Monday, March 07, 2011

Conflict of Interest: my own experience with it, and how it moved from a political concept to one about PII

I’ve talked about “conflict of interest” in the workplace numerous times, and I’d like to explain the way this concept played out in my own IT career. This is a matter that may not interest everyone as much as some other discussions about the changing job market, but I think it’s important in the big picture.

Back in 1989 I was working as one of two “mainframe programmers” for a small consulting company named Lewin-ICF in Washington DC.  I left over a disagreement about how some work would be done. That doesn’t matter now; Lewin has gone on to be a very successful company in health care policy consulting and I do want to speak well of the company. But nevertheless, at the start of 1990, I moved on to an insurance company, USLICO corporation, in Arlington VA, into a more “traditional” business production shop with much more mainframe infrastructure.

USLICO owned United Services Life as it’s probably largest operation, focusing primarily on selling life insurance and annuities to military officers.  It was an operation similar to USAA (San Antonio) today but smaller. It also owned Bankers Security, which focused on salary deduction productions sold through the workplace.  It was in this later area that I worked the most from 1990 to 1995, when the USLICO became part of NWNL, to be renamed ReliaStar, in Minneapolis.

From the latter part of 1990 through much of 1991, the US military had a chance to shine because of the Persian Gulf War, which at the time I supported.  Shortly afterward, candidate and then president Bill Clinton (as he took office in 1993), would try to lift the ban on gays in the military.
I was pretty openly gay even then, and in a sense that was not an issue because sexual orientation was perceived as “private life”, not germane to work in civilian life outside the military.  However, my own background, going back to a 1961 college expulsion (explained on my main blog on the Nov. 28, 2006 entry), had skitted along the security clearance issue for a long time, even though I actually served in the Army without incident from 1968-1970 (the draft) and was technically a veteran.

I soon became impressed with the connection of my own story and the moral and political debate (particularly as it was carried out in 1993), and by 1994 I had decided that I would publish it a book, discussed elsewhere (it came out in 1997 as “Do Ask Do Tell: A Gay Conservative Lashes Back”).

Now USLICO had, before my time, in the 1980s, been influenced by military culture, with specific rules (no coffee at desks, putting away all stuff at the end of the day, etc); these “rules” had let up about the time I started in 1990 with a different CEO.  Nevertheless, I felt acutely aware of old fashioned “moral” conflicts as they used to be perceived.  Should someone viewed as “morally unfit” to offer his life in service (even though I had served) rightfully depend on the military for his living?  I really didn’t want to stay there if I could not fight “don’t ask don’t tell”. 

But I felt that the publication of the book could provide “embarrassment” or conflict for the company. Furthermore, there were military records (available in paper files on site) with PII; military officers often came onto the property in uniform. Possibly questions could be raised about the appearance of possible compromise of confidentiality in conjunction with moral or political “hostility”.   At least, I wondered.
Fortunately, NWNL announced plans to acquire USLICO in 1994, and did so in early 1995, with the renaming of the combined company to ReliaStar.   I remained, but made an internal transfer in 1995 (to working in the accounting system), which I thought would sell me toward a transfer to Minneapolis and, as I perceived things, away from the conflict. (I think USLICO could well have been acquired instead by USAA, which would not have been good for me.)

In 1997, on July 11, I had the book published, and on the same day I received a phone call from Minneapolis about an opening.  The internal transfer proceeded without a hitch.  The offer was made around July 24, and on September 2, 1997, I started in Minneapolis, working on the consolidation of the company (partly a customer service workbench). I felt this was proper. But without a transfer, I believe I would have left the company in Arlington by the end of 1997.  When my mother had major heart surgery in Arlington in 1999, I could not consider retransferring back, partly for this reason. This was really a serious issue with me then.

I did get reimbursed for moving expenses. But I actually did not get paid relocation expenses related to the Labor Day weekend drive out there, but reported the expense as a moving expense to the I.R.S.  on the 1997 return (filed in 1998).  As far as the IRS was concerned, this was a “new job” and USLICO and ReliaStar were completely separate companies, which was how I wanted to treat it for tax purposes.  (The net financial impact was rather minimal.)  For retirement and pensions purposes, I draw from both “companies” as if, in a sense, they were one; but the pension calculation has two different pieces; eligibility was based on the sum total of both.   

Now, it probably was true that more P.I.I. was actually available on corporate servers than in Arlington, and of course, as in any job, I respect confidentiality, accessing production information for legitimate business purposes only.  (One can raise another question: should QA test systems be built with entirely fictitious data; in those days, they were always created by extracting production with sampling).

I lived only a thousand feet away from work, walking the Minneapolis Skyway from the Churchill Apartments. So I had little need to work from home or use corporate laptops at home.  However, I followed a strict rule that any “equipment” on my own premises had to belong to me and be paid for by me.  This was partly to avoid the “appearance” that corporate expenses contributed to any of my own, potentially inimical, “expenses.”

I met with HR about this in December 1996, before the transfer (I remember carrying the materials in a little box into the office, and the HR person opened with a famous movie quote, “What’s in the box?”). I also corresponded with corporate legal twice, in 1997 and 2000. In both times, the legal letter said there was no “conflict of interest” with a separate activity in publishing and distributing books or other media – but the legal language was stated in terms of property interests (like copyright ownership – strangely prescient), not the political issues.  It was essentially “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” and keep what’s yours.

Of course, today, the environment has indeed changed.  First, if one works from one, it is much safer to use corporate laptops and corporate encryption (“corporate” includes government, if that is the employers), because the safety of P.I.I. today is a much bigger public issue than it had been in the 1990s.  In fact, I wonder how companies that hire customer service reps to use their own computers (Alpine, Live Ops, etc) can maintain PII security on equipment owned by employees.  This may be a much bigger concern today than a few years ago when employment with such companies at home was becoming a popular opportunity, often presented on “Good Morning America”.

Another  factor that has changed the perception of “political conflict of interest” is social media, especially Facebook. 

I had, about 12 years ago, published an op-ed that suggested that people who have direct reports at work or who make underwriting decisions about customers probably should not express their opinions on the Internet without prepublication review.  That was because in a “Google” environment, stakeholders (customers, employees, etc) could learn of a manager’s “prejudices” which could not be defined in advance logically, and create legal risks (hostile workplace, etc).  In fact, that piece is still up on my site.   But, it would seem, social media have blown this notion away. In fact, Facebook seems predicated on the idea that a person has just one “identity” and that a double life and a concept like “don’t ask don’t tell” is morally and perhaps legally unsustainable.  People are expected to use social media to sell a corporate, rather than their own, agenda, or the whole idea of purpose is to become seamless. 

ReliaStar would announce its sale to Netherlands company ING in early 2000, and that sale actually would be closed in September 2000 (further "diluting" and residual "conflict of interest". I would leave the company with a downsizing and "forced retirement" and buyout at the end of 2001, when economic conditions and confusion following 9/11 forced cutbacks.  At the other end of the moral spectrum, we note that Congress finally passed a law for a staged repeal of "don't ask don't tell" at the end of 2010. 

It’s a good thing to be “retired” now, or is it.  I still work, in a checkerboard fashion. And I can’t talk about everything that goes on now.  But it’s a situation that changes all the time.
In fact, "conflict of interest" is a notion that lives in the idea of the beholder ("appearance of conflict of interest"), whether employee, employer, client, customer, or other stakeholder. 

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