Keil Hubert: The Stress of HR Regard

Office insurgents are people who use aggression, threats and conflict to prove that they’re exempt from the company’s rules. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert continues his five-part series on dealing with these difficult employees with the story of a fellow who terrorized his team-mates, but never came to upper management’s attention.

 

This February’s columns are all about ‘office insurgents’ – those people who deliberately instigate confrontations with their peers and superiors in order to make it plain to everyone that they’re exempt from the rules that apply to everyone else. Last week’s Evil Bob story introduced a fellow who puffed himself up and started fights with complete strangers in order to pre-emptively secure his superior place in the office pecking order. This week, I want to study a fellow who focused his ire entirely on his own workgroup. Unlike last week’s buffoon, this fellow dedicated his misconduct to suppressing the people around him. Similar tactics, but different targets.

The setting for this story was a public sector maintenance operation, where several hundred technical workers specialized in repairing complicated government equipment. This environment presented an interesting personnel dynamic. If you’ve ever heard stories about how it’s nearly impossible to fire employees in the civil service, those stories are mostly true. Terminating a bad public sector employee can be an arduous process. Managers have to be resolute, must commit to a long process and must be willing to accept living in a hostile work environment for months or years while a termination effort winds its way through the massive and turgid bureaucracy.

This particular fellow was an old-timer; he had more than ten years’ service in his workshop. That meant that he had seniority over most of the other specialists performing his shop’s function. Familiarity might have been a contributing factor in his bad attitude. The man’s demeanour, appearance and speech were distinctly blue-collar: he dressed as sloppily as he could get away with in the local culture. He was clumsy and imprecise in his language (and I never noticed any reason to suspect that he was deliberately ‘dumbing down’ his speech). Whether these were affectations or legitimate personal attributes, the net effect on his peers was that he fit very well into his shop’s culture. He should have had no trouble at all maintaining good relations with everyone else.

He didn’t. Instead, this Bob went a long way out of his way to antagonize everyone in his building. He frequently came to work with a bad attitude, and he regularly lashed out at his co-workers over trivial matters. He ‘talked smack’ [1] about his superiors in public settings. He resisted new workplace policies. He impugned the integrity and professionalism of workers in other departments. He spoke to his own senior managers with contempt and open disregard. All of these bad behaviours marked Bob as a thoroughly unpleasant fellow. People didn’t particularly like him.

Everything that the man did seemed to involve others’ pain, suffering, or misery. In some companies, that would make him prime executive material.
Everything that the man did seemed to involve others’ pain, suffering or misery. In some companies, that would make him prime executive material.

Those behaviours alone should have netted Bob a poor annual performance review and perhaps a few written reprimands. I knew Bob’s supervisor, and I suspect that some official censure probably did take place. I can’t know for sure because I wasn’t in Bob’s department, and his personnel records were (appropriately) sealed. That said, Bob’s supervisor was a man of strong character. The boss might have been laid back and forgiving, but he wasn’t a pushover. More on that in a second.

Bob compounded his interpersonal incompatibilities with frequent and nasty temper tantrums. His co-workers told me about some of Bob’s violent rants: someone or something would upset Bob, and he’d immediately start shouting furiously at (and often threatening violence against) whichever of his peers or subordinates was closest at the time. Sometimes, he’d use threatening language. Other times, he’d gesture with held tools as if he planned to bludgeon someone. One worker told me that Bob had once hurled a metal stepladder at him. I believe that Bob used these outbursts to maintain a reputation within his building as ‘a violent person who shouldn’t be provoked’.

This conduct benefitted Bob in three ways: first, his supervisors were reluctant to rein him in, because his hair-trigger temper guaranteed that any attempt at performance or behaviour counselling would turn into a fight. Second, Bob’s verbally and physically aggressive conduct would only get worse after a counselling, because Bob seemed to lack the maturity to accept corrective guidance. Finally, Bob’s willingness to break local conduct rules – ranging from threats of physical violence to throwing objects at people – gave many workers the impression that Bob was willing to actually hurt someone if he was pushed too far.

As clever tactics go, it was a pretty shrewd way to create the environment that he wanted to live in. If Bob had been clever enough to limit himself to operating exclusively on the safe side of the line that separated tolerable and intolerable behaviour, he might have gotten away with this game for his entire career. His superiors would have given him considerably greater freedom of to work on his own terms than they gave to his co-workers. His peers would have shown him the deference that he seemed to crave. The man could have lived like the stereotypical small town bully for years: someone to be feared, avoided and obeyed because no one wanted to provoke one of his eruptions. He could have traded his grudging restraint for favoured status in his community.

A savvy extortionist knows that a consistent, regular flow of money is more valuable in the long run than a single big score. Small amounts can be rationalized as a good investment, like an annoying tax.
A savvy extortionist knows that a consistent, regular flow of money is more valuable in the long run than a single big score. Small amounts can be rationalized as a good investment, like an annoying tax.

I’m pretty sure that Bob wasn’t that smart. He lacked either the self-discipline or the wisdom to stop pushing once he’d secured his current objective. He kept aggressively pushing management, even after it became clear that he’d exceeded management’s willingness to look the other way.

Bob first came to my attention when his manager approached my department with a formal request for help in gathering systems evidence. We dutifully investigated and proved that Bob had recently been perusing naughty content on his office PC. Bob’s manager issued Bob a formal, written reprimand that made it clear that any further such shenanigans would cost him his job.

If Bob had been smart, he would have dialled his misconduct back within the limits of what his boss would ignore. Bob was not that smart. Just two years later, the same manager showed back up in my office asking for help prosecuting with the exact same problem. We obliged, found irrefutable evidence that Bob was once again perusing naughty content on the internet, and gave the powers-that-be the report that they needed to terminate Bob’s employment.

I’m being deliberately stingy with the details of this incident since details aren’t germane to the primary issue: Bob was a highly effective office insurgent, and he got away with his malarkey for many years. He was eventually terminated for cause because of his pathological refusal to stop breaking rules – administrative rules, not behavioural ones. His threats and tantrums and foul attitude never entered the equation. That’s because by the time management got around to taking action, Bob had effectively had moulded his workgroup to be exactly what he wanted it to be. Everyone in his shop was afraid of him, was differential towards him and was unwilling to take any action to check his outrageous behaviour. All that he had to do to keep his good thing going indefinitely was to exercise some restraint when it came to the company’s Acceptable Use Policy.

Bob was actually doing quite well at keeping his bad behaviour under the radar. Normally, if someone in the company did something outrageous, news of it would ripple through the local rumour mill like a fire alarm. Word of Bob’s antics, however, never seemed to leave his building. I’d been in the organization for years and had only learned about the man’s misconduct when his manager brought us the formal request to gather evidence. Bob managed to scuttle back under cover after that episode; I’d completely forgotten about Bob’s pornography consumption problem by the time that his manager came back around the second time for the same offense. He was stealthy.

Bureaucratically stealthy, that is. Not the other kind.
Bureaucratically stealthy, that is. Not the other kind.

Bob also managed to cultivate a strong reputation with the local union, and eventually got himself elected as a shop steward. This made him even more powerful, since the union gave him the authority and the remit to challenge management’s decisions on other workers’ behalf. Bob relished the chance to interfere with pending disciplinary action; not for justice’s sake, but for a chance to ‘stick it to the man.’ This left Bob’s victims in a bad state: they hated how he abused them, but they needed his help to protect them from consequences when they made their own mistakes.

This is why I chose to study this fellow. As office insurgents go, Bob was remarkably talented. Despite his ‘loose canon’ reputation, the man was extremely skilled at selecting his victims and in limiting the ‘explosive radius’ of his outbursts. He was careful to only ever target peers and subordinates with his threats, so that no one in management would have either the evidence or the motivation to initiate any form of official action. Bob was a jerk to people outside of his workgroup, but never enough of a jerk that anyone was motivated to demand that his management chain take some sort of corrective action. Bob was also enough of an ally to his victims that no one was willing to do something that might cost them his protection. Bob’s victims accepted his bullying as a ‘cost of doing business’. If you’re a fan of exploitative evil, then Bob’s approach was a thing of beauty.

To be clear, I’m not a fan. To paraphrase Mark Antony’s speech at the Forum, I come to deconstruct Bob’s body of work, not to praise him. The evil that he did deserves to be examined rather than buried with his career so that it might help others. Bob himself can rot.

I stand by my assessment of Bob that he was a very talented office insurgent. It was only his own lack of self-control did him in. Had Bob been a bit more mature, or had his manager possessed a bit less moral courage, then Bob might have carried on his antics for another decade.

The part of the story that left me stunned about the whole mess was that Bob had all of the tools that he needed to consume his pornography and to easily evade censure for watching it: the man had a personal laptop with unrestricted internet access right on his desk the night that he went browsing for smut. He had a perfectly safe alternative… and he chose to use his company PC to do his browsing instead. This was (as best I can tell) Bob deliberately thumbing his nose at management; in effect, saying ‘I dare you to come after me. You’re powerless to stop me. I do what I want!’

‘Yeah, that IS my my excrement all over your office wall. What’s your point?'
‘Yeah, that IS my my excrement all over your office wall. What’s your point?’

He probably would have gotten away with it again, too, had it not been for one savvy tactic employed by his boss: Bob’s manager was actively monitoring his conduct for evidence of a specific repeat offense. Bob’s manager had been meticulously careful to spell out the consequences of recidivism in his first reprimand. For months afterwards, Bob’s manager watched him closely for signs and symptoms that Bob was misusing his company-issued PC. Bob’s manager was patient enough to avoid requesting an analysis until he was sure that he’d secure the evidence that he needed to guarantee a ‘clean kill’. [2] Bob’s manager tolerated quite a bit of lesser misconduct in order to secure the unassailable bureaucratic high ground. As Sun Tzu once quipped: He will win who knows how to handle will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.’

I submit that this tactic is the most effective way to take down an exceptionally entrenched office insurgent. The manager who holds disciplinary authority over the troublemaker needs to set some clear expectations in writing – either in the form of pre-emptive performance standards, or in a formal reprimand – that spell out the conditions under which the offender can be terminated. Then, after the insurgent has triggered the required conditions on the official record the first time, the manager needs to thoroughly document the occurrence… and then appear to disengage. This serves two purposes: first, it emboldens the miscreant to act up. That is, the ego-driven baddie will misinterpret the manager’s apparent lack of interest as a sign that the manager is unwilling to reengage. Second, it gives the manager the freedom to ignore some of the insurgent’s lesser offenses so that his or her next disciplinary action is squandered on an inconsequential admonishment over something that isn’t termination-worthy. The idea is to loosen the reins a bit… let the insurgent think that he’s free… wait for just the right moment… and then bring the hammer down one time.

I freely admit that it’s a risky tactic. Depending on your local culture, it would probably be smart to socialize your plan with HR and legal, and possibly even with building security. After all, you don’t want your Bob to cause any lasting damage (e.g. physically injuring a co-worker, etc.) along the way. The intent is to trade away several minor offenses in order to strike one decisive knock-out blow over a major offense. That is, to manoeuver your adversary into a metaphorical box canyon where escape is impossible before you close in for the metaphorical killing shot.

Your office environment’s compatibility with metaphor may vary.
Your office environment’s compatibility with metaphor may vary.

That last point deserves emphasis: a dedicated office insurgent is a dangerous opponent. Someone who routinely threatens to engage in violence in the workplace (in whatever fashion) is capable of stepping over the line from only threatening violence to actually committing violence if he or she feel threatened. Unlike a normal misbehaving employee, the use of a Performance Improvement Plan or other long-term employee rehabilitation program may push the insurgent over his or her own self-imposed behavioural limits, and people could get hurt – or worse – as a result. The sort of techniques that frightens a non-violent worker into compliance may not (probably won’t) work on a malevolent worker who aggressively threatens other people to get his or her way. The stress of Human Resources’ or management’s constant attention might therefore provoke an excessive reaction. I advocate containing their potential for violent outbreaks with the illusion of reduced scrutiny while you get all the moving parts aligned for securing a decisive victory.

Once final note: if you haven’t read Tim Powers’ 1989 horror novel ‘The Stress of Her Regard, I highly recommend it. I based the title for this column on Mr Powers’ book because of the relationship between the story’s protagonist and his obsessively violent antagonist. I think that there’s a comparable dynamic between a manager and an exceptionally capable office insurgent: in the book, the slightest mistake on the protagonist’s part can cause someone dear to him, to be horribly murdered as his romantic partner/adversary overreacts. This inspires the protagonist to be not only fearful, but also extremely circumspect. He learns through the story that needs to arrange to rid himself of his dangerous companion, but doesn’t dare let her discover what he’s up to until he’s sure that he can succeed.

Next week, I plan to introduce and talk about how to mitigate a very different type of office insurgent: the person who constantly causes trouble for management outside of the workgroup as a form of administrative (as opposed to physical) violence.


[1] That’s local slang for ‘contemptuously denigrated’.

[2] That is, an indisputable administrative termination.


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewing, and Horrible Bosses at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

Keil Hubert

Keil Hubert

POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert. You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store. Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant. Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

© Business Reporter 2021

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