Let me explain the pop culture allusion up front to save time and set the context: We Need to Talk About Kevin is a 2011 psychological thriller starring Tilda Swinton based on the book of the same name by Lionel Shriver. The spoiler-free tie-in is that the unfolding horror in the movie might have been prevented if the responsible main characters in the story had addressed their problems directly. Perry Seibert, wrote at AllMovie.com, that “Not once does this affluent mother visit a counselor, or ask friends for advice, or even discuss Kevin with her husband – the title becomes a sick joke, because if only someone would talk about Kevin, tragedy might be averted.”
That’s where we are right now. In the business community, I mean. Tomorrow’s inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46thpresident of the United States seems to be on track. I have no idea what – if any – violence will take place, be it in Washington D.C. or in some random city in America, or both. That unrest and violence are likely is beyond dispute; police and intelligence agencies have had various violent extremist groups under close surveillance and have initiated countermeasures for several planned events. That, and their own family members are cheerfully turning them in.
What I can say for certain is that we haven’t seen the end of this trend of lawlessness, aggressive factionalism, and violence. Not by a long shot. A horde of people took part in the 6th January Capitol assault and many have indicated they want a do-over. Law enforcement agencies are bringing all sorts of serious charges against some of these folks. Many of the rioters have already been arrested and/or charged, because it wasn’t difficult to identify them … because many of the rioters livestreamed their crimes. Law enforcement knows exactly who these people are and who did what … and so do the rest of us. That’s the problem I want to kick around here.
We’ve seen extensive coverage of people that we’d normally never hear about. Folks like Tim Gionet, Jacob Chansley, Richard “Bigo” Barnett and dozens – soon to be hundreds – of rioters have become infamous overnight. Whether you agree with their politics or find them abhorrent, whether you condone their actions or repudiate them, we all know who they are and what they did now because they explicitly filmed their actions. That was … unexpected.
It was also troubling for what it might mean to businesses in the years and decades ahead. I’m not referring to prosecutions; that’s the courts’ problem. Instead, I’m thinking ahead to what happens when all the convictions are finished and the jail time – if any – has been served. What happens when these people return to regular society and attempt to re-join the workforce? More importantly, what happens when one of these people’s CVs shows up on your desk with a request for an interview for your urgent open req? What are you going to do?
This isn’t meant to be an abstract thought exercise for B-school students; this is eventually going to be a real pain the neck for real hiring managers. This is America after all. If you aren’t independently wealthy, you’re required to work to live. Sure, a few of these anti-celebrities might get by on crowd-sourced donations; most of them, though, will likely need to go find a paying job just like everyone in America who didn’t dabble in violent sedition. Ours is a peculiar culture.
Keep in mind that there were a lot of these folks. I have yet to find a reasonable estimate of how many people participated in the 1/6 assault. Let’s be conservative and assume it was at least a thousand people. Even if we assume that half of those rioters were fabulously wealthy, that still leaves one former Capitol rioter for each company on the FORTUNE 500. Eventually, inevitably, these folks are going to show up in our hiring queues. I’m arguing that we need to start discussing how to handle this potentiality now, while we have time to figure out our position.
Here’s what I mean by that: even if these folks escape a conviction, they still represent a potential insider threat risk. That is, a person who wilfully participated in an unlawful activity that led to multiple deaths has, by their actions, incontrovertibly demonstrated their willingness to violate social norms, regulations, and laws through aggression and violence. Their past conduct suggests that there’s a high probability that these people might engage in disallowed conduct – up to and including violence in the workplace – should company policy clash with their personal beliefs. Taking them aboard as an employee presents a lot more risk than a generic new hire presents.
From a security perspective, knowing that a person participated in the Capitol assault might suggest that such a person represents a clear and present danger to the organisation and its people. The candidate participated in mob violence once – to whatever degree – and therefore might be inclined to do so again. The risk of allowing such a person to mingle with the rest of the company population may well be inarguably unacceptable.
From a human resources perspective, though, just knowing that a person participated in the Capitol assault and applying that knowledge to the hiring decision might violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If the candidate’s history wasn’t disclosed on their application, can it be factored into the hiring decision? Will company policy demand that the hiring manager not be allowed to factor the additional information? Do they have policies in place that make it a clear business necessity to refuse to employ people with a history of violence? Or, conversely, to not factor past arrests or convictions in determining suitability?
From a corporate legal standpoint, will refusing to hire an applicant based on the actions they took in the name of their political beliefs risk a lawsuit? What questions, then, will the hiring manager or hiring board be allowed to ask the candidate? Will outside content – including the applicants’ own social media posts from the riot – be allowed to influence the hiring decision?
These are all messy, disquieting issues that will assuredly turn a routine interview into a grisly metaphorical minefield. But why stop there? Let’s also consider things from an existing employee perspective: say your organisation decides to evaluate the former Capitol rioter based exclusively on their job-specific skills and experience, offers them employment, and the former rioter accepts. Their new co-workers are going to find out who they are and what they’ve done in short order … Then what? Depending on what beliefs motivated the candidate to participate in the Capitol assault, those beliefs might prove to be wholly incompatible with (and intolerable to) their fellow workers, even if their technical skills and work ethic are first-rate.
Consider a hard-core QAnon believer – someone who genuinely believes that Democrats secretly abduct, molest, and murder children to further a global conspiracy to dominate the world. A person who believed strongly enough in that conspiracy theory to act on it might be equally motivated to harass or attack a co-worker who they believe in somehow involved in the conspiracy. The keyword there is “might.” Sure, past behaviour can’t guarantee future performance. Sure, the candidate might have recanted their previous beliefs. People can change. Then again, people who hold extremist beliefs are also motivated to lie about those beliefs to be allowed to function in society. Regardless, putting people in such an instantly oppositional environment is a “hostile workplace” lawsuit waiting to happen. It’s also a strong motivator for existing workers to resign en masse. No matter what the new might now believe, the perceived threat of potential violent conflict will likely cripple productivity, evaporate trust, and implode team morale.
But then, we’re not supposed to discriminate in hiring based on applicants’ political beliefs. The thing is, these aren’t conventional political positions. Believing that all woman, LGBTQ+ people, and people of colour are sub-humans who deserve to be exterminated isn’t a political “difference of opinion” like whether or not large agri-corps should receive farm subsidies. It is, quite literally, a declaration of intent to commit mass murder should the opportunity present itself. That sort of belief system is fundamentally incompatible with a functioning company or community culture.
So … now what do we do? What’s the right answer here? What should we do when these people come to us looking for work?
Damned if I know.
I can see the problem coming down the tracks, but I don’t have any good ideas on how to dodge it. I’m not sure how a reasonable decision can be made that can be squared with the law, with good governance, and with our ideals of justice, fairness, and security. Hell, even if we can work out a protocol for dealing with these folks when they come-a-knocking, I’ll be willing to bet that every applicant will come with their own set of peculiar mitigating circumstances that exponentially complicate the equation. All I can say for sure is that the next two decades are going to be rough when it comes to hiring.
What I am arguing, though, is that every organisation in the U.S. must start talking through this now, before the first applicants’ CVs arrive. We need to hit the law books, consult the experts, and work out what we believe, how much risk we’re willing to accept, and where our absolute “red lines” are when it comes to embracing or rejecting these folks. I fully except that every organisation will draw a slightly different line in the sand based on their own culture, policies and local hiring laws. If, that is, they can come to a decision at all.
God knows, I’m not looking forward to being put in a position where I have to take a side in one of these debates.
The point is, though, we need to talk about these issues now … We can’t put off the discussion. The longer we wait, the worse the consequences are likely to be. I’m not sure that we can “avert a tragedy” the way Perry described the film allusion, but we can darned sure side-step a nasty confrontation and maybe a lawsuit or two.