Workplace justice: As 'peer review' tribunals increase, so does controversy

September 11, 1994|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,Sun Staff Writer

An American worker who feels wrongly treated by a boss is usually given little recourse but to complain to the boss' boss -- an option that breeds frustration and mistrust, says Harvey Caras.

So Mr. Caras, a genial 45-year-old Columbia-based corporate consultant, is spearheading what some describe as a revolution in workplace justice.

In the last decade, Mr. Caras has sold 334 companies -- ranging from corporate giants like Marriott International Inc. to local employers such as Baltimore's Franklin Square Hospital -- a program he developed that sends worker grievances to juries made up mostly of the workers' peers.

Thanks to the man known in corporate circles as "the guru of peer review," employees at General Electric Co. plants, Taco Bell restaurants and even the municipal offices of Rocky Mount, N.C., hold informal trials and make binding decisions on the appropriateness of reprimands, demotions or even firings.

And that's an improvement over the past, say employees who have participated in the minitrials.

JoAnn Gilbert, a supervisor of food services at Franklin Square Hospital who has defended her actions before panels and served as a panelist, said reviewers in each case worked very hard to give the complaining worker a fair hearing.

When she served as a juror, her panel spent several days interviewing workers and managers to investigate a firing. That convinced her that if she ever felt wronged, she would want her case to go to a peer review panel.

"I think anyone who goes to this committee has an extremely fair chance," she said,

But the Caras & Associates program is growing in controversy even as it is growing in popularity.

Even as unions struggle to rebound from membership losses that have driven their share of the private work force to a 50-year low of only 11.2 percent, Mr. Caras is persuading companies to provide grievance resolution -- a service normally performed by unions.

Union organizers attack Mr. Caras' peer review system as a union-busting technique. They say it is a sham that gives workers only the appearance of fair treatment.

But labor historians say Mr. Caras is simply the latest in a 70-year

history of corporate reformers who have helped change the workplace by appealing to managerial paternalism as well as a corporate desire to keep out unions.

"The notion that corporations ought to do what unions do goes back a long time," and the companies that treat their employees well tend not to be unionized, notes David Lipsky, dean of the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

That makes programs like Mr. Caras' a mixed bag for workers, Dr. Lipsky says.

Corporate policies can be changed by management unilaterally, and thus offer workers less protection than union contracts, he said. But since only about one in eight American workers receives union protection, such programs can improve workplace justice, he said.

"I would prefer to have some protection rather than none."


Mr. Caras developed the idea of worker trials in 1981. He had just been handed the job of turning around labor relations at the General Electric range plant in Columbia, which had fought off nine union organizing drives in the previous decade.

The relationship between the workers and managers was so poisonous that when the company handed out T-shirts reading "GE is me" as a goodwill gesture, many of the workers taped over the last two words and wrote an obscenity, Mr. Caras recalled.

So he started meeting with workers and sought to address their complaints.

One of his first moves was gathering a group of workers to advise in creating an alternative to the "open door" policy of handling grievances.

At the GE plant, like most nonunion corporate workplaces, workers with grievances were told to walk through executives' "open doors" and ask them to overrule lower-level decisions.

But at GE, Mr. Caras found, most workers felt "the open door led to the parking lot" and believed that managers would always stick together.

So he and the workers decided to let the workers rule on grievances. Workers would still have to try to settle their grievances informally. But panels of five specially trained employees -- three at the same level as the person with a complaint and two managers -- would form a court of last resort.

Mr. Caras ended up training several hundred GE workers to serve as panelists to make sure the pool of jurors was representative of the plant's work force.

Whenever someone wanted to take a complaint to a panel, the worker would randomly draw 10 names -- six co-workers and four managers -- and then select half of each group.

The worker could bring another worker to help represent him or her, and the panelists could call any worker or manager to testify at a private hearing.

The panel could only rule on the fair application of company policy -- not make new policy -- but its decision was final.

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