How Employees and Employers Put a Man on the Moon
Jobs, jobs, jobs. That was the hue and cry during much of the recent political conventions. One of the great national debates currently going on and leading up to the elections in November is how more jobs can be created to alleviate our anemic employment figures. Unemployment over 8 percent for over three years, and no one seems to dispute there are 23 million Americans out of work.
More recently there was a memorial service for Astronaut Neil Armstrong. It was interesting too that references were made to him during at least one of the conventions. Why? What’s the connection between him and jobs? I had read a quote of his in the Wall Street Journal a day or two after his passing, and those convention references to him resonated in me a little, as I devote a good amount of time to labor and employment work. Neil Armstrong spoke about the people—the employees—to whom he attributed the success of Apollo 11. The following, and forgive me for its length, is a quote from Neil Armstrong about the success of the Apollo 11 mission:
I was certainly aware that this was a culmination of the work of 300,000 or 400,000 people over a decade and that the nation’s hopes and outward appearance largely rested on how the results came out. With those pressures, it seemed the most important thing to do was focus on our job as best we were able to and try to allow nothing to distract us from doing the very best job we could.
Each of the components of our hardware were designed to certain reliability specifications, and far the majority, to my recollection, had a reliability requirement of 0.99996, which means that you have four failures in 100,000 operations. I’ve been told that if every component met its reliability specifications precisely, that a typical Apollo flight would have about [1,000] separate identifiable failures. In fact, we had more like 150 failures per flight, [substantially] better than statistical methods would tell you that you might have. I can only attribute that to the fact that every guy in the project, every guy at the bench building something, every assembler, every inspector, every guy that’s setting up the tests, cranking the torque wrench, and so on, is saying, man or woman, “If anything goes wrong here, it’s not going to be my fault, because my part is going to be better than I have to make it.” And when you have hundreds of thousands of people all doing their job a little better than they have to, you get an improvement in performance. And that’s the only reason we could have pulled this whole thing off.
When I was working here at the Johnson Space Center [JSC], then the Manned Spacecraft Center [MSC], you could stand across the street and you could not tell when quitting time was, because people didn’t leave at quitting time in those days. People just worked, and they worked until whatever their job was done, and if they had to be there until five o’clock or seven o’clock or nine-thirty or whatever it was, they were just there. They did it, and then they went home. So four o’clock or four-thirty, whenever the bell rings, you didn’t see anybody leaving. Everybody was still working.
The way that made it different from other sectors of the government to which some people are sometimes properly critical is that this was a project in which everybody involved was, one, interested, two, dedicated, and, three, fascinated by the job they were doing. And whenever you have those ingredients, whether it be government or private industry or a retail store, you’re going to win.
This passage makes me nostalgic. I remember the 60s, watching the big TV in my elementary school classroom, feeling the excitement there and as the rest of the world came to a stop every time a rocket blasted off from Cape Kennedy. But I am nostalgic too because the lawyer in me realizes what the almost certain reaction would be if the above statement was describing a work situation today. My gosh, it would prompt a wave of plaintiff’s lawyers to descend on Texas and Florida in hopes of landing a class representative among the 300,000-400,000 employees to go after all that unpaid overtime! How sad.
Mr. Armstrong characterized success as a “win.” As I read the above account from Mr. Armstrong, the following points struck me:
- There were 300,000 to 400,000 people who worked over a decade to achieve the extraordinary results.
- Every employee, man or woman, was intent on doing a better job than they had to, which led to only 150 failures out of 25 million operations in a mission.
- People did not leave at quitting time. They worked until their jobs were done and then they went home.
The kind of environment Neil Armstrong described—that permitted him, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin to fly to the moon, land on it and return safely home—may never be seen again.
Federal and state governments, and the plaintiff’s bar, have laid down a dangerous maze that every employer has to traverse to hire and retain employees in hopes of achieving success. It almost works against the employer’s interest these days to encourage or motivate the kind of selfless devotion to excellence described above, because even honest, selfless intentions can come back, even unintentionally, in the form of a class action that will pay the employees dollars and their class action attorneys millions.
In interviewing, hiring, employing, paying and severing an employee, there is a minefield employers need to negotiate. Things like Title VII, ADA, ADEA, FCRA, EPA, FLSA, FMLA and others have to be taken into account during every interview question, every hiring decision, all promotion and demotion considerations, every sick leave determination (short and long term) and every decision to end an employment relationship, even if it’s mutual. Not to mention the NLRB. If the reader of this article doesn’t know the meaning of these many acronyms, beware. They all have significant economic implications. And yet, I’m not without hope. The recent spectacular landing of the unmanned Curiosity on Mars by necessity required the sort of reliability and miniscule tolerances typified by the Apollo 11 mission. The mission leaders I watched live on TV around midnight on the night of the Curiosity landing didn’t look at all like they cared about the hour, or about how many hours they put in that day. I only hope they and their employers were being careful to document the hours put in and corresponding salary obligations.
From the very beginning of the process of interviewing and hiring an employee, to keeping them safe and happy, to the termination of their employment for cause, convenience, or necessity, or even to a happy retirement resulting from a long and proud career, an employer would do well to have the advice of counsel who understands the hoops and hurdles employers must now negotiate to prevent litigation, discourage litigation and, if necessary, win litigation. In reference to the words of Neil Armstrong, if employment counsel is interested in, dedicated to, and fascinated by the job they do, an employer stands a much better chance of not only succeeding, but succeeding exceptionally.