Category Archives: corporate

Corporate journalism: stories I wrote for past employers.


Dharun Ravi at trial. File photo, AP.

It’s time again to talk about bullies.

Yesterday, a jury in New Jersey found former Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi guilty of most of the 15 counts against him, including anti-gay intimidation, a hate crime. Ravi is the former roommate of the late Tyler Clementi, who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after learning that Ravi was using a webcam to view his encounters with other men. Clementi was gay.

Now Ravi is a convicted felon, facing at least a few years of jail time and possibly deportation to his native India after he serves that time. When a firm nationwide policy of zero tolerance arrives for the bullies — and it now seems it will — it will probably look like this. Continue reading


The Error

When I was living in San Francisco’s Marina district in the mid-1990s, one of my boyfriend’s friends of friends was a woman named Giselle.  She was small –maybe 5’4” in heels — and a sun-streaked, salon-assisted blonde.  Giselle was a size 00 before the size existed.  Maybe she was about thirty years old:  a distinction, when most of the girls in the social group were in our 20’s.

Save for girlfriend types like me, most in this group had family money.  They gravitated to the sailboat my boyfriend leased.  It suited their cultivated pose: that of heavy drinkers who occasionally slept.

My boyfriend was not one of them.  A man who would never know a truly easy time, he seemed to prefer domestic turbulence to any other state.  I think fighting kept him from seeing how close to real distress he always was, as calm waters allow a clear view of what lies beneath.

One night after a summer volleyball game, Giselle announced she was getting married.  First came the congratulations, then the question:  “Who’s the guy?”

No one had ever met him.  Born into a family of diplomats, Giselle had met her fiance on a recent vacation “back home” in Tunisia with her family.  She’d return there to marry him, in what would be one of the social events of the year; many of those we knew would attend the wedding.

It counted as adventure travel, and they could afford it. Continue reading

Current Employer’s Blog: “Grammar Geek”

The Grammar Geek returns: today we tackle expressing quantities correctly.

“Fewer” and “less”
You’re in the supermarket. One look in your basket will tell you whether you can cruise through the express checkout. If you can easily count the number of things in it, you’ll use a plural pronoun to refer to them. You can enter the express lane – because you have what’s known in the grammar-savvy markets as 10 items or fewer”.

If, on the other hand, your basket is piled so high with groceries that you can’t really count how many items are in it: forget the express lane. You don’t have items, you have stuff. With an abstract noun (such as stuff, time, or trouble), the issue is quantity: less of it, more of it, or whether you want to discuss it at all.

Generally speaking, use few” to indicate a known number of things: She has fewer than five sweaters for her Scottish terrier.

Use less” to indicate bulk amounts, especially where measuring quantity is difficult: There’s less sand in the hourglass.

Even if you want to mix it up, the same principles apply: Having less money might solve my problems. I’d have fewer chances to spend it.

“More than” versus “over”
When you need a term to describe a number greater than another figure or amount, you may consider ‘more than’ or ‘over’. While people often use the two interchangeably, you should know that they’re not the same.

More than,” like less than,” defines a quantity. Use this term to define amounts when the size of the statement you’re making is more important than its precision. Together, we contributed more than $50,000. The winning team inhaled more than 140 pies in the speed-eating contest.

The word over works best as a preposition, like under’ or beside”. Use ‘over’ to describe a location or area: Bananas taste better over ice cream. Wear a coat over that dress or you’ll catch your death.

Do you have any other grammar questions, concerns, or pet peeves? Let us know in the comments. Your pet peeve may be the focus of the next Grammar Geek!

The Health Care Reform Story: or Boy, Was I An Idiot

The following story was what I submitted to my senior managers (read:  editors) in mid-July 2009.  A later version, heavily redlined and substantially changed, ran on the internal website about a week later.

This was the beginning of the end.  Until I wrote this story, I really believed my health care insurance “nonprofit” employer had supported health care reform.  I learned otherwise after I wrote this story.  I also learned about how what AHIP was doing for the company, and that its lobbyists’ pay was not documented.

Anyway.  Live and learn.


In its first big move toward national health care reform, the House of Representatives took a step toward providing health insurance for all Americans last week.  The bill passed its first test in Congress as the U.S. Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved a revised version last Thursday.

House leaders had unveiled the bill on Tuesday.  It offers guaranteed expanded coverage for 97% of all Americans, deceleration in the growth of Medicare, tax funding changes to support reform, and penalties for employers who do not provide health benefits to their workers.

Worth the Wait:  Blue Shield’s Legacy of Support for Reform

This first health care reform bill is something of a vindication for Blue Shield.  CEO Bruce Bodaken and senior leaders Paul Markovich and Rob Geyer have repeatedly called for national health care reform.  Paul made his latest appeal in an op-ed piece in The San Francisco Chronicle, just last week.  Each time you have voiced your support for universal coverage, you have reinforced their message.

Blue Shield of California has a history of advocacy for statewide and national health care reform.  The health reform policy framework proposed by the state of Massachusetts, Governor Schwarzenegger, President Obama, and current Congressional leaders was first developed right here at Blue Shield.

In a December 2002 speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Blue Shield Chairman and CEO Bruce Bodaken offered a plan for universal coverage based on universal responsibility.  The first health plan CEO to make a specific proposal for universal coverage, Bodaken advocated guaranteed coverage for all regardless of health status, an employer mandate, an individual mandate with subsidies, expanded public programs, an essential benefits package, and broad-based tax funding.

This structure, which is now commonly called “shared responsibility,” has become the consensus approach to comprehensive health reform.  You’ll notice aspects of Bruce’s plan as you read on.

A Step Closer to “Universal Responsibility”

The new bill would create a new government-run health plan, which would enter the market in competition with private insurers starting in 2013.

Under the proposed bill:

  • Individuals would generally retain the health insurance they already have.
  • In cases of hardship (as defined by the U.S. Treasury), individuals would become eligible for coverage under government-run health insurance.
  • Individuals could then purchase coverage from the new government plan, and federal aid would be available to low-income individuals.
  • A person with access to coverage through his or her employer would be eligible for the government plan if premiums for the employer’s coverage would cost more than 11% of family income.
  • Businesses with a total payroll of less than $250,000 would be exempt from paying the coverage penalty or per-employee fee.

Details of the bill are still being worked out, and the process is expected to last several months.  But when you’ve been working towards one goal for this long – health care reform has been under discussion in Washington, in one form or another, for some 60 years – what’s another few months?

Next Goal On the Agenda:  Winning It All

If you remember your Schoolhouse Rock, we are still some distance away from the finish line on health care reform.  This new bill has a way to go before it can become a law.

However, while the bill still faces substantial opposition – from business groups, a polarized Senate, and many other quarters – all agree that the time is right for this kind of measured change.  With all of the critical players finally at the table, the odds of achieving health care reform finally look very positive.

What to help?  Here’s what you can do:  Log in to Live the Mission, Blue Shield’s own site for health care reform news and action opportunities.  It only takes a moment, and once you’re in you’ll be able to keep yourself informed on the latest state, local and national updates on health care reform.

Don’t sit this one out.  Get involved.  There has never been a better time to participate!

The Four-Generation Workplace

With four generations working together, a large number of potential candidates in the market, and a huge segment of the population set to retire in the next five to eight years, every employer faces both hiring and transitional challenges.

What do the four groups want?  How can any employer keep them all engaged, productive – and working together?

Traditionalists (born before 1945) are:

  • Loyal
  • Honest
  • Hardworking
  • May be part-time workers, or in second careers

From an employer, they want:

  • Stability and integrity in both the employer and individual managers
  • Flexibility in work days, hours and schedules
  • Clear rules and procedures
  • Traditional forms of acknowledgement:  watches, certificates, lunches

Baby Boomers (1946 to ~1964) are:

  • Idealistic
  • Driven
  • Outcome-oriented
  • May be approaching retirement; many planned to retire early

From an employer, they want:

  • Advancement opportunities and choices
  • Flexibility in work days, hours and schedules
  • Processes and tools that increase their productivity and help them reach goals quickly
  • If approaching retirement:  public recognition of their achievements

Generation X individuals (~1965 to 1985) are:

  • Realistic to cynical
  • Creative
  • Relationship-oriented
  • Strapped:  many are both raising children and supporting aging parents

From an employer, they want:

  • Flexibility in work days, hours and schedules
  • Choices among projects and roles; these offer them chances to learn new skills against the next round of layoffs (which are, of course, inevitable)
  • Results-oriented coaching and feedback
  • Time off, over any other form of recognition

Generation Y individuals (1986 to 2005) are:

  • Technologically savvy, but uncomfortable networking, attending meetings, or promoting themselves professionally
  • Intellectually generous (a “knowledge is free” mentality persists here)
  • Environmentally conscious
  • Drawn to the attitudes and values of their parents

From an employer, they want:

  • A work environment that is team-focused and social
  • Flexibility in work days, hours and schedules
  • A sense of true corporate and social responsibility (to be part of something greater than themselves)
  • Coaching and feedback that integrates well with their lives

How can an employer meet these challenges?

Continue to hire all generations. Members of all groups will continue to leave the workforce (as the first two groups retire, as the last two move on to other companies or leave to raise children).  The older two generations have strong attributes that the younger two don’t – or have placed on the back burner, for now, as they focus on their families and personal development.

Develop a corporate identity that has meaning and integrity. If your company’s mission doesn’t hold together, if it is not borne out by the actions of the lowest level manager, Generation Y and the Traditionalists will notice.  These are the people who spot dissonance between what a company says and what it does.  If the Traditionalists see it, they will call you on it and expect it to change.  If Generation Y sees it, they will walk.

Create shared spaces where people will want to gather while at work. An empty space with a table and chairs off an elevator lobby will not be the one people will use as a shared space.  It might not even become one if you add a pool table.  But add an activity, like Happy Hour or a volunteer event once a week – and give people the time off to take part in it – and they’ll probably join in.

At the same time, create opportunities for people to work remotely. Every single generation wants flexibility:  they all want to work for an employer that does not expect them to be there from 8 to 5, every single day.  A workplace becomes more attractive when it offers things like job-sharing, part-time plans for returning parents, or telecommuting options at least one day a week.

Respect diversity, but reinforce the unity of the team. Differences are critical to the identities of those on your team, but placing one member above the others creates friction.  Allow room for employees’ differences (time off for family obligations and religious observances, etc.), but maintain focus on your common ground:  current projects, sources of fun, shared achievements, annual objectives, and goals.

Keeping Promises Pays Off

Ask Operations Specialist Sharonda Ball what it’s like being a single mother of four boys (Julian, 18; Jamie, 18; Jordan, 16; and Jaylen, 14), and she’ll laugh.

“It wasn’t easy,” she admits.  “It’s not easy.  I could have taken a different route.  But if you don’t work, you don’t eat.”

Sharonda is the strong center in the lives of her sons, two of whom have recently attracted the attention of the Sacramento-area media for their success on a local basketball team.  Her twin sons Jamie and Julian, seniors at San Juan High School in Sacramento, lead a team – the San Juan Spartans – that currently leads its league, and is headed into the playoffs.  Two weeks ago, the Sacramento Bee ran a story on Jamie and his girlfriend ; and last week, The Sacramento Union named the brothers the team’s “Twin Towers”.

Jamie’s girlfriend Amara is the top scorer on the Spartans women’s team.  Also a senior, Amara has been Jamie’s girlfriend since middle school – but the two have been friends since grade school.

“I like Amara,” says Sharonda.  “The focus these days is on having an ‘adult relationship’, but these two just focus on being kids.  They exchanged promise rings; they’re best friends.  And in my home, they know they’re safe.  My kids know how to behave,” she laughs.

High Standards As a Family Tradition
The recent media interest in Sharonda’s sons seems to be about more than their athletic ability.  It’s also about relationships, hard work and achievement.  The twins continue to set and reach progressively higher goals, on the court, at work and at school.

Jamie is a true academic success:  he raised his grades from D’s in middle school to a current 3.8 average, thanks to the combined inspirations of basketball, a supportive girlfriend, a varsity coach who’s been in his life since the fourth grade – and his positive, loving mom.

At least one of the newspapers that ran the story on Sharonda’s sons credits her with their success, on and off the court.  The Union mentions her “strong character” and her very high standards for her sons.

“She just will not have anything but a strong effort in school,” the twins’ varsity coach, who has known them since elementary school, says of Sharonda.  She’s raised the boys to “have respect for elders and authority, and it shows.”

Her sons agree. “My mom, she’s my everything,” says Jamie.

“She’s done it all by herself,” adds Julian.

Sharonda sees things a little differently. “Jamie challenged himself,” she says.  “He could have taken an easier way to the higher grades, but he took on AP classes.”

She’ll agree that the boys have learned a few things from her.  “They’ve noticed my work ethic.  If you want something, you have to work for it.”

Sharonda at Blue Shield:  the Heart of the Work Ethic
“I’ve been at Blue Shield since before the boys’ high school days,” Sharonda says.  Starting at the bottom, she was soon promoted to lead the team she’d once worked on as a temp.

Now in Direct Sales, Sharonda enjoys a range of responsibilities:  designing workflows, performing training on Individual and Family Plans and Medicare Products, maintaining public and private web pages.  She occasionally has to travel within California for work.  She may have to miss one of her sons’ basketball games due to an upcoming trip next month, she added.

“I try to make it to all of their games,” says Sharonda – who lives right across the street from the high school that all four of her boys attend.  Living there is less convenient for her work, but much more comfortable for her sons.  “Everything’s always more convenient for them!” laughs the devoted mother.

Now, with the twins applying for scholarships and weighing college offers, Sharonda knows that she is ready for the next stage of her life.  Her two oldest sons will soon leave for college. “I had a day earlier on when the sadness hit me,” she admits.  “But now I’m ready.  I’m ready to move on, to what’s next for them and for me.”

Sharonda knows that she has done a lot of things right, but she’s also realistic.

“I’m raising four boys.  I have to be a good role model,” she says.  “I have to work hard, to show them what it means to make your way.  And I’m very thankful to be in a department with supervisors who are so people-friendly.”

“I like this company,” Sharonda adds.  “My team is a big part of my family’s life.  We do the Heart Walk together every year, all six of us:  Amara, the boys and I.  Last year we even brought some friends.”

Though she seems a little surprised by the recent media attention, Sharonda is pleased.  She knows how hard her family has worked – and the work doesn’t end here.  There are many more goals for the five of them to achieve together.

“I think it’s a good thing,” she says with a laugh.

The Sacramento Bee feature story

The Sacramento Bee blog

The Sacramento Union story

After 36 Years, a Veteran Says Goodbye

The year is 1972, and a young man named Jim Flagg has just started his career with Blue Shield.  Nixon is President, the country is at war, but Flagg is focused on other things.  He is focused on the new chapter in his life:  a new job, and the child he and his wife are expecting.

By 1972, Flagg is already a lucky man.  He has a young son, born during his tour with the Navy in Hawaii.  His captain offers him a choice:  two years with his wife at Pearl Harbor, or his original assignment, in Da Nang.  Flagg chooses Hawaii … and life.

If he could have named that baby girl Kevin, in honor of his captain, Jim would have.

Jim Flagg’s years of service to Blue Shield outnumber his years in the Navy:  he put in only 20 there.  In his 36 years at Blue Shield, Flagg has moved a few times – from one building to another, between offices in San Francisco – but he held his favorite job, as Forms Analyst, for 27 years.

“I liked doing it,” he says simply.  “Helping people, giving them what they wanted.  Designing a paper form to satisfy the needs of the user and the company allowed me to be creative.”

Flagg remembers a time when Blue Shield was young:  growing rapidly and geographically dispersed.  There were fewer people spread out across more land, and those who worked here had to work differently.

“I remember going out to do fieldwork in the late 70’s.  This made it easier to understand the whole department and what they were doing.”

But the offices themselves?  You could keep them.  “Dreary,” Flagg says, of 1970’s office culture.  “Unwelcoming.”

He finds today’s work conditions much improved.  “You just look at HR, how much it’s changed, how much it’s really trying to do,” he says.  “People are more engaged now.  And the HR:Connect website – in those days, who even thought of something like that?”

Flagg has struggled with his health over the years.  In October 2004, the Forms department was eliminated, and Flagg lost his job.  That was before Marianne Jackson, Senior Vice President of Human Resources, stepped in to bring him back.

“I said, ‘I can still do a lot for you guys,’” he recalls, of the discussion that preceded his return to Blue Shield.  “And Marianne [Jackson] believed me.”

Jackson remembers agreeing to rehire him.

“Believing that each employee has a contribution to make and mutually benefiting from the experience is what this company is all about,” she says.

“Listening to Jim and creatively thinking through an alternative for him was just the right thing to do, in my opinion.  We can not always make the win/wins happen, but when they do – glorious!”

Flagg appreciates the work he has been able to do since his return.  “What I do is necessary and helpful.  I perform tasks that need to be accomplished.  But it’s less creative,” than the Analyst role he held earlier on, he admits.

Lately, he says it’s been more challenging to physically navigate the office.  “I’m finding it more difficult to get around,” he says lightly.  “It’s probably time to go.”

Few are ready to agree with him, though.

“Jim’s terrific,” laughs his carpooling buddy Francine Behar, of Facilities and Security Services.  Behar met Flagg a couple of years ago, when they carpooled to work together.  He loved to drive, and she loved riding with him.

“When traffic was bad,” she says, “he’d try to give us a scenic route.  We’d go on these joyrides:  Jim would find any road that wasn’t full of cars, just to get home.  I wasn’t one of the regulars in that carpool – they called me the ‘extra head’ – and Jim would leave notes at my desk when there was room for me.

“I have such respect for him,” Behar continues.  “I use Jim as an illustration of determination for my son.  He’s so positive.

“Once Jim told me that he was going camping.  I said, ‘That’s great!  Who are you going with?  He said he was going by himself.  ‘I just like camping,’ he said.”

Why leave now?  Even Flagg has mixed feelings.

“At my Navy Reserve retirement gathering, it just hit me – and hit me wrong – that people would say, ‘this guy’s retiring’.”

Still, he has good reasons to make the move.

“I’ve sold my house to my son,” Flagg says.  “I’ve paid off my RV.  And I’ve always wanted to travel and live in my RV.  This has always been my dream.”

Where would he go?

“Anywhere it’s warm,” he says with a smile.