. “You’re probably right, Tom. Past practices can’t be ignored. It makes more sense to do this on a negotiated basis a gradual step at a time.”

Absences — excused or not — how many can you endure?

Maintenance Department Tool Shed Attendant Joan Wrigley had a hard life, and it showed no signs of easing. Her husband was in and out of the hospital, requiring Joan to take time off to either drive him back and forth or take care of him. Then a dear aunt, her mother’s twin sister, died, and Wrigley needed a day off to attend the funeral.

As if that wasn’t enough, Joan got a call from school that her eight-year-old son had been hurt in a gym accident. Another day lost.

Two weeks later Joan was rushed to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy and lost four more days from work. Before another month passed Joan was in an automobile accident.

Over and over again it was one thing after another. Every one of her absences was excused but that didn’t make her boss’s life any easier. Maintenance Supervisor Harold Fountain couldn’t have been more sympathetic.

But the pressures kept mounting. Every absence disrupted the workflow. Jobs were behind schedule.

Fountain finally reached the conclusion that enough was enough. Sympathetic or not, he had a department to run. One day he pulled out Wrigley’s personnel folder and tallied her absences for the previous year. Even worse than he thought: 61.

He summoned the attendant to his desk. “Joan,” he said, “this is the toughest thing I ever had to do as a supervisor. But your repeated absences are disrupting the operation. I have to let you go. I can’t run a department this way.”

Wrigley was stunned. “It’s not fair to take advantage of a person’s misfortune,” she said. “Give me one more chance. I’m sure things will look up.”

“You said that before more than once. I have to let you go. I have no choice.”

Question: What would you do in Fountain’s place?

Talbot’s decision: When Fountain presented the dismissal notice for Plant Engineer George Talbot’s approval, the executive shook his head sadly. “I couldn’t agree more that firing a troubled employee is the worst task a supervisor could face. But as you told Wrigley, what choice do you have? Justified or not, no employee can be immune from an excessive number of absences.”

What to do when you’ve “had It”?

How do you get rid of a deadbeat? Maintenance Supervisor Ed Rickles learned the wrong way the hard way.

The Wednesday Carpenter Grade II Todd Palmer showed up a half hour late, delaying a project that was already past due, Rickles decided it was the last straw.

To make matters worse, after clocking in late, the carpenter spent fifteen minutes in the men’s room before going to his workstation. Rickles’s first step was to assign someone else to the project. Step two was to hand Palmer a termination notice.

“Collect your final pay, and you’re out of here,” he told him.

Palmer was stunned. “Okay,” he conceded, “I’m not claiming to be in the right, but reporting to work late isn’t the crime of the century. It warrants no more than a reprimand. It certainly isn’t grounds for dismissal.”

“You’re not being fired for being late,” Rickles replied. “You’re getting the ax for a long succession of infractions of which tardiness is just the latest one.”

“What infractions?”

“Too many to commit to memory.”

Rickles pulled out Palmer’s personnel file and reeled them off one by one. “Lousy uncooperative attitude as displayed by your refusal to work overtime when asked. Yakking endlessly on the telephone when you were asked repeatedly to stop. Absence without bothering to call in. Do you want me to go on?”

“Okay, maybe I deserve a suspension,” Palmer grumbled, “but termination is too harsh a penalty.”

“No way. You should have been canned long ago.”

Question: Is Rickles within his rights?

Berner’s verdict: “Reinstate Palmer,” Plant Engineer Don Berner instructed. “Nowhere do I see a record of his being warned of the consequences of his errant behavior,” he added. “For one thing, a succession of disciplines is needed leading up to dismissal. For another, the employee must be warned of the consequences prior to wielding the ax.”

In hock to the company: Can you deduct from his paycheck?

A toy company permitted personnel to buy merchandise at a discount and run up a tab for items purchased. The program was loosely administered, but employees were expected to settle their accounts on a reasonable basis and not allow balances to get out of hand.

It was an interesting arrangement. Theoretically, the purpose of the program was to keep kids and grand kids supplied with toys and games. But although the items were discounted, they were not sold at cost. And though employees were informed that the merchandise was intended “for family consumption, and not resale” management knew that some workers had small enterprises on the side.

Nonetheless, executives were reluctant to enforce the “no resale” proviso strictly so long as it was kept within reasonable limits.

Still, some control had to be exercised. Workers were permitted to run up tabs for purchases — up to a point. When the balance exceeded $500 an employees was given the needle and instructed to pay up. This usually yielded either full or partial payment. But in the case of maintenance utility worker Joe Pffening, it yielded zilch. Informed of his $600 tab, he pleaded poverty.

“I had to pay a bundle for my kid’s dental work,” he moaned to Maintenance Foreman Ed Griffith, “and we had a lot of doctor bills. I’m flat broke.”

Griffith didn’t believe him. If Pffening couldn’t pay on his own, $50 a week would be deducted from his paycheck.

Question: Does this seem like a simple way to settle the worker’s account?

Pollock’s response: Plant Engineer Mel Pollock vetoed Griffith’s suggestion. “Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA),” he told the foreman, “pay deductions are prohibited if they would reduce a worker’s pay below the required minimum wage. Pffening qualifies as a minimal earner. We’ll have to live with that balance for a while.”

Take Care What You Promise Job Applicants

The plant engineering department was in dire need of an experienced maintenance engineer familiar with design and cost estimates involved with the construction of building extensions and other alterations. Ads for a qualified professional yielded slim pickings — until one day Charley Wilks, a presentable looking candidate in his forties, appeared on the scene.

The task of interviewing job applicants fell to Chief Engineer Glen Tarkoff. Reviewing Wilks’s application and resume, with a project leader on hand, it took little time to conclude that they had finally lucked out; this guy was eminently well qualified.

After a bit of back and forth haggling they agreed on a starting salary that was mutually acceptable.

Before finalizing the agreement Wilks made it clear that he would be quitting a steady job to accept the offer. “I’m interested in long term steady employment with advancement potential. I wouldn’t want to go through this job seeking hassle all over again in a year or two.”

“No problem,” Tarkoff assured him. “Live up to your obvious potential and you’ll have a job for life.”

Wilks started work after giving his current employer three weeks notice, and was assigned to a building extension project that was already behind schedule. He worked out well from the start. The building job lasted four months after which he was assigned to prepare a roofing cost estimate. This too was going well until suddenly, two months later, Tarkoff approached Wilks.

“I’ve got bad news, Charley. A couple of major defense contracts fell through. We’re going to have to lay you off.”

Wilks was stunned. “No way am I sitting still for this. When I was hired you assured me in front of a witness that my employment would be steady and longstanding.”

“Sorry,” Tarkoff replied. “These things happen. It’s beyond my control. But a guy with your experience.”

Wilks didn’t wait to hear him out.

Question: If Wilks files a breach of promise lawsuit what are his chances of winning?

Leight’s response: “Hold on to this guy,” Plant Engineer Tony Leight instructed Tarkoff. “You can’t induce an applicant to quit an existing job based on a promise of steady employment, and then renege on your promise. No matter how badly you needed the candidate, any promise you make is a part of the deal.”

Does menial work reduce an employee’s status?

Due to technological advances and methods changes, maintenance department mechanics and techies found themselves with time on their hands. More and more, they stretched work breaks and congregated around the water cooler. Beset by growing concern that the company wasn’t getting a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, Maintenance Foreman Harry Langston racked his brain for ways to utilize the slack time productively.

Passing a production area where a maintenance mechanic had recently completed an assignment, Langston observed that the area surrounding the machine was smeared with oil slick and discarded remnants remained from the maintenance work. On top of that, the machine’s dials were covered with grease.

In this plant, as far back as anyone could remember, it was the utility crew’s responsibility to clean up after servicing and trouble shooting assignments by higher rated employees. In the past, with such work behind schedule as often as not, this arrangement made sense. But things had changed. This led Langston to reflect that if the higher-priced personnel were directed to clean up after completing assignments, it would help fill in the slack time.

Langston posted an announcement ordering service and repair employees to clean up machines they worked on and the surrounding area before leaving a job. This brought a storm of protest.

Question: If you were the dumpee, what action would you take?

Malcolm’s response: Informing Langston that he would take care of it, Plant Engineer George Malcolm called a meeting of the maintenance people involved.

He could understand and appreciate the way they felt, he told them. “In your place I’d feel the same. But it’s no secret to anyone that you guys have extra time on your hands, time for which you are being paid. It’s equally obvious that compensating employees for unworked time makes no sense from the company’s point of view.

“There are two ways to resolve this situation: The first is to go along with Harry’s directive. The second way is to equalize manpower on hand with manpower needed to do the job. Or put another way, to lay some of you off. Why don’t you think about it, and let Harry know what you decide?”

Interestingly, the protests stopped dead at that point.

How important is technical expertise?

It can be quite important, but self-defeating as well if not thoughtfully exercised.

When Harry Maynard was promoted to Project Supervisor in the plant engineering department, he was resolved to win recognition for his group of 9 engineers for achievement unsurpassed. With this in mind, Maynard, widely respected as a top-rated professional, worked harder and longer hours than ever before. Too long in his boss’s opinion.

When Plant Engineer Arnold Redlich discussed this with him, Maynard brushed his concern aside. He planned to cut back to a more normal work week as soon as he straightened out a few operating and supervision problems. Although Redlich had reservations, he decided to withhold further judgment for the time being at least. But when Maynard’s work day lengthened instead of shortening, and when rumors of employee disgruntlement reached his desk, his apprehensions increased.

“What’s going on, Harry?” he asked the project leader, “and don’t tell me there’s no problem.”

Maynard frowned. “For some reason, I can’t get those guys to cooperate with me; they insist on doing things their own way, right or wrong. I get the impression they resent my getting the promotion.”

Redlich nodded thoughtfully. “If it’s all right with you, Harry, I’d like to nose around a bit, get my own reading on what’s going on.”

Questions: Can you guess at what his feedback to Maynard might be?

Plant engineer’s counsel: Redlich laid it out to him straight. “Harry, there’s no question in my mind or in anyone else’s that your professional and technical expertise is second to none in the department. On the other hand, the reaction I get isn’t resentment over your getting the promotion, but over what seems to be a determination to spell out from A to Z how every job should be done. When too tight a rein is kept on people, it can become frustrating.”

All it takes is a little imagination

When the loss of a contract forced management to make do with one less mechanic in Maintenance, the spin of the dial landed on Philip Fosdick.

Maintenance Foreman Jack Drimmer, discussing the situation with Hank Monk, his assistant, frowned. “Phil’s a good man. I’d hate to lose him.”

Monk agreed. “A thought occurs to me, Jack. I was talking with Joe Rathbone over at Westcott. They could use another good mechanic. Phil would be a natural for that job.”

“Good thinking.”

Westcott was a sister plant.

Rathbone was more than agreeable to Hank’s idea; he was enthusiastic.

Fosdick, who lived less than a mile from the plant, though appreciative of the offer, didn’t share Rathbone’s enthusiasm.

“Westcott’s more than twelve miles from here,” he complained. “I’m sure I can get something closer to home.”

“Maybe you can. But it would mean giving up your seniority and starting all over again.

“Twelve miles isn’t a big deal, Phil. A half hour or so.”

“It’s a big deal for me with my wreck of a car. It’s got a dozen things wrong with it. There’s a difference between driving one mile and twelve miles twice a day.”

The foreman nodded. “Maybe I can get you a raise if you transfer.”

Drimmer headed to his boss’s office. He explained about Phil’s car problem. Plant Engineer Ralph Costello said, “No way, Jack.”

Question: Can you think of a way to persuade Phil to accept the transfer?

PE’s suggestion: Costello placed a call to Ed Hurley, head of the motor pool. An ace auto mechanic, Hurley kept the company’s fleet of cars and trucks in good shape at minimum cost. After talking with Ed, Costello summoned Fosdick to his office.

He said, “You’re one of our best people, Phil, I’d hate to lose you.”

“Thanks, but…”

“I like Jack’s idea of putting you in for a raise. But that’s impossible with the freeze in effect. But I have another idea. I can arrange with Ed Hurley in the motor pool to get your car into tiptop shape on the house. How does that grab you?”

“Like an unexpected bonus,” Fosdick replied. “It would save me a thousand bucks or more.”

“Great,” Costello said. “Then we have a deal.”

Why Murphy’s replacement is falling down on the job

When Maintenance Department Foreman Gene Murphy retired, Assistant Foreman Art Pollock seemed to Plant Engineer Cal Clement to be his natural replacement. Pollock was a hard worker, conscientious, and technically well qualified.

But as the weeks slipped into months it became clear that a glitch of some kind was gumming up the works. Periodic performance reports showed that productivity was declining month by month. This might be expected at the outset of a new supervisor’s takeover, Clement granted. But five or six months should be sufficient time for the ship to start righting itself.

Clement summoned Pollock to his office, the latest performance report on his desk. There was no need to discuss its content.

“What’s the problem, Art?”

Pollock sighed. “I wish I knew.”

The performance report pinpointed each employee’s work record.

“You have some good people in your operation,” Clement pointed out. “Like Gorman, Kramer, and Goldberg. There has to be a reason their productivity is steadily declining.”

“I know. I’ve been wracking my brain to find it.”

Clement nodded. “You’re a natural for this job, Art. I’m not out to find fault, simply to get to the root of the problem. Mind if I talk to a few of your people?”

“Not at all, I’d appreciate it. At this point I can use all the help I can get.”

“Good. Let’s see what we can learn.”

Questions: When a good employee’s performance declines, there is always a reason for it. Can you guess cause in this case?

Clement’s probe: It didn’t take long for the plant engineer to get to the root of the problem. The response of three employees interviewed quickly pinpointed the problem.

1. “Pollock is so critical he makes me feel inadequate.”

2. “He doesn’t issue instructions; he launches an attack.”

3. “He’s not like Gene Murphy; he has no regard for our feelings.”

Clement summoned Pollock to his office. “From what I gather,” he said, “in contrast to Murphy, you’ve been driving your people instead of guiding them. In a nutshell, you’ve been over-aggressive. Experience proves that bullying people creates resentment in place of initiative, defiance in place of cooperation. I think it’s something to think about.”