Finance

The American View: The Thing With Breakfast

Beware recruiters and salespeople offering free food. Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger Keil Hubert grouses that unscrupulous vendors will use food to get inside your office in order to lie about being approved for contracts that don’t yet exist.

A tech recruiter e-mailed me first thing Monday with what seemed like an unbeatable offer. He said that he was flush with marketing dosh, and was willing to bring a breakfast food tray to my office – for free – in order to help me curry favour with my bosses and co-workers. Specifically, he was offering a Chick-Fil-A Minis Tray as bait. It was a darned clever Trojan horse manoeuvre; people adores the hit mini-sandwiches. They’re more popular than doughnuts, and they’re small enough that people on diets or restrictions can rationalize savouring just one. Would that boost my popularity giving my co-workers free food? Of course it would … if that was all that took place.

The thing is, I’ve seen recruiters and sales weasels pull this trick before. As soon as people smell the offering, they flock to wherever the gift-giver is and snatch a treat before the tray is empty. The bait is irresistible … and right as the frenzy peaks, the infiltrator strikes. I’m not ever falling for that smarmy pitch again. I know a buddy-horror plot when I see one. Delete. Empty trash. Moving on …

Hang on a second … are you familiar with that phrase? And the tactic that it describes? I wish that someone had taught me about it back when I was new to office life. If this isn’t immediately setting off your subconscious warning bells, let me explain … by way of a classic monster movie.

I remain convinced that business school students will learn significantly more from pop culture analogies than they will from dry case studies. 

Back in 1982, director John Carpenter brought us one of the best horror movies ever made: The Thing. This was the first film in Carpenter’s ‘Apocalypse Trilogy,’ a series linked only by theme, not by recurring characters. Joshua Topolsky wrote about it in The Verge back in 2012, saying:

‘At a casual glance, the films seem to have little in common save for their director. Upon closer inspection, however, it's clear that there is a thread that runs throughout each picture. Each movie forces its characters to combat not only a visible enemy, but an unseen enemy, one which may be immune to the nature of what they believe to be reality — in fact, reality becomes a kind of warped enemy itself. And each film features characters that are physically trapped, set apart from society with no clear possibility of escape.’

Carpenter’s The Thing is set an Antarctic research station (an isolated locale, with no viable way to retreat from the story’s conflict). The protagonists encounter what appears to be an innocent dog (something familiar and friendly). In short order, they discover that the dog is some sort of bizarre, parasitic, alien shapeshifter (a shocking betrayal). Mayhem ensues, leading to the researchers discovering that the alien can also convincingly take the appearance of any creature that it assimilates – including other humans (revealing that no one can ever be trusted, including your best mates and oldest friends). Trapped, terrified, and desperate, the remaining researchers succumb to paranoia as various characters are revealed to be the creature in disguise.

It’s a wonderfully nihilistic and Lovecraft-ian story that delivers many of its pivotal scares through the ‘body horror’ technique. This is a style of scary story where the main source of the horror comes from the degeneration or destruction of the human body through disease, corruption, mutation, or mutilation. [1] In The Thing, the monster appears to be a known, trusted member of the tight-knit community right up until it attacks in a gore-splattered eruption of tentacles, teeth, and terror. It’s … inappropriate for anyone who’s squeamish.

Back in 1982, Carpenter’s gore and violence shocked people. By modern standards, the nightly news is more horrifying.

The key assumption in ‘body horror’ movies is that no one can be trusted – not even those characters that the audience has come to know, trust, and care for – because any character could be a carrier for some sort of vile corruption. The revelation of a tainted individual is an irrevocable betrayal of the group. That’s how the film applies to the events that started this story.

That’s the tie-in, the only reason that this tech recruiter was willing to bring my office a tray of hot and tasty breakfast treats wasn’t just to get in the door. He could have done that by requesting a meeting. The tray of tasty treats gambit was intended to gather as may witnesses as possible to an engagement zone. Imagine the scene: there we are – me, the recruiter, and lots of my co-workers –gathered in the company break room, fingers stained with honey and mouths full of chicken, when the recruiter casually turns to the highest-ranking member of the team and says something like: ‘I really appreciate you and Keil bringing me aboard to help with Project [whatever].’

And there it is: the moment when the metaphorical teeth and tentacles explode out of the guy who looks just like everybody else and latch on to one or more of my co-workers. Suddenly, he’s not just a cheerful visitor with a plate of goodies; he’s a vetted and approved supplier! He and his company don’t have to go through the usual vendor vetting process. Why, didn’t he just say that he’s already been approved? And didn’t I – the team member who signed him in – not say anything to contradict his claim? Well, then, the guy’s claims must be true … Yeah! This guy is a friend and ally, not a salesman. We can trust him. We can share restricted company information with him about projects and requirements. After all … he’s my good friend and partner, isn’t he?

Back when I was a new consultant, I was taught to recognize that technique. My mentor called it ‘buddy horror.’ It’s just like ‘body horror,’ he said, in that someone that appears to be innocent and non-threatening is shockingly revealed to be liar with a sinister hidden agenda. The difference between the screenwriting convention and the sales technique is that there isn’t any blood, gore, or death; just insidious social engineering, manipulation, and a calculated betrayal of trust.

Makes you wonder who they learned the technique from.

It’s a nasty tactic: the sales weasel has to burn a gullible sap in order to convince a highly-influential manager that a deal has already been signed when in fact no such deal exists. It’s risky, but it’s also an elegant deception. If only one person at the breakfast treat assembly falls for the ruse, then it becomes retroactively true. As soon as the first insider agrees to hire one of the tech recruiter’s candidates, then all the risk and expense has been worth it; everyone else sees that recruiter delivering talent on-demand, and assumes that this is how things are done now. More orders follow, more of the recruiter’s people get into the cubicles, and the misunderstanding becomes reality.

All it takes to set up the gambit is one sucker who doesn’t realize that he or she is getting cynically used and a £50 investment in fast food. That’s pretty cheap when you’re looking at a £10k+ profit per head on a new staffing deal. Not having any sense of integrity is an obvious prerequisite; that’s Sales Weasel 101. You can only betray someone who isn’t expecting to be betrayed.

The thing is, ‘buddy horror’ only works when the guy or gal pretending to be your buddy intends to betray your confidence. If they’re up-front and honest about their intentions, then there’s no shocking reveal. Imagine how different The Thing would be if the alien phoned the protagonists up-front and introduced itself: ‘Hi, guys. I’m new in town. I’m an alien shapeshifter – hope that doesn’t startle you – and I’m going to be dropping by your camp tomorrow to see if I can find some parts to repair my crashed spaceship. Would nine o’clock be all right? I’ll wear an orange hat so that you always know it’s me.’

Decent recruiters, staffers, and salespeople understand the value of trust. They realize that long-term success demands integrity and transparency. They have agendas, sure, but they don’t betray their contacts’ trust. A good external partner can still use a ‘free food’ or ‘free booze’ offer to attract new people to a conversation, but they make it clear up-front what they’re trying to get out of the encounter and don’t burn their host. They go to great lengths to avoid putting their contacts in compromising positions, because they know that they need that contact. They know that you can work confidently with an honest partner, and they strive to be worthy of your trust.

This shouldn’t need to be explained to anyone, ever. It’s as self-evident as gravity. Yet, strangely, a huge percentage of recruiters, staffers, and salespeople don’t seem to grasp the concept.

A damned weasel, however, always goes for the fast kill even when it’s unnecessary. They’ll burn a contact even when it’s clearly against their best interests. That’s because they want their commission cheque now; tomorrow be damned. That’s why weasels will pull stunts that are indistinguishable from criminal social engineering, like lying about their connections, tricking people into revealing sensitive business information, manipulating contracts, placing unqualified candidates, falsifying résumés, etc. A damned weasel can’t see beyond his or her next big pay-out … usually because they intend to quit and set up shop somewhere else as soon as they’re burned all of their current clients.

So, how do you differentiate between a decent partner and a betrayal-bound weasel? Pay attention to what they declare. A good partner lets you know up front what she wants out of the encounter. Is she offering to buy the office breakfast? She’ll tell you her objectives before you agree to anything. A weasel, on the other hand, evades when pressed on his motivation. He’ll be coy, vague, deflecting, or outright dishonest about his intent. He’ll tell you that there’s nothing going on. No agenda. ‘No strings attached’ … when, of course, there are. That should trigger your danger sense.

Further, a good partner will work with you before the event to define and respect your boundaries. Can’t discuss one or more projects? No problem. Must stay within earshot of the host at all times? Can-do. No wandering off? Gotcha. A good partner will make sure to abide by your requirements. She may be frustrated by your security rules, but knows that your trust will win more business in the long run. A weasel, on the other hand, goes out of his way to avoid ever talking about restrictions. That way, he can violate your rules of engagement and later claim that his misconduct was due to a simple misunderstanding.

There’s only one real difference between the ‘body horror’ genre of films and the ‘buddy horror’ danger of vendor relations: unlike John Carpenter’s preferred approach to dealing with stealthy alien shapeshifters, you can’t (legally) set corporate weasels on fire in order to get rid of them. [2]. No matter how much they deserve to be set alight for violating their clients’ trust.


[1] I’m borrowing Wikipedia’s definition here because, frankly, it’s good enough.

[2] Yet.

Title Allusion: Bill Lancaster, The Thing (1982 film, based on John W. Campbell Jr.’s 1938 short story Who Goes There?).

Photographs under licence from thinkstockphotos.co.uk, copyright: Clay Trojan Horse, Paul Kazmercyk, ghost hands, ThorMitty, father and son, Thinkstock Images, US candidate and crowd, andriano_cz, business team break, dima_sidelnikov.


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture 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.

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