I Thought So - A Book of Epigrams

Nobody Loves A Snitch, and Other Human Resources Management Matters (work in progress)

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Nobody Loves A Snitch, and Other Human Resources Management Matters (work in progress)
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Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.
                                                                                  Abraham Lincoln


             Nobody Loves A Snitch, and Other Human Resources Management Matters
Dan, an older carpenter with a stupendous mustache, told me that as a kid he worked for his father’s construction company. One Friday the crew decided to quit a few hours early, but not clock out, and go for some beers. The next morning, thinking he was being helpful, he told his dad what the carpenters had done. But he was stunned when his dad was furious at him for informing on them.

“You’re a snitch! I can’t believe my own son is a snitch! You snitched on your fellow workers! I’m going to tell them what you did and I hope they kick your ass!”

I know exactly how his dad felt. Sometimes I had a snitch on the payroll, and the things they told me might be useful, but I never liked or trusted a snitch. Cops may depend on snitches, generally petty criminals looking for protection or leniency, but the cops certainly would not want to be friends with such people. There is something about a snitch that makes your skin crawl.

Employee relations in the construction world used to be very simple. If the boss didn’t think you were putting out enough force, or you were a screwup, he just told you to go to the office and get your check. The bookkeeper would cut a check for the exact hours you had worked till that moment and you were “outa here,” as the umpire would put it. The standards to be met were clear and simple.

Here are some examples of force. A tilesetter working in a new subdivision would have to do two tub “backs” a day. A tub back is the entire tile wall surrounding a tub. And the work would have to be perfect. A rocker (sheetrock installer) would be expected to hang 2,000 square feet a day, or at least 1,500 in areas with a lot of penetrations or angles. You could not sacrifice quality for speed.

How do you get people to work this hard? A drywall contractor has a job sheetrocking an office tower. He will need forty rockers from the union hall. He calls for eighty. At the end of the first week he lays off the ten slowest...you get the idea. By the time he is down to forty they are all putting out a lot of force. Not a lot of love, but plenty of force.

The contractors could do this because except during rare building booms there are usually plenty of workers on the bench (used to be an actual bench, now it’s a computerized system) in the hall.

In the construction world workers can’t get away with much because they are usually closely supervised by people who have actually done these jobs. I employed plumbers, but I had also been a plumber, so when I dropped in to check the progress of a job I could spot errors, sloppiness or lack of productivity.

Errors had to be immediately corrected and it wouldn’t take many to cost someone his job. It wasn’t just the time and materials being wasted, but there were considerations of safety and liability, and failing a building inspection could be costly in delays, extra fees and time spent setting up a test.

Sloppiness I would correct, but had to tolerate to a certain degree. In plumbing, as in other mechanical trades, there is a thing simply called “mechanical.” It doesn’t have an exact meaning, but everyone knows what it means. Lines run parallel to the building walls, pipes are not sloped too little or too much, what should be vertical is vertical, clamps and fasteners are properly installed, soldered joints are neat. I always thought of “mechanical” as analogous to the art theorist Heinrich Wolfflin’s term “painterly.” He didn’t define it exactly, but all painters know what he meant.

Lack of productivity was a stake in my heart -- it meant that I wasn’t going to make money on the job, or worse, that I was going to lose money on the job. The biggest cost is always labor, and labor that is not productive is like opening an artery. Estimates alloted liberal amounts of time for each task and seriously exceeding them led to a serious conversation. For example, installing copper water pipes in a bathroom with three plumbing fixtures was typically a five hour job. These were not sweatshop hours, they were simply an average of what typical plumbers produce under typical conditions. The industry always weeds out those who fail on productivity because we lived and died on the basis of it.

Why is it that some workers easily meet or exceed typical productivity while doing excellent work, and others can’t do it to save their jobs? There are some differences in mechanical skills, hand-eye coordination, physical strength and endurance, and so forth. But almost anyone I had ever hired was capable of mastering the basic skills, tools, materials and codes. The work was not rocket science. I came to feel that quality work and productivity are more a matter of personal pride and character than anything else.

A proud person always wants to excel at his job. It is something beyond what kind of career you end up in or how much money you make. There are people who simply will do their very best at any job they have during their lives -- from being a teenage newsboy to CEO. Workers who are proud of their trade and their skills always do beautiful work, it is just their nature, they don’t know any other way. An old plumbing inspector once told me there were plumbers whose work he didn’t even bother to look at, because they were incapable of not doing good work.

Character consists of many traits, from absolute honesty, to working well with others, to not constantly griping or being resentful, to doing more than your share when others are slacking, to focusing on your task instead of living inside your head, to friendliness and kindness, to having the self-discipline to not be sitting in a bar at 2:00 a.m. when you have to be on a job at 7:00 a.m. People of good character tend to be productive and do good work, and unfortunately, the opposite is also generally the case.

I think of the trades as an aristocracy and a peasantry. The aristocrats are the most productive and skilled workers. They are prized and always in short supply. Contractors will almost always try to keep them on the payroll, even when they do not have a lot of jobs, because such people are hard to come by. There is always a shortage of skilled tradespeople. At this level employer/employee relations are very good.

Below the aristocracy, and descending, level by level, are a mass of less skilled, less motivated, less trainable, less reliable, less competent serfs. Serfs are at least three quarters of the labor pool. At the higher levels they may generally be employed when everyone is hiring --at the lower levels they work only when no one else is available. Serfs have most of the drug and alcohol problems. They have a tendency to show up wrecked, if they show up at all, on Monday mornings. Employee relations with serfs are not good, in fact, they are much worse than not good.

In plumbing, as in everything else in life, character matters. People of good character tend not to lie, drink or use drugs on the job, steal tools, offer to work for your customers on the weekend using your tools, truck and materials, or snitch on their fellow workers. I am a harsh judge of human character -- if you lie to me and I find out, you are permanently a liar in my eyes. I had to tolerate a certain amount of bad character, but I did not respect or trust people who did these things. Heraclitus, who wept for mankind, said it best:

                                                   “A man's character is his fate.”