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Speaking up on employer abuses -- and managing to keep your job

The computer consoles manufactured at a California computer company were dangerous. They violated state safety regulations and national electrical codes. The engineer in charge of this project knew the product was unsafe, and he reported it to his superiors.

The company was growing at a fast clip. The last thing it needed was a faulty console. Shortly after the violation was brought to the attention of senior management, the engineer was fired. Two years later, a Santa Clara jury said the company must award the engineer $20,000. He couldn't be fired for acting in the interest of public safety, the court ruled.

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Cases like this, involving employee objections and rights, are increasing. More emphasis on quality of work life, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, attention from the news media, and support from some judges are encouraging employees to speak up.

Less than 1 percent of America's businesses have grievance systems, figures David Ewing, managing editor of the Harvard Business Review and author of a new book, ''Do It My Way or You're Fired'' (New York, John Wiley & Sons, $17.95).

In an interview at the Harvard Business School, Mr. Ewing said the number of cases involving employee objections (he differentiates between legitimate complainers and ''chronic complainers'') has increased 15 to 20 times in the last six years.

''This is just the tip of the iceberg,'' since it only represents cases that have come to court, says Michael Baker, senior vice-president of the Educational Fund for Individual Rights in New York.

Mr. Ewing, who has been researching this area for 10 years, has seen an ''endless variety'' of employee rights cases. If there is a common type of case, ''it's in the technology area. Here there are a lot of potential hazards to employees and consumers,'' he says.

Jack Stieber, director of Michigan State University's School of Labor and Industrial Relations, has found that about half a million employees are fired unjustly every year. The kinds of grievances most likely to be ruled on favorably by the courts concern safety.

Also, Ewing points out, courts are ruling in favor of employees penalized for blowing the whistle on a company's behavior in these areas: company violation of state or federal laws, violation of equal-hiring laws, sexual harassment, or age and handicap discrimination. One of the most frequent violations, according to the book, is penalizing workers for trying to organize a union.

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An area that nonunion employees can do the least about is work rules. ''Unless they violate state laws on wages and hours, work rules aren't considered significant enough,'' says Mr. Baker of the Educational Fund for Individual Rights. ''Unfair work rules are very common, especially in this economy. Employees can't quit and they can't complain. They're in a bind.''

He gives the example of some publishing companies. ''They hook you in by promising you a top editing job in five years. In the meantime you make low pay and brew a lot of coffee for seniors. The little injustices build up as you wait for promotion. But of course there are only so many slots at the top.''

If an employee feels compelled to bring some company injustices into the open , ''It's a good idea to go the immediate supervisor first,'' Mr. Ewing suggests. ''If you try and skip a few people, it will get back to the supervisor, who could make life very difficult.'' He also advises keeping written records.

If the immediate supervisor is uncooperative, the worker should try higher-ups. ''Sooner or later you will find someone who's more objective.'' And if that fails, outside associations and organizations in an employee's field can be helpful.

''The most common mistake is to make a personal vendetta out of it,'' he warns. Another error is to engage a lawyer right away. ''Your first loyalty is to your company.'' If it's necessary to call in a lawyer, Ewing recommends the American Civil Liberties Union, where ''they have a roster of lawyers interested in rights.''

But ''it takes guts to bring a company to court'' if they fire you for whistleblowing, he says. ''You can get blacklisted at other companies. You can be unemployed for a long time. There's a lot of money and mental strain involved.''

All this would be unnecessary if a company had a grievance system, Ewing explains. Although the percentage of companies with these systems is still small , it's growing.

''I can't think of a single high-tech firm on Boston's Route 128 that isn't in one stage or another of developing a system,'' he adds.

But overall, there's a lot of resistance to the idea. ''Managers fear they won't be able to manage anymore,'' Mr. Ewing says. ''But if they set a system up , they'll have everything to gain.''

Court costs and bad publicity could be avoided. Also, ''managers will act sooner on things that could save them a lot of money.

''In trying to sell hostile managers on this, you've got to convince them that putting the gag on employees won't silence them. A grievance system is a good way to stop rumors.'' And as a manager, Ewing says, ''you get more respect if you let someone prove you're wrong sometimes.''

In 1974, Control Data Corporation set up an employee advisory resources (EAR) division to handle work and personal problems of its inner-city employees. The program was expanded companywide, and last year the company also set up a review board to hear grievances. The board consists of two of the employee's peer members who are chosen randomly, an executive member, and an EAR staff member, who mediates.

At first ''there was the same concern managers would have with any intervention of their command of their employee/manager relationship,'' admitted Fred Olson, director of work problem counseling at EAR. ''But past experience with EAR has alleviated those concerns.'' Chronic complainers do bend EAR's ear, but those complaints rarely go to the review board.

In handling grievances, Mr. Ewing says, company managers need to keep two essentials in mind: ''The manager must show respect for the employee and should discuss only the facts of the problem.''

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