Last week the management of Oregon workers’ compensation insurer SAIF had their annual all-day getaway, a retreat ostensibly designed to educate, inform and motivate upper management as well as the company’s Executive Council. Colloquially it could probably be referred to as the annual “Come to Jesus” meeting, except this is Oregon. It would more likely be called the “Move forward to, if you are so inclined, a non-denominational, gender neutral entity of non-offensive worship or idolatry, unless of course you would rather not” meeting. Being the first such session since the abrupt ousting of CEO John Plotkin, it had to be an interesting affair. This year the featured speaker and session leader was a motivational speaker named Lou Radja. 

Mr. Radja probably had his work cut out for him. In the wake of the mess some of these people have made, it was likely tantamount to being a cheerleader at a whale’s hysterectomy. 

At the end of the day, the Executive Council issued a statement, making a commitment to SAIF employees. It was read by Interim President and CEO John Gilkey, and later published on the company’s intranet. 

The statement said:

Thank you for being here today and for being so engaged. These are difficult conversations, and we aren’t used to talking like this. So thank you. 

The EC and I know that it’s been very painful to be at SAIF in recent months. It’s been painful for all employees, including everyone in this room. We’ve all had to counsel employees—without the tools to do so—and that’s been hard for all of us. 

EC members' relationships with each other have been damaged. Our relations with our own management teams have been harmed, and our relations with all of you and every employee have suffered. 

We understand that it is the EC’s responsibility to lead SAIF through this challenging time. We have had many confronting conversations, and we’ve brought Lou in to help us communicate and start to rebuild trust. Much of what we've done together today, we've also done in EC, and it's made us a stronger, more unified team. 

What we are doing next: We understand it is EC’s responsibility to help lead all of us through this. 

Here is our commitment: We Own It. We understand that we as the EC are responsible for helping us to move forward as a company. 

We have committed to each other to:

Rebuild trust  
Allow mistakes
Speak honestly
Do things better in the future

We also make that commitment to all of you. Work is in progress for us as a team, for us as a company. 

We thank you for your perseverance and commitment. 

Ok, so everyone had a ginormous group hug, sang “We are the World”, and then issued a bold statement; a statement that will only have meaning when accompanied by even bolder actions.

That is the pesky thing about words. They carry definitive meaning, yet words make very weak pillars of support when placed on a foundation of inaction. I am reminded of a very old “radio blooper” from the middle of last century. A children’s program host ended his show by telling the “good little boys and girls out there” that he would be back next week. He gave some small and sappy motivational advice for the kids, sang his closing diddy, and then into a live microphone said, “We’re off? Good. That should hold the little bastards”. Just as our radio audience learned, words without sincere intent and commensurate action are an empty vessel; a Saran Wrap coating on the Titanic of trust. 

Executive Council must support this statement with action. That is the only thing that can make the difference between a sincere statement designed to heal, or an attempt to hold “the little bastards” a bit longer.

So what does this statement really mean? I am inclined to parse every single word it, but we would be here all day. Therefore I just would like to look at a few key phrases, and offer a few thoughts on their overall meaning:

First, I would like to address this section:

What we are doing next: We understand it is EC’s responsibility to help lead all of us through this. 

Here is our commitment: We Own It. We understand that we as the EC are responsible for helping us to move forward as a company. 

“Lead all of us through this” and “helping us move forward as a company”. Sure. How exactly? As far as I can tell, SAIF has done nothing; not a single solitary thing to investigate or address the improper termination of John Plotkin. A couple people indicated in this have suddenly discovered the benefits of retirement, but that was more the result of public and employee anger and indignation than anything leadership has done. 

One primary person, VP of Human Resources Ryan Fleming, who is a defendant in Plotkin’s suit, remains in position despite documentation showing his active involvement in what appears to be a completely improper procedure. Filings from co-defendant and former CEO Brenda Rocklin indicate he acted as he did because he did not know how to proceed with complaints about his CEO. However, court documents filed just last week, including an affidavit from former SAIF Senior VP Mike Mueller, draw a very different picture.They show that in previous investigations of alleged CEO improprieties, Fleming not only knew the procedure, he was a key communication point in the process (I will be publishing those documents in a few days).

None of those previously established procedures were followed for John Plotkin. People truly interested in “leading all through this” would be acting to find out why.

Then we are offered this:

We’ve all had to counsel employees—without the tools to do so—and that’s been hard for all of us.

That should not be difficult at all. Why don’t you have the tools? A skilled, engaged and effective Human Resources Department should…. oh, never mind.

Finally, the EC statement offered these four action points – without any discernible action I might add – and I wanted to comment on them: 

“Rebuild trust”  – Empty words thus far. Trust will be rebuilt through transparency and fairness, and that means addressing the $2,000,000 elephant in your room. 

“Allow mistakes”  – There are mistakes, and then there are colossal boners. I understand the concept of forgiving simple and innocent mistakes. However, the EC has before them a career crushing whopper inflicted upon an innocent man, and as far as anyone can tell, not a single person has been disciplined or held accountable. There is a huge difference between an innocent mistake, and a devious plot resulting in a huge mistake. No one at SAIF has taken a single step to determine which was which in the case of John Plotkin’s termination. The employees have been left to learning from that which slowly dribbles out of a painfully long court process.

“Speak honestly”  – Unless, of course, litigation is pending, in which case we lawyer up, stonewall and deny. 

“Do things better in the future” – Which I suppose means not the way we just did them last summer, even though we are on record as believing nothing improper occurred.

SAIF employees will understand what I am saying here. The question is why EC continues to ignore the issue. The words contained within the EC statement are good and proper. They are also completely meaningless without bold action that gives them true substance. This is the difference between sincerity of purpose and just holding the little bastards for another week. 

After all, saying you “Own It” is one thing. Actually owning it is another thing entirely.


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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