In the Trenches: A one-way door

The tightening screw makes life difficult for Acme's engineering department

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Right of first refusal causes trouble for Acme's rehiring efforts

Among the strategies Acme uses for weathering economic storms is maintaining strict adherence to a maximum gross-sales-per-employee ratio. For example, if sales decline in a given month, Mahogany Row mandates an aggregate dollar reduction in overall payroll. This monthly number is announced at one of the departmental manager's weekly meetings, where each manager learns the expected savings that must come out of the plant area under their jurisdiction.

To avoid driving an entire department out of existence, individual pro rata departmental reductions are based on current payroll. Departments that are either heavily populated or staffed with high-priced workers are responsible for a greater share of the cost reduction than departments having only a few minimum-wage employees. After the allocation is announced, department heads have exactly one week to finalize the terminations necessary to bring their payroll numbers into line with the magic ratio. Whether it's true or not, the only reason department heads can give affected employees for their dismissal is "lack of work."

On the other hand, if sales increase in a particular month, peer pressure and continued uncertainty discourage department heads from adding staff. They bite that proverbial bullet, trying to do more with less. The net effect increases the ratio of gross sales to headcount, which becomes the Mahogany Row expectation and the standard that gets codified in a revised ratio accompanying later revenue decreases.

"For a few months now," states Norman DeBiech, Acme's engineering manager, in his most serious tone of voice, "economists, both governmental and private, have been predicting a sustainable upward trend across a broad range of industries, including the few in which we compete."

"That's old news on the plant floor, Norm," replies Ollie Garkie, the operations manager. "Do you really think we need an economist to tell us that our recent sales are definitely much better month-to-month? Out on the floor, we see it every day, in real life."

"Increased sales is a good thing, no doubt about it," Norman says. "I'd imagine our magic payroll ratio is putting some pressure on you to get back into a hiring mode."

"You're very perceptive," Ollie replies softly. "Production is struggling to keep up with demand while maintaining output quality. My department managers are struggling with rising overtime costs."

"Are we still using that seniority-based policy?" Norman asks. "You know the one where we give former staff the right of first refusal when jobs are available again. That should make it easy."

"It's apparently not working well," replies Ollie. "I'm hearing that HR is struggling to identify critical former employees who might be induced to return. Unfortunately, when we call, most of them simply shout flaming epithets into the phone before hanging up. Ever so rude, don't you think?"

"Yes, I agree. But be selective and don't try to bring everyone back," Norman demands. "There were some real losers on my team and I'm glad to be rid of several of them. No doubt, soon I'll need to staff up as well, and I'm not looking forward to the prospect of having some of those mopes back in the office. The only one I brought back so far is Igor Beevore."

"Great," Ollie says. "Igor is a good guy. We enjoy working with him. In any case, we'll identify and qualify some new candidates for you, I'm sure."

Before Ollie can continue, Norman's phone rings, and Ollie rises and leaves the office silently.

"Hi, Norm. It's Al. I wanted to talk to you about coming back to Acme now that you're getting busy again."

Norman rolls his eyes skyward and sighs silently when he realizes he is once again having to talk to Al Batrauce, one of the more useless plant engineers Acme ever put on the payroll some 25 years ago. "How could he have lasted that long?" Norman wonders. Then he recalls his elation about the opportunity to fire Al some nine months ago in response to the demands placed on him by the magic ratio.

"Yes, Al. What can I do for you today?" Norman inquires, hoping desperately that this will be a short conversation.

"Well, you folks are busy again and I'm available," Al replies. "I'm ready to come back."

"That's not going to be possible, Al," Norman answers. "I doubt that you'll be coming ashore here again. We've got no opening for you. Your job was eliminated."

"How can you eliminate a plant engineer function?" Al asks. "Besides, you told me that I was laid off because you had no work for me to do. Now that you're going to have more work than you can handle, you should call me back."

"No work. That's the standard response, Al," Norman explains. "We say there's no work because it makes it easier for you to collect unemployment. It's certainly better than getting fired for cause."

"But I don't want unemployment," Al says. "I want my old job back. I'm already on extended unemployment benefits and I have only three weeks left before that's gone. Whatever happened to the policy of first refusal? Remember the Acme tradition?"

"I'm not hiring anyone right now," sighs an exasperated Norman. "To my knowledge, Al, nobody has ever returned to Acme. Those who had anything on the ball found another job quickly and had no need to return. Why don't you do the same? It would be better for both of us."

"Well, I'm the exception, I guess," Al retorts. "I deserve that job and I feel I must do whatever it takes to force Acme to hire me back in accordance with the long-established policy."

"Well, Al, I don't see it that way at all. We've already got the candidates we need to staff this department. I've got to go now," Norman says sternly.

"Just a minute, Norm," interjects Al. "I know you rehired Igor, and I have way more seniority than him. And he's a plant engineer, just like me."

"You are no Igor, Al," Norman snorts. "Besides, his situation has nothing to do with you."

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