7 warning signs an employee has gone rogue

Trust and IT go hand in hand. Here are the red flags to watch for before you get burned

7 warning signs of could-be rogue employees
Christopher Smyth

For all the emphasis on tools and gizmos, IT is still very much about the people who develop and use said tools and gizmos. Collaboration, mutual respect, passion for the work -- all this and more are essential to a beneficial outcome, whether your IT group is shipping code, swatting bugs, working with business users, or securing company systems.

But as technology becomes more powerful and computer systems become increasingly rife with sensitive data, one facet of the people side of IT finds itself under increased scrutiny: Trust.

Over the past three decades, I’ve made wonderful hires, people that my gut told me were the right candidates for the job, then went on to prove themselves beyond my wildest expectations. But every once in a while, I’ve missed early warnings signs that an otherwise great candidate or talented, hardworking employee lacked, let’s call it, a strong moral compass.

When someone you admired, trusted, and invested yourself in ends up embezzling from the company, illegally accessing private emails, or using customer credit card data to buy computer equipment for their home, your incorrectly placed trust in that person will haunt you.

The truth is you can’t always tell who has the potential to go rogue. But over the course of my career, I have found a few red flags to watch out for. None is surefire, and it’s always good to give folks the benefit of the doubt. Consider the following to be less a litmus test than a set of hard-earned lessons in dealing with employees who’ve gone rogue.

Red flag No. 1: Unexpectedly fails background check

One of the best hires I've made over the past three decades was a woman who told me she made a horrible mistake when she was a teenager. She had been part of a group of employees on a U.S. Federal Navy base commissary who had been caught claiming customer refunds that were not real. She was prosecuted in federal court, and unlike the common throwaway line, this fraudulent act ended up on her permanent record.

During my interview with her, she was very candid about the incident and seemed very contrite. She assured me it would not happen again. The background check revealed it was the only trouble she had ever gotten in -- not even a speeding ticket to her name.

I hired her and she remains a top performer 10 years later. She’s a manager now. Her employees love her, and she’s never let us down. Perhaps not surprising, she was also one of my best colleagues when it came to spotting rogue employees. This is an invaluable skill. It’s also testament to the fact that no company or employer should automatically discount hiring someone who is able to demonstrate they have left prior bad decisions behind.

Contrast that with the few other job candidates who didn’t tell me of their criminal records and instead waited for the required background check to reveal their unlawful histories. This lie by omission has become a deal-breaker for me. Usually by the time the background check comes in, I will have already hired the person and they will have started work in a provisional role. It’s quite a shock to find that someone you’ve put time and trust in hasn’t been upfront with you. Yes, many people are hesitant to reveal past criminal transgressions, but trust is either won or lost right at the beginning.

This was a hard-learned lesson. The one employee I kept on after they committed this transgression ended up stealing thousands of dollars in computer equipment from the company. I found out when he asked me to drop by his house to help diagnose possible malware on his home computer. When I entered his abode, I saw that he had a multi-thousand-dollar computer rack, computers, and networking equipment identical to what we had at work. When he realized I recognized the equipment, his expression was clear. It had been a mistake to invite me to his house, at least without first hiding the stolen equipment.

He tried to convince me it was depreciated equipment that accounting had already written off and he had verbal permission from the previous boss to take the equipment home for “training” purposes. A quick phone call and a check of the visible company serial numbers confirmed this was active equipment. Luckily most criminals aren’t exactly masterminds.

Red flag No. 2: Says past employers didn’t trust them

A saying has borne me well in life: “If you’re always the victim, you’re probably the problem.” Many employees, if not most, have had bad experiences with one or a few previous employers. Often it’s why they left. But if an employee complains about all his or her past employers, you’re guaranteed to join the list over the slightest provocation.

Here, the red flags are complaints that past employers didn’t trust them -- especially if they then relate stories where common sense takes a backseat or is absent altogether. I remember one employee who complained that his old employer didn't like him looking at executive payroll files. I did a little monitoring and found he was accessing all sorts of data he didn’t have a good reason to. I’m sure I was added to his list.

Red flag No. 3: Knows information they shouldn’t

An employee who always seems to know what is going on before it is generally announced should probably be viewed with suspicion. This may be tricky to assess at first, but here pattern recognition is your friend.

I had one employee who was always in the know. It had even become a joke around the office -- this employee seemed to always have his finger on the pulse of whatever was coming. He knew when reorgs were going to happen, when someone big was hired or fired, even the littlest details.

Once, I was on the board of an employee evaluation committee for selecting the employee of the month. This employee was among the newly submitted nominations, and after some quick voting, he was elected next month’s employee of the month. The meeting adjourned right after the vote, and because the committee was aware of how quickly he found out about news, we made a point to immediately walk across the hall to where he worked and announce his award and congratulate him. Finally we would be able to surprise him.

As I went to shake his hand he passed me a note in the handshake and smiled. It read, “EOM-I know, Congratulations to myself!” Mind you this was before cellphones, and I was in the room with all the voters, and no one left early. Everyone chalked it up as yet another story that backed up his uncanny ability to sense the future.

It turns out that his uncanny ability was in remotely monitoring PC microphones and even hidden video cameras. He was eventually caught taking video of people in bathrooms -- a serious felony.

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