Human Side of Engineering – 2002-03-11

By Raymond Dreyfack Contributing Editor March 11, 2002

Lost tools: Must employee pay?

The plant was well protected, and there was a guard at the gate. Maintenance Mechanic Grade II Bill Cullen couldn’t remember the last time a theft had occurred. So, as he did every day, he went out to lunch without locking his tool box in his locker. But unlike other days when Cullen returned from lunch, his tools were nowhere in sight. Box and all.

Wise guys, Cullen thought. Someone had played a dumb joke on him. But an hour of searching, questioning coworkers, and trying to intimidate cronies with threats soon divested him of this notion.

He questioned guards, and every employee in sight. Then he appealed to Ed Mellon, his supervisor, for help. Mellon’s response was a frown.

“It looks like your tools were stolen, Bill.”

“How could the crook get past the guards? How could he get out the gate?”

His boss shrugged. “No problem if the thief was an employee or service worker with a car on the premises.”

“So what happens now?” Cullen asked.

Mellon said, “The tools are company property. I’ll check out the assigned value.”

He returned an hour later to inform Cullen that the tools were assessed at $267, and that this amount would be docked from his pay.”

“No way!” Cullen protested.

Question: Will the mechanic have to pay for the stolen tools?

Berner’s verdict: “Cullen has to bear the cost,” Plant Engineer Cliff Berner told Mellon. “Remind him that when he checked out the tools he signed a statement agreeing that he was personally responsible for them. Without that statement, the company would have had to swallow the loss.”

Wants to bump into another job: Is he entitled to training?

When a layoff announcement was posted, Maintenance Mechanic Grade I Todd Morse didn’t accept the news lying down.

He appeared at his boss’s desk wanting to know what kind of a deal could be made to save his job.

Maintenance Foreman Bill Fristrom replied, “The best I can do is to offer you a Grade II spot until business picks up and a Grade I opens up.”

Morse frowned. “The step-down in pay would kill me.”

“I wish I could do better,” Fristrom said.

“I think you can do better if you want to give me a break. From the scuttlebutt I hear, an instrument mechanic’s job is available.”

“That’s true,” the supervisor conceded.

“Great! I could qualify for that in a breeze.”

“Not so great. That’s a highly specialized job in this plant. As far as I know you don’t have the training or experience needed.”

“No problem,” Morse said. “With a couple of weeks’ training I could handle the work.”

His boss shook his head. “Sorry to turn you down, Todd. For a person to bump into another job he has to be qualified to handle it.”

“You’re nitpicking at details,” Morse persisted. “A couple of weeks shouldn’t make any appreciable difference. With my seniority I’m entitled to a break.”

Fristrom disagreed but promised to check it out with his boss.

Question: Do you agree with Morse’s rationale?

Durkin’s ruling: “No bump into instrument mechanic for Morse,” Plant Engineer James Durkin replied when the foreman submitted the worker’s request. “As you told him, a bump down to Mechanic Grade II is the best you can do. For one thing, Morse’s estimate of a two-week training period to qualify is probably unrealistic. For another, an employee who bumps up to a higher ranking job isn’t entitled to a training or break-in period. He must be qualified when he bumps.”

Be wary of 30-day pitfall

At the top of the list of company liabilities are employees who turn in substandard performance. More often than not these corporate duds are the consequence of supervisory failure to spot their inadequacies in time. The common practice in force is that a worker without seniority may be fired at will; a worker, having attained seniority, can only be fired for cause.

In the plant in question the standard policy applied. In the case of most new hires, a 30-day probationary period was set to qualify the individual for inclusion on the seniority list.

Carpenter Grade II Al Plotkin had been hired the second week in September. He showed promise at the outset, declined slightly after a week or so, then seemed to recoup. A week or so later, Maintenance Supervisor Mel Hunt asked Joe Reedy, his assistant, how the new man was doing.

Reedy gave a tentative twist of his hand, sign language for so-so.

“How much longer does his probationary period have to run?”

“Nine or ten days.”

Hunt frowned. “We’ll permit his probation to run its full course. Hopefully, the guy will shape up.”

Ten days later Hunt checked with Reedy again. “Is Plotkin going to make it or not?”

“It doesn’t look good,” Reedy replied. “His probation was up yesterday.”

Hunt sighed. “Give him the bad news. We”ll have to put in another requisition to Personnel.”

The ‘bad news’ didn’t sit well with Plotkin. “My probationary period already expired,” he protested. “I’m on the regular payroll. You can’t fire me without just cause.”

“We’ll see about that.”

Question: Can Hunt terminate Plotkin?”

Jensen’s verdict: “Plotkin stays,” Plant Engineer Ernest Jensen ruled. “To terminate an employee without just cause it must be done prior to the end of his probationary period. Even one day past is one day too late.”

Planning to subcontract work? Proceed with care

If there’s one subject that can get employees persnickety, it is management’s decision to farm work outside the bargaining unit. Very few companies are equipped to perform all functions required to successfully produce merchandise and construct or expand facilities. Yet whatever the need, if workers feel qualified to do the job at hand, they jealously fight for their right to do so.

The following clause in one company’s labor agreement strives to deal with this situation:

“Hiring outside persons, firms, or consultants to perform work the existing workforce is qualified to perform is generally ill considered except under unusual circumstances such as an emergency or where doing the work in-house would result in significant economic loss.”

When this plant announced the introduction of a new product line it elicited an exciting response from the industry. This triggered the construction of a new wing designed to contain the machinery and other facilities required for production of the line. Maintenance department and other employees set to work on a heavy overtime schedule in an effort to meet the projected 120-day completion date.

The work proceeded well with no competency problems encountered. In the meantime, orders for the new product poured into the plant. One large order in particular from a major manufacturer especially concerned management. So much so that the general manager decided to hire a subcontractor to perform a substantial portion of the work.

This touched off a storm of protest and the visit of a bargaining unit official to the general manager’s office.

Question: Does the company have a right to subcontract some of the work in violation of accustomed practice and its policy statement?

Gardner’s ruling: “Subcontracting is justified,” General Manager Ed Gardner informed the official. “We did our utmost to keep the work in-house. But in view of the unanticipated rush of business, painstaking analysis convinces management that without this extra help the job would not be completed in time to satisfy our production and distribution needs. The result would be dissatisfied customers, canceled orders, and an unacceptable financial loss.”

When Gardner showed the official the calculations and other evidence involved, he couldn’t help but agree.

Must you pay an employee for time served as a witness?

Ellen Wirth shuddered involuntarily when the Dodge sports vehicle in front of her braked abruptly and rammed the Ford Taurus in front of it that was stopped at the light. Ellen considered herself lucky that she stopped in time to avoid ramming the SUV.

She was, nonetheless, “involved” in the accident. The cop on the scene took her name and number, as did a passenger in the Ford who was moderately bruised.

The incident turned into a court case, and Ellen was called as a witness.

Ellen, an instrument mechanic in a manufacturing plant, didn’t look forward to appearing. Her boss, Maintenance Foreman Jerry Young, was even more put out than Ellen. The trial date was scheduled at the height of the season.

“Forget about it!” Young fumed, when Ellen showed him the summons to appear. “We’re backlogged to the ceiling. There’s no way I can spare you.”

“I know,” Ellen replied meekly. “But I can’t get out of it; it’s my civic duty.”

“Civic, shmivic,” Young retorted. “You better find a way to get out of it if you want to avoid a suspension.”

Ellen refused to give ground. “I’m going to have to appear,” she insisted.

Question: Can Ellen be forced to work? Can she be disciplined for refusing?

Jolson’s verdict: Plant Engineer Frank Jolson pulled no punches in responding to Young’s dilemma. “According to Personnel Policy Service which reports on such things,” he said, “federal and most state laws require employers to give employees time off to serve on a jury, and some state laws also require that employees be given time off to serve as a witness.

“What’s more, morality in this company strongly seconds these mandates. And no way can an employee be disciplined for performing her civic duty. If you’re in a bind, switch workers around, or hire a temp to take up the slack. The company will survive the cost and inconvenience. As far as Ellen Wirth is concerned, she deserves kudos for doing the right and decent thing. And make sure she is paid for her lost time from the job.”

Losing a grievance may not be the end of it

These days employers are being hit with an increasing number of retaliation suits and some employees, not to mention their lawyers, are reaping a bonanza. Evidence shows that many attorneys include such claims as part of their underlying strategy when filing discrimination suits.

Following a recent rash of these cases, smart lawyers are cautioning corporate clients on the possible consequences of illegal retaliation. “Even if employees lose their initial claim,” says one, “they may still sue if they feel they have been adversely affected in exercising their legal right to file a discrimination claim. In short, court protection does not cease with the end of an unsuccessful suit.”

In a New Jersey manufacturing plant, a maintenance department computer operator (we’ll call her Amy Johnson), filed a grievance claiming she was sexually harassed. The case went through routine processing procedures over a six-week period and was ultimately dismissed when Johnson was unable to prove with sufficient evidence that she had been wronged.

Amy was a borderline employee, her productivity minimal. Her boss, Maintenance Supervisor Neil Kaufman, groused that he “should have gotten rid of her long ago.”

A month after the verdict against her, on the heels of a flawed report that would have to be re-run, Kaufman decided that he had had it with her. He typed up a dismissal notice and submitted it to Plant Engineer Arnold Witman for approval.

Question: In the plant engineer’s place would you okay the termination?

Witman’s decision: Witman summoned Kaufman to his office. “You cite as ‘Reason for Dismissal’ substandard performance, excessive errors, poor attendance, and low productivity.

The supervisor nodded. “That sums it up.” He admitted, “I should have gotten rid of that loser months ago.”

“Maybe so,” Witman replied. “But doing so just a month after her grievance was denied could lay the company open to a retaliation lawsuit. I suggest you work up a detailed and convincing file spelling out Johnson’s errors, absences, and other deficiencies over a reasonable period of time so that she will be unable to charge that her termination is in retaliation for the grievance she filed.”

Is monitoring e-mail messages a good idea?

Productivity in the maintenance department was declining, and Foreman Edgar Maltz considered it his responsibility to: 1. Find out why, if possible, and 2. Take action to reverse the trend. He asked his assistant, Dave Katz, how he felt on the subject, and if he had any ideas.

Katz frowned. “Well, one thing’s for sure,” he said, “the more time these guys spend on the job, the more work they get out. That’s common sense.”


“Meaning that unless my observations are off, time spent on stuff unrelated to job assignments has been on the increase lately.”

“Like trips to the restroom and water cooler?”

Katz shrugged. “That too, but what may kill even more time than that is accessibility to the computer. Sending personal e-mail messages and browsing the Internet.”

Maltz nodded thoughtfully. “That’s been bugging me too, especially e-mail.”

“So what do you think? Should it be monitored more closely? Or should we ban it all together?”

“That’s the bottom line question, isn’t it? I wish I knew.”

Question: What do you think? What steps should management take in response to employee e-mail abuse?

Stone’s response: When Maltz brought up the subject to his boss, Plant Engineer Alan Stone, the executive looked thoughtful. “That’s a humdinger,” he replied. “According to a recent survey by the American Management Association, 80% of employers monitor employee communications. You can secretly listen in on telephone calls but that doesn’t apply to e-mail. We do some random monitoring, but the question is how much leeway to allow.

“Some companies monitor employee e-mail because of worries relating to pornography and sexual harassment. That hasn’t been a problem here. Lost work time is something else. We don’t want to be overly restrictive; occasional personal messages can be tolerated. On the other hand, management’s productivity concerns should be communicated to workers. I’ll frame a statement spelling out the company’s position and make it clear that we will tighten up on control if we observe abuse taking place. Hopefully, that will help improve the situation.

Is offensive behavior sexual harassment?

Maintenance Department clerical employee Joyce Hammer was a prude, according to scuttlebutt circulated by some male employees.

Word got around and Hammer was disturbed by the reputation she was getting.

“Because I object to vulgar language and sexually offensive behavior doesn’t make me a prude,” she protested.

Her protests were derided by a few of the guys.

“If you’re not a prude,” Maintenance Mechanic Harry Fry asked, “how come you don’t attend the company picnics and business meetings?”

“They’re repulsive,” she replied.

At one picnic a stripper performed. At a company party sexually offensive skits were put on by the crew.

Fry pointed out women who attended these functions. “They don’t seem to find them repulsive.”

“What they condone is up to them. In my view they’re in bad taste and a form of harassment.”

Hammer also received taunts from time to time and felt she was being victimized and harassed. It finally disturbed her to the extent that she complained to Maintenance Manager Joel Cheerer.

“Cool it,” Cheerer advised. “The guys don’t mean anything by it. It’s all good-natured fun. You’re overreacting.”

This inflamed Hammer further and she threatened to file a claim of sexual harassment against the company.

Question: If Hammer follows through, what are her chances of winning?

Brill’s response: Cheerer cued in Plant Engineer Greg Brill on Hammer’s threatened grievance.

Brill asked, “As far as you can see, does her alleged harassment alter the conditions of her employment in any way?”

“Not so I can notice,” Cheerer said.

Brill nodded. “Still, she’s obviously disturbed by the situation so we can’t just ignore it. The question is whether the problem is severe enough to constitute a hostile environment. Send her to my office; I’ll talk to her.”

When Hammer appeared, Brill acted sympathetic to her complaint and expressed respect for her feelings. “But if I make an issue of this,” he added, “it would only add fuel to the fire. You have a good work record. If you like, I can try to get you transferred to another department.”

Hammer frowned. “Let me think about it,” she replied.