Businesses find a `Dear Abby' to answer employee concerns. Employees ask about profits and parking

A TRW Inc. employee wonders why the company spends money to landscape the grounds around the executive office buildings while management exhorts employees to cut costs. An employee at Transamerica Life Companies questions why a company of such size and stature doesn't use electric clocks instead of battery-powered clocks, which run either too slow or too fast.

At Eastman Kodak Company an employee asks, ``With all the concern about the Japanese marketplace, why does Kodak still purchase some materials from Japan and foreign countries?''

Confronted with hundreds of questions and complaints like these each year, companies such as TRW, Eastman Kodak, and Transamerica Life carry what might be called the ``Dear Abby'' of corporate publications, columns in which employee complaints are published. Employees send questions to the editors, who in turn route them to proper company experts for answers. To guarantee anonymity, editors withhold employees' names, and occasionally pseudonyms are used.

Often questions raised prompt changes in company policy. As a result of letters to Eastman Kodak's publication, Dialog, the rights of nonsmokers now prevail in the work place. Spaces were added to TRW's Redondo Beach, Calif., parking lot when employees complained to ``Readers Readback.'' And at Los Angeles-based Transamerica Life, hourly employees, like salaried employees, now get their checks delivered to them at work.

Sometimes management sees the programs as so important that the president answers questions. Transamerica Life president William Simpson addresses questions about job performance from company vice-presidents.

South Central Bell takes an even more direct approach. Its ``Talk to the Top'' program encourages executives to phone employees to respond to questions and complaints.

A coupon in Bell's publication, Bama, asks employees for a phone number, a question they would like to ask management, and a convenient time for a phone call. Thus, a repairman in the field may get ``beeped'' by South Central Bell vice-president Carlton Baker, responding to a query.

Bama editor Chuck Tatum says, ``The program started last January as a response to the results of our employee communications study, which indicated that employees did not feel like top management was as open and communicative with the troops. We wanted . . . to open up top executives to the people.''

Since beginning in January, 23 employees have talked to the top. One employee wanted ``to talk about having Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday as a holiday.'' A retiree wrote, ``Why didn't retirees receive a cost-of-living allowance in 1986?'' Another employee wanted to offer management some suggestions about increasing profits.

But corporate feedback programs aren't snag-free, say their coordinators. In Bell's Talk to the Top, Tatum says, employees might be hesitant to talk to senior management. ``They might ask themselves, `Am I making myself vulnerable in my work group?' ''

In addition, getting answers to questions, especially the tough ones, from company executives is sometimes like pulling teeth, says Barbie Falconer, TRW's editor. A few management people think it's a pain when they get a ``Readers Readback'' question dropped on their desk, she says. Some never respond. ``I have letters going back two or three years,'' says Ms. Falconer.

To cope with wayward managers, she schedules meetings with executives authorized to comment on the various questions. During such meetings she takes notes and sends them back to the manager for approval or comments.

``We don't just send letters out and pray that we get a response,'' says Falconer. ``We get personally involved.''

Some employees criticize the TRW program. She says, ``We do get accusations of providing wishy-washy, management-type responses, that we evade the issues and don't answer questions.''

The dozen or so letters Falconer receives each month range from serious to the humorous. One employee criticized Falconer's staff for taking a trip to North Dakota from their Redondo Beach location for a company newspaper photo: ``You didn't have to go to North Dakota for that picture of the guys at Dunderman Falls. You could have saved money by faking it somewhere around here. But no . . . you spent our overhead money on a fun trip!''

Falconer answered: ``Dear Grumpy: We would have taken the photo closer to home, but we feel offsite coverage is too important to fake. Besides, the travel budget at Dunderman Falls barely covers trips to Willie's Dew Drop Inn for donuts.''

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