All clues point to fraud o'clock at the steel mill

A fledgling programmer tracks down the answer to a nagging question, to the old guard's displeasure

panic time clock fact urgent time stress
Credit: iStockphoto

Work hard, study diligently, serve the company – for most people, this is the path to career success. But while your tech training and education can help you get your foot in the door, no textbook or lesson plan can guide you when the ugly specter of office politics appears. In more ways than one, you may find that you're on your own.

As a college student, I worked as a janitor in a local steel mill. The job provided enough income to pay my tuition, rent, and food bills. I covered the night shift because it never interfered with classes as I tried to gain enough computer skills to gain a better position in the organization.

As time passed and I progressed through school, I was offered a day job in the computer department at the mill. The opportunity posed two problems. First, I would have to curtail my pursuit of a degree – at that time, there were few evening classes other than those offered to individuals seeking a master's or a doctorate. Second, I'd also leave a union job punching a time clock and move onto the “company” side.

The second was not an issue for me, but the first was a stickler. Few people in that era had much formal training on PCs, and even fewer had an actual degree – it was worth it to complete my education. I declined and bided my time.

The first assignment

Upon graduation, I was again offered the job and this time accepted it. My initial assignment was to construct a better reporting and forecasting tool for time management. Our products were top quality, but in the market, price carried a lot of influence and we needed to bring down the cost to be more competitive.

I was too green to be allowed to query current data, so I worked with historical data instead. Nonetheless, I was able to design a tool to assemble trends for departments from prior years. As I verified my data, I noticed a troubling anomaly for one department.

In my three-plus years at the plant, I noticed that one department had hours recorded for every Sunday. At this plant, this meant double time. I knew something was wrong as that department rarely had Saturday work, let alone Sunday shifts. I smelled a rat.

Digging further into the data, I discovered that one employee in the department had been receiving pay for every Saturday and Sunday for the past two years! I wondered how he had pulled it off since his time clock was located deep within the building, and entrance to the plant was only gained by passing a guard at the main gate. Surely a man entering every Sunday for two years would raise an alarm?

I started tracking down security tapes, a process that was eye-opening in itself. Apparently, no one ever reviewed the tapes. They were there “in case we had a problem.”

Finally, I found a tape from a far corner of the plant that showed the employee in question parking his pickup just outside the mill on the weekend, climbing onto the top of the cab, hopping over the factory fence, and returning after a short time – when he must have made his way into the building and to the time clock to punch in. He would repeat the process at his “quitting time” to log a complete day’s work.

The last assessment

I compiled my report by documenting my findings, turned it in to the appropriate managers, and awaited the results.

However, my observations had failed to note one detail: The individual wore a ring from a local order to which I was not a member. It turned out that all the managers also belonged to that order, and they stuck together. The employee got a verbal reprimand to discontinue his actions. I received a layoff notice.

Oh well. It was a valuable learning experience to pay closer attention to details – and to tread lightly when shades of political undercurrents are a force to be reckoned with.

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