Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Tone deaf: Anatomy of a letter from HR

I wish I could reproduce human resources chief Roxanne Horning's new letter to employees, warning about an upcoming audit of dependent care eligibility for Gannett's health plans. (Most of you should be getting the letter soon; it's dated March 27.)

I've just re-read it, and now better understand why I reacted so negatively the first time. I appreciate the need to control employee health costs; I wrote about that often for USA Today. My problem is the letter's language: It reads like something a federal prosecutor might send out -- with a subpoena. In fact, I bet it was written by a team of lawyers; it's that stone cold in language and tone. Read the first paragraph:

"You will recall that we advised you during last fall's annual enrollment season that we would be verifying dependent eligibility under our health plans. It is time for the process to begin, and Gannett has asked an independent firm, Chapman Kelly Inc. to document all eligible dependents -- children, spouses and domestic partners -- covered by our medical, dental and vision plans."

Advised. Verifying. Dependent. Process. Document.

What follows are about five more graphs that sound the same. The closest the author(s) come to expressing any humanity comes in the final sentence: "Thank you very much for your cooperation."

I know this can't be turned into a big warm fuzzy. But neither must it read like the HR equivalent of a colonoscopy. Come on, people: Gannett's a communications company. I assume this letter went out to 30,000 or 40,000 families: That's an employee relations disaster just waiting to happen. I wonder: Does HR ever put a final draft of these kinds of letters before a group of, say, parents, to test for unduly harsh wording? Couldn't HR recruit some of the hundreds of wordsmiths, one tower over at USA Today?

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[Image: Lawrence Oliver prepares to question Dustin Hoffman in the 1976 thriller, Marathon Man]


  1. Look at it this way, Jim. They could have put 'failure to comply in ze company policy vil result in discipline up to and including ze (extreme) termination.'

    Somebody correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought that threat was part of last fall's enrollment package. Lie and we'll fire you.

  2. Another example of the bean counter Martore controlling this company. Do you think Roxanne would actually want to do this? She is just taking orders like a good little worker. I wonder how much money this will save Gannett. Almost every problematic post on your blog reverts back to the bean counter Martore.

    Think about it...Gannett Foundation, executive compensation, healthcare audits, Consolidation in newsrooms and subsequent headcount reductions, stock price cut in half...the list goes on.

    I am telling you, she controls this company and she is the one driving it into the ground.

    How many people are going to be happy having to prove that they have children? NONE.

    Let's start having Gracia prove her million dollar salary to all of us, because if the stock price is her scorecard that we should be using, I think she needs to give us back her pay check(s) or just resign and save face.

  3. Jim - I can't believe you are so surprised. We -- the employees -- are not assets. We are liabilities. And, from my experience, the company is all about reducing their exposure to liability.

    I guess the company is so hardened from their experience in breaking organized labor, they now treat all of us as if we were organized.

    What this really shows is the desperation, the panic in the corporate halls.

    There is no courage.

    Think about this a moment. There are two things you can do with sheep (well two legal things). You can shear them or slaughter them. The company is all about slaughtering sheep. Once the sheep is slaughtered, the revenue stream is gone.

    Take a look at Southwest Airlines, their pilots are not organized, their flight attendants are not organized. Employees on the front lines are part of the team to make the company a success. Look at most of the other airlines - struggling to survive.

    I'll leave you with this: We should be thankful Gannett is not an airliner. There would be crashes everyday from the mistakes that are made.

  4. Could it be they did just that? Got someone from the other tower to write it? Or had a six-figure PR firm do it? Or had focus groups review it?

    Point is, who cares. The issue is people may be ripping off the system. Why sugar coat it at all?

    If they are, get them off the shareholders dime, and fast.

  5. OK, here's the deal in my view. There probably ARE people who are insuring kids who aren't blood kin under the family coverage (which isn't cheap).

    This is a society of blended families, off-beat families, unconventional families who love their kids and want to be able to take them to the doctor when they are sick.

    So if a couple brings kids to the marriage and there isn't other coverage, they pray that they can get the kids on the insurance plan.

    People who don't have a marriage certificate want their loved one to be covered, too.

    I can just see mommy or daddy going home after 10 hours of grinding work in the newsroom to tell the family that Jimmy and Susie will be covered by the policy because they're his/her kids (maybe by a first marriage) but even though Mommy is covered, her kids by the previous relationship aren't.

    Add two more people to the $40 million uninsured Americans (a story Gannett papers report yearly when new statistics come out).

    Extrapolate this new policy into "real people" to feel the outrage. That's what my editors ALWAYS told us ...

  6. The dependent-verification move shows the extent of Gannett's distrust of its employees. If it suspects false health insurance claims by an employee, why doesn't it simply investigate it instead of issuing a policy casting suspicion on the entire workforce? This is very reminiscent of an earlier sneaky move. Gannett rolled out a wellness program a few years ago and dangled $25 to employees volunteering to take a "survey" of their health. One of the questions asked if you smoked. Within a year, Gannett added a heavy smoker's penalty to its health insurance premium. Any smoker who took that survey was toast.

  7. So let me get this straight. I have to go find my marriage certificate -- in my case take it out of our wedding book -- copy it and bring it in to prove I'm married so my wife can continue to be covered??

    And for those who don't have a marriage certificate?

    And then multiply my annoyance/anger/outrage by 30,000 employees. They think all that negativity is worth it to find a couple hundred people who might be "ripping off" the system? Are you kidding me?

    When a company begins treating its people like a grouped problem rather than a community, it becomes a toxic place to work. This isn't about cost control, profits, stock price or fraud. It's about respect and decency.

    Every smiling brochure in the world can't make up for the PR disaster, and outright invasion of privacy, this represents.

    Sure, the company deserves to know if people are cheating on dependents. But not by patting everybody down like we're criminals.

    This is the lowest yet.

  8. Gannet is a newspaper company, correct? And aren't almost all newspapers losing money? So either you find a way to cut costs through health insurance, which is a benefit offered by the company, NOT a right, or you lay people off.

    For all you people whining about trust issues, you don't have to send in any information for this audit. And the company is also under no obligation to cover your insurance.

    That said, the letter was worded very badly.

  9. >>And the company is also under no obligation to cover your insurance.

    Actually, yes they are. It was part of the deal every employee makes when they decide to work at Gannett.

    The attitude that the company is this benificent presence and we are all so lucky to be in its good graces is precisely what is wrong with the current atmosphere.

  10. Anon 10:07 a.m. Employees do IN FACT have to send in information as a part of this audit. The bottom third of the letter includes the following language ...

    "Here is a brief sketch of how the process will work:

    -- Several days after receipt of this letter, Chapman Kelly will send you a letter informing you of the verification process, criteria and timeline.

    -- The letter will ask you to supply proof of eligibility for your enrolled dependents and you will be given a reasonable period to respond. A postage-paid envelope will be included with the letter."

    Sure sounds like we're going to have to send in information, i.e. copies of birth certificates, marriage licenses, adoption records, etc.

  11. No company is required to provide health care, at least as I understand it. It was a benefit started duing WWII wage freezes to provide incentive to get people to work for you.

    If you don't like the plan the company offers, get your own. Health care is NOT a right, it is a priveledge. And Gannett pays their employees paychecks, I'd say that's a good presence. They could just fire you all, take what they can, and throw the rest away to predators.

  12. Health care is not a privilege, either. It's a benefit provided to the employee in return for services.

    In addition to being the right thing to do, it indeed is an incentive to attract prospective employees and limit turnover.

    IMHO, the biggest issue here is trust. And Gannett isn't demonstrating that it has much in its workers. Given its cut-at-all-costs mentality (to maintain 30% profit margins), Gannett certainly hasn't earned any trust from its employees.

    You would think at the site level, if H.R., managers and executives are interacting with their employees properly, they would know who is and who isn't being forthright in regard to health care benefits enrollment.

    If that were true, Gannett wouldn't have to incur the expense of hiring Chapman Kelly ...

  13. Regardless of whether Gannett has to provide insurance or not (by the way, they subidize some of it anyway, so we are still paying too!), the problem with this letter is TRUST. Martore, Horny, Connell, Dubow DO NOT TRUST YOU.

    Why should we TRUST them?

    I appreciate the fact that they provide me benefits and a salary, but I am paying for all of that by providing them my hard work and honesty.

    Where is the TRUST Craig, Gracia, Roxanne?

  14. Let's say they do the audit and discover that X% of their employees were lying. At what % are you willing to admit they were right not to trust you? Is 2% enough? 5%? 10%?

    I doubt this company that's doing the audit could stay in business if they weren't finding a high enough number of liars out there to make it worth it.

  15. Having a marriage license does not prove I am still married. Having a birth certificate does not prove someone is still alive, or still a member of the family. Those things document something that happened in the past, but do not necessarily reflect the way things are now. Presumably, I could have been insuring my ex for all these years, if possession of a marriage license proves a marriage exists.

  16. While the letter asking for the information is a joke, it still ranks well below the classic that was sent out a few years back by the Gannett HR department. Before benefits enrollment began employees received the usual notification of how much more they were going to have pay out of pocket. The no class idiots at corporate used this great logic to justify the annual increase to the employees: "We have to think of our shareholders."

  17. A few questions I have:
    Are the employees doing the audit full-time or are they temp workers?

    Have they had background checks - they are handling a lot of personal information?

    How will the company verify that the information has been destroyed and not put in a bag and thrown in a landfill some where?

    Who handles the appeal - CK or a gannett HR person?

  18. You would think at the site level, if H.R., managers and executives are interacting with their employees properly, they would know who is and who isn't being forthright in regard to health care benefits enrollment.

    Site-level HR? What's that?

    Oh yeah, I remember. I had to go way back, though.

  19. Would you all be happier if the letter said something like "an initial review has found that X% of claimed dependents are not eligible, and that's why were asking for documentation"? It seems to me that your beef is with the system — Gannett is a publicly traded company and we have an employee-based system of health care in this country. If you haven't noticed Gannett is interested in its shareholders, wake up. If you think there's a duty to cover ineligible dependents, wake up. If you expect a large company like Gannett to be nice about providing benefits, wake up.
    I'm no Gannett apologist - I believe publicly owned companies cannot carry out a true journalistic function. I'm leaving the company for a job with a better one.
    But why shouldn't the company make sure it's not covering people who aren't eligible? That's the system we live in. Warm fuzzies will not be forthcoming.

  20. Why the company offers health coverage these days is crazy. It costs double digit more a year, and people still complain hourly. Do away with it. Pay people more, let them fend for themselves like I have to now in my new career.

    Oh, makes me want to come back.

  21. Anon 7:25AM, you ask why not do the audit? Think about how much Gannett is going to spend with this firm. Do you honestly think they'll find enough employees cheating on their health benefits to justify the cost? I highly doubt it. So, how about while they're at it they audit the smoker's surcharge too? Maybe they’ll ask all us employees to submit lung cultures to prove we don't smoke. That makes perfect sense right?

  22. ......and next time everybody with blue eyes will not be insured...

    What a mess!!! I'll guess the ones (upper echelons) who don't pay anything towards the health insurance should be the ones investigated. Heck, it would save a lot of money!

    But it's easier going after the "lowly" employee.

    However, just wonder which "STAR" employee messed this up for the rest of the workforce. Must have been somebody with their hands in the "cookie jar"........

  23. I've seen similar letters for dozens of large, major employers. The language is pretty standard across the board. (I used to work for an HR consulting company that performs those audits.)

    The problem is that if the letters aren't worded in such a stern manner, employees often don't take the audit seriously. I recall one large employer that tried to do the "gentle" approach. Unfortunately, a much larger percentage of their employees just didn't respond at all. They ignored all the communications and were completely shocked when their families were booted off the plan for no response.

    By the way, I've worked on audits for several major corporations, and its not just the low level employees that get audited. During my tenure, I had to review upper management's documentation and HR/benefit staff person's documentation too. (In fact, I encountered a sticky situation at one company, when I had to remove the stepchild of a Vice-President because he didn't meet the eligibility criteria.)

  24. By the way, I see that someone had questions about the type of people who do audits. The company I worked for was not the one who handled your audit, but I can tell you what happened at my firm.

    I worked for a major HR consulting company. Yes, I had a background check as part of my job. I also had to sign confidentiality agreements. My previous work experience involved working with confidential information at hospitals and insurance companies. The audit documents were kept in a secure controlled access area for the duration of the audit and appeals period, and then all copies of the documentation was destroyed. We were required to follow the same HIPAA guidelines as any medical provider and insurance company, and we would have been subject to the penalties as spelled out by federal law had there been any violations.

    Additionally, at the company I worked for, we encouraged individuals to black out/obscure information on the documents that wasn't necessary for the audit purposes. (For example, financial info and first 5 digits of SSNs from tax returns. Mother's maiden names from birth and marriage certificates, etc.) I would highly encourage anyone who is concerned about submitting documents for an audit to find out what can be blacked out/obscured on your documents too. Yes, documentation should be kept secure with any of the major consulting firms, but participants still often feel greater peace of mind by doing so.

    I have no personal stake in the issue - I don't work on dependent audits anymore (work for a hospital again now), and my former employer is not the one doing Gannett's audit. Just wanted to pass along information for anyone reading this blog who might be undergoing an audit.

    One more thing - you can (and should) inquire about the auditing firms procedures for keeping info secure. When a company is screening consulting firms for an audit, they do inquire specifically about security measures. (Remember that the HR staff and management staff are having their own personal info too!)

    I hope that I have at least provided some insight as to what goes on in an auditing firm. Even if you don't still agree with the general idea of an audit. :)


Jim says: "Proceed with caution; this is a free-for-all comment zone. I try to correct or clarify incorrect information. But I can't catch everything. Please keep your posts focused on Gannett and media-related subjects. Note that I occasionally review comments in advance, to reject inappropriate ones. And I ignore hostile posters, and recommend you do, too."

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