This is about the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, located in Chicago, Illinois. It is not about Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, also located in Chicago, nor is it about any of the other Blue Cross Blue Shield licensees, either separately or as a whole.

I’ve thought about BCBSA’s decision-making in all of this because I like at least to make some sense of events when I cannot outright understand them. Much of what I discuss is not directly related to my situation, but I’ve included it in order to show their prevailing mindset, the kind of organization they are, and
why they did what they did to me.

As is the case of the things I say in the website about Ms. Lopez, most of what I say here about BCBSA is negative. But in fairness, I’ll also say that they employ some of the finest and most dedicated IT staff, from programmers up through managers, I’ve ever worked with.

BCBSA and Ethics

I sent much of the material on this website to CEO Scott Serota, CIO Doug Porter, and BCBSA’s Human Resources and Legal departments. I never heard back from any of them, so I have to conclude that they don’t care about doing the right thing. It’s a pretty safe bet none of this material came up in her allegations against me. Clearly it’s all relevant, so it must be that they simply wanted to avoid admitting a mistake more than they wanted to do the right thing. But would the right thing really have been that hard to do? Over the years, I’ve noticed that it’s always the people who make a lot of mistakes who have a hard time admitting them. If you make just a few mistakes, it’s easy to admit them because they’re not really indicative of who you are. And on those rare occasions when it is hard to admit a mistake, when there’s a lot at stake, you have to be guided by your ethics then—
the big picture. I’m guessing none of those BCBSA executives won one of those little rubber duckies. Maybe next year...

I also submitted a complaint through their ethics hotline. This was their response:

Dear Mr. Mickle, This site is designed solely for BCBSA employees to report potential internal Code of Conduct issues. (Contrary to this statement, the website for filing complaints states that it is for use by those having various relationships, such as that of a vendor, with BCBSA). However, your comments here mirror the documentation you previously provided to various BCBSA employees. An internal investigation was in fact completed at that time, and we concluded that there were no open issues relative to our Code of Conduct to warrant further action by BCBSA. Thank you.

Unbelievable. It must not be much of a code of conduct. Perhaps if she’d robbed me at gunpoint while on company property...

I think what really happened was that BCBSA finally realized she’d played them back in August—it’s simply not possible for a fair-minded and objective person to look at the timeline of events and to listen to the lunch tapes and to then say that Ms. Lopez and BCBSA did the right thing back then. But BCBSA had three reasons to keep on going with the decision they’d already made.

The first was simply that reopening the matter now would make them look to have been foolish back then. I can’t imagine anyone there wanting to open up all that when instead they could just sit back and take a pass on it.

The second was that I could make some trouble for them if they admitted to having fired me improperly.

The third was that Ms. Lopez could make bigger trouble for them than I could. There would be internal trouble for Human Resources, Legal, and Information Technology management. There would be EEOC involvement because she’s an employee and she’s Hispanic and she’s female. She might even say she’d brought up all my issues back in August, and then demand to know why BCBSA is persecuting her now. It would simply have been too much trouble for a company like BCBSA.

It’s not right for someone to be able to ask you for more and more stuff and then to be able to get you fired simply because at some point you stop giving them all the things they ask you for. She dragged her personal life into the work environment, and once that was done, BCBSA let her get away with it simply because it was the easiest way for them to make a problem go away. She took advantage not only of my friendship for her but also of her secure position as an employee, and BCBSA helped her do it. It’s like Guantanamo—it may not be illegal, but it should be.

The only time BCBSA seems to care about doing the right thing is when they can get something tangible out of it, and typically that means good publicity. That’s why charities publicize lists of donor names, why buildings are named after significant donors, and why companies have PR departments. It’s rare that you can increase the company’s bottom line or your own earnings by doing the right thing. If it were, you’d see a lot more of it.

Sometimes people do the right thing because they want to do that thing regardless of its being the right thing. Sometimes they do the right thing out of adherence to a code of ethics—not because they want to do
that thing, but because they want to do the right thing; this is where your conscience comes into play—being able to see a picture that contains people other than just yourself. Sometimes they do the right thing because someone compels them to do it. But most often people do the right thing simply to avoid looking bad; what does it say about you that you don’t care about being bad but you do care about looking bad? Perhaps at BCBSA this position is known as something like real-world ethics or practical ethics.

After my time ended at BCBSA, I learned that for years Ms. Lopez had been in the habit of cultivating relationships with what I call lunch buddies, and I learned that her last three long-term lunch buddies, of which I was the most recent, were all Caucasian male contractors who were let go mid-contract between August 2007 and August 2008.
What a remarkable statistic. I don’t have access to the data necessary to do the math on that—things like the number of Caucasian male contractors employed by the Association during that period and the number let go mid-contract. But I don’t really need to do the math, do I? For it to have been a coincidence is beyond belief. I asked if anyone else at BCBSA has that kind of problem, but BCBSA’s not telling...

It would be interesting to know if the other men, too, paid for her lunches. One time I was at a team luncheon and one of these contractors picked up the tab for our table of half a dozen people, writing it off as a business expense. It made me wonder if he did that in his lunches with her, too.

I wonder if she picks Caucasian male contractors because it’s so easy to get them fired when things stop working to her advantage. (At BCBSA, it’s more difficult to get an employee fired because employees at least get to tell their side of things.)

It would also be interesting to see if she had a hand in the early termination of the other two men and if she asked them for money, but last I heard, they’re both working at a BCBS licensee and I don’t want to jeopardize their position. She told me she’d ended her friendship with one of them when he showed an unwanted romantic interest in her. I, as well as other people who knew both her and him, found it hard to believe he would do something like that, and he himself told quite a different story about the ending of their friendship. She seems to have a caustic touch...everyone whose life she touches ends up damaged in some way because of it. And yet BCBSA continues to protect her because of the political ramifications.

If it turns out there was some seriality in her behavior, and that BCBSA knew about it, that would be highly unethical. And it’s noteworthy that he told me this before he was let go—while it could easily be run against whatever she had to say on the matter—whereas she waited until after he was gone to tell me her side. Think about it...three men whose contracts had been renewed each quarter, year after year, and then each of them was suddenly fired after having had contact with Ms. Lopez.

We’ll never know the truth because BCBSA can say whatever they want to say, but it’s very rare for people to suddenly turn into problem cases like that. The problem is much more likely to be found in the common denominator between the three situations—Ms. Lopez—especially given what happened to me. To have had that kind of role in things, to have had that kind of power, would only have bolstered her image of herself as a powerful woman, as a femme fatale.

For BCBSA to have been okay with her asking me for money and, after not getting it, her being unwilling to work with me on something that was her job responsibility, is not only unconscionable but also foolish. I wouldn’t have thought it possible she would want to do that to me, and I wouldn’t have thought it possible BCBSA would let her get away with it. I thought about it some, and what I came up with was
internal politics.

Perhaps she made BCBSA believe it wasn’t about the money. Perhaps that’s what they wanted to believe, because it would simplify things for them. More likely, she never even mentioned the money, but in the follow-up material I sent to BCBSA, I included a copy of an e-mail that referenced her request for money. If the money never came up back in August, then BCBSA is inept at handling personnel issues and Ms. Lopez is deceitful and manipulative. If the money did come—well, I don’t need to tell you what that means. Either way, it gives the workplace the appearance—no, the reality—of a sacred preserve, like something out of classical mythology, where the carefree employee is free to prey with impunity on the hapless contract staff as if this were just another employee benefit.

While this is certainly not BCBSA’s official policy, it is the policy they have
in effect, and occasionally an unscrupulous employee is going to take improper advantage of it. It’s almost as if BCBSA should discreetly advise new employees that when they get themselves in such a situation, they should at least tell the contractor something like, “Look, if you don’t give me the money, I’m going to get you fired. I can do that here. Thy won’t even listen to your side of things.” That would be fairer because this simply isn’t the kind of thing one expects to find in an American workplace. As a contractor, you expect your contract to end when the company has no further need for your skills or when they don’t have room for you in their budget. You don’t expect it to end because you didn’t give a pile of money to one of their employees.

Here’s a related story. I was once in a meeting where someone was being somewhat abrasive. He was fired right after that because he’d committed the cardinal sin at BCBSA—he’d rocked the boat. I couldn’t believe he was fired for that. If he’d said
You’re an idiot, I could see his being fired for that because it’s unlikely you’ll ever be able to correct that kind of deficiency in a person. He was a Caucasian male employee, but neither his situation nor mine were directly about race or gender; they were simply about the easiest way to smooth things over. They were both about politics. When you have that huge FEP account, you don’t want to put it at risk by coming to the federal government’s attention through any EEOC issues.

The thing is, with a company like BCBSA, if Ms. Lopez had been on the wrong side—the politically inexpedient side—of things, they’d have cut her loose in a minute. With them, it’s all about image, not about substance or what’s right. It’s all about the path of least resistance.

The limitation of a policy like theirs is that it enabled her to control the entire flow of information by saying only what she wanted to be heard and withholding what she wanted to remain unheard. You never get to the truth that way, but it simplifies your decision-making process and it makes your job much easier. When one of your employees gets herself in an awkward situation, one that could prove embarrassing to the company, and there’s a Caucasian male contractor involved, you just fire the contractor. It’s easy, it’s legal, and most of all it’s politically expedient. But the politically expedient thing is rarely the right thing to do. If it were, no one would ever talk about what’s politically expedient, just about what’s right.

I’m not saying that BCBSA is prejudiced in terms of gender, ethnicity, religion, culture, or sexual orientation. In fact, they hold annual Cultural Diversity fairs and, when holding larger company events, they’re always particularly mindful of the special dietary strictures and preferences of the significant number of staff hailing from South Asia. Afterwards, they’re always sure to write up those events in their monthly newsletter in order to get some good publicity out of it, but I feel their support is genuine.

This kind of publicity-seeking fits into the kind of corporate arrogance and self-righteousness that describe BCBSA. I worked in IT, and our mission was to be a world-class software provider. And yet, following one software release, there were so many rounds of software fixes that they started being released under the new designation
Code Patch rather than the customary Addendum. Code Patch sounds smaller, less problematic, doesn’t it? You don’t become world-class just by saying you want to be. The measure of how much you really want something is in how much of a constructive nature you’re willing to do to make it happen, not in how much intimidating and veiled threatening and posturing and impotent wanting you’re willing to do.

BCBSA touted their 7.5-hour workday as one of the benefits of employment. Now, if you’re in management you rightly expect to work as long as is necessary to get done whatever you need to get done. I don’t know how it is in other so-called professional departments such as Legal, but in IT, no matter what company you work at, you generally end up working an average of a couple extra hours every week. In crunch times, which typically occur a couple times each year, you can expect to put in an extra ten to forty hours each week for a week or two. BCBSA had more crunch times than any other company I’ve worked at, about once every couple months. It made me chuckle to think of sitting in an employment interview and listening to someone in Human Resources telling a prospective employee about their 7.5-hour workday.

But again, this is the easy way to do things. Upper management says here’s the date we’ve set for the next software release, here’s what we want in it, now go and make it all happen. So the lower-level managers and project managers get time estimates from the analysts and programmers, then they tweak the numbers to make everything fit. That’s disingenuous, and no one believes it anyhow. It would be more honest to schedule everyone’s timeline upfront for an extra four hours or whatever is necessary each week. But then it would
look like BCBSA is knowingly violating the 7.5-hour workday. The way BCBSA chooses to do it makes it look like the analysts and programmers agreed to a sensible timeline and simply weren’t good enough to adhere to that, so now they’ve got to work a bit extra. Again, there’s probably nothing illegal here, but it is unethical and it shows you the BCBSA mindset—avoid anything overtly illegal and, above all, avoid anything that could draw negative attention from the government or from the media.

Politics and Power

A manager at BCBSA once told me, “John, there’s politics and then there’s the Association,” meaning that internal politics is the lifeblood of the company. This can happen only when a company’s products or services aren’t tightly tied to economic pressures; when they are, people have to care more about results.

In BCBSA’s case, they don’t market or service healthcare insurance policies and they don’t maintain healthcare provider networks. They administer the Blue Cross Blue Shield brand and they provide software and services that link the individual BCBS licensees in such a way that it all seems like one big enterprise. That’s important because many BCBS customers are companies having employees located in geographical areas that aren’t all serviced by the same BCBS licensee; there’s also the issue of simplifying access to healthcare when individuals travel outside the area covered by their own BCBS licensee.

In such a corporate environment, the moneymaking is done primarily by the BCBS licensees and how well they stack up against their competitors. I don’t know all the ways BCBSA gets a cut of that, but I do know that they make a flat fee on each healthcare claim involving more than one BCBS licensee. I worked at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska for nearly nine years and I can tell you that they felt the economic heat that comes from being on the frontline with customers and providers. They had aggressive marketing and provider relations teams, and their customer service was the best I’ve ever seen in any company in any industry. That competitive business environment doesn’t leave much room for the luxury of internal politics. But BCBSA is far enough removed from where the money is actually earned that it has a hospitable environment for something other than results to flourish...
something like politics. It reminds me of those high school biology experiments where you take a Petri dish, add some water and agar, leave it exposed to the air, and soon you’ve got something growing. If you have health insurance from a BCBS licensee like BCBS Nebraska, they’re probably doing a very good job for you; be thankful that it is that company, not BCBSA, who is administering your health plan.

It’s a simple matter of psychological demographics that in any group of a statistically significant size, there’s generally going to be a certain number of people having certain traits. One such trait is the desire to get over on other people in order to feel that you yourself are powerful. And I have to assume that Ms. Lopez found such an ally in Human Resources or Legal.
Look at me, look at how powerful I am. I can get someone fired simply on my say-so alone.

People like to look powerful because it gets you stuff in life. It’s not often the case that doing the right thing makes you look powerful; people simply expect you to do the right thing. But doing the wrong thing can make you look powerful simply because it’s the wrong thing and still you were able to do it. Hitler and Stalin looked powerful because of all the terrible and unnatural things they were able to do; Mother Teresa never looked powerful, just transcendently good. It’s like the stories you hear about outlandish judicial rulings. Judges do those things simply to show that they see things in a more enlightened way than do you or I...and to get attention, recognition, and, if their decision works out, respect and admiration.

I’ve never seen an IT department as top-heavy with management. There were a number of first-line managers who were at the director level rather than at the manager level, and new managers were regularly promoted to director within their first year as a manager. At any level of management at BCBSA, your power and prestige are in direct proportion to the number and title of the managers under you.

I’ve also never seen a company as fond of meetings. The number and length of meetings was simply staggering, and I’ve never seen as many meeting rooms for as few staff. Meetings are another way to enhance your power and prestige.
I’d like to help, but I’m in meetings all day. It’s an easy way to feel and show that you’re important, that decisions can’t be made without you.


I’ve never heard the term CYA (
Cover Your Ass) mentioned as often in any other workplace. People were always writing up memos saying so-and-so said this or so-and-so agreed to that, and then putting them in the project documentation file so they themselves would be covered.

CYA is the hallmark of a company that is run on internal politics and the power of individual fiefdoms rather than on results, cross-departmental teamwork, and the pressure of competitive economics. If the results are good, you don’t need to CYA; in fact, you want to be associated with the results as much as possible. But when you know the results are likely to be poor because the wrong person won a turf battle, that’s when you want to CYA. When the results are good, you don’t want to say, “Well, yeah, I did it but it was her idea.” But when the results are bad, you want to be able to say, “Well, yeah, I did it, but it was his idea.” At BCBSA I was known for saying, “Why can’t we all just get along?” Why indeed...

As a software developer at BCBSA, I had little to do with determining
what was to be done; my role was to determine how it was to be done and then to do it. But to do that effectively, you have to fully understand what is to be done; it has to make sense to you. And when it doesn’t, you have to speak up, not CYA. If it leads to changes, fine; if not, that’s fine, too, because it’s ultimately someone else’s call.

Here’s another example of fiefdoms at work at BCBSA. One of BCBSA’s policies was that developers were not allowed to discuss their projects with anyone other than their manager, the IT business analyst who created the design for the project, and other developers. This is an old-fashioned, straight-line approach that uses the single-point-of-contact organizational philosophy to demarcate and underscore fiefdoms.
I don’t deal with just any old riff-raff, I deal only with my that. It’s a strange and unnatural policy, one I’ve never encountered in any other workplace. BCBSA never told me about this policy, so one day when I had some questions and suggestions on my current project, I spoke with some staff who were off-limits to me.

The way project development worked at BCBSA was that a Business Solutions (BS—that’s kind of funny but I didn’t intend it that way; I’ve never seen the existence of such staff in any other workplace, but it’s a good opportunity for yet another fiefdom) analyst would work with the end user to formulate the User Requirements document, an initial high-level statement of why the project is necessary and what it’s supposed to do. Then the end user, the BS analyst, and an IT business analyst would work together to formulate the Functional Specification (FS) document, a detailed design of what the project would do; for example, if there were a new report, the FS would depict the complete layout—titles, column headings, data element sizes and formatting, everything—as well as specify the data elements that were to be used and the calculations that were to be performed. Then all these people would meet with the developer to explain the design.

This is a strange and unnatural policy, one I’ve never encountered in any other workplace. They never told me about it up front, so one day when I had some questions and suggestions related to my current project, I spoke with the end user and the BS analyst. My toe-stepping led to a closed-door meeting with two managers. I said it was my nature to present my issues to the people who can resolve them. The managers stressed the importance of the policy and said that, in order to keep the business analyst up to date on things, I should have scheduled a meeting with the business analyst and whomever else was necessary. That made sense, but if that, rather than protecting fiefdoms, was their real reason, why not say so up front? It’s a lot easier to follow a policy that makes sense to you.

I said I’d follow the policy now that I knew of its existence. But that turned out not to be entirely true. About a year later I went astray again; the business analyst was out of the office and, forgetting the policy and wanting to get stuff done, I went directly to the end user. When the business analyst returned to work, I updated him on the project changes that resulted from my discussion with the end user. Next thing you know, I’ve got a visit from my manager and he’s telling me that if it happens again, he’ll have to fire me. I thought that that was a bit harsh, but a thing is what a thing is. The end user later told me she couldn’t believe I got in trouble over something like that. I said it was all about power and, because there were project changes beyond the time that everything should have been nailed down, about CYA. The results were spot-on, though, but it was mostly just the end user and I who cared about that.

Another step in BCBSA’s project methodology was for developers to schedule a Code Review meeting to go over the software changes that were intended to implement the business analyst’s project design. These meetings were similar to the separate meetings that were held to go over each of the other projects documents; the goal of each meeting was simply to obtain sign-off from everyone present. All of the other meetings, including the subsequent one scheduled by Product Verification to go over their plan for verifying that the software changes match the business analyst’s design, were of value because they discussed things that were understandable to everyone in attendance. But the only attendee who could possibly understand anything in the Code Review meeting was a second developer, who was required to attend but who wasn’t required to read the .

The Code Review meetings were a complete waste of time. I held a number of them and I attended a number of them, and I never saw anything constructive come from any of them. Once I was working on a small but particularly tough project, and I was facing a Code Review deadline that didn’t leave enough time for me to fully think through the necessary revisions to the software. I held the meeting anyhow, got everyone’s sign-off, and continued working on the revisions. What I finally came up with included a ton of stuff—new database access parameters, you name it—that wasn’t covered in the Code Review. I asked my manager if I had to schedule another meeting to go over those revisions and he said no. That was the right answer; no one understood anything in the first meeting, and this one would have been much more technical and all it would have accomplished was to compound the waste of time. I could have gone in there with incorrect program names and data element names, whatever, and no one would have known the difference.

The Code Review meetings were strictly about power and CYA. Why should everyone else get their own meeting if the developers don’t get theirs? And there’s the opportunity to get more sign-offs, but the Code Review sign-offs don’t mean anything. If my software revisions don’t produce the proper results, I can’t get around that, nor should I, because someone’s signature is on my sign-off form. In contrast, the sign-offs for the business analyst’s design are of value because they define the scope of the project and keep people from dragging down the project by adding or changes requirements down the road.

If the costs-vs-benefit of the Code Review meetings were coming out of (when the cost exceeded the benefit) or were being added to (when the benefit exceeded the cost) some higher-up’s salary, the meetings wouldn’t exist because they don’t add value. But then again, CYA never adds value...

Last year I was working on the project to convert and move AT Transaction data from the ITS databases to the Blue² databases. This was a textbook turf battle between the existing ITS and Blue² teams. First there was a battle over which team would do the project, then there was a battle over which team would do which part of the project. The Blue² team ended up doing the design and the ITS team ended up doing the programming and running the conversion process. I was on the ITS team and for some reason there was an impossibly aggressive project timeline. Everyone on my team was saying it’s going to be a problem because none of us were familiar with Blue² and we had a lot of questions on the initial design. Management said it was okay because we’d get a final design on such-and-such a date and, because no revisions would be allowed after that date, all we had to do was to implement that design. I was incredulous. You can’t release unusable software to your customers just so you can win a turf battle; everyone knows that, and so everyone knew that this was just a way to get everyone to hunker down and get working on a project with an impossible timeline. It turned out that after the due date for the final design had passed, there were still so many open issues and questions that an all-day meeting was held to iron them out, and even that wasn’t enough time. We did get free pizza for lunch that day, though. This was typical of BCBSA IT projects: overrun with managers and meetings but understaffed with the those who would be doing the nuts-and-bolts work.

One time a coworker and I were discussing BCBSA’s penchant for setting, and subsequently sticking to, IT project deadlines that were unnecessarily aggressive to the point of being untenable. We decided that the reason for this was that someone higher up had a stake in meeting those dates, and that when problems were subsequently found, those would be someone else’s fault. Later, when that coworker moved onto the management track, his view became their view. He must’ve gotten his share of that stake...

Over my years at BCBSA, I was often told something to the effect that just because the design wasn’t finished, that was no reason the developers couldn’t begin programming. In fairness, there’s some truth to that, but only when some part of the design has been completed and agreed upon. But generally it’s like saying the building contractors can get started without having the architectural blueprints.

Since the software debacle—poor system performance, missed due dates, and budget overruns—that occurred during the development of ITS Software Release 10.0, BCBSA’s IT department has become more results-oriented. Some upper-level managers were fired then, but it’s a pretty safe bet that they were the ones who weren’t in good with those above them in the corporate hierarchy. Politics is still king at BCBSA...

Before these managers were fired, I’d often hear lower-level managers speak highly of them. But after they were fired, I’d hear those same people speak poorly of them. More politics. When you’re ascendant, people want to be associated with you. When that changes, those same people want to distance themselves from you and now they’ll say they always knew you were incompetent and everyone else has finally caught on to what you’ve known all along.

In an organization that runs on power, image, and CYA, people are always striving simply to
look good to those above them in the organizational hierarchy. In an organization that runs on results, people are always striving for the optimal combination of results and time; the people above you will notice the degree of your success, and both you and they will look good commensurate with your results. But often it’s the case that the people below you are the ones who rely on the quality of your work in order to do their own work well; you might schedule their work, you might produce the specifications they’ll base their work on, or you might simply support them in getting whatever they need for the job at hand. They are the ones you should be focusing on when you’re looking for results, but when you’re looking for a better image, you have to look upward, to where that image counts most.

Industries like healthcare insurance are generally risk-averse because, unless you’re the new guy who’s trying to get into the game, there’s not much you can win by taking a gamble. You don’t have to put out a new laptop model every six months, with more memory, the latest graphics card, and a stylish design you’re betting the house on. You just have to maintain your corporate infrastructure and run a reasonably tight ship. You don’t really have to address problems, just keep them quiet and make them go away. You don’t want exposure, you don’t want risk. No fuss, no muss.

Likewise, people in upper management anywhere are generally risk-averse because they’ve already got something good and they don’t want to lose it. If they’ve got a real shot at moving up, either internally or by moving to another company, they’ll sometimes roll the dice in an effort to accomplish as much as possible, but generally people know when they’ve topped out.

BCBSA and Contract Staff

Every contractor quickly learns that BCBSA has a widely different standard of treatment for employees than for contract staff, and either they’re okay with that and they stay or they’re not okay with that and they move on. Every employee is aware of this difference, too.

I was at BCBSA for nearly three years. The company rightly expected me to work as hard and as effectively as its employees, and I did. And yet they fired me on the spot without even asking to hear my side of things. It may be legal, but it’s definitely not right.

BCBSA has a lot of counterproductive unwritten policies regarding contractors. Perhaps none of them are illegal, but they show the company’s underlying mindset and they’re consistent with an environment in which contractors can be summarily dismissed even within the larger reality I’ve presented on this website. One such policy is that whenever they hold a corporate event, they never invite the contractors. That’s silly because everyone’s supposed to be on the same team. If it’s simply a budgetary matter, then figure out the per person cost and charge the contractors that amount to attend. Over the years, a lot of employees told me they thought this was a bad policy, that it didn’t make them feel special and that it was divisive.

Another policy is that they sometimes make contractors take time off when things are slow. Most contractors don’t get paid for hours they don’t work, and when you’re in a three-month contract and are suddenly told to take off a week or two, you’re out a lot of money over something that wasn’t in the contract. Someone probably got a bonus for coming up with that one...

This one is a classic. I was working on the annual BlueCard Customer Satisfaction Survey in 2006. I redesigned the entire IT process but still there was a significant manual component to executing it. I’d told my manager I’d have everything done by a certain date, but then I started running into the kind of problems you don’t anticipate having much of, things like file contention and insufficient disk space. I told him I’d need to work over the weekend in order to get it done on time. He said he’d see if he could get me overtime pay and off-hours building access. Later he said he had good news and bad news: the good news was that he’d been able to get the access; the bad news was that he hadn’t been able to get approval for overtime pay. But I put in the hours anyway—two full days without pay even though I was an hourly contract employee—because I liked the work and I’d made a commitment both to my manager and to the department that would be utilizing the data that came out of the IT process. And even in the most robust economy, you don’t want to say, “Look, I’m an hourly worker; I’m supposed to be paid for the hours I work.” They knew that, and what they should have said was, “Forget about coming in over the weekend, John. We don’t want the extra work enough to pay for it. Or come in, get it done, and we’ll give you comp time when things slow down.” In fairness, I’ll say that this was the exception to the rule; over the years I made a lot of money working paid overtime, and this situation was a last-minute development that couldn’t have been budgeted for.

In fairness, I’ll say that BCBSA took a similar approach with its employees. Rather than having employees take their remaining Paid Time Off days before they expire at year-end, some managers asked employees to consider donating them, meaning to let them expire unused. This is a sign of a company that’s chronically understaffed for the amount of work it wants to get done. Perhaps with fewer managers and more developers...but no, that would be about results, not about power.

In addition to their policies toward contract staff, there’s also their broader mindset toward contract staff. Once I sent my manager an e-mail questioning the necessity of doing a certain thing a certain way. His reply was
Quit your whining and just do it. I laughed when I read it, and I imagined him in one of those management training sessions. The instructor asks the class how they would handle a situation where an employee questioned something the manager has asked them to do. My manager raises his hand and says, “I’d tell them to quit their whining and do what I told them to do!”

I wasn’t offended by his response. He and I had always been on good terms, both professional and friendly, and that kind of talk was just the way he was. But as a contractor, I wondered how far an employee could go before crossing the boundary of acceptable behavior.

Here’s another example. Both employees and contract staff were required to send weekly status reports to management. That makes senses because management needs that information in order to keep things on schedule. But developers often neglected to do this, and eventually management sent an e-mail stressing how vital it was that they have this information on a timely basis.

I had a new manager when I was working on what turned out to be my last project at BCBSA, and for weeks I’d said I’d have that project completed by a certain date, one that left enough time for product verification before being included in the forthcoming software release. One week I said I’d have a couple smaller projects ready for the product verification staff next week. My manager responded that he’d been expecting me to have the other project ready, too. When I pointed out the timeline I’d been mentioning all along in the status reports, he said he didn’t always have time to read them. I thought
Always? More like never. Then he said that perhaps he should assign the project to someone else. I thought that was a foolish and cheesy thing to say, so I responded that that was always an option, but that since I was close to cracking it, it would be a waste of time to transfer it to someone else.

And so, even though we were in a no-overtime mode then, I worked all weekend on it and got it done by the new timeline my manager and I had worked out. I got fired that week, so I don’t know if I’d have gotten any comp time for those weekend hours. I wondered if all their unrealistic dates just amounted to another way to squeeze some unpaid work out of both employees and contract staff. And I sure had a hard time getting paid for my last week of work; it took several weeks to get the check.

You may wonder why I stayed at BCBSA so long if I have all these negative things to say about them. I stayed because of the things that were most important to me in a job—a fair salary and work I both enjoyed and was good at. And for a while I enjoyed being there all the more because of my friendship with Ms. Lopez.