Dennis Robaugh: Hard work or hardly working? Thoughts on a job undone

Dennis Robaugh

I will always remember the first time I saw someone lose his job.

This was almost 20 years ago.

I was working in an industrial grinding shop. Machine parts from all over the country were shipped in to be smoothed out or flattened, to have the burrs knocked off or to have thin layers of metal ground off, layers so thin you couldn't tell the difference between a rough part or a finished one with the naked eye.

The inspector stormed into the locker room at the lunch hour, slammed his locker door and let fly with the cuss words in a venomous tirade. Mother-effing this and effing-bastard that. He had a lot of words for the boss. Other guys shuffled around him to get their lunch pails and paper sacks from their lockers. I stood at the sink washing the grease and grime off my hands.

One supervisor jerked his thumb toward me and told the guy to watch his mouth.

"I don't give a damn what he hears me say," the fella replied, casting a glance my way.

I was the boss's kid, you see, just there for the summer. It was the last summer I'd ever spend home with my folks, and my mother browbeat my dad into taking me to work with him. Seemed to me Dad didn't really want me there, but he put me on the payroll and put me to work. Aside from barking at me every other day, he mostly ignored me. One day, I was eating a sandwich in his office. He kicked me out and told me to eat lunch in the parking lot.

I hauled buckets of parts around the shop and packed them in boxes between waxed paper. I wore elbow-high rubber gloves and dipped parts into bins of a liquid rust inhibitor. Always wear the gloves, I was told, though the men all around me stuck their bare hands into the vats all day. I ran parts through sanding machines. And I tossed parts into huge vibrating tubs filled with water and stone, plucking them out after the tiny burrs got knocked off. One day, I was assigned to run parts through a machine with rollers

calibrated to flatten thick metal. If your fingers got too close, they'd be snatched into the machine and shattered. But I only got to do that for one afternoon because I jammed up the machine, forcing my dad to disassemble it and recalibrate the works. On that particular day, I was on the receiving end of his effing tirade and was summarily dispatched into the yard to mow the lawn and stay out of sight.

Carburetor parts. Refrigerator parts. Aircraft parts. Corporations with household names and small-time outfits. Big jobs and little jobs. If it's a machine part, chances are it passed through this shop or one just like it.

As a job shop, we didn't make anything. Parts came in from the manufacturer, and the shop finished them to the proper specifications.

The inspector monitored the jobs and pulled batches for quality control checks, making sure that the finished work met the customers' specs. Now this guy was the kind of guy who could tell a story. You could jaw with him, and he knew a raft of dirty jokes. So there I was in the men's locker room listening to him berate my dad -- and I wasn't about to repeat a word of it.

A few days later, that guy was history.

I screwed up the nerve to ask my dad what happened.

Too many jobs were leaving the shop only to be sent back by the customer to be reworked. Lost time, lost effort, lost money. Too much of that and you get a rep as a shop that can't get the job done. The inspector was warned.

And not just once. This time, his job was on the line.

If you drive a car or fly in a plane, I'll wager you appreciate that the people who make the parts that go into these machines care enough to make sure the parts are just right. Despite all the locker-room bluster, that guy lost his job because he didn't do the job.

I will never forget that day. Nor will I forget what I learned in that moment.

In the two decades since that day, I've seen people bungle jobs, pass the buck, slack off and give a full workday half-hearted effort. And I've seen a lot of bosses at work. But I've never seen a problem dealt with as decisively, honestly or resolutely as I did that day.

Corporate training regimens and HR functionaries have neutered managers and allowed laggards and incompetents to hang on well past the point of common sense, hurting their companies or their product all the while. Worse yet is the exec who stands idly by, failing to call to account suit-and-tie-guy underlings who botch a job and cost their companies money, customers or credibility.

Responsibility and competence. Fair warning and consequence.

In another time and place, that's all you needed.

Dennis Robaugh can be reached at drrobaugh@earthlink.net