A vicious performance review can haunt a good worker for years. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert concludes his character assassination series with a case study involving a particularly nasty manager and a doomed Quality Assurance effort.
Last week’s column was about the phenomena of leaders attacking the professional reputation of their own subordinates through deliberately cruel performance evaluations: poison pills, if you will, placed into a worker’s file to cripple their future ability to get pay rises, transfers, promotions, etc. Most everyone is familiar with annual appraisals. They’re a universal plague afflicting modern corporations alongside burned break room coffee and PowerPoint narcosis. Performance appraisals are an effective bludgeon because they linger… that is, they remain in a company’s HR system for as long as the affected employee remains with the company. They also stay embedded in the wronged employee’s mind so long as he or she continues to suffer under the superior that wrote the terrible appraisal.
This week, I want to discuss another sort of appraisal that’s much more rare, but deserves some mention. I’ve encountered it under a number of different names and forms; for lack of a standardised term, I call it a ‘secondment report’. This is usually a short evaluation that an employee receives from a superior that they’ve been loaned to for a project or other assignment outside of their normal duties and away form their primary boss. It’s a tool that allows a temporary supervisor to inform the worker’s regular supervisor of how well a borrowed employee did in is or her duties while they were forward-deployed. It’s an evaluation supplement, one-step removed. I’ve seen these sorts of reports take the form of full-on appraisal forms, stilted memoranda, casual emails and even slurred conversations over drinks.
On the one hand, this tool has some merit: if an employee was out of his or her normal supervisor’s sight for a significant portion of the rating period, a secondment report can provide the statements needed to justify an earned raise or bonus at the end of the year. That’s a bureaucratic blessing – there are few things in the working world so demoralizing as to do excellent work and then to receive no ‘credit’ for one’s efforts.
You’d think that these would also be useful for detailing an employee’s misconduct conducted while they were forward-deployed. That way, the supervisor who holds disciplinary authority can take appropriate corrective action when their employee returns to home station. The secondment report becomes a critical piece of evidence in supporting an administrative action. The thing is… I’ve rarely ever seen a secondment get used in this fashion outside of the military. This is because the military units are required to keep bad squaddies downrange until their orders run out; sending a bad egg home from a miserable combat zone for misconduct is more of a reward than a punishment.
The corporate world has no such limitation: if a businessperson misbehaves while operating away from their home office, they get sent home straightaway. Why bother wasting time filling out forms when it’s quicker and easier to just send the fool home? It’s not worth the effort… most of the time.
For a very special breed of malevolent manager, though, the burden of paperwork is entirely worth the effort… Just like the damming appraisal technique, the haunting secondment report is a vicious tool that holds considerable potential to inflict lingering harm on someone from a long ways away.
I encountered this once when I worked for a large consulting firm. My owning partner was asked to donate some manpower for a software development effort at our national headquarters, so he loaned me out to the understaffed dev team. That I was loaned out randomly was normal for our working relationship. If he needed to provide a body, he sent me. The usual element of this assignment was that I’m not a coder – and my boss knew that. He’d gotten accustomed to throwing me into whatever weirdness required improvisation and trusted me to sort things out. So, off I went.
When I arrived at the HQ, I learned that my new role was to fill the team’s software quality assurance manager position. The firm wanted to secure a new external certification for software development maturity, and needed someone to coordinate ‘bending’ the team’s existing habits to fit the academic model. Unfortunately for me, I found that I was joining the team 75 per cent of the way through the project, and that the existing coders couldn’t possibly care less about the firm’s strategic intent. The developers were all recent university graduates holding their first-ever corporate job; they had no useful perspective about what-all was involved.
They also hadn’t been ‘led’ since they’d signed on; the woman that they notionally reported to (let’s call her Bob, as per usual) was consumed full-time with her own professional ambitions – and therefore couldn’t be bothered supervising when there were cocktail parties and executive mixers to attend. The end result was a free-for-all, where the coders did pretty much whatever they wanted each day, unmonitored and unguided. They were, as you’d expect, well behind schedule.
Still, I had my orders. I devoured the manuals that explained the new methodology, set up a series of quality control meetings and began routing reports up the supervisory chain to Bob. Before I reached the end of my first week, I ran into two insurmountable obstacles: first, the brogrammers flatly refused to participate in QC meetings. I didn’t have the authority to force them to participate, so I escalated the issue to Bob… who imperiously refused to meet with me and similarly refused to enforce any performance standards. That second program was a larger source of consternation to me than the first, since Bob could solve the first problem with simple fiat. The key word there is ‘could’. Bob was disinclined to provide me with any support – or even the time of day.
It took weeks of running Bob to ground (including camping outside of her office for three straight hours) before she finally grudgingly agreed to give me five minutes to present my findings. I handed her a stack of forms that she had to sign for the auditors and I explained that the entire certification effort was guaranteed to fail if she didn’t complete a list of required actions. Bob sneered at me, took my report, and told me that she’d read it later. I was dismissed.
The next time that I returned to the HQ complex, I discovered that Bob hadn’t heeded my advice about making the developers participate. The team hadn’t made the substantive changes that were required to meet minimum essential standards for the formal methodology. They’d missed too many required milestones, and there wasn’t enough time left before the auditors arrived to make up the delta. That was it for me; nothing that I did after that point would make a meaningful difference. I called my owning partner, let him know that we’d passed the point of no return, and got his permission to move on to my next random assignment.
I never expected to hear from that particular Bob again. Six months later, I was building a Dot Com company down in Houston when an e-mail from her appeared in my inbox demanding that I join a conference call that had already started. I excused myself from the meeting I was in, borrowed an executive’s office, and quickly dialed in to the voice bridge. I was surprised to hear Bob herself on the line, and quickly realized that the call was some sort of belated performance feedback session for the QA work I’d tried to do for her.
Bob asked me if I’d received my secondment report, and haughtily informed me that I needed to sign it immediately so that it could be filed with HR. I hadn’t, I said, and noted that I’ve never heard of such a thing. To the best of my knowledge, we didn’t use those reports in my partner’s practice (or, if we did, I’d never seen one). Bob icily demanded that I print and sign the form immediately. I sighed, promised to download it, and told her that I’d call her back once I had it in-hand.
It took me an hour to get remotely logged in to the company network from our client site. I downloaded the monster form, borrowed a LaserJet down the hall to get it printed, and redialed Bob’s office. As I was waiting for her to pick up, I skimmed the evaluation she’d penned and was stunned: the woman had crafted a work of pure fiction. She flat-out said on one page that the ‘entire certification inspection had failed’ – and this is an actual quote – ‘because of Keil’s negative attitude’. The report read like a Gothic horror story, full of insinuated misdeeds, alleged attendance problems, insinuations that I’d failed to lead a virtuous life and other odious personal habits that I neither resembled nor recognized.
By the time Bob picked up, I was spoiling for a fight. I (barely) managed to maintain my professional demeanor and asked her (as politely as I could) where the hell she got off putting such rubbish down on an official report. Bob aloofly lectured me that her word was law; since she a senior manager and I was just a lowly, groveling consultant, whatever she said had to be the truth. Her team had failed to deliver their product on time and had also failed to achieve the desired certification. That couldn’t be her fault since she was a brilliant manager. Therefore, someone below her must have been wholly to blame for negatively affecting her ascension to full partner. I cheerfully told Bob that I refused to sign her bloody false confession, since I wasn’t about to take the fall for her poor leadership. I could hear her smirking at me over the phone. She said that she’d file it anyway and would note that I’d refused to take responsibility for my ‘culpability’ in the project’s failure. I hung up on her. At that point in the conversation, anything else that I might have said would have been ungentlemanly.
Flash forward three months. I was meeting with my owning partner over dinner, participating in our annual performance review counseling. He told me that I was doing fine work, promised me a modest bonus cheque and discussed some potential future projects. Towards the end of dinner, I asked him flat-out how Bob’s secondment report had factored into his evaluation. My partner made a dismissive gesture and said that ‘no one believed a word that she said’. He’d ignored her report since he knew that Bob was an unscrupulous liar. He’d recently chucked her out of the firm (for cause!) for an unrelated foul-up. He told me to ignore it and get on with my current job.
I spent a lot of time thinking that conversation in the months that followed. On the one hand, I was relieved that Bob’s character assassination attempt had missed its mark. On the other, it had only failed because the person reading it already knew that she was a damned fool and a liar. That was dumb luck in my favour. Had my partner not already known my character and known to discount Bob’s ravings, I might well have been screwed by her spiteful parting shot. If I’d ever tried to transfer to another partner group, that tainted report might resurface and bite me.
That’s why she did it, I think: after the firm’s certification effort failed, all of the evidence that I’d filed with the central QA office had proved that Bob herself had been responsible for bungling the firm’s compliance audit. Her quest to make partner was over. Nothing that she tried at that stage could resuscitate her political ambitions; she’d lost her shot, and was simply waiting for the metaphorical executioner to come a-knocking on her office door. As a direct product of her twisted personality, she spent her remaining time with the firm salting the earth so that no one else in her sphere of influence could hope to advance either. Her character assassination attempt against me was an act of pure, vicious spite. Really, I was nothing to her other than someone that she could hurt; she’d never bothered to learn anything about me, or what I might have been able to do for her.
I’ve found that Bob’s personality type is predisposed to act in this needlessly malevolent fashion. It’s an inherent element of their psychopathology. I later learned during my information security investigation courses that these personality types regularly manifest their destructive impulses in the form of exploited vulnerabilities, systems compromises and other disruptive behaviour in the workplace after they’ve been somehow confronted with their own failures. Eoghan Casey described Bob’s personality in his discussion of offender classification in Digital Evidence and Computer Crime. Bob specifically fit well in the ‘Power Assertive (Entitlement)’ type:
‘These include criminal behaviors that are intended to restore the offender’s self-confidence or self-worth through the use of moderate to high aggression means. These behavior suggest an underlying lack of confidence and a sense of personal inadequacy, that are expressed through control, mastery, or humiliation of the victim, while demonstrating the offender’s perceived sense of authority.’ 
I learned how to recognize indicators of Bob’s temperament in others when I became an IT director. People who displayed many of her personality traits were highly correlated with later misconduct committed or attempted against their own subordinates. This sort of malicious actor reflexively lashes out whenever they feel threatened, or come to realize that their own efforts are inadequate to maintain their professional reputation. They can’t handle humility or introspection.
That’s where the character assassination angle comes in. I’ve found that this sort of Bob (the Power Assertive [Entitlement] type) is strongly predisposed to make petty and vicious personal attacks against anyone and everyone that they feel has either wronged them, or has failed to adequately support them (regardless of what may actually have happened). These sorts of leaders will go well out of their way to inflict significant harm on others even when their own cause is lost and their efforts are better spent elsewhere. They seem to be perpetually in thrall of a pathological drive to duplicate the hurts that they themselves receive in others that are within their reach.
When you find yourself working with or for one of these Bobs, be cautious. To protect yourself, thoroughly document your work and preemptively build the body of evidence that you’ll inevitably need to prove your innocence when your Bob turns his or her wrath your way. Do everything that you can to escape your Bob’s domain as swiftly as possible. Most importantly, refuse to play along with their hateful delusions. Refuse to sign any vague indictment of your character or your work that contains blatant fabrications. Disengage from your Bob and report the matter to a competent external authority instead. Odds are good that other people in power are already aware that your tormenter is a nutter, and will help you get clear of the bad situation.
If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see your Bob exorcised from the corporate body. Don’t count on it, though. Focus on getting well clear of the situation. That, and don’t let your Bob’s foul deeds haunt your career. Walk the heck away and don’t look back.
 Quoted from my copy of Casey’s second edition, section 6.4.2., page 160.
Keil 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.