Recently while visiting my father in New Mexico, we had a conversation that was most likely typical, yet revealing all the same. My father has been a private business owner since 1971, and has owned several businesses in New Mexico since 1977. As we were talking, the discussion turned to workers' compensation, and an incident involving one of those businesses several years ago.
He had an employee who was badly beaten during a robbery. In addition to his physical injuries, which were not insignificant, he suffered severe mental issues. This particular young man already had some emotional and learning challenges, which compounded the trauma from the attack. It was determined that he would likely never be able to work again.
My father has spoken favorably in the past of his insurance company and the response they gave in caring for his employee's immediate needs.
However, during this conversation he made an interesting comment; one that has become the topic of today's ruminations. While the claim was in process he had to sit in on several hearings related to benefits and settlement issues, and said to me that those sessions left him with the impression that “the system is definitely geared to take care of the lawyers”. I asked him why he said that, and he replied by saying, “While they argued and debated over differences of mere pennies for the employee, fees proposed or requested by the lawyers were accepted without argument or debate.”
Now, I was not a party to these discussions. I know that most states have established percentages or guidelines related to remuneration of attorneys representing clients in workers' compensation cases. It is quite possible that this was SOP – Standard Operating Procedure – and the amounts discussed and accepted were “usual and customary”. This was a scenario that plays out in legal processes many times a day. There probably was no reason to object as these were amounts long since established.
Yet, to someone outside the industry, the perception was that the lawyers were being well cared for, while others had to scrap for their due. The unfortunate fact is, a person's perception is their reality, and that reality affects how we as an industry are viewed and respected.
It is not just a condition related to lawyers. I maintain that for the vast multitudes, the people not embedded within the culture of the workers' compensation industry, how workers' comp “works” remains one of the great mysteries of the world. People we serve every day; both employers and injured workers, are clueless about what we do, how the system is set up, who determines what, and where people should look for answers. That leads to a lot of skewed perceptions. And that causes some pretty ugly realities.
The injured worker, whose injury and livelihood are their sole concerns, can't get an overworked adjustor to return his call. Do they not care? That is the perceived reality.
The doctor who makes you wait an hour past your appointment to give you 3 quick minutes in the exam room. Is he too busy to care? That is the perceived reality.
The Nurse Case Manager who doesn't take the time to explain why they are involved. Are they an insurance company spy? That very well could be the perceived reality.
I have some experience in this. As I have said before, my 13 years in workers' comp was preceded by a career in both HR and business management. In those early days of business, comp was a veritable mystery to me. All I knew then was if I had a lost time accident, some guy named Frank Gates would nail my operating statement 50 grand for some ridiculous thing called a reserve.
I was really lucky, however. In those days Frank had an adjustor who took a great deal of time to explain to me processes and procedures, and made the mystery of workers' comp less daunting. She communicated with me in a manner that changed my perception; hence altering my reality of what the industry did and who played vital roles within it.
As with so many things, communication is the key. If you find yourself dealing with “customers”; employers or employees who do not work within the industry, you should be cognizant of that fact. They do not know what you know, and will view different realities based on that fact. A few minutes to explain WHY things are, instead of just conveying WHAT things are, will go a long way in altering perceived realities of your position and the industry as a whole. For my father, a hearing officer or judge explaining that the attorneys requested fee was customary within state guidelines would've possibly alleviated a perception that the fix was “in”. Simple and open communication, based on the knowledge that others are operating with different levels of information, can dramatically improve both the way we are viewed, and the way we operate.
At least, that is the way I see it. That is my perception, and therefore my reality.