Human Side of Engineering – 2002-02-15

By Raymond Dreyfack Contributing Editor February 15, 2002

Don’t compare apples with oranges

Electrician Grade II George Raven was more than mildly perturbed. His boss, Maintenance Foreman Pete Schiffo, was on his back again.

“Get a move on, you should’ve finished this job an hour ago.”

“What are you trying to do, imitate a caterpillar?”

“You’re bringing down the level of productivity.”

“You’re being paid to work, not dawdle.”

George was sick and tired of the abuse and decided to complain to Ed Feely, the unit’s labor rep.

“What’s the beef?” Feely said, “Time study is a part of the labor agreement.”

“Maybe so, but I’m not the slowest guy in the unit, and I resent being treated like I am.”

“So what do you want me to do about it?” Feely asked.

“If my production’s going to be timed, I want to be timed fairly. I want it compared with a typical electrician, not the fastest guy in the department.”

“Like who?”

“Like Fred Turner, for example.”

Feely looked skeptical, but said, “Okay, let’s talk to Pete about it.”

When Schiffo heard Raven’s demand to time his work against Turner’s, he scoffed at the idea.

“You have got to be kidding. You’re on the job four years. Turner was hired on less than four months ago. It would be comparing apples and oranges.”

When Raven and Feely persisted, Schiffo decided to consult his boss.

Question: Is Schiffo obligated to time Raven’s productivity against that of a less experienced worker?

Pollen’s response: “Those guys didn’t do their homework,” Plant Engineer Thad Pollen told Schiffo. He thumbed to page 78 of the Work Manual where Clause 286 read: ‘Time study shall apply to experienced employees only and shall be based on the performance of normal workers employed in normal circumstances and at a normal work pace.’ A handy clause to have around. Case closed.”

Neurotic employee requests a shift change: Must you grant it?

Maintenance Mechanic Norman Fine, who had been treated in the past for a nervous disorder, hated the 4 p.m. to midnight swing shift. His wife, Paula, hated it more. “I’m sick to death of these hours,” she complained. “We have no time together. You hardly get to see the kids. On top of that, this shift is bad for your health.”

“What do you want me to do? The job market is tight.”

“The least you could do is ask Andy to switch you to day work.”

“I’m not the only one who wants to get on the day shift. There is a little matter of seniority involved.”

“In your case you should be able to override seniority because of health reasons. You can present evidence that you were treated for anxiety neurosis. You can get a doctor’s note.”

Paula persisted, “Isn’t there a law requiring management to take an employee’s health problems into consideration?”

“Maybe. I’ll give it a try.”

The next day the mechanic approached Maintenance Foreman Andy Devereaux and put in a request for day work based on health considerations. The foreman turned him down, saying it violated the seniority policy. “If I granted your request it would stir up a storm around here.”

Fine said he would look into it.

Question: Can the mechanic compel management to grant his request?

Klaman’s response: Plant Engineer Joe Klaman supported the foreman’s decision. “A number of rulings filed under the 1973 Rehabilitation Act held that management wasn’t required to violate a seniority clause to accommodate an employee’s mental disorder. As you explained to Fine, doing so would stir up a hornet’s nest around here.”

Can employees be required to accept direct deposit of paychecks?

Maintenance Manager Joel Grayson called the crew together for an impromptu meeting.

“I’ve got good news,” he announced. “The company decided to eliminate the bother and hassle of paycheck distribution. Starting next month we’ll be paid by direct deposit to a special account.”

Most employees weren’t sure how to respond.

“I don’t see the point of it,” one spoke up with a frown.

“The point’s simple,” Grayson replied. “For one thing it saves time. For another, deposits are made faster and more efficiently. It also saves the trouble and cost of printing and distributing checks.”

Most crew members were noncommittal, but some protested.

“What do we have to do?” someone asked.

“Not much,” Grayson said. “Simply put your John Hancock on an authorization form.”

“I don’t see how this benefits me,” a pipefitter complained.

A welder added, “I don’t like this whole business of electronic fund transfer, and the last thing I need is another account with a financial institution.”

Five members of the crew refused to sign the authorization form.

Question: Can management force employees to comply?

Expert’s opinion: Plant Engineer Ralph Furman frowned at the news of the employees’ refusal to sign. Picking up the phone, he called Human Resources Manager Ellen Kaufeld and brought her up to date.

“Maintenance isn’t the only department registering gripes,” Kaufeld said. “Direct deposit doesn’t sit well with everyone.”

“Can we compel people to comply?” Furman asked.

“I wouldn’t advise it. State law plays a role here. Most states require employers to obtain employees’ voluntary consent before using electronic funds transfer for payroll purposes.”

When can a supervisor perform bargaining unit work?

Maintenance Mechanic Grade II Robin Artshuler needed a spanner wrench to complete a rush job in Finishing. She hurried to the stockroom and found Attendant Murray Ross away from his post. A note on the counter read: WILL RETURN IN 30 MINUTES.

“When did Murray leave?” Artshuler asked an employee nearby.

The worker shrugged. “About twenty minutes ago.”

Artshuler was worried. The lab manager was in a hurry for that repair. She waited 10 minutes more. When Ross failed to return, Artshuler asked her boss what to do.

Maintenance Supervisor George Findley accompanied the mechanic to the stockroom and found the attendant still absent.

He entered the stockroom, found the tool Altshuler needed, and left a note accounting for its removal.

An hour later Ross appeared at Findley’s desk with John Cleaver, a union official, in tow.

“You violated the labor agreement,” Cleaver charged. “The distribution of tools is bargaining unit work. You had no right to enter the stockroom in Ross’s absence, and hand out that wrench.”

Findley didn’t hide his annoyance. “How picayune can you get?” he asked. “The whole incident took less than five minutes. Had Ross been on the job it wouldn’t have been necessary.”

“I was on the job,” the attendant protested. “I was responding to a call from Production involving a paperwork mixup.”

“That’s besides the point,” Findley said. “It doesn’t excuse making a mountain out of a molehill.”

“A supervisor performing bargaining unit work is anything but a molehill,” Cleaver persisted. “You’re going to hear more about this.”

Question: Can Findley be justifiably charged with a contract violation?

Merchant’s responee: “Cleaver can grieve all he wants to,” Plant Engineer Alan Merchant told Findley. “No one was hurt by your socalled intrusion, and it enabled a rush job to continue. ‘Picayune’ was the right word to use for this trivial occurrence. A fancier term might have been application of the ‘de minimis’ principle. The gripe was too trivial to take seriously.”

Can you bypass a worker for overtime?

When maintenance employee Merv Grolier heard that Foreman Glen Nostrum was recruiting the department for candidates to work heavy overtime for the next three weeks, he couldn’t get to Nostrum’s desk fast enough.

“Look no further,” he told his boss. “I can use the extra bread. I’ll put in as many hours as you want.”

Nostrum wasn’t thrilled by the offer. “Thanks for your interest, Glen. But most of the work will be on the F-43 Refinisher. That’s not exactly your cup of tea.”

“That’s not true,” Grolier persisted. “I was never trained on the F-43, but I’ve filled in more than once when the regular operator was out or on vacation.”

“An occasional fill-in doesn’t make you an experienced operator.”

“Experienced or not, I know I can do the work, and I’m entitled to a crack at it.

With a little additional training I’d have no problem at all.”

“Sorry,” Nostrum replied. “This is a rush job. I have no time for training, and I can’t use an inexperienced person.”

Still disgruntled, Grolier hung around Nostrum’s desk.

“Get back to work, Merv.”

Grolier decided on a parting shot. “I’d be more experienced,” he groused, “if I got the training I put in for.”

His boss shrugged. “Maybe you’ll get it one of these days. But you won’t win any Brownie points hanging around here when you’re supposed to be working.”

Grolier still believed himself to be qualified for the work and thought he deserved a chance at the overtime. He decided it was worth filing a grievance.

Question: Having shown he could operate the F-43 on an occasional basis, if Grolier filed the grievance would he have a chance to win?

Kirkland’s verdict: Plant Engineer Doug Kirkland listened attentively to Nostrum’s rundown of Golier’s allegations and complaints.

“Doing work on an occasional basis and claiming to be experienced or qualified are worlds apart,” he told Nostrum. “And the distinction is up to the supervisor, not the worker. Send Grolier to my office, and I’ll straighten him out.”

Does an African American worker merit an extra boost up the ladder?

When a vacancy for an instrument mechanic was posted Maintenance Mechanic Ralph Taylor, a black employee, saw his chance to climb out of the rut he’d been stuck in for over four years. Taylor applied for the job and was accepted subject to the usual 30-day probationary period.

Although Ralph was a well-qualified mechanic and his performance record was good, his experience as an instrument mechanic was limited to occasional fill-in work when employees regularly assigned to that job were absent, on vacation, or overloaded with work.

Taylor was friendly, pleasant, and well liked throughout the department. He was also very nervous on the new job. In addition, his recall on an aspect or two of the work left a little to be desired.

He made a couple of mistakes his first ten days on the job. Given another assignment he had to admit to Maintenance Supervisor Jim Donaldson that he wasn’t sure how to proceed.

“Ralph, I hate having to tell you this,” Donaldson said, “but I don’t think you’re ready for this job yet.”

“I’m sure I can cut it,” Taylor replied. “All I need is a little help.”

“When you put in for a promotion,” his boss said, “you shouldn’t need help. You should be able to handle the job on your own.”

“Would I get more of a break if I had a different color skin?”

Donaldson flushed angrily. “Skin color has nothing to do with it. It’s a matter of qualification.”

“I know I can make it,” Taylor persisted. “The probationary period is supposed to run thirty days. All I ask is a little more time.”

Question: Do you think Taylor deserves more of an opportunity to prove himself?

Gordon’s decision: Discussing the question with his boss, Plant Engineer Ben Gordon told Donaldson, “Taylor is entitled to more time, and certainly some supervisory assistance, in his effort to make good. This applies to all employees who are trying to better themselves.

It is doubly important in the case of minority workers in the light of this company’s strong stand on equal opportunity employment. If an adverse decision is unavoidable, at least don’t make it prematurely.”

Is an English-only policy right for your plant?

There was a time when management problems relating to workers not conversant in English were confined mainly to states like California, Texas, and Florida.

Today employers nationwide are faced with a rapidly growing number of job applicants who are largely or totally unschooled in English. The problem of how to communicate with and integrate these people in a way that makes sociological as well as economic sense takes on ever increasing importance.

Some employers require all employees to speak English on the job in the belief that this will establish a safer and more harmonious workplace.

A few even extend the restriction to relief and lunch periods. Others believe that suppressing one’s native language is a form of mistreatment and violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Courts in some states declare English-only rules to be discriminatory; others take a broad approach. Generally speaking, under Title VII, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sanctions English-only policies on a limited basis. Employers are allowed such a rule if they can prove it to be justified by business necessity.

In a Tucson, Arizona company the subject was a continuing bugaboo. English-only speaking customers occasionally visited the plant and had difficulty communicating with some employees who had flawed language skills. Business necessity? Perhaps. But not especially crucial as it turned out.

In a series of meetings, employees and management agreed that everyone would be at an advantage if English-speaking skills were improved.

Question: As a manager in this plant what suggestions would you make?

Delman’s proposal: In conjunction with Human Resources Manager Ellen Wexler, Plant Engineer Paul Delman proposed a 5-point program: 1. Publish a strong statement advocating an anti-discrimination policy based on one’s national origin or anything else. 2. Develop an inter-company training program with this message in mind. 3. Sponsor employee English classes in-plant or at local education centers. 4. Where English-only rules are necessitated by practical business or safety reasons, specify the circumstances in writing. 5. Assign supervisors with bilingual skills to interact with language-flawed workers and encourage them to take advantage of English-enhancement opportunities.