Human Side of Engineering – 2002-04-15

By Raymond Dreyfack Contributing Editor April 15, 2002

New hires: Think twice before guaranteeing job security

Maintenance Engineer was a key job on the plant engineering flow chart. When ill health forced M.E. Jeff Lyons to resign unexpectedly, it threw the department’s management into a near panic.

No one on hand was qualified to fill Lyons’s shoes.

An ad was placed in the local paper. When this produced no result, an employment agency in town was contacted.

Lyons left at the end of the week. Plant Engineer Charles Block charged Chief Engineer Art Murdock with the responsibility of interviewing job candidates to replace him. The applicant Murdock chose for the job would then have to be interviewed and approved by Block.

As the days passed, urgency caused by the gap increased. A total of five applicants appeared, not one of them qualified. Finally a likely prospect showed up.

George Harmon was an ambitious family man in his late thirties, highly recommended by the agency. Harmon, still employed but seeking a change, had the experience required and seemed a natural for the job. His twelve years of experience in the organization and coordination of maintenance shop and field operations was impressive. He had a winning personality and good communications skills.

Finally! Block breathed a sigh of relief. Harmon’s wage demands were tough but within reason. They could negotiate a settlement. But the applicant hesitated before finalizing the deal.

“What’s the problem?” Murdock asked.

“I’ll level with you. One of the main reasons I’m seeking a change is that my present employer has been going downhill. My instincts tell me the company isn’t long for this world, that before long it will either be acquired or folded. As a family man I can’t afford the uncertainty. Before putting my name on a contract I need assurance that the job is secure.

Block breathed his second sigh of relief. “No problem. This company is a leader in the field. I can assure you that once employed here, if you fulfill your responsibilities satisfactorily, you’ll have a job for life with a good chance for advancement.”

“Sounds good.” The deal was consummated, signed, sealed, and delivered.

The best laid plans of mice and men! Unfortunately, three months later a major contract fell through, followed by other business reversals. The company, once a high flyer, was now flying low. Cutbacks and consolidation was called for. Two divisions had to be combined into one. As part of the restructuring was the decision to eliminate Harmon’s job.

The engineer was more than irate at the news. “I was hired with the assurance that the job would be secure. In fact, the company’s policy manual backed up this assurance. Fire me, and I’ll sue.”

Question: What are Harmon’s chances of winning if he follows through with his threat?

Expert’s opinion: “I would say he has a good case,” Corporate Attorney Anita Ryan told management. “This case could turn out to be sticky, the cost of litigation prohibitive. We could wind up having to buy off this guy, or worse.”

Plant Engineer Block pulled in a deep breath. “Face it people, restructuring or not, we’ll have to find a place for Harmon.”

The moral of the story is: Think twice, then once again, before guaranteeing anyone job security.

When is “fooling around” harassment?

Maintenance Group Leader Arthur Jones and his subordinate, Mechanic Class II Linda Smith (names disguised), had been having a consensual relationship for years. When their affair ended on a bitter note, Smith complained to management that her boss had forced her to have sex with him “if she wanted to keep her job.”

Smith went a step further. She persuaded three cronies from Maintenance and Production to sign a petition asserting that they had been “subjected to sexual harassment” by Jones.

Investigating the charge, Maintenance Manager Sam Kaufman called the group leader to account. “Is there any truth to the petition’s assertion?”

Jones finally admitted to “a few incidents” where he could be accused of “fooling around.” But, he added, “The charge of sexual harassment is ridiculous. No one was harassed. I might have hugged a girl now and then, but it was all in good fun.”

” ‘Good fun’ or not,” Kaufman snapped, “sexual harassment is grounds for dismissal in this company.”

“That’s way out of line,” Jones protested. “Fire me and I’ll fight this case to the Supreme Court if I have to. I wasn’t even given a chance to confront my accusers. Let them tell me to my face what they charge in that petition.”

When asked to do so the three refused.

Question: Can Jones be terminated on the grounds of sexual harassment?

Morton’s response: Kaufman made a beeline to his boss’s office and informed Plant Engineer Ralph Morton of the group leader’s threat.

“Termination isn’t likely to hold up,” Morton replied, “without direct and specific evidence of Jones’s alleged harassment. At the least he’s entitled to cross-examine his accusers. My suggestion is that you call him on the carpet and lay down the law. If his behavior isn’t squeaky clean from now on it will be curtains for him. As for Linda Smith, she made her own bed as they say, let her lie in it — in another department preferably.”

“No radio playing”! Can this work rule stand up?

Maintenance Department productivity and efficiency had declined steadily during the past year or so.

A staff meeting was called in an effort to determine why and what could be done about it. In attendance were Plant Engineer George Lyndal, Maintenance Manager Bill Halstead, and a handful of supervisors and group leaders.

Lyndal threw out the challenge. “I”m all ears. Do any of you geniuses have a suggestion about how to boost productivity and cut down on the unacceptable number of errors?”

The responding silence was deadly.

“What about motivation?” Lyndal asked. “Does the crew feel they’re underpaid? That the work is too hard? That they’re not being treated fairly? Are there any round pegs in square holes?”

A group leader, Mel Rich, was frowning.

He hesitated. “A wild idea. It probably makes no sense. Radio playing. A lot of guys carry radios with them when they move from job to job. Especially since the war on terror started, radio playing has seemed to increase. I’ve seen men killing time switching from station to station. It’s distracting if nothing else. It can also be a safety hazard.”

Question: Do you agree with Mel’s suggestion?

The outcome: The crew, not surprisingly, protested the prohibition. But Corporate Attorney Ellen Chiger believed the prohibition of radio playing to be “a reasonable work rule” under the circumstances. The following quarter productivity improved an estimated 6% and the error rate fell. How much could be attributed to the radio ban could not be determined.

How much training is a “fair amount”?

When a job vacancy was posted for Mechanic Grade I, Mechanic Grade II Alan Roach, 58, won out over three other hopefuls who had applied. Roach had more years of experience than the others, a better performance record, and a good educational background. For these reasons Maintenance Foreman Cliff Daniels gave him the edge.

Roach was given routine projects at the outset that could have been classified Grade II rather than Grade I assignments. In the meantime, Daniels enrolled him in a training program designed to qualify him for the more complicated Grade I jobs that required a knowledge of specialized instruments, advanced draftsmanship, and other technical capabilities.

His performance as a trainee was disappointing. Although capable enough with the mechanical requirements of the work, his ability to grasp the more complex aspects left something to be desired in Daniels’s opinion.

As time passed it became more and more evident to the supervisor that he had made a mistake. He doubted if Roach would ever become sufficiently qualified to master the skills needed for Grade I classification. After seven weeks into the training program he broke the bad news to Roach.

“Alan, I’m going to have to reassign you back to Grade II.”

“That’s not fair,” the mechanic protested. “A little more training and I’ll be able to handle whatever you throw at me.”

Daniels shook his head. “Sorry, I strung this out as much as I can.”

The mechanic refused to settle for that answer. “You’re cutting me short because of my age,” he accused. “This is a clear case of discrimination.”

Roach threatened to sue if he didn’t get satisfaction.

Question: Do you think Roach is entitled to additional training time in an effort to qualify?

Victor’s verdict: When Daniels dumped the mechanic’s threat in Plant Engineer Frank Victor’s lap, the executive was firm in his support of the supervisor.

“It’s clear from the record,” he said, “Roach’s capabilities are limited. An employer cannot allow a worker to be trained for an indefinite period. Enough is enough. In Roach’s case seven weeks is more than adequate. His charge of age discrimination is entirely unfounded.”

Is absence due to chronic ailment justified?

Since Stockroom Attendant Janice Greene had suffered a stress fracture a year or so ago, her attendance record had plummeted steadily. Twenty-two absences in the past year alone. The fracture was not work related. An operation didn’t seem to help much. Greene appeared destined to be not only chronically ill but chronically absent as well.

Maintenance Supervisor Arnold Chernoff, in consideration of Greene’s physical problem, bent over backward to overlook her declining attendance. Every time she embarked on a new type of therapy, tried a new medication, or purchased a new magnetic cushion or vibrating device, she reported it optimistically to her boss. “When this starts to work it will improve my attendance.”

Some remedies — massages, chiropractic ministrations, injections, etc. —did help for a while. But the absences didn’t decline. The departmental cost was a burden. Stockroom attendant was a key job. Greene’s excessive absence triggered increased overtime. Juggling the work force was hard and disruptive. Chernoff was forced to hire temps to plug personnel gaps. This resulted in errors and decreased efficiency.

Chernoff had spoken to Greene more than once, spelling out his responsibilities as a supervisor and explaining why her poor attendance was unacceptable. Each time she had pleaded for another chance. Three disciplinary notices were already included in her personnel file. Chernoff could postpone the task no longer. He would have to let her go.

When Greene got the bad news, despite the fact that it was long overdue and expected, she acted stunned.

“It’s unfair,” she protested. “You can hire temps to cover my absences.”

When Chernoff refused to back down Greene threatened to grieve.

Question: In Chernoff’s shoes how would you respond to the threat?

Benson’s verdict: Plant Engineer Burt Benson shook his head sadly when Chernoff reported to him. “I feel for you,” he replied. “You are confronted with a supervisor’s most painful and difficult task. Having to fire anyone is tough enough. When the employee is a conscientious, well- intentioned person who, through no fault of her own, is unable to carry her share of the workload, the task becomes even more painful. But what choice do you have? An employer cannot afford to function simultaneously as a profit-based organization and a charitable enterprise.”

Is presumed conflict of interest grounds for dismissal?

Harvey Haskins was a senior engineer in the plant engineering department. One day, his direct supervisor, Project Manager Phil Stone, summoned him to his desk.

“We have to have a heart-to-heart talk right now.”

“What about?”

“I hear via the rumor mill that you’re employed part time by Algonquin Manufacturing.”

“That’s right.”

“What do you do for them?”

“I put in 4 hr Saturday mornings on a consulting basis. With the kids’ music lessons and Anne’s dental work, the financial situation is tight. That extra cash comes in handy.”

“I can appreciate your problem, Harve. But I’m afraid we can’t allow the consulting work to continue.”

“Why not? I put in my full time here. This job always has been and will continue to be my number one responsibility. What I do for Algonquin has no bearing on the work I do here.”

“Jim doesn’t see it that way, and to be frank, neither do I. In fact, I’m speaking with you at Jim’s suggestion. As plant engineer, he feels he’s obligated to veto any arrangement where a possible conflict of interest exists.”

“That’s not the case here.”

“Maybe not, but we can’t be sure. After all, Algonquin is one of this company’s chief competitors. You have access to all kinds of privileged information. I’m sure you can appreciate Jim’s situation.”

“There’s no way I would ever reveal anything I see here to Algonquin, privileged or not.”

“I believe you, and so does Jim. But we can’t afford to take chances. I’m afraid there’s no choice. It’s either your job here, or Algonquin.”

“It’s not fair,” Haskins persisted. “And I’m not sure that it’s legal.”

Question: Can the engineer be forced to give up his part-time job?

Talbot’s decision: “It is generally conceded,” Plant Engineer Jim Talbot said, “that management has an inherent right to forbid an employee from working for a competitor, especially where sensitive data is involved. In fact, a clause to this effect exists in the company’s policy manual. You might direct Harvey to that statement. It’s on page 126. I sympathize with his situation, but as you said, no choice exists: It’s either here or there.”

FMLA — When providing an “equivalent job” is hard to do

Instrument Mechanic Wade Jarman’s mother was deceased. His father received therapy for a hip replacement. When his insured home care coverage ran out, Jarman applied for a leave under the Family and Medical Leaves Act (FMLA) of 1993. His last day of work was September 24th.

Instrument mechanic was a key job in the maintenance department. With only one other mechanic on hand, Maintenance Supervisor Louis Robeson didn’t see how he could get by without hiring a replacement for Wade. The problem was that under the Act, management was required to hold the job open or offer the employee an equivalent position on his return.

The situation became increasingly stressful for Robeson as the days slipped by.

After a week he framed a help wanted ad for a replacement. Robeson had no equivalent position in mind, but figured when the time came, he would work it out one way or another. He sent the ad to his boss, who summoned Robeson to his office.

Question: In the PE’s shoes would you okay the ad?

Peterson’s response: The plant engineer’s first question was the obvious one: “Where do you plan to assign Wade when he returns?”

“I don’t know. I figure we’ll work something out.”

“Like hiring a temp?”

“No sir, I doubt that we could find one.”

“Then, I assume, when you find a qualified candidate, you’ll let him know the job will be of short duration.”

Robeson frowned. “I doubt that we’d find an applicant willing to work given that condition.”

His boss nodded. “Can you use three instrument mechanics in the department?”

The supervisor shook his head. “It’s the classic situation where one’s not enough, and three is too many.”

“In that case you’re going to have to find some other solution. You may be able to hire a qualified temp at an exorbitant rate. Or, better still, put in a call to the East Side plant. They have three or four instrument mechanics working there. Maybe they can spare one for a few weeks. Wade’s FMLA leave protection runs a maximum of 12 weeks. Hopefully, he’ll return before that.”

Customer satisfaction vs. common decency

Maintenance Department Stockroom Attendant Michael Hamas was dark and swarthy. He possessed curly black hair, long sideburns, a thick mustache, and a black beard. Despite his name and appearance, Hamas wasn’t an Arab, but was easily mistaken for one. He was a Chassidic Jew, a member of a strict sect founded centuries ago in opposition to ritualistic laxity.

Hired nine years ago, Hamas was a peaceful person and conscientious employee. He was also culturally sensitive regarding the history of his people. Though a bit stiff and humorless, he tried to be helpful and got along with most coworkers, although a prejudiced minority were derisive — on occasion outspokenly — of his appearance. He liked his job and rarely ran into problems.

Until September 11th.

From time to time purchasers of the plant’s industrial equipment were referred by the receptionist to the supply room for the replacement of parts. In recent months, despite the fact that Hamas wore an American flag stickpin in his lapel, the receptionist had received a growing number of negative customer comments, a sampling of which she reported to Maintenance Supervisor Tom Clement. These included:

“I’m not prejudiced, but that guy in the supply room spooks me.”

“Don’t you people have any red-blooded Americans you can assign?”

“He’s probably okay but I don’t feel comfortable doing business with Arabs.”

The receptionist was quick to assure customers that Hamas was a Chassidic Jew, not an Arab. But that didn’t do much to convince them.

Question: In Clement’s position what action, if any, would you take?

Doyle’s response: In a tough competitive enterprise, and with profits declining in recent months, management was extremely sensitive to customer relations. Plant Engineer James Doyle shook his head sadly at Clement’s report of what the receptionist had told him. He summoned the receptionist to his office.

“How many voiced the kind of comments you reported to Tom?”

“Just a few. Five or six.”

“You can identify them?”

“Oh yes, no problem.”

“Okay. When these customers appear, call Tom. He’ll assign someone to get what they need and bring it to them with whatever paperwork is required. No way am I going to fire Hamas or move him around on their say-so.”