The ethics hotline

Company Culture #7 

Every three months at the life insurance company, there was a big meeting in the mural room on the first floor. That's the only room in the building big enough to hold all the employees, about 300 of us, plus temps.

It was called the mural room because, decades earlier, a few employees had painted a nice art deco cityscape there. All the walls that weren't windows were covered with skyscrapers and sunshine plus a few taxis and buses, mostly in purple and grey. In the corner under the light switches were the signatures of the four employees who'd painted it, and one of them was Olivia, lead slicer in the mailroom, and the first person who'd welcomed me to Acme Amalgamated on my first day.

I was nervous about my first big meeting — too many people! — but socializing seemed to be optional and there was food, so I took a sandwich and a seat. When a stranger said hello to me, I only nodded. Can't talk with my mouth full, sorry. Then I went back for another sandwich, and kept my mouth full until the meeting started.

Our quarterly meetings were always catered by the same deli, a locally-beloved place a few blocks down the street, with good sandwiches and fancy baked treats. The sammiches were half-sized but meaty and yummy, and I always took a few home in my pockets for my wife, or just for later. Couldn't sneak any of the cookies and mini-pies out, though; they were always eaten by the time the proceedings got underway. Mmm.

The meeting-part of the meetings wasn’t bad either. Sure, there were dull presentations when some suit with no talent for public speaking spoke, and the topics were often tedious — here's a revision to the regulations, and new carpeting will be installed on the third floor next week. It was boring, but I liked that they were open about the boringness.

If some low-level peon in the ninth row interrupted a Vice President’s slideshow with a joke, the VP would laugh along with everyone else (if the joke was funny). Upper management did most of the talking, but feedback and even pushback was always encouraged, and the executives, right up to the CEO, went by their first names — Paul, not Mr Zable, and Linda, not Ms Guerrero. Some of the suits didn't even wear suits. They wore ordinary people-clothes!

And unlike big meetings I'd endured at other places — the crappy department store, the upscale medical center, the blatantly crooked car dealership, etc — our meetings weren't about haranguing people to get the sales numbers up, or other such bullshit.

The coach of the employees' softball team would take the podium, and brag about how our guys 'n gals had kicked butt against some tavern the previous weekend, and then shared a few beers at that same tavern. Someone from the company's cardio club would remind people, anyone who's interested can join the daily jog up the hill — 10:00 every weekday morning, and it's on the clock. Or someone else would announce that the employees' bimonthly bake sale for United Way was in two weeks.

The best part of most meetings was when the executive secretary spoke. She was a nice middle-aged lady named Elizabeth, and her job title wasn’t hooey — she really was the chief executive’s secretary. Everyone whispered that she actually ran the company, and it might've been true. I only spoke with the CEO a few times, when we rode the same elevator, but Elizabeth and I had some genuine interactions over the years, and she was always brilliant.

In addition to all the things any secretary does, Elizabeth was responsible for deciding the company’s charitable donations. That’s what she spoke about at every meeting. For five minutes she’d tell us about a charity, what they do and why they do it, and that the company had given them another $10,000 or whatever. It was nice — 'Giving back to the community' as more than merely words — and Elizabeth was passionate about the donations.

The industry standard is that most companies redirect 6% of their profits to charity, she once said. For AA, it was 8%, and when the company had a record-setting year for profits, they upped it to 10%. (She didn't say this, but my impression was that Elizabeth had demanded it.) The donations went to a shelter for battered women, the local zoo, Habitat for Humanity, etc — never a dime to the NRA, or any sham like that.

Next, someone from the HR department would speak about retired employees, saying something like, "We heard from Frank Franklin, who was in accounting from 1974-2008, and he asked us to give everyone a shout-out, especially Phyllis and Fred." Or, less cheerfully, "We're sad to announce that Jeff Finch, who retired from the Legal Department in 2011, has passed away." I'd never heard of a company that kept in touch with ex-employees, and I was torn between "That's sweet" and "That's creepy," but usually I sided with sweet.

And here's something else about those quarterly meetings. They didn’t make a big deal about it, and sometimes they forgot to mention it at all, but usually the CEO ended the meeting by saying, "Remember, if anything doesn’t look right, or doesn’t feel right, call the ethics hotline and we’ll make it right.”

Then the executives stayed, so workers could talk to them in a more relaxed setting. You weren't expected back at your desk until half an hour later, which was supposed to encourage workers to participate the after-meeting Q & A, but I usually headed straight to my desk for half an hour's nap.

After my first meeting, though, I was curious about the CEO's "we'll make it right" shtick, so as we walked back to our office, I asked Zeke, “What the heck is the ethics hotline?”

He explained that it’s a number we could call if we had any doubts about an agent, a rule, a manager, or any aspect of anything the company does. If something ever seemed unfair or dishonest, we were supposed to call.

Zeke was incapable of a short answer to any question, so for the next ten minutes he went into great detail about “one of the several times” he’d called the company’s hotline. Let’s see if I can explain it a bit more briefly than he did.

For each insurance policy, there’s a health question. The application asks, Have you ever been diagnosed with... and there’s a long list of potentially fatal diseases. If you answer ‘no’ — you’ve never been diagnosed with any of these diseases — then the price of your policy is lower, and the payout when you die is higher. If you answer ‘yes’ — meaning you’ve had a potentially fatal diagnosis — then the policy is priced higher, and the payout when you die will be lower. Greatly oversimplified, that’s how life insurance works.

Well, Zeke had audited an application where instead of answering the health question, the customer had written ‘Huntington’s disease’ across the small-print list of fatal diseases. The policy had been processed as if the answer to the health question was ‘yes’ — poor health, higher price, lower payout.

What bothered Zeke was, about a dozen diseases were listed on the form, and Huntington’s wasn’t one of them. He asked the boss (before Daniel was the boss), and was told that Huntington’s is a fatal disease, the question is about fatal diseases, so the policy should be higher price, lower payout. Zeke thought that wasn’t fair — after all, the question hadn't asked about Huntington's Disease — so he called the company’s ethics hotline. One of the executives heard him out, pulled up a scanned image of the application on his screen, and agreed. "He didn't even put me on hold," Zeke said.

The policy was rewritten at a lower price, with a higher payout, and we mailed the customer a refund for the amount he'd been overcharged. It was only a thousand bucks or so, Zeke said. The customer hadn’t complained, and might not have even noticed, until we sent the check.

What struck me was, a higher price and lower payout means more money for the company, but AA decided to get it right anyway. They were willing to make less in profits, to give customers a fair deal? And the sammiches were good, too? 

I’m a gruff old dude, hesitant to be impressed, but I was impressed. I jotted the hotline number on an index card, stabbed it into the fabric wall of my cubicle, and hoped I’d never call. Of course, eventually I did dial the hotline, but that's another story.

Company Culture

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