As of Friday, Oregon workers’ compensation insurer SAIF has a brand spanking new Board – well, at least 3/5th’s of them are brand spanking new. Maurice Rahming, Jeff Stone and Jennifer Ulum were all nominated by Governor Kitzhaber and officially installed effective September 19, 2014.

Let us hope at least one of them is a Rita Phillips. That Board sorely needs one.

I met Ms. Phillips at the recent AASCIF 2014 conference in National Harbor, MD, when the poor unsuspecting woman sat next to my wife and me at a small table during the opening dinner reception. She is the Chairperson for Kentucky Employers Mutual Insurance (KEMI). Needless to say, I was extremely impressed with her.

A friendly woman who possesses what I can best describe as a “highly approachable sophistication”, our conversation was light and amicable, largely centered on the conference, family and the area we were visiting. While she was a very pleasant dinner companion for us, it was what I heard her say to the fourth person at the table that truly impressed me. I was returning from yet another trip to the buffet (awesome short ribs), and realized that in my absence the conversation had shifted to her work on the Board of KEMI. She was saying (this quote is not exact, but rather representative of my recollection of her message), “I was appointed twice by the Governor to do this job, and that is a responsibility I take very seriously. It is my duty to involve myself, ask questions and work to understand the issues before me as a Board Member”. 

Wow. That certainly sounds better than the “whip out the Ouija Board” approach seemingly employed in Oregon.

It seems to me that had the previous SAIF Board simply had one Rita Phillips then John Plotkin might still be their CEO. Had one person involved themselves, asked questions and worked to understand the issue before them, an independent investigation might have been utilized, and a good mans name likely would remain clear today. Sadly, that did not occur. Instead it appears they blindly accepted the word of a few on Executive Council and executed the accused. Of course, for those following this story, we know that much of the evidence used in the Plotkin termination has since been disavowed, or found to be otherwise false and inaccurate. 

Meanwhile an entire industry across the nation waits for a full investigation that will probably never come. 

I spend a great deal of time talking with people of all stripes in workers’ comp across the country, and the Plotkin story is one they inevitably mention. People are baffled by the initial incident, and amazed at the lack of proper response in the aftermath. Most notably they are fairly disgusted with the taint it leaves on our industry. Inside Oregon it apparently doesn’t matter. Outside Oregon there are people who understand what Rita Phillips was talking about.

It is not too late, but people must be willing to admit mistakes.

I worked my way through college as a waiter at the Palace Restaurant in Durango, CO. The Palace is located right next to the train depot for the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Train, a popular tourist attraction. Every morning during the summer months our restaurant would fill at once with tourists, each in a hurry, because everyone literally had a train to catch. One morning I was waiting on a family of six or seven, and they of course were concerned they may not have time to eat before they had to catch their train. I assured them we could get them fed in time and they had nothing to worry about. 

Until I pocketed their order and forgot to turn it in to the kitchen. 

By the time I realized my mistake it was too late. I told my manager, who pushed the order through and had their breakfasts packed to go. I went to the table, told them what happened and offered full apologies for my mistake. As we were shuffling this harried family out the door to catch their train, each clutching their breakfast in a box; this event representing a completely epic fail in customer service, the father stopped, turned to me and shook my hand. He said, “It takes a big man to admit his mistake. Thank you”. It was the last thing I expected to hear from him.

It is a moment as clear to me now as it was 30 years ago. It is a moment and a lesson I will remember for the rest of my life.

Mr. Jensen, Mr. Balasubramani, you are the two remaining Board members who were part of the Plotkin termination. The prevailing evidence, at least what we know from what has been released by SAIF, indicates to most that you made a mistake. The termination as conducted should never have happened. And truly big men should acknowledge their error when it occurs – litigation be damned. People will ultimately forgive an acknowledged mistake, but they will forever remember one unresolved.

Mr. Rahming, Mr. Stone and Ms. Ulum, you have joined an organization whose reputation has been badly damaged by the actions of a few. I encourage you to be your own Rita Phillips. Involve yourselves, ask questions, demand straight answers, and work to understand the issues before you. I have learned in recent months that there are good, passionate employees within the ranks of SAIF. Wade into the cubicles. Talk to them. Listen to them. Investigate your new surroundings, and be willing to make changes based on what you find. 

The SAIF you inherited will not be able to draw top flight executive talent without significant changes at the top. It can remain a middling state organization forever tied to a sullied political process, or it can rise above and reach beyond it’s current organizational limitations. It should have VP’s who follow policies rather than break them, and a CEO who understands and appreciates the difference. SAIF can and should operate with a true transparency that renders obsolete a ridiculous anonymous “DirectTalk” system of communication. SAIF employees should be allowed to be engaged, empowered and involved, without using vacation or personal time to do so; this so that  “Direct Talk” ultimately comes to be recognized as face to face interaction without fear or repercussion. Those are changes top tier talent can bring to your organization.

SAIF may have dedicated employees and a world class claims department, but it is in no way a world class operation. It can be, however, with honest, dedicated involvement and philosophical change. It can only do that with a Rita Phillips style dedication for the position to which you have been appointed. The decisions you make will impact thousands of people over the course of your term. Rita Phillips takes her responsibility seriously and wisely. So should you.


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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