Jack was reviewing his file on Wilma Carter, an employee in the Receiving Department. The records showed that Wilma had a terrible attendance record and had been counseled several times. Unfortunately, these counseling sessions didn't prevent the attendance problem from recurring. With several oral warnings under her belt and a five-day suspension on her record, Wilma's most recent transgression brought on an official disciplinary hearing. This required the attendance of her union steward and the human resources manager.
As human resources manager, Jack was getting tired of Wilma's constant problem and wanted her fired. However, he knew that his case might be too weak to sustain a termination and that such action would probably cause the union to appeal. Then the case would go to arbitration, which probably would reduce the termination to another five-day suspension. Jack also knew that the standard progressive discipline policy followed the sequence of two oral warnings, a five-day suspension, a thirty-day suspension, and termination. He needed to get a thirty-day suspension on her record so he could be rid of Wilma once and for all without union interference. He was running through his alternative strategies when Pete arrived.
Jack was surprised to see Pete. Pete was the union's business agent, not the steward. The union had been losing membership lately, and Jack figured they must have decided to send in the big guns to rebuild member confidence. Jack stood up to greet Pete and extended his hand with a warm, friendly grasp.
"So, Pete, good to see you."
"You too, Jack. It's been awhile–probably three years. Wasn't it the last contract negotiation?"
"You know, I think you're right. So tell me, Pete, what's brewing? Is the steward off ill?"
"No," Pete said, "I just thought it would be a good idea to come down and handle this one myself. Thought it would be a boost to member morale, you know."
"Sure," Jack confirmed.
Jack was thrilled that Pete was taking over. He knew Pete wasn't as in touch with company policy as the steward, so he remained cool as the conversation proceeded.
"So, Jack, where do you stand on Wilma's case?" Pete asked.
"Well, her attendance record stinks, so I think I'm going to recommend we can her," Jack said, knowing he didn't have enough to make it stick.
"Oh, you can't do that, Jack. Wilma is really a good gal and she's very sorry, but she's been having problems at home. Why don't you just give her a real stern warning?"
"No way. She's already been suspended for five days and that didn't seem to work. I think she should be canned."
"Well, how about you give her a thirty-day suspension?"
This was what Jack was looking for, but he couldn't agree too quickly. "Naaah, I think we should can her."
"Well, look, I need this one. We'll go into the hearing and you argue strongly that she should be terminated; you yell and scream and all that stuff. Then I'll yell and scream that she should be retained."
"Okay, then what happens?" Jack asked.
"Then we'll agree at the hearing to settle for thirty days. I'll be a hero with Wilma, and she'll tell all the other employees how hard I worked to save her job and didn't let you can her. The whole deal will score big with the members."
"Bingo," Jack thought, "I get my thirty-day suspension on record and Pete will agree not to go to arbitration. This should be easy." However, Jack was not quite prepared for how far Pete was going to carry out his acting debut.
They both walked in the room. Wilma's eyes were downcast, and Pete's hand was on her shoulder giving her a reassuring squeeze.
"Wilma," Jack began, "we've counseled you and warned you and suspended you for your absenteeism. I guess you think this company is a big joke. We can't have employees who don't respect our rules. People like you don't belong here. We're going to have to terminate you."
Wilma gasped and started to cry. She turned to Pete for help as her crying turned into a loud wail.
Pete jumped in immediately. "How dare you talk to one of your employees like she had the emotional make-up of a worm. Don't you have any sense of respect? Who do you think you are, looking down at Wilma through those trifocal, horned-rimmed spectacles? Do you think those glasses give you the right to belittle employees?"
"I don't care what you think. Wilma broke the rules and she pays the price. Our production is down when she isn't on the job, and we don't want to encourage that kind of irresponsibility," Jack retorted.
"Irresponsible? Who's irresponsible? You're putting a woman with three children to feed out on the street for a few extra absences. I think that's irresponsible, and it's inexcusable management. You're a low-down, no good, management jerk-off who has nothing to do but push papers all day. Why don't you go out on the line and work some time? Take some time to see who does the real work around here instead of drinking coffee and making decisions that affect the lives of others while you sit in the comfort of your plush offices."
Jack was looking for a way out of this. This was getting out of hand and he was beginning to think that Pete had forgotten the deal they had struck in his office a few minutes earlier. He started to get scared as Pete continued to rant and become increasingly more vicious.
"And furthermore, Mr. high falutin' Human Resources Manager, I will fight you every step of the way if you terminate this poor, hard-working woman. I find termination an unacceptable alternative. You'd better come up with something better, or I'll take this thing to arbitration and out of your slimy hands."
At last, Pete gave Jack the opening he needed. He summoned up a stern expression on his face and said firmly, "Don't think your disparaging remarks mean anything to me. I don't need to stoop to your language or your tactics, and I'm not convinced that Wilma will improve. However, I'm not as unreasonable and heartless as you suggest. So, here's my final offer. I'll agree to a thirty-day suspension. Hopefully, she'll have sufficient time to decide if she really wants to work here or not, but that's her absolute last chance."
"Done," said Pete.
Wilma threw her arms around Pete and then thanked Jack profusely for letting her keep her job. Pete put his arm around Wilma and walked her out of the hearing room as he threw a wink over his left shoulder at Jack.
These two are not exactly a couple of role models. The back room, deal-cutting nature of this episode is not to be admired or encouraged. If Jack had simply followed the standard, progressive discipline policy, he should have been able to obtain the thirty-day suspension without compromising his integrity.
Although this general scenario is not uncommon in unionized companies, the specific language and tone Pete employed is uncommon. No manager would need to tolerate that kind of activity.
When dealing with employee problems like attendance, where no single episode is sufficient to warrant substantial discipline or discharge, an employer should take pains to rely on the cumulative effect of the employee's various transgressions or the entire course of conduct. The employer should not focus on the most recent episode as the basis for discipline. Instead, the most recent episode should be treated as the proverbial straw.
Excerpted from Outrageous Conduct: Bizarre Behavior at Work©