Monday, June 16, 2014

"saif's abrupt firing of ceo after three months raises questions"

The headline stirred up memories.

It was in yesterday morning's edition of The Oregonian.  And, even though I have not worked at SAIF for six years, it caught my attention.

SAIF Corporation is Oregon's largest worker's compensation insurance company.  I worked there for 20 years in various capacities in its legal division.  And, for many reasons, I have avoided writing much about the company.

But the newspaper article struck me as being rather odd.  SAIF hired John Plotkin to be its new CEO earlier this year.  I have talked to several people at the company since he came on board, and they were unanimously thrilled with his style and his concern for the company.

Apparently, that was not true for everyone.  The chairwoman of SAIF's board of directors called Plotkin on a Saturday morning last month, after only three months on the job, and told him he had the option of resigning or being fired.  He decided to fight for his job -- and was supported by a large contingent of employees at a board meeting.

Being a lawyer, I immediately started looking for what dastardly act he could have committed that would result in being fired.  Drugs and prostitutes came to mind.  Or missing funds.  I was mistakenly looking for John Edwards when I should have been looking for Joan Rivers.

The firing offense seems to be that Plotkin has a way of speaking for effect.  And that has offended some people.

According to the newspaper, this is the board of director's indictment:

  • Plotkin told an employee to "speak English, not actuary."  The board deemed the remark to be an insensitive and hostile because it was made to a person of color.
  • During a debate among executives about dress codes, Plotkin said he did not want to have to be arbiter of acceptable clothing, recalling his intense annoyance at his sixth-grade gym teacher who physically checked to make sure his students were wearing jock straps.
  • Plotkin brought his bulldog to work as part of an April Fool's Day joke suggested by staff. Plotkin was outdoors at one point with his dog when another employee approached with her black lab.  Plotkin attempted to warn her off due to his dog's penchant for mounting other dogs. "My dog is a humper," Plotkin told her.  "He likes to hump black dogs."
  • While traveling with the former CEO (a woman) to one of SAIF's satellite offices, Plotkin allegedly used the word "tits" in a story about a goat cheese class he and his wife had taken that involved milking goats.  Plotkin claims he used the word "teats."
If that is what this is all about, I am astounded.  Some of the comments are a bit boorish, but most of the stories appear to be tales of manufactured victimhood -- where swooning southern belles collapse at the mention of "chicken breast."

And then I remembered my own days at SAIF.  The atmosphere is not new.

I will relate one story.  As you can imagine, I do have a tendency myself to use words for affect.  There are many more stories to share.  I call them "talking to" stories.

Several years ago I served on a task group that had the job of training SAIF employees about new legislation.  In this case, it was whether independent truck drivers were subject to the workers' compensation law.  You can see our problem, you are already yawing after reading one sentence.

So, we came up with what we thought was a good training device.  We wrote a little play (complete with small props and costumes) as part of the course.

At the start of each session, I would step forward dressed in my black thespian outfit, and proclaim: "Welcome to our community theater.  If you attend any of our local theaters, you know this is the point where some overweight, self-important actor, like me, comes on stage to tell you what you are about to see.  That is my role."  I then gave an overview of the curriculum.

After the first session, I returned to my office to find a message from a senior manager.  She wanted to see me immediately.  I knew from the tone of the message, it would be another "talking to."

I walked over to her office, and she informed me that one of her employees had complained that I had made fun of fat people at the training session.  I was astounded.  The only person I had made fun of was me.  But the manager was still concerned that even me calling myself fat could be construed as an attack on all "heavy" people.

As I have already said, I had a series of conversations on similar topics.  So, I can understand Plotkin's confusion about his firing.  Not only the "night of the long knives" manner in which the firing was handled, but the lack of any substantive reason to do so.

Now, it may turn out that there are actually some real charges that the press knows nothing about.  Though, I doubt that is true.  The company has notoriously been a mole warren for unauthorized release of information.

But the incident reminds me that I retired at just the right time.  I was able to leave at the top of my form.  I am afraid if I had stayed much longer, I could have easily suffered the same fate.

I loved my stay at SAIF.  The work was challenging, and I was given an incredible amount of freedom in the choice of projects and how I produced my work.  But I am even happier saying those days are now behind me.

Maybe I should just stop reading The Oregonian -- for a lot of reasons.

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