People@Work: Hard Times Haven't Made Workers Any Smarter

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If the recession and subsequent high employment proves anything, it's this: The scarcity of jobs hasn't made workers any smarter. Rick Sanchez is a good example. The former CNN anchor was fired Friday for making disparaging remarks about comedian Jon Stewart and his own network, proving, perhaps, that Stewart was right to make Sanchez the butt of many jokes on The Daily Show.

Sanchez, however, wasn't the only person this past week to lose his job for not thinking before acting. In Detroit last Monday, 13 autoworkers were fired for drinking beer and apparently smoking marijuana during their shifts at Chrysler Group's Jefferson North plant, which builds the new Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV.

The employees actions were caught on tape by WJBK Fox 2 News, which was investigating the workers' activities after receiving a tip about them. Upon seeing the video, shot at a nearby park and provided to company officials before it was publicly aired, Chrysler management moved swiftly, suspending 15 workers immediately without pay.

'Totally Unacceptable'

Chrysler Senior Vice President of Manufacturing Scott Gargerding said he found the video disturbing and that management took the evidence seriously. "For us, this behavior is totally unacceptable," Gargerding said, adding that the employees' actions painted a bad picture of an otherwise outstanding assembly plant. Within days of being suspended, all but two of the workers were fired.

The workers' actions were embarrassing for Chrysler in several ways. Not only is the company a recipient of taxpayer funded bailout money, but the incident comes just weeks after President Obama visited the plant, praising the shared sacrifice made by all those involved in salvaging Chrysler -- including workers -- to help rebuild America's beleaguered manufacturing sector.

Given the scarcity of factory jobs and Michigan's high 13.1% unemployment rate (surpassed in August only by hard-hit Nevada), it's unclear what the workers were thinking. In its response to the matter, the United Auto Workers union disparaged the employees' actions for jeopardizing the health and safety of all workers, while acknowledging that "unfortunately these behaviors exist in our society."

Safety First

Alcohol and drug abuse is a disease that doesn't get left at home when workers show up for work each day, says John Challenger, CEO of workplace consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas. For that reason, he says, "Companies are inevitably made aware of situations of [substance] abuse that affect performance or, even worse, affect safety."

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Indeed, employee safety is one reason many companies, including Chrysler, have adopted zero-tolerance policies toward drug and alcohol use on the job. Most large firms offer employee assistance programs for their workers that include ways to help employees quit drinking or using drugs to prevent incidents that may lead to punitive action or job loss.

Presented with video-tape evidence of employee drug use on the job, however, Chrysler management had few options other than to fire the workers. That may seem severe, but assembly line work can be hazardous and safety is utmost, Challenger says. "The company had to stand behind its rules."

Bottom line: Corporate policies can do much to improve and maintain workers' health and safety, but it's up to employees to follow them -- or risk showing up the next day not for work but on the unemployment line.
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