James Blackledge, CEO of Mutual of Omaha Insurance Company

An Open Letter to James Blackledge, CEO of Mutual of Omaha Insurance Company

In “Good Faith”? — Why Mutual of Omaha’s “Code of Ethics” Is Recklessly Incoherent Bullshit

“…As an employee, you have an obligation to know and follow the Code as well as to encourage, promote and practice exemplary business conduct. You also are accountable for reporting potential violations of the Code. There are a number of reporting mechanisms available and there will be no retaliation for raising issues or concerns….”

— James Blackledge [photo], CEO, Mutual of Omaha Insurance Company1

Dear Mr. Blackledge,

In my opinion your company’s Code of Ethics and Business Conduct is recklessly incoherent bullshit. For example, on page 8, under the heading “We Are Responsible for Voicing Our Concerns”, we read.

“…You have a responsibility for promptly reporting any issue or concern that you believe, in good faith, may constitute a violation of the the Code or any other Mutual policy. Reporting in ‘good faith’ means you have given all of the information you have and your report is sincere. You are also encouraged to come forward if you encounter a situation that ‘just does not feel right.'”

What does that mean, “in good faith”? I know the paragraph seems to explain it, but I do not understand the explanation either. What does it mean to report “all of the information” I have regarding such an issue or concern? What does it mean for such a report to be “sincere”? And just what exactly is an “issue or concern” that “may” constitute some violation of the company’s Code or policy? And perhaps most importantly, what does it mean to have a “responsibility” to make such “sincere” or “in good faith” reports?

Please do not misunderstand these questions. They are neither rhetorical nor disingenuous. And although I am autistic, I do not have an intellectual disability (there’s a difference). I assure you that I do have my own way of answering these questions. I absolutely have my own private meanings for the terms under consideration — what I personally happen to mean when I use them; what I in fact think they really ought to mean.

But you see, therein lies the problem. Because last May 19, 2017, I actually got fired for acting on my (apparently mis–) understanding of these terms. I somehow got myself unceremoniously sacked for trying to fulfill what I had then understood to be my “responsibility” to make such “sincere”, “in good faith” reports about an “issue or concern” that I believed “may” constitute a violation of the company’s Code or policy.

See, I did all of that, and then I got fired for doing so. Which is supposedly against the rules. Right? Isn’t that what you mean when you say “…there will be no retaliation for raising issues or concerns….”? And yet, that is exactly what happened to me.

Furthermore, this apparent “misunderstanding” of mine wound up costing my family and me some $40,000 in missed salary and benefits, accrued during the 5 months of unemployment and financial free-fall that it took me to find another job. What’s more, there’s a much larger and heavily relevant contextual narrative that actually began 9 months earlier in August, 2016, and which involved so much emotional distress throughout that it eventually provoked a relapse in a health condition that my wife must manage and which required her to take a two-month course of steroids.

But as if all of that weren’t bad enough, this new job I have — the company that I’m now working for has pretty much the exact same recklessly incoherent bullshit in its own Code of Ethics. So, I hope you can appreciate just how important it is to me and my family that I make some sense out of this insanity — that I find some coherence in all of this rampant, bullshit, business-ethics incoherence.

Now, when these individuals fired me, they had the audacity to allege that I was being fired for some unspecified “violation” of company policy. At the time they refused to be specific, but I found out 6 months later from the company’s attorney that the “violation” in question was allegedly not one but many violations, most of them described too vaguely for me to even know what they’re referring to, but among which was the following very specific one, that did come complete with dates and named witnesses2:

“…For example, on April 26, 2017, Mr. Autistickish contacted Ms. Huntress [i.e. my boss at the time], asserting he wanted to file a complaint against Director of Production Management Aquaman because Mr. Aquaman, a senior leader in the Department, had allegedly tried to ‘hijack’ Mr. Autistickish’s meeting. Mr. Autistickish included with his complaint an excerpt from an instant message exchange in which he admittedly told Mr. Aquaman, ‘Don’t you ever, ever piss on one of my meetings again.’ Mr. Autistickish then also sent a follow-up e-mail to Mr. Aquaman further berating him for his alleged conduct…Mr. Aquaman complained to Ms. Huntress as well as to Human Resources….”

Although that is a viciously misleading rendition of what actually happened3, it does bear enough resemblance to the truth to warrant comment. At the very least I can confirm that yes, I did in fact tell Aquaman in an IM exchange to not “ever, ever piss on one of my meetings again.” I can also confirm that I included that IM excerpt in my complaint about Aquaman to my boss, Ms. Huntress. But even if we assumed that the whole paragraph were factually accurate (it is not), I would still like answers to a number of questions. Once again, these questions are neither rhetorical nor disingenuous — they are sincere questions that I’m asking, because I do not know what the answers are, and I’m hoping you can help me understand them:

  1. Is there anything in the above account of what happened to suggest that my complaint about Aquaman was not “sincere”, or that it was not made “in good faith”?
  2. Is there anything in the above description to suggest that I did not provide “all of the information” that I had? Based on what you read above, do you think I left something out that I should have included?
  3. Is there anything in the above description to suggest that I did not really believe that Aquaman’s attempt to hijack my meeting may constitute a violation of company policy? For example, the company’s anti-harrassment policy?
  4. Is there anything at all about the above description that suggests that my behavior throughout was not a sincere, good faith attempt to fulfill my express mandate as an employee to promptly report any issue or concern that I believe, in good faith, may constitute a violation of company policy?

To my view, the answers to all of the above are in the negative: my complaint about Aquaman was utterly sincere; it included all of the information that I had to offer about it; I truly believed (and still do) that Aquaman’s attempt to hijack my meeting the way he did was against company policy — it is a form of harassment, and it was brutal, unprofessional, and wholly gratuitous; and finally, I absolutely made the complaint in order to fulfill my mandated responsibility as described in the company’s Code of Conduct.

To the extent that one agrees with me on these points, then by Mutual of Omaha’s own definition, Mr. Blackledge, and even as described so misleadingly above, my complaint about Aquaman was made “in good faith”. And yet, for some reason this event was offered by the attorney in question to Federal Investigators for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in explanation for why I lost my job. This event was actually presented as an act of misconduct — a reason for why I got fired on May 19, 2017.

I don’t believe that the above is the end of the story with regards the recklessly incoherent bullshit in Mutual of Omaha’s “Code of Ethics”, but I do believe it illustrates the general point.

I hope that’s useful, quite sincerely.

1 From “A Message from Our CEO”, Our Mutual Commitment, MUTUAL OF OMAHA’S CODE OF ETHICS AND BUSINESS CONDUCT, last accessed Jan. 11, 2018. Although I have never actually worked for Mutual of Omaha, the company is quite similar to a company that I worked for, and their published “Codes of Ethics” are virtually identical. In fact, the problems I’m discussing in the above letter are in pretty much every corporate ethics document I’ve ever seen. To the extent that they are identical, they are all of a piece: recklessly incoherent bullshit. I’ve chosen to target Mutual of Omaha more or less at random.

2 I’m using DC Comics characters to hide the identities of the individuals in question. I have several reasons for doing so, which I have explained elsewhere.

3 It is beyond the scope of this letter to explain why it is viciously misleading. For background and the complete text of they attorney’s version of what happened, see What I Did Not Do To Get Fired From My Last Job