The resemblance is uncanny. Rapacious accusations of mortal sin, followed by a swift tribunal replete with vague and unsubstantiated evidence. A decisive summation determines the accused is a witch, and they are summarily executed, vanquishing from this noblest earth an evil and repugnant soul; this despite protestations from some professing the innocence of the accused, while the majority cower in silence, afraid for the safety of their own souls. This is the legacy of the Salem witch trials. 

Of course, it is not 1692, and 2014 Salem is on the other side of the continent, in Oregon rather than Massachusetts. This Salem is the home to SAIF Corporation, the Oregon State Fund for workers’ compensation insurance. I wrote of the sudden and suspicious termination of its relatively new CEO, John Plotkin, last week. In that article, I simply conveyed the message that “something doesn’t seem right here”. The entire episode didn’t feel kosher to me, as I suspected there was more to the story and that Mr. Plotkin had not been treated fairly.

Now I am absolutely certain of it. John Plotkin appears to have been the victim of a Salem witch hunt.

My hardened resolve on the matter comes from a fairly simple source; the response to my original article. You see, over the years I have come to realize that this industry is highly risk averse, and therefore generally non-interactive in the digital realm. That is a fancy way of saying very few workers’ comp professionals post comments online. Our news center serves upwards of 20,000 article views each and every day, yet if we see 5 comments posted throughout the entire center in a given week it is a banner event. This is also true on LinkedIn, where some of us who run large groups have noted a relatively small amount of regular contributors compared to the overall membership size of the groups. By comparison, the response to my SAIF article last week was off the charts.

The article, entitled “With the Sacking of the CEO, Is Leadership Safe at SAIF?“, has been the most popular story on the site every day since it was posted on May 12th. The read rate of that story has been 3 times a normal blog entry of mine, and after only 5 days online it had garnered 44 public (and passionate) comments, making it by far the most commented story in the history of Additionally, when most readers do not seem to realize that comments can be rated, the SAIF people have figured this out in droves, giving unprecedented support to comments critical of the firing of Mr. Plotkin. I’ve never seen anything like it.

And the commenters? Well, most of them are purportedly pissed off SAIF employees. 

The posts appear to be legitimate. The IP addresses indicate they are not the work of one disgruntled janitor. They appear to represent a broad and simmering dissent among the SAIF employee ranks, and there is genuine anger and dismay contained within their words. 

This reaction is consistent with the actions of the employees who packed the auditorium in support of Mr. Plotkin when the Board of Directors met to determine his fate. In addition to these commenters I have had communications directly with people who have knowledge of this incident. The picture that they and the public commenters draw is one of a carefully orchestrated coup; a specific intended action where a select few generated baseless allegations and were aided by a willingly complicit board. Plotkin was terminated for “inappropriate comments to employees”. One of those comments was made public, where he had apparently told someone to “Speak English, not actuary”. I am told the other comments were related to his dog, stemming from an April 1st event at the company called “Bring Your Dog to Work Day”. 

Plotkin himself was never allowed to view the alleged offending comments in writing, and was not afforded an opportunity to defend himself against them. He was not aware of any issue whatsoever until Board Chair Cathy Travis contacted him on the morning of Saturday, May 3rd, and asked for his resignation. When asked why, she declined to specify a reason, telling him he served at the board’s will and she did not need to provide a reason. The resignation deadline was originally 3PM, Sunday May 4th, but that was extended. The board scheduled a meeting for Wednesday, May 7th, but postponed the meeting until May 9th. There is speculation that the last minute postponement was due to the large number of employees who showed up to support their CEO, and the board wanted time to confirm if they indeed must review this issue in a public meeting. Ultimately, the board met that Friday and voted to terminate him. 

It is interesting to note that the employees who attended this meeting were allegedly told they must use personal or vacation time to do so. So much for an open door policy and employee empowerment.

SAIF Corporation may indeed have the right to fire their CEO with or without cause. Still, having a “right to do something” and “doing the right thing” are two distinctly different avenues. This man uprooted his family and moved from Colorado just three months ago, and likely deserved an opportunity to face at minimum the accusations against him. Terminating someone without cause is one thing. Generating trumped up charges and besmirching an otherwise good man’s reputation are quite another. The fact that SAIF is a quasi-governmental agency, run by a board appointed by the Governor, makes this an issue of public interest. The people of Oregon should be concerned with how this was handled, and must be demanding answers from their elected representatives.

I believe the comments on our site are merely the tip of a seething iceberg of anger and discontent among the rank and file, and that surely must serve as a distraction from the core objectives of the organization. Governor John Kitzhaber should be asking questions of his board, and looking for evidence to support their actions in this case. That evidence, if the angry mob is correct, may not exist.

So a potential witch trial has claimed it’s first victim. If history serves, there will be more. That’s the thing about those pesky witch hunts; the cultural and societal paranoia that drives the initial accusations inevitably consumes more into its grasp, destroying innocent bystanders and loyal associates, until the instigators and co-conspirators eventually turn on themselves and start devouring their own. It is not a healthy environment by any means. This is not old Salem, but it has all the earmarks of a tribunal similar to those held 322 years ago. It is a situation best summarized by a quote from Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”, a play based on the Salem witch trials of 1692: 

“We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!”


For a list of Bob’s other SAIF/Plotkin articles (as well as a couple old AASCIF articles that get picked up in the search), Click here.

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