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Question 119: Should a supervisor make a labor-saving suggestion to management?

I am supervisor of the packing and shipping department of a manufacturing company. I used to be a foreman with a much larger company. From the time I began this job, the operation here seemed to me comparatively inefficient. But the problems are different from where I worked before, and I did not know how the setup could be improved. Early on, I talked with the plant superintendent about it. He in effect told me to mind my own business and stick with established procedures. I’ve made only a few changes, mostly to cut down the risk of accidents and injuries to my crew. These changes have improved efficiency very little if at all.

While on vacation recently, I was talking shop with my wife’s cousin who manages the maintenance department at a similar plant operated by one of our competitors. He took me there and showed me around, and I had a good look at their packing and shipping department. Their setup really is ingenious, and now I see how we could make ours a lot more efficient. What’s more, I believe we could do it in the space we have and without getting any costly new equipment. The changes’ only significant costs would be for moving things around and training the crew in some new procedures.

Still, I am wondering whether I should go back to the plant superintendent about this or, perhaps, to higher management. There are pros and cons.

I feel sure suggesting improvements that could be carried out so easily would not hurt my future with this company. However, the changes would keep my crew working more steadily, and practically eliminate their overtime. Not being unionized, they will not be able to do much about that, but they will not appreciate it. That will make supervising them harder and less pleasant. Which means that if I push for the changes and get them adopted, I probably stand to gain something for myself, but not much.

There also are two sides to this thing from a broader point of view. I hate to go on wasting the crew’s time and energy doing the job the hard way when it could be done so much better. But my people are used to the take-home pay they have been getting, and it is going to be hard on them if they are cut back.


This question concerns a duty pertaining to the supervisor’s role. The answer flows from the fact that cutting waste and increasing efficiency pertain to the common good of the business considered as a community, of which both workers and managers are members. The questioner has a duty to suggest the changes to make the common enterprise more efficient, and the workers should accept them. Because of the workers’ interest in the matter, the questioner, in my judgment, should seek to enlist their cooperation in proposing the changes. But whether he gains it or not, he ought to propose the changes to higher management, and in doing so should point out that the workers deserve a fair share in the savings that will result.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Companies often have policies that provide some guidance for dealing with questions like yours. My first suggestion is that you find out whether such guidelines and/or provisions exist where you work. If they do, presume them just and conform to them unless the presumption favoring them is overcome by convincing reasons. In the remainder of my response, however, I shall assume that such guidelines and provisions are lacking; if any exist, my suggestions will need to be modified appropriately.

Cutting waste and increasing efficiency lower costs and improve productivity. These benefits enable management simultaneously to increase profits, reduce prices, and retain or increase market share. Efficient workers also make it possible for their employers to maintain or even improve their pay; inefficient workers are likely sooner or later to be displaced by machines or by competing companies’ less costly workers. Moreover, other things being equal, more efficient work is better and more fulfilling to workers. Cutting waste and increasing efficiency, therefore, are important elements of the common good of any enterprise. Since that common good is the ground for the authority of the enterprise’s managers, it is an essential and important responsibility of managers to reduce waste and promote efficiency. Consequently, you are right to be concerned about the inefficiency of the packing and shipping department, and as its supervisor you have a duty to suggest the change you describe. But since that duty might be subject to exception if fulfilling it would involve serious risk to yourself and/or harm to others, your question remains to be considered.

Making changes so that members of your crew work more steadily will not, considered in itself, injure them, assuming you allow them adequate breaks for rest. Provided they are properly trained in the new procedures, the only direct harm likely to result from your labor-saving suggestions is elimination of their overtime.329 Even that, however, will not in itself harm them; not having to spend so many hours at their workplace, they will be able to spend more time with their families and will be free to do other things. The real problem is the loss of the extra pay. Though the workers are not entitled to work overtime, they naturally are interested in maintaining their present level of income, and it hardly would be fair to ignore that interest. Therefore, in making your suggestions for improvements, do what you can to maintain a good relationship with the workers and to safeguard their interest in maintaining their present income. The question is: How?

Though you will have to decide, taking into account your knowledge of your crew and your relationship with them, my suggestion is that you try from the outset to collaborate with them in dealing with the matter. You might begin by calling them together, explaining how you think the setup can be improved, saying you plan to suggest these improvements to higher management, and pointing out the advantages of doing better work with less wasted effort. At the same time, make it clear that the improvements would mean less overtime work, and you are concerned about how that will affect them. Encourage the workers to express their views, and invite their suggestions on how to approach higher management. As discussion develops, commend comments and suggestions that, going beyond narrow self-interest, express readiness to work together to make changes that will benefit everyone concerned.

If this initial discussion goes reasonably well, ask the workers to join with you in proposing the improvements to management. Develop a proposal that assures them a reasonable share in the prospective benefits of their increased productivity. If feasible, propose reducing the crew’s size by attrition or transferring some workers to other departments, so that those who remain still will have opportunities for overtime work during busy periods.

And if the initial discussion does not go well? Since the plant superintendent rebuffed your previous effort to discuss the problem, higher management presumably does not see it as significant. There being no apparent urgency for you to proceed, it seems to me you can delay for a time, work quietly to win over the more reasonable members of the crew, and so try to develop consensus. If it becomes clear that the effort will not succeed, however, I think you should suggest the improvements by yourself.

With or without the workers’ cooperation, you should be careful about how you approach your superiors. In explaining how the company would benefit from the changes you propose, point out that sharing the savings with the workers will be both fair to them and in the company’s long-term interest. Indeed, you might begin by saying something along these lines: “Some members of my crew and I think we can accomplish the same work we do now with less overtime or even none. If we are right, will you be fair-minded enough to share with the workers the savings that will be realized by their increased productivity?”

Even if you proceed without the workers’ cooperation, your efforts to work with them and safeguard their interests are likely to limit their resentment and help you retain their good will. But the company may adopt your suggestions without fairly sharing the savings. If so, assuming you do not need additional compensation to support your family or fulfill other pressing responsibilities, you should, as a matter of Christian mercy, ask management to distribute the increase in pay it would give you among the members of your crew. In doing that, you will not only mitigate their suffering due to the unfairness but bear witness to it before management and provide the workers with evidence of your good will, thereby probably lessening their resentment. Of course, whether or not the company agrees to your proposal, some workers are likely to react in ways that will make it more difficult for you to supervise them. Be ready to accept that difficulty as part of the price you must pay for doing your duty.

I assume the plant superintendent is your immediate superior and would be involved in making and implementing a decision to change the setup in your department. If so, it seems to me you should not exclude him from any approach you make to management, though perhaps you should offer your suggestion simultaneously to him and to one or more other superiors. In your earlier discussion with him, you had no alternative to your department’s present setup to propose; now that you do, he is likely to be more receptive.

Finally, the efficient setup at the shop operated by your employer’s competitor might be its property. That would be so if it could be patented or if its development involved significant expenditures and/or work. In that case, adopting it without its owner’s permission and/or appropriate compensation would be a form of theft. Therefore, do not suggest that this setup be adopted at your plant without making the source of your ideas clear and calling attention to the competitor’s possible legal and/or moral rights to be compensated.

329. If the workers were likely to suffer greater loss—for example, termination of employment—the remainder of the response would be different. For consideration of such a problem, though from a different viewpoint, see q. 113, above.