By Mike Cook
Some 30 years back, I held a real job in a real company, actually a Fortune 50 company in the petroleum industry. One of my favorite assignments during this period of my career involved a two-year stay on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in a large refinery.
On one particular morning, my manager showed up at my office early asking of I had time for a special assignment.
He had in mind for me to do a comparative analysis of the health care plan we offered our employees and one offered by a local chemical company. The assignment seemed pretty straight forward, so I took it on and within a short time was waist deep in charts and tables.
On virtually every feature the plan offered by my employer was equal to or superior to the plan I had been asked to analyze comparatively. After about an hour, I sat back and pondered the assignment for a few moments, then headed upstairs to see my manager.
He was someone I respected a great deal, and if he had asked me to do this he had a good reason and I couldn’t see it.
Here’s what happened.
Late in the afternoon the day before, one of the more vocal plant workers had stopped in to see my manager. He spent about half an hour complaining to my manager about how much better the medical plan offered by “so and so company” was and wondering aloud why we couldn’t get a better plan.
My manager finally said he would arrange for an analysis and see what might be done.
I told my manager of my preliminary findings, and he said maybe I should continue my analysis because the company was committed to doing whatever could be done within reason to keep the plant employees from thinking they needed union representation.
Unionization? Now, I grew suspicious.
An interesting feature of this particular refinery was the fact that it was not unionized, unlike virtually all other refineries in the United States, and the company management took great pains to make sure that was the way things remained.
I asked my manager if I could arrange a visit with the employee who had stopped by to see him, and he said that if I thought it would help I could go ahead.
Later that day, I had the employee stop by and we began talking about his issues. Listening to him, I began to feel he wasn’t telling me everything.
Finally I just said to him point blank that if he could not be more specific it would not be possible for me to determine whether we should or shouldn’t consider a different medical plan. I also made it clear that I wanted to help if at all possible.
After a few moments of silence, he said the employees at the other plant had this plastic membership card they could show at the doctor’s office or drug store, and that was all they had to do to make a claim for coverage. (Keep in mind this was 1979 so things like this were still a bit cumbersome to say the least.)
With our plan, the employee had to complete a form, attach a receipt, mail it in and wait for reimbursement.
So, was that it? Was that all the fuss was about—the claims process?
Well, that was almost all of it.
We talked for a while longer and it became apparent that there was a cultural factor involved.
Back then much of Mississippi had a culture where the moms in a family stayed home to raise the children and take care of the family business. Virtually all the refinery employees at that time were male, and most worked rotating shifts so they were only on a 9-5 schedule once out of every three weeks and their wives handled the household affairs.
Many of the women at home didn’t understand the claims forms, and since the men were used to them handling everything, they were embarrassed by giving them something that was hard to understand.
So this was the real problem: We had placed our employees in a position where they were letting their spouses down and those very same spouses talked with other women whose husbands worked at the chemical plant with the plastic card and, you get the picture.
This was an emotional issue, not rational. But if you were not listening closely you would never have heard it.
We got it all worked out. I offered to set up classes for the wives or take phone calls to help them understand the claims process. I also promised to work with our health plan administrator to simplify the claims process.
The issue of considering another plan never came up again while I was there. My manager was stunned. He realized that he was so tuned to listening for anything that might lead to unionization that he could not have heard the employee’s real request no matter how many times they talked.
I was new so my biases had yet to be established.
When has not listening cost you time, money or both?
Mike Cook is a management developer who lives in Anacortes, Wash. His columns appear on BBJToday.com every other Tuesday. He also publishes a weekly blog at www.heartofengagement.com.