Blood on Her Hands (cont'd.)
Pierre blanched. Leroy listed his ex-wife, Velma, as the beneficiary. The same was true for the profit-sharing plan. A further check on the records showed that Leroy had listed Lucretia as his current spouse and added her to his health benefits. However, he had failed to change the beneficiary on his life insurance policy to Lucretia.
Jean-Claude returned with Pierre to the office where the group eagerly awaited the news. Using the utmost diplomacy, the two men explained the situation. However, even Henry Kissinger himself could not have mollified this group.
Lucretia's face grew more intense with anger. Then she raised her fist and shouted curses toward the ceiling as though addressing Leroy's ghost, while Fogel's spirits dropped like yesterday's party balloons. Finally, after about five minutes of Lucretia's histrionics, the two sisters stomped out of Pierre's office with the deflated undertaker following meekly behind.
Although human resources professionals deal with complex and difficult situations on a daily basis, it seems inconceivable that we could be hurt or even killed in the normal course of conducting business. However, one only has to read the newspapers to know that society is changing and workplace violence exists. Thus, it's our obligation to maintain our own safety as well as ensure the safety of those around us. We think Pierre's actions were irresponsible in this case.
Pierre should have taken some precautionary measures to more effectively gauge the situation. He could have requested that the receptionist assess the purpose of the trio's visit. Once he knew their intentions, Pierre should have called the factory to determine if Leroy was at work. Alternatively, Pierre could have pretended to have a busy schedule, playing for time until he obtained more information. He also could have alerted security and had them available if needed.
After safely extricating himself from the meeting, Pierre's biggest error in judgment was returning without taking appropriate precautions. Having an attorney at his side might save him in court, but would be no defense against a gun if Lucretia had decided to bring one along.
Before returning, Pierre easily could and should have alerted company security, called the local police to alert them, and then listened to their assessment of this group's potential for violence. At a minimum he could have advised the receptionist to prepare to call the police if it appeared that there was an altercation.
Furthermore, to avoid any potential negative reaction to the bad news, he could have engaged in a number of stall tactics. Such tactics would have enabled him to safely communicate by letter or telephone without exposing the company to liability. Pierre could have indicated, for example, that he was unable to locate the records. He also could have stated that he required a copy of the death certificate to start the process and would have to contact the insurance company to verify the benefits.
Besides Pierre's failure to take appropriate safety precautions in the office, we feel disclosing the beneficiary details to the group was a breech of privacy to the real beneficiary. In doing so, Pierre exposed the company to liability and potentially endangered the real beneficiary.
Pierre was lucky. Through no action of his own he got through the meeting unharmed. His next step, however, should be to document the incident, advise the police of the situation, and consider advising the beneficiary as well.
From a benefits administration perspective, there are some additional considerations. Insurance companies honor the beneficiary designated regardless of the employee's current marital status. Employees who divorce and remarry may not remember to change beneficiaries on policies. In this case, Lucretia is probably out of luck. However, Pierre can minimize a reoccurrence by preparing a checklist to include with all coverages requiring beneficiaries. This checklist could be used whenever an employee wishes to change any coverage affecting a beneficiary. For example, someone from the human resources staff could go over the checklist with each employee who asks to change health care dependents.
Also, the company could enclose annual or quarterly notices in employees' paychecks, reminding them to make sure their beneficiaries are current. Moreover, during open enrollment each year (the period when employees can re-enroll or update their benefits, specifically life and health programs), companies should ask employees to review and update any beneficiary designations as well. In this particular case, such a review would prevent a former spouse being awarded survivor benefits even though a new survivor exists.
It is not uncommon for employees to forget (or fail) to change their beneficiaries on company-provided benefits to reflect their current family situations. Often employees are not familiar with the company's procedures for such matters as changing beneficiaries on life insurance or savings plans or adding dependents to medical and dental plans. Sometimes employees are not even aware that they may need to fill out different change forms for each company benefit. To assist employees in this matter and to avoid litigation by disgruntled children, widows, and others, it is prudent for employers to communicate the company's benefit plan. The company should provide information about benefit procedures in the company handbook and remind employees to review designated beneficiaries on their various beneficiary forms annually.
Some employers and their insurance companies are sued by persons who believe the company is responsible for their misfortune in not being designated on the beneficiary form. Ultimately, in order to succeed in being recognized as the "rightful" beneficiary, the non-designated beneficiary would probably have to prove one or both of the following: that it was the intent of the employee to designate that individual and that the company had represented to the employee that he/she had done what was necessary to effectuate the necessary change in beneficiary, or that the company had been negligent in failing to honor the employee's express intent. Generally, if successful, such a beneficiary would receive only the benefits of the policy at issue and would not be entitled to punitive or emotional suffering damages.
A final note: did Leroy really forget to designate Lucretia as his beneficiary?!
Excerpted from Sex, Laws, & Stereotypes, by N. Elizabeth Fried, Ph.D.©