In the Trenches: Trouble brews when supervisor can't cope

In this edition of In the Trenches, Acme learns what happens when a supervisor can't cope.

Joe Hannisberg, a mechanic in Acme’s flagship plant in Acmeville, was hired in 1991 to perform repairs on production equipment when a manufacturing line was shut down. Though his was only a part-time job, Joe was fortunate that Acme nearly always needed some ongoing maintenance work.

Joe knew his business. He knew the drill. He was a self-directed dynamo, but a loner, working independently on anything that was a priority. In time, Joe’s mechanical aptitude, work ethic and willingness to learn new skills earned him a promotion to full-time employee. When a maintenance foreman position opened in one of Acme’s more remote plants, he was tapped to fill it. Joe jumped at the chance to spread his wings over his very own department and gladly relocated. It didn’t hurt that Acme picked up the tab.

Donny Gault was the regional manager of the territory that included Joe’s plant. Donny drove the circuit, making regular visits to the half-dozen Acme facilities in his bailiwick. As the immediate supervisor of the plant maintenance managers, Donny evaluated their job performance every calendar quarter. These performance appraisals ultimately went to Acme’s home-office HR department.

Training should be the first thing to happen. Skip the psychological exams.

Donny typically rated Joe’s performance as “meeting expectations,” but sometimes added specific areas where he thought Joe was a little weak. Though these suggestions were at odds with Joe’s self-image, he never complained to Donny or others about the evaluations. Joe always blamed it on the amount of paperwork he had to do, which was much greater than he expected.

One suggestion that kept appearing was that Joe should maintain a more positive and professional management demeanor. One of the long-term maintenance technicians told Donny that Joe had a negative personality, which resulted in bad interpersonal relationships. Joe tended to sound snooty when interacting with others, and some members of the maintenance crew had adopted the same negativism.

Donny warned Joe that he needed to be more approachable and professional, a warning that Donny said was a result of coworker complaints about his communication style. Donny also mentioned that production downtime was trending upward because Joe’s maintenance department wasn’t completing repairs in a timely manner. Donny told Joe that if he didn’t make some changes soon, there would be disciplinary action, including possible termination.

One Friday, Jerry Coe, one of the maintenance technicians, called Joe to say he was sick and wouldn’t be in that day. When he couldn’t reach Joe, he called the maintenance secretary, who verified that Jerry had available sick leave remaining. When Joe was informed, he disagreed with the secretary. He called Jerry and left a voice mail saying that if he was sick, he should go to the doctor, take the meds and report for work on Saturday and Sunday because there was a growing maintenance backlog. Jerry was surprised at this because he wasn’t scheduled to work that weekend.

When Jerry didn’t call back, Joe left him a second voice mail. When Jerry still didn’t call in, Joe left him a third voice mail stating that he assumed Jerry had abandoned his job and that if he didn’t report for work on Saturday, he would be terminated. Jerry called Donny to report this and played him the voice mails. Donny investigated and learned that the other maintenance technicians were already covering Jerry’s responsibilities while he was sick.

Donny reported the situation to Acme’s HR director, who agreed that Joe should be terminated. Of course, Joe filed a complaint alleging defamation and tortious interference with an employment relationship.

How could this situation have been avoided? Who was in the wrong? Should companies subject job candidates and employees considered for promotion to psychological exams? Would it have helped in this case? How should a company respond when it realizes an otherwise capable employee should not have been promoted?

An attorney says:

Isn’t this called the “Peter Principle” — every employee rises to their own level of incompetence? Joe certainly wasn’t competent to be a supervisor. Being an expert mechanic doesn’t automatically qualify one to be a maintenance foreman.

Joe acted in a completely inappropriate fashion by demanding that Jerry report for work over the weekend, when he wasn’t scheduled to work, because he called in sick on Friday. Even more egregious were Joe’s repeated phone messages for Jerry and the threat of termination if Jerry did not report to work on Saturday.

Acme could have taken any number of steps to solve the problem of the otherwise capable Joe who shouldn’t have been promoted to foreman. The simplest but perhaps most offensive step would have been to demote Joe back to the mechanic position. Most employees, however, don’t take well to being demoted and often don’t perform well in the lower-level slot.

As a more humane alternative, Acme could have established a new position for Joe, providing him with senior or expert status as a mechanic but without any responsibilities to supervise employees.

Another alternative would have been to provide Joe with management training and whatever other courses might have been helpful to him. Described as a “loner,” it sounds as though Joe was lacking in people skills and perhaps some training to improve his interpersonal skills would have helped to avoid the problem that occurred.

On-the-job training by another foreman is another approach Acme could have used to get Joe on the right track as a supervisor. But to let Joe run amok as a supervisor, unskilled and untrained, was the wrong choice.

Julie Badel, partner
Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.
(312) 499-1418
jbadel@ebglaw.com

A plant engineer says:

This situation could have been avoided had Acme recognized that sometimes people are promoted into positions they’re not qualified to hold. I suspect that many companies, as well as small businesses, see this on a regular basis. An employee has great technical skills and a great work ethic. While these skills serve a mechanic well, they might not transfer well to a supervisory position. Often these are just the people who get promoted to management.

Sometimes they can adapt to making decisions and to being the boss and no longer just one of the guys. They might even be able to get behind policies and decisions that they don’t agree with in order to promote management’s positions and maintain a positive attitude. But in this case, apparently not. Acme, and mainly Donny Gault, should shoulder most of the blame.

When Donny recognized these deficiencies in Joe, he could and should have required training for him. Supervisory training should be available, and maybe required, for any employee who is selected from an hourly position and placed into a supervisory position. Training should be the first thing to happen. Skip the psychological exams. To expect the skills that make a person a great mechanic to be the same skills that make a great supervisor is rather naïve on the part of Acme management. If Joe was required to take supervisory classes this might have been avoided.

Donny should have acted sooner in making a decision concerning Joe’s abilities as a supervisor. When the company realized it had promoted the wrong person, it should have offered Joe a mechanic position in the current plant or any plant of Joe’s choosing. This would allow Joe to maintain a position with the company and the company to keep a proven, skilled mechanic. The company should explain to Joe that he’ll have evaluations every 90 days in his new (former) position. These evaluations should last for one year. During this time, Acme should make sure Joe is adjusting to the move from a supervisory position back to a mechanic.

Jeffrey L. Strasser
Bacova Guild
(540) 863-2656
strasser.jeff@bacova.com

An academician says:

Most companies chose their foremen and managers based on technical skills (plus company loyalty). On one hand, this makes good sense in that the foreman can always back up the technician and correct problems that the technician couldn’t solve. On the other hand, foremen are expected to manage people and being a good technician doesn’t mean you’ll make a good manager. In Acme’s defense, it’s often difficult to predict how effective a person will be as a manager. Psychological evaluations might help, although most companies don’t want to spend the money on them, and often ignore them when they’re done.

Acme probably should have given Joe (or any new foreman) a three- or six-month probationary period during which they observe his management style. The best predictor of performance is performance. If there was a problem, he should have received some quick feedback. And if the problems weren’t corrected, Joe should have gone back to his technician job.

Apparently Joe received some feedback on his performance, although it appears to have been too vague. One can’t change anything that’s vaguely described. You have to be specific as to the behavior to be changed. However, there apparently was no consequence to Joe. He was allowed to continue exhibiting the same behavior. In that respect, Acme blew it. I’d have put Joe on six months probation as a foreman, given him specific feedback on things that need changing and, if seeing no change, would have put him back in the technician ranks.

As to Joe’s behavior regarding Jerry, most companies activate a contingency plan if an employee calls in sick. I recently did some work with restaurant managers, and one interesting observation was that when an employee calls in sick, the first thing that the managers think of is finding a replacement. The question of whether the sickness is legit doesn’t enter their minds. They need a full contingent of wait staff and cooks to have an effective operation each day. So, they immediately start calling from the back-up list to ensure full staffing. Good advice for Joe. Make sure you have a replacement; don’t worry if the sickness is legit, let HR take care of that; and get on with your business.

Professor Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D.
Loyola University Chicago
(312) 915-6682
hjohnso@luc.edu