By Heman Ravichandar
He was always the first person in at work, polite, discreet and deadline-driven. His desk was always neat, and had a joyful picture of him and his wife. You could say, he was a model employee—until his face was splashed all over the newspapers as the prime accused in the murder of his wife.
Employees have many facets to their lives; layers which are not always easy to see through. They may be close to being ideal employees, helpful, reliable, even irritatingly cheerful, in office. You may think that their office persona extends to their personal life and you believe them to be upright citizens and caring homemakers. And then suddenly one day, a “wonderful” employee is picked up by the police for a criminal investigation.
There are time-tested systems to deal with in-company ethical lapses of employees, whether it is fraudulent degree certificates, fudged corporate expense statements, or a whole slew of interpersonal misdemeanours. But rogue behaviour outside, warranting police investigations and arrests, is a different kettle of fish altogether. Most times it catches companies off guard. And yet, as organizations become microcosms of society, it is but a natural corollary that deviants too could well find a place in employee demographics.
Deviants come in many packages. By no means exhaustive, here is an indicative list of the most common ones.
The fraudster: Usually the motive is straightforward financial gain. Embezzlement, scams, promises of jobs or credit-card theft could potentially mean financial liability for the firm. Usually there is even a history of similar behaviour in previous organizations.
The resident bully: By most accounts, they are ideal employees. Their dark side comes out at home, exemplified by ill-treatment of domestic help, child abuse and domestic violence. Usually adept at hushing up cases, they go undetected for long.
The closet sympathizer: They lead double lives. The job for them is a camouflage, a means to cover the work for extremist organizations that they actually do. They are willing to risk everything at its altar.
The violent assaulter: Sensational cases come to mind where employees have taken the extreme step of murder or assault. The reasons could vary from complex romantic relationships, financial disasters and deep psychological trauma. Also in the reckoning are sexual predators and corporate spies. In each case, the tipping point for the slide into crime could vary from a desire for revenge, deep disconnect with society, possibility of quick financial gain or psychiatric dysfunctionality. They may even have been caught in the act earlier, but got away since their previous organization was reluctant to press charges.
Organizations cannot be held responsible for the delinquent conduct of employees or be expected to know their dark secrets. And yet, as one sees the many recent instances of white-collar workers being arraigned on criminal charges, one cannot but wonder how they should safeguard themselves against such situations and minimize the damage. Veterans who have handled such cases have this to say:
- Hone the sixth sense of recruiters, especially when it comes to gauging integrity. According to investor Warren Buffett, “…In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.” But how do you assess integrity? Tests which use “…. physics and mathematics may tell us how the universe began; they are not much use in predicting human behaviour,” said physicist Stephen Hawking presciently at a lecture in the UK in 2010. The most practical solution I was offered was to make the much-ridiculed human resources (HR) interview (as distinct from functional interview) in the selection process, actually count. Train recruiters to trust their instincts and probe actively if they sense something wrong. And if they are then overruled in the panel, at least record the sense of disquiet and observe the recruit for an appropriate time.
- Have a strong uncompromising code of ethics; don’t hesitate to press charges. You need to be clear that any deviant behaviour will be dealt with strictly. While this may not stop the crime, it is a good deterrent for many people. Demonstrate a bias for action to protect the company and your employer brand. It is in the interest of the larger business community that companies do not allow rogue employees to continue their behaviour in other firms. Moreover, cooperate fully with the law and the police in investigations. In fact, proactively inform in such cases.
- Have internal safeguards. A strong background verification process, robust information security guidelines, and a healthy relationship with law-enforcement officials are important. Background check of employees engaged in sensitive assignments should be done regularly and more stringently.
- Speak about the incidents of the past to educate managers. This will help them understand why processes are in place and what to watch out for, just like having a good fire drill in place.
- Keep a track of what other companies are doing and stress-test your internal process for such situations. The key is not to be caught off-guard when you are faced with a potential rogue situation.
- Communicate as much as possible, to the anxious co-workers or team that has been exposed or has knowledge of such behaviour, about the steps that the organization has taken to address the wrong. Post-event counselling and a reinforcement of values is what needs to be done quickly to allow healing as well as build coping mechanisms.
- Ring-fence co-workers from the press. Have a clearly articulated position for the media and assigned points of contact who will communicate with them.
- Though it may be deemed an intrusion into their privacy, as far as possible, get managers to stay tuned into the lives, concerns and developments of employees.
“His arrest came as such a surprise to me. I would have never thought he would do such a thing. But we really had lost personal touch with the employee over the last five or six years,” said a senior leader, commenting on the arrest of a co-worker of many years.
- Don’t ignore the red herrings—in résumés, behaviour, etc. The thought that rouge employees are unpredictable and there is nothing that can be done about them is a myth that has no grounding.
Most employees do not suddenly go bad in the morning. There are signs and warnings long before a critical incident hits you; often, a change in work behaviour. A co-worker, a friend, a manager may have noticed this. The trick is to ensure that the system picks up the dissonance.
“He was polite, helpful and always accommodating of colleagues’ requests. We had no inkling whatsoever that he was involved in anything nefarious. The only hint we ever got was when some close office colleagues dropped in unannounced at his home one weekend just to surprise him as they were in the neighbourhood. He bluntly refused them entry. In retrospect, his refusal did seem odd, given how gregarious he otherwise always was. But we brushed it aside thinking that he just wanted to keep his professional and personal life distant,” said the chief executive to me. What emerged later was that this horribly deviant employee was shielding a sophisticated telecommunication network used for anti-national activities.
While signals from lead indicators like this may be very weak, it begs the point that you need to have your ear to the ground.
“Corruption, embezzlement, fraud, these are all characteristics which exist everywhere. It is regrettably the way human nature functions, whether we like it or not. What successful economies do is keep it to a minimum,” said American economist Alan Greenspan during a TV debate on US news programme Democracy Now! in 2007. The same could be said for organizations.
Hema Ravichandar is a strategic human resources consultant. She serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations. She was formerly the global head of HR for Infosys Ltd.