CUNA Mutual Group long has enjoyed a reputation as a cozy place to work. Indeed, visitors to the Madison, Wis., mutual insurer bring back apocryphal stories of how even the city's taxi drivers want to work there.

But there are indications that work demands have gotten tougher for employees of the industry's chief insurance provider.

One sign: A story in the company's Aug. 7 newsletter that tried to soothe fears about job security as a result of the company's increased emphasis on employee performance evaluations.

"The people involved are in the middle of handling a wide range of performance situations that are pretty serious - serious enough to put a number of individuals' jobs at stake," the article said. "The performance situations being addressed right now represent less than 3 percent" of the group's employees, "and many of those will improve as they get the help they need."

CUNA Mutual director of public relations Del Dockter declined to discuss details of the performance evaluation program, citing it as an internal manner.

"It's nothing really new," Mr. Dockter said. Asked about a new emphasis or tinkering with the program since CUNA Mutual president Mike Kitchen took the reins earlier this year, Mr. Dockter said, "The program is constantly being revised."

Still, the concept of performance evaluations is in line with Mr. Kitchen's agenda of increasing efficiency and cutting expenses. In his Aug. 15 address to CUNA Mutual's 4,800 employees, he cited the program as a tool to reduce staff, according to the insurer's Aug. 21 newsletter.

Mr. Kitchen said layoffs are possible, but he said he hopes to avoid them by reducing staff through a combination of attrition; performance issues; a hiring freeze, except for certain skill areas; a small number of early retirements; and voluntary severance packages.

"We haven't worked out all the details in this, so I am just trying to give you an idea of the kinds of things we are doing," he said in the newsletter. "What we're trying to do is avoid any layoff situations. This doesn't mean we won't have layoffs in the future, but we don't have plans to do it."

CUNA Mutual employees feel left in the lurch, industry sources said. "Everyone thought it (the Aug. 15 speech) was going to be the one" in which cuts were announced, said one industry source. "Now they're wondering if it's going to be the next one."

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