What’s the first image that comes to mind when you hear the word “saboteur”? In American pop culture, it’s usually a Hollywood portrayal of the French Resistance in World War 2: grimly determined civilians trying to derail troop trains in the dead of night. Very dramatic stuff. The word itself, though, only means “a person who commits or practices sabotage” suggesting it could refer to a much broader range of situations, settings, and personalities.
When you look up the root word – sabotage – in the same dictionary, the idea comes into better focus: “any underhand interference with production, work, etc., in a plant, factory, etc., as by enemy agents during wartime or by employees during a trade dispute.” The Hollywood idea of “enemy agents during wartime” aligns perfectly with the mythologized French Resistance. That said, I believe the introduction to the definition matters more than the provided examples do.
Say it again with me: “any underhand interference with production, work, etc.” Now consider that definition in the context of your organisation. Who within your team might engage in “underhanded interference” with the work you’re supposed to do? Right! You’ve already thought of someone haven’t you? It’s not someone wiring bombs to a railroad track on a moonless night, but someone completely ordinary, doing minimally acceptable work. A person in business casual attire nodding along in a Zoom call whose poor work habits or decisions undermine productivity, morale, or effectiveness. Someone that we ought to, I believe, classify as an “insider threat.”
This subject came up last week when I was a guest on David Lawrence’s “Wellbeing & Career World” podcast. While chatting about office culture, bad bosses, and human behaviour, David asked me about insecure leaders. We had an impromptu conversation about how working Americans tend to be terrified of the prospect of displacement in the workforce. I argued that it takes a strong, confident leader to hire a subordinate who might outshine them. That’s why, I argued, un- or under-trained leaders tend to ignore their best candidates appearing and hire only people who are qualified enough to the work, but not no talented or experienced enough that they’d be able to do the work as well or better than the hiring manager.
In American business slang, this is the axiom of “hiring one step down,” also known as “sixes hire fives.” It’s accepted as a natural hazard of doing business: workgroups will “dumb themselves down” over time in the pursuit of non-competitive stability. Essentially, a vulnerable supervisor will surround himself with people who will get the job done … but will never threaten to compete for the supervisor’s job. Those people, in turn, practice the same “defensive hiring” tactics when adding to their own teams.
The inevitable and predictable outcome of this practice is a workgroup that can no longer reliably fulfil its primary mission. Rather than grapple with the unpleasant reasons how the workgroup got that way, the corporate reflex is always the same: reorganize! Merge the underperforming group into a more successful one, distribute its functions to other groups, or outsource the function entirely. Deny that the root problem exists. Allow the survivors to keep practicing their destructive hiring practices. Does that sound like “sabotage”? It should.
I believe this practice represents an insidious and corrosive form of sabotage. A supervisor practising it is elevating their own professional survival over the needs of their team, their mission, and their employer. It’s like a sports team owner hiring only mediocre players to save on salaries at the cost of not being competitive. It cheats the investors, the sponsors, the players, and the fans … all to protect one person. It’s selfishness weaponized through authority.
Can this be deliberate? Yes. I inherited a branch supervisor that deliberately only hired middle-aged married women with no technical skills to serve on the IT Help Desk. This supervisor was an insecure bully; he “stacked” his team with unqualified women that he didn’t professionally develop so that his techs would never threaten his reputation for technical brilliance. The result was a functionally crippled Help Desk … and job security for its boss.
Must this be deliberate? Not at all! I joined a company where the division VP had placed underqualified cronies in all the critical department roles. One department head was an old golf buddy. Another was the wife of a college fraternity brother. These were nice enough people, and they did their best to live up to their roles. The result, however, was a division plagued with preventable operations drama. More importantly, none of his department heads could ever change the VP for his position since they could barely hold their own.
In both examples, I was told by insiders that the boss had turned away superior candidates in favour of their underwhelming final selections. The insiders were upset about the hiring decisions – not about the character of the people selected – because of the wasted potential. Work had been made unnecessarily difficult by placing underqualified people in pivotal roles. The insiders felt betrayed by organisational leadership … and, indeed, they were.
This “sixes hire fives” practice is extraordinarily difficult for Human Resources to detect and to counter. Unlike bigoted hiring – where a bad supervisor consistently refuses to hire women or people of colour – it’s difficult for someone who isn’t technically qualified to do the work to evaluate the capabilities of the candidates for a technical position. That’s why HR screeners rely on certifications, degrees, and previous position titles to “judge” an applicant’s qualifications. This organisational blind spot allows an insecure supervisor to justify their hiring selections based on their “superior” knowledge of the intangible factors unique to the role. Or so they say …
All that said, should we treat poor hiring decisions as a source of insider threat? I say yes. Such conduct can rightly be viewed as sabotage. This makes the supervisor engaging in such conduct a “threat actor” when we focus on the effects of their decisions, especially when those decisions run contrary to company policies.
Many organisations have written rules on hiring; they expect selection boards and hiring managers to get the highest value prospect out of all the candidates presented. The company wants to get the maximum return on their investment at the most competitive price. Why “buy” a partially effective worker when you can get a stellar performer for the same price? A desire for top talent is – supposedly! – a core value for nearly every company. Most companies claim that they want and need the best talent they can recruit. Such claims inspire confidence; who would invest in a business that admits it prefers to hire mediocre workers?
An insecure supervisor, however, sees the world differently. Sure, a stellar hire would be the best outcome for the company over the long run, but it might be bad for them personally and that’s what matters most. In a climate of constant change, where “job security” is an anachronistic concept and “company loyalty” is a mirage, whose needs will the supervisor make their highest priority? Their employer’s? Or their own?
The obvious answer to that question should inform how you combat this peculiar insider threat in your own organisation: implement and support worker protections. Act with integrity and transparency. Strive to demonstrate your commitment to a stable workplace that rewards selfless sacrifice. Reduce people’s natural anxiety about their continued ability to feed their families.
Reward your people for actions taken in the long-term interests of the organisations. I’ve long argued that the most valuable person in a business is the one who figures out how to eliminate their own position without negative impacting production. You don’t dare lose someone that clever to the competition.
That’s the macro approach. The other method of countering this threat is arguably more demanding and targeted: pay attention to supervisors’ hiring choices. Leverage impartial boards, panels, and quality control methods to detect and correct indications of sub-par hiring decisions. You needn’t punish the mediocre hires themselves; it’s not their fault. Instead, take pre-emptive action to keep your destructive supervisors from ignoring their best candidates. Take hiring decisions completely out of their hands if you must.
That last suggestion is guaranteed to be controversial. It raises the logical question of why the company would leave an inadequate supervisor in their position if upper management feels it can’t trust them. You’ll have to address the issue. If you’re feeling compassionate, mentor the supervisor and grow them out of their bad habits. If you’re not, remove them from management or let them go.
That sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? A huge investment in loving one’s “values” publicly and consistently. Committing to enforcing policies and principles. Holding people accountable. The sort of things we all say we do in our marketing copy …
Or you could simply do … nothing! That’s always an option. In fact, it’s probably the option your organisation has adopted by default. Say nothing, do nothing, and hope the problem will go away on its own. It’s funny … that’s exactly the sort of decision that an inadequate hire would make, thereby perpetuating the effect of the insider threat potential for years to come.