In the Trenches: A lack of core values leads to trouble for one good samaritan

Feb. 8, 2008
In this edition of In the Trenches, Acme demonstrates its animosity for someone who was only trying to help.

In the early 1960s, Acme began manufacturing high-tech gizmos for the U.S. military. But, it was 14 years ago that Anne Goragote found employment at the plant and began her career in a variety of hourly wage positions in different departments. Her proven competence earned her a spot as a technician on a special team that was upgrading the plant’s automation and wireless communication system.

In formal performance appraisals, her current supervisor, Pete Terbilt, wrote that Anne was an important part of the team and helped them successfully get through certain critical stages in the implementation process. In an apparent effort to motivate, Pete suggested to Anne that being in on the project’s ground floor could open up some career advancement at Acme. Specifically, Pete dangled the carrot of a salaried position or a pay raise if Anne could maintain her current productivity for the duration of the project.

In a completely unrelated situation, Nola Contendrie, an employee in another department, was campaigning for a position on the executive board of the union representing Acme’s hourly workers. During the campaign, sexually disparaging flyers about Nola started appearing in the plant and locker rooms. Nola complained to the management chain of command until the company initiated an investigation.

The investigators spread out through the plant and in a conversation with Anne learned that she had seen a female employee leave a stack of the flyers in the company lunchroom and another stack in one of the restrooms. Anne also said that she’d be glad to testify to this fact, if things went that far. Just to be safe, Anne reserved a few of her remaining vacation days for this purpose.

Ultimately, Nola sued Acme, the union and its president claiming she’d been subjected to a hostile work environment. During her deposition, Nola stated that the only witness she could name who saw someone distributing the flyers was Anne, someone unknown to her and who had no vested interest in the suit. This tidbit flew through the management grapevine.

Early in the shift the next day, an enraged Pete stormed down a factory aisle to Anne’s workstation, summarily removed her from the project team and sent her back to the assembly line. A few months later, Anne received a memo from Acme’s HR department telling her that she was no longer needed to teach the evening skills training courses for other Acme employees, a part-time job that she relied on for a bit of extra income.

Then, in direct contradiction to Pete’s promises, Acme formally declined to promote Anne to the next higher pay grade although the increase was long overdue. To top it off, Anne was informed that she and employees with less seniority were eligible for promotion only if they received more training and worked the night shift.

Anne needed a break from this madness for a while. A vacation was in order, but months had passed and she heard nothing about being called to testify. Anne tracked down Nola to determine when and if she’d be deposed. Anne was surprised to learn that she was Nola’s only witness and that the suit had settled shortly after it began.

Suddenly seeing a connection between a willingness to testify and the treatment she’d been receiving, Anne went to Cal Varey, Acme’s HR director, about her suspicions. Cal told her there’s nothing that could be done and she might as well look for another job. The hazing probably wasn’t going to stop.

Ever the optimist, Anne completed the required training but was still denied the promotion. Then, Acme denied a specific request from the leader of the automation upgrade to have Anne join the team on a business trip to visit a key supplier. Acme also denied Anne a salaried position that could insulate her from the rampant layoffs that were derived from the improved automation project.

The termination steamroller caught Anne. Unlike other laid-off employees, Acme didn’t refer Anne to a nearby Acme subsidiary for future employment even though it was known that the subsidiary was interviewing and hiring employees with less experience. An angry Anne filed a charge of discrimination with the state’s human rights commission and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Then she took charge of her own life and, on her own, secured an interview with the subsidiary and was offered a job. But the offer was withdrawn. When Anne asked why, she learned that the subsidiary had called Pete for a reference check. That was the last straw, and Anne filed suit against Acme, alleging discrimination.

How could this situation have been avoided? Should hourly employees really expect to achieve exempt status? Does it ever make sense to try to help out with another employee’s problems? Should one expect to be able to take a supervisor at his word? Can the HR department and Acme be held liable for not doing more to stop the harassment and unfair treatment? Should Anne have gotten the promise of a promotion in writing?

A corporate consultant says:

The way for this situation to have been avoided would have been for Acme to have core values that mean something. As I read through the scenario I kept thinking, what kind of an organization – in this day and age – would drag its feet in investigating an event as serious as distribution of derogatory sexually explicit materials? The culture of an organization is defined by what’s allowed to happen and what isn’t.

Acme is allowing inappropriate conduct and isn’t allowing an atmosphere of integrity and trust. Nola appears justified in bringing a suit for a hostile work environment. Further evidence of an ailing corporate culture is the weak, inappropriate response from HR about what Anne should do (look for another job because the hazing would continue). It’s highly likely that the state and federal EEOC findings will result in significant costs being incurred by Acme.

Of course hourly employees who have demonstrated good performance and an inclination to personal and professional growth should absolutely be able to take the step into exempt positions. Anne appears to have done a great job for 14 or more years; she earned positions as team members on important projects. Even in the face of increased obstacles, she forged ahead and met or exceeded the requirements for promotion.

Our actions have consequences. In an organization where core values and culture are solid and upstanding, the question of whether to support another person’s problem is an easy one; the answer is yes. When the organizational culture can’t be trusted, I still believe it’s best to strive to do the right thing. In such a situation, it would be best to protect yourself by discussing the matter with trusted supervisors or managers and, if the issue is serious enough, perhaps a labor attorney. After all, it might be your livelihood we’re talking about. Be aware of the legal and corporate implications and, by all means, document any actions and conversations that are material to the issue. A detailed set of notes has significantly more weight than “he-said, she-said” recollections. Be educated about the legal elements and protect yourself by documenting issues as they arise.

A supervisor should provide opportunities and encourage professional growth for team members. This is a situation that involves trust and communication; as written, Peter’s suggestions sound more like coaching than a formal statement of conditions for a promotion or salary increase. Peter probably had the best ofintentions when he first discussed the issue, however, it’s possible he overstepped his authority. Or perhaps he was part of the corporate lack of core values, an errand boy, or an enabler. Anne should be aware of Peter’s authority with regard to promotions because she has been there for a number of years. Her enthusiasm should be tempered by Peter’s authority and the probable coaching nature of the discussion. By the same token, specific performance qualifications were discussed and Anne completed them in the face of increasingly difficult circumstances.

The HR department and Acme should be held accountable for the harassment and unfair treatment. The liability started around the time Peter stormed into the work area and summarily removed Anne from the project without explanation.

Beyond that, Acme blocked Anne’s part-time training and further participation on the project team. One suggestion for Anne, and everyone else, would be to become familiar with regulatory and corporate policy on these issues. This means you should receive training - ask for it or research it independently – on what your rights are with regard to union rules, harassment reporting and options available to you. It’s probably best that Anne leaves Acme and signs on with a company that has better core values.

Generally, if the discussion is indeed about terms for promotion, then it should be in writing. If the nature of the conversation were about coaching, then I wouldn’t necessarily expect the advice to be written down. Having a written offer would make any potential grievance or legal suit more solid.

Realistically, I have doubts that Acme would have stood by the offer of promotion whether it was written down or not. The central issue is the integrity of Acme and its management team.

Tom Moriarty, PE, CMRP
Organizational Reliability Professional Services Consultant
(321) 773-3356
[email protected]

An academician says:

Employees shouldn’t take the promises of their bosses too seriously. People, particularly new employees, often are told, “You will be able to move up quickly in this organization,” or, “You have the potential to make six figures in a no time,” or, “You are in line for promotion.” Most of this is smoke with a touch of truth in it somewhere.

The people who make these “promises” usually don’t have the authority to deliver on them. Moreover, the promises are contingent on too many other factors, such as the economy, company sales, the employee’s performance and who else is in line for the job, to name a few. The company can always find an excuse for not delivering on its promises.

However, violating company rules is a different matter. If a company states that a person must have certain qualifications for promotion, but then promotes someone lacking those qualifications (over those who have them), then that’s a basis for legal action. Changing the rules for promotion in an attempt to avoid promoting those who are qualified under the old rules also presents a legal problem.

It isn’t clear from the case how much Acme is skirting its own rules, in contrast to blowing a little smoke at Anne to keep her motivated. My take is that there’s a consistent pattern here, both of broken promises and rules violations, which occurred after her willingness to testify in Nola’s complaint, to justify (successful) legal action on her part.

As I have mentioned many times before in this column, the track record regarding whistle-blowers, and those who appear to be supportive of actions against the company, is poor. People who aren’t perceived to be 100% on the company’s side usually receive negative treatment, and often are separated from the company. So, does being a Good Samaritan pay? Only if it supports the company’s policy and actions.

I think Acme was being petty and stupid in Anne’s case. She’s obviously a good employee and an asset to the company. That’s the type of person you want working at your company. Acme’s time could be better spent getting rid of some of their turkeys, rather than Anne. She didn’t do anything wrong or detrimental to the company, so forget it and move on.

Professor Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D.
Loyola University Chicago
(312) 915-6682
[email protected]

An attorney says:

Anne should prevail in her discrimination claim against the company. Acme engaged in a persistent scheme to retaliate against Ann for participating in an investigation concerning Nola's complaint of sexual harassment. Just as the law protects employees who make complaints of harassment from retaliation, it also protects employees who participate or cooperate in an investigation of a harassment complaint.

It's not clear from the facts whether Anne knew the identity of the employee who left stacks of the offending flyers in the lunchroom and bathroom, but if she did, Acme should have followed up and disciplined or discharged the errant employee as part of its duty to provide employees with a workplace free from unlawful harassment. Acme totally dropped the ball in terms of investigating and eradicating the harassment. Penalizing Anne didn’t solve the harassment problem; it merely swept it under the rug.

Our entire justice system depends on the willingness of individuals to become involved in someone else's problems. Without this willingness, we’d never have witnesses to testify at trials, other than the parties to the litigation. Anne acted in a responsible manner by telling the company investigators what she observed. By reserving vacation time in the event she was asked to testify, Anne went above and beyond the call of duty.

Many hourly non-exempt employees are promoted to exempt salaried status. An hourly employee shouldn’t “expect” to be promoted to an exempt position, but farsighted employers promote from within whenever feasible, and that includes promoting lower-level employees to exempt positions. Many executives have worked their way up from the hourly ranks.

Julie Badel, partner
Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.
(312) 499-1418
[email protected]

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