August 30th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Using It in Reverse

I finally remember what I was trying to remember to write about last night. There was a big story yesterday on the AP wire headlined, "Sisters Were Whistleblowers in Katrina Claims Handling Case" (Michael Kunzelman, August 29, 2006). Two women who were working for an engineering firm doing claims inspections for State Farm say that they smuggled thousands of pages of engineering reports that their subcontracting firm submitted to State Farm that agreed with many homeowners that their homes were primarily damaged by wind (which would have been covered) rather than rising flood waters (which wouldn't have been), reports that were rejected and rewritten, under orders from State Farm, to contradict the evidence and claim flood damage so they could fraudulently deny the claims. State Farm denies it, of course. Nor do the two claim that only State Farm was doing it. The only reason that we know that State Farm was doing it was that the two women had a family-friends connection to Richard Scruggs, who'd handed a prior very famous whistle-blowing case: Jeffrey Wigand and Brown & Williamson tobacco. They smuggled the documents out to him; he turned the documents over to the attorney general and is advising homeowners in a lawsuit against State Farm.

But here's one of the thoughts that struck me. The two women admit that their careers are over. Right now they're working for Scruggs' firm as document preparers, helping him build the case but at a small fraction of what they were making before. And what they make afterwards will be anybody's guess, because nobody in the insurance industry (or much of any company) will ever touch somebody who was that "disloyal." They sacrificed their own careers to help other people get their homes back, starving their own families to try to save many other people's families from ruin and starvation, not even knowing in advance whether they'd be successful in doing so or not. Heroic? I'm a little uncomfortable thinking so. I'd like to think that everybody knows what would happen to their own children in a society where nobody blows the whistle on stuff like this, where all companies know they can get away with it. But then, I would, wouldn't I? My religion, Hellenism, teaches that you have an obligation to your family. But your family can't thrive if you let your neighborhood goes down the drain, and your neighborhood can't thrive if your city goes down the drain because you didn't stop it, and your city can't thrive if you fail to sacrifice for your country and your whole country fails.

But the other thought that struck me after that is that somewhere out there, some CEO is missing a bet. I read years ago that human resource departments all over the country subscribe to a database that lists everybody who's ever been a whistle blower, who's ever gone public with damaging information about their company. (It's the same company, I think I remember, that also lets them look up whether or not a prospective employee has ever sued an employer, engaged in union activities, or filed on occupational safety or health complaint.) Human resource departments routinely blackball such prospective employees, to protect their employer from possible trouble-makers. But it occurred to me that if I were a CEO, I'd absolutely want to subscribe to that database ... and use it the exactly opposite way the designers intended.

One of the things that every truly awful, truly monstrous boss I've ever had had in common was that they all demanded a very specific and very one-sided loyalty. Not to what was right, and certainly not to what was right for the company; they wanted to know that you could be counted on to always do what was right for them, personally. If they had any doubt in your personal loyalty to them, they'd find a way to sabotage your career and get rid of you, as happened to me twice and nearly happened several other times. And without exception, the managers who expected me to screw the public, screw the customers, screw the company, screw anybody necessary to protect them personally, all had something big that they needed to hide. Maybe it was some way they were cheating the company; more often it was just simple incompetence. But if I were the CEO of a company and I had managers like that working for me, I'd want to know that! I'd want to specifically staff my company with as many people as possible who did have their own internal moral compass, who could be counted on to go over their immediate supervisors' heads if they saw something dodgy. I'd want to be able to tell potential investors that I had staffed the company with people who could even be counted on to rat me out if I was screwing the company, the country, or the investors. And who better to hire for that than as many former whistle-blowers as I could find?