CalPERS Surveys Employee Toilet Paper Preferences as Underfunding Worsens

CalPERS CEO Marcie Frost has stopped presenting the giant pension’s current funding level at monthly board meetings. And instead of keeping her eye firmly on that as CalPERS’ top priority, Frost is famously obsessed with surveys and polls as a means to preserve her hold on power, so she can better tell people what they want to hear. As we’ll see shortly, this polling fetish has produced another burgundy-level affair (for those of you who managed to miss it, in a not-organic looking development, staff members took to sporting burgundy clothing at CalPERS board meetings to show support for Frost, and employees were also exhorted to wear burgundy ribbons).

Results of a poll posted on CalPERS’ intranet, “Recent ‘Today’s Question’ Poll Reveals Much About Who We Are” indeed does reveal much about what CalPERS is, and not in a good way. I’m not sure what is worse, that CalPERS employees actually spent beneficiary (and ultimately taxpayer) monies devising, implementing, and publishing this survey (with a disconcerting professional-looking layout for such a frivolous exercise), or that sheep-like employees answered its questions. In an organization with adults as workers, a survey this juvenile and bizarrely intrusive would have elicited eye-rolls, complaints, and have been binned on a widespread basis. But CalPERS wasted employee time and beneficiary money cooking this embarrassment masquerading as…I’m not even sure what….entertainment?… and even more employees squandered time answering it and even reading the results.

Pray tell, how could anyone think it made sense for CalPERS as an institution to find out if staff members had a point of view on what was the proper way to install a toilet paper roll? Or how may pillows they use when sleeping? Or whether they’d rather work for a best friend or particular relatives? Or what their diet preferences are? Just have a look. I’m not making this up.

Now I sincerely doubt Frost suggested this survey be made.1 This foolishness looks instead to be a case of acting on priorities communicated by the leader. It may also indicate that Marcie went overboard in expanding CalPERS’ PR operation and its members are having to dream up busywork to justify their jobs. The fact that Frost didn’t insist that the results be pulled down as a potential embarrassment to CalPERS is evidence she approves of this sort of thing.

Given that CalPERS’ underfunding is one of the big reasons it isn’t getting the deferential treatment from the press that it once regarded as a right, you’d think Frost and other top managers were doing everything they could to address the problem. Since many employers are having to make budget cuts to pay their CalPERS’ contribution, CalPERS ought to be belt-tightening too and cracking down on waste. Even if that type of measure wouldn’t necessarily add up to big bucks, the symbolism is important: that CalPERS recognized times are tough and is engaging in sacrifices of its own. Dedicating CalPERS resources to pointless frivolity is poking a big stick in the eye of CalPERS’ constituencies. If CalPERS execs think pick-me-ups enhance productivity, they can provide that way more cheaply: have Dow Jones add some cartoons to the Daily News Summary it is supplying as part of CalPERS copyright infringement settlement.

Frost once religiously told the funded status every month at the end of her CEO update to the Board. She apparently wanted to depict the improvement in the funded status resulting from the Trump rally as a personal accomplishment. But the funded status is the result of CalPERS’ asset allocation, and Frost has no role in setting that.

But those who live by the sword die by the sword. At the February board meeting, Frost provided only the fund asset balance instead of percent funded. Regulars in the audience noted the change and thought it awkward. As one said by e-mail, “Marcie’s M.O. is to pick and choose her data points so It must be very bad.”

This change came after the new Chief Investment Officer, Ben Meng, said at the January offsite that he estimated the then-current funded ratio at 65% to 66% .

Frost has taken to citing more flattering, dated figures, falling back on citing the June 30, 2018 funded ratio, which was 70%, both to the state legislature and last week at a retirement planning event. And that was after Jerry Brown gave CalPERS a mini-bailout in the form of $6 billion of pre-funding, which improved the funding ratio by nearly three percentage points.

Of course, given the sparkling performance of the stock market in January and February, it’s possible that the funded ratio is now close to 70% again. Yet it appears that Frost is unwilling to present any funded ratio in the 60% range. There’s no excuse for her trying to pretend that things are better than they are.

We’ve made a major issue of how Frost made significant misrepresentations about her educational attainment and other accomplishments on her resume and during her hiring interviews. One of the defenses of the CalPERS PR machine was to try to mislead stakeholders by depicting our (and later Los Angeles Times’ Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Mike Hiltzik’s) beef being about her having only a high school education. That approach was designed to insinuate that those who thought it as a lousy idea to have a liar as CEO were instead hostile to people who overcame having a limited education.

However, in calling for an investigation of Frost’s credential inflation, former board member George Diehr also questioned why CalPERS had not insisted on a bachelor’s degree as a minimum requirement, as in the norm for public pension CEOs. Dieher was on to something. CalPERS is too important an institution to run like a junior high school clique.

1 If she did, it would show I need to revise my assessment of Frost downward.

stupid survey temp 3
Print Friendly, PDF & Email


    1. wilroncanada

      Re the TP survey:
      I wonder, did the survey include a question about how many of the employees REALLY contributed to conservation of t paper by using both sides?

  1. The Rev Kev

    Oh man, that survey must have been embarrassing to take. I was reconstructing in my mind what it must have looked like going by the results and it made me wince in embarrassment. But I am afraid that for the employees of 400 Q Street in Sacramento, the worst has yet to come. I’m sure that Frost’s attitude is that “To whom much is given, from him/her much is expected”. I’m afraid that the whole burgundy ribbons and clothing thing will not cut the mustard as far as proof of obedience and sacrifice is concerned. That is why starting from next week, all the rolls of toilet paper in CalPERS HQ are going to be removed from the staff toilets and replaced with rolls of sandpaper instead. Probably 40- to 60- grit if that means anything to some people. And it will be hanged in the underhand position to boot. Now that will prove dedication to the job – and to Frost.
    But wait! there’s more. Obviously Frost is ‘obsessed with surveys and polls as a means to preserve her hold on power’ but I am sure that people here do not think that this will be an end to all such personal polls and surveys, do you? It will be only a matter of time until she administers to all CalPERS employees the infamous 400 Question Purity Test. Modesty forbids me from saying what is in that test or what it is all about……oh hell. Who am I kidding? I know that you are all going to look it up anyway so here is a link to it at to satisfy your curiosity. With all the results in from those tests, I am sure that no employee will ever dare cross her lest the results of their test be ‘accidentally’ released onto the company servers. You heard it here first.

  2. Clive

    These sorts of surveys are a symptom of an underlying problem of toxic workplace cultures. What happens is that employee polls find issues with siloed working, office politics, backstabbing, pettiness, fiefdoms, basically it’s Westeros (I was about to add “without the knives” but there are metaphorical ones, usually to be found in your back) and management exhorting that gosh, doesn’t this look bad on us.

    The fix is of course to weed out the psychopaths who have secreted themselves in the hierarchy, increase spans of control, fostering a culture of professionalism, reward collaboration while punishing oneupmanship and have an honest assessment of the organisational goals, their realism or lack therefore and how the achievable ones can be achieved. All of which are, naturally, the last things the diseased management want to do.

    Hence the phony attempts, as shown here, to instill common cause and a sense of “we’re all one, big, happy CalPERS”. Next up it’ll be quiz nights, fantasy football team competitions, bring your dog to work days, charity fundraising and cake baking. If these fail to have the desired effect, it might be — horror of horrors! — team-building events.

    CalPERS staff, don’t say I didn’t warn you! Clive’s Top Tip? Whenever you get an employee survey asking you to honestly rate the workplace, do what I do and lie. Huge great whoppers are best. Say it’s all just absolutely marvellous and you couldn’t be happier, things couldn’t be better and you wouldn’t change a thing. Believe me, it’s easier in the long run telling the kind of management you have there what they want to hear. Keep being honest in those surveys and they’re only going to find more cruel and unusual ways to punish you like asking how many sheets of toilet paper you use per visit.

    1. vlade

      Once upon a time, I worked for a large multinational. The board of the multinational heard that engaged employees are productive and happy employees. So they run a survey, asking, amongst the other questions about engagements.

      Well, it was a relatively new management team, after the old one went cropper, so the employees thought “let’s see”. And gave honest answers on the engagement. The “engagement score” (calculated of course by an expensive external consultant) was about 30% or so. The management, in their wisdom, decided that since no-one is engaged, no-one (except them, for finding it out) deserves a bonus [ unfortunately, they promised to publish the score in the annual report, and it looked really bad, so they had to make it up somehow] Woohoo!

      Come next year, and the management wanted to see how well they managed. So they run the survey again. This time, team leaders called their teams before the survey, and told them how to answer some of the questions. A miracle – the engagement went up from 30% to about 75%, which the management felt really good about, and awarded itself more in bonus. But because the company didn’t do particularly well, the bonus for the masses, well, there just wasn’t anything left. And the employees were engaged, saying it wasn’t the money they were doing the job for, so they wouldn’t miss it anyways, right? Take one for the company, right?

      So the moral of the tale? It doesn’t make a difference.

      1. TimH

        I worked for a very large semiconductor company in USA. There was a voluntary annual workplace survey (run by outside firm), with clever questions asking the same points multiple ways to cross check the answers. Interesting points:
        1. Management had survey participation targets
        2. Survey data was confidential, individual employee results not available to company management
        3. Survey URLs were individualised “to avoid survey being completed more than once”
        4. An HR bud told me much later, when we’d both moved on, that the results for employees who resigned were examined to look for signs of departure. This was deemed not to conflict with item 2. above, as the person was an ex-employee, not an employee.

    2. flora

      Clive’s Top Tip? Whenever you get an employee survey asking you to honestly rate the workplace, do what I do and lie. Huge great whoppers are best. Say it’s all just absolutely marvellous and you couldn’t be happier, things couldn’t be better and you wouldn’t change a thing.

      Yes. Some years ago my big research outfit brought in new management. New management decided the 2nd year of their tenure to conduct a staff wide, confidential (uh-huh) poll to find the problems causing a decline in staff morale. I answered the poll with lies, knowing that no poll run by management would be confidential from management. Unfortunately, some of our most senior and brilliant people were political naifs and answered honestly, thinking the poll was honest and confidentiality would be respected. Employees who answered honestly and negatively about new management as the source of low morale were fired were fired within a year.

      adding: I didn’t answer the poll for several weeks, until HR called and said, “you haven’t returned your poll to us yet”. I asked, “If the poll is confidential how do you know I haven’t returned it?” HR said something about a numeric code, not a person’s same. When asked if that didn’t mean the the numeric code was cross referenced with a person’s name the HR person started waffling.

      1. EoH

        Indeed. Any other response to such obtuse mismanagement makes the honest employee the nail that sticks up when all about them are waving hammers.

      2. Tom Bradford

        ‘Confidential’ isn’t the same as ‘anonymous’. In the former the poll would be run by an outside body that, although being able to link a particular poll response to an individual, will not identify that specificity to the poll’s sponsor.

        And pigs can fly,

    3. Lambert Strether

      Clive, I cannot forbear from quoting only part of the following memo from Snow Crash. From YT’s Mom’s manager, Marietta:

      I’ve been asked to distribute the new regulations regarding office pool displays. The enclosed memo is a new subchapter of the EBGOC Procedure Manual, replacing the old subchapter entitled PHYSICAL PLANT/CALIFORNIA LOS ANGELES/BUILDINGS/OFFICE AREAS/PHYSICAL LAYOUT REGULATIONS/EMPLOYEE INPUT! GROUP ACTIVITIES.

      The old subchapter was a flat prohibition on the use of office space or time for “pool” activities of any kind, whether permanent (e.g., coffee pool) or one-time (e.g., birthday parties).

      This prohibition still applies, but a single, one-time exception has now been made for any office that wishes to pursue a joint bathroom-tissue strategy.

      By way of introduction, let me just make a few general comments on this subject. The problem of distributing bathroom tissue to workers presents inherent challenges for any office management system due to the inherent unpredictability of usage-not every facility usage transaction necessitates the use of bathroom tissue, and when it is used, the amount needed (number of squares) may vary quite widely from person to person and, for a given person, from one transaction to the next. This does not even take into account the occasional use of bathroom tissue for unpredictable/creative purposes such as applying/removing cosmetics, beverage-spill management, etc For this reason, rather than trying to package bathroom tissue in small one-transaction packets (as is done with premoistened towelettes, for example), which can be wasteful in some cases and limiting in other cases, it has been traditional to package this product in bulk distribution units whose size exceeds the maximum amount of squares that an individual could conceivably use in a single transaction (barring force majeure). This reduces to a minimum the number of transactions in which the distribution unit is depleted (the roll runs out) during the transaction, a situation that can lead to emotional stress for the affected employee. However, it does present the manager with some challenges in that the distribution unit is rather bulky and must be repeatedly used by a number of different individuals if it is not to be wasted.

      And there’s plenty more! Anyhow, it sounds like Marietta has moved on to CalPERS…

      1. ChrisPacific

        The multi-page one-joke non-sequitur is almost a Stephenson signature. One of the reasons that Cryptonomicon is such a mighty tome is because he does things like spend 6 pages on optimal cereal eating techniques.

        I’d call it a flaw, but I’ve read most of them several times over and I can’t say it particularly detracted from my enjoyment in any of them, so I’ll just think of it as part of his writing style.

        On the CalPERS front, it sounds like Marcie could have a promising future designing Facebook surveys if the CEO thing doesn’t work out. I would have a crack at the statistical methodology, but the questions are so pointless that it’s difficult to imagine anybody caring whether or not the answers are accurate.

  3. flora

    This poll’s question list is so high school. Is CalPERS being run like a high school type clique?

    Thanks for your continued reporting on CalPERS, PE, and pensions.

  4. EoH

    Poll to find out what they want to hear, manipulate the results to match what you want to say.

    HR departments are familiar with that dynamic. I think it is usually encountered in the midst of severe change. I call it a variation on the cat hanging to the ceiling by nine claws, one being a casualty of the situation.

    But it is startling that such a normally high priority issue for CalPERS – its funding level – is being supplanted by a poll for toilet paper preferences. I suspect that any focus on actual performance would demonstrate that CalPERS’s biggest problem is its underperforming CEO and GC.

    Employees must feel as if they are passengers on a plane whose pilot is bragging about their speed, while ignoring that she is in an unrecoverable spin.

  5. David in Santa Cruz

    This is a disgusting example of the “Tracy Flick” style of high-school leadership being practiced at CalPERS

    It’s always the employees who are dysfunctional, never their leadership. This “Toilet Paper Hang” personality-test is the brand of TV pop-psychologist Dr. Gilda Carle (who seems to have time-travelled Joan Collins’ stylist from the 1980’s set of Dynasty). Dr. Carle provides customized corporate programs — no doubt for a healthy fee. What a horrendous waste of beneficiary resources. A sound fiduciary would call staff to task over this at the next Board meeting.

    A dozen years ago the government organization where I worked got a new elected chief to replace our previous four-term leader. One of the first things that she did was to hire a pair of consulting psychologists to survey us. Like clive, I lied prodigiously. That elected official eventually became the first single-termer in 50 years, when one of the disgruntled “troops” filed against her at the first opportunity and bumped her off!

  6. Sinecure on Wall St.

    As previously suggested, if given this survey and you do feel the need to respond lie like a rug! The surveys arent anonymous, they have ways of tracking you down.

    Ann Stausboll used to have town hall type meetings and was so aghast how open and honest people were she was overheard post meeting noting that her employees were “a bunch of whiners” In followup town halls out came the video cameras and any employee who felt compelled to speak had to state their name and what department they worked in….i guess the failed law writing professor had nothing better to do than seek retribution on those who dared to point out her ineptitude

Comments are closed.