The American View: With Great Power Comes Great Potential to Create Insider Threats

I’ve invested a few hundred hours this year arguing that poor leadership, dysfunctional company cultures, and indifference creates “insider threats” where none need exist. The classic “disgruntled employee” doesn’t spring forth from the earth because some fool sowed dragons’ teeth in the breakroom. Normal people become disgruntled workers when they feel they’ve been treated unfairly and when their organisation has given them no support in righting the perceived wrong(s). We create our own enemies through what we do … and what we fail to do.

Along those lines, the one department in every organisation that stands out as the most successful “disgrunt-ler” on the org chart is Human Resources. No matter where you go, HR is a critical administrative function that holds exceptional power to help people through difficult times … or to create and exacerbate said difficult times. The personnel department – in all its euphemisms and forms – indelibly impacts workers’ lives in the same way a startled bull impacts bone china.

This is not to say that HR people are inherently evil; they’re not. I’ve found that HR folks follow the same distribution curve of exceptional-decent-mediocre-horrible as every other career field. I’ve worked with some tremendously competent and empathetic personnel-ists. I’ve also suffered under some personnel-ists that deserved their own horror movie series. This career field tends to attract people on the extreme ends of the competence spectrum.

As an example, let me share why my wedding anniversary happens in October instead of June. I met my future wife after the U.S. Army screwed up my commissioning orders following my graduation from university. [1] I was forced to find work in the private sector while the Army sorted itself out. Lacking options, I moved to Dallas, got a corporate job, met a great young lady, and got engaged. In a rare moment of constructive incompetence, Army HR had made things objectively better for me through a preventable mistake. This trend would not continue.

Do you really think I’d waste your time with a story where everyone is happy and nothing horrible happens? C’mon! That ain’t my style.

My fiancée and I planned to be wed the following June, not quite a year from our engagement. My finance was a teacher, so we needed to choose a date during the summer when she wouldn’t be working.

In the spirit of the old folk saying, mentsh plant, di armey lafs [2] Shortly after locking in our wedding venue, the Army remembered that I existed. Army Personnel informed me that they’d finally decided to “branch” me in the Medical Service Corps … and then recalled me to active duty because they were coincidentally short people in that career field. I was ordered to report to Fort Sam Houston, Texas on 4th October for the Army Medical Department Officers’ Basic Course. I would (the orders said) receive my follow-on assignment order shortly after I arrived.

Having no choice in the matter, I reported in and was issued a room in the Visiting Officers’ Quarters. I few weeks later, I received my assignment orders: upon graduation, I was to be assigned to Medical Supply, Optical, and Maintenance battalion … there on Fort Sam Houston. Since I was to be a local, the Personnel shop immediately revoked my eligibility to stay in the VOQ and evicted me. I was forced to find a flat in town by the end of the week. The move was hugely disruptive … and, it turned out, completely unnecessary.

See, the Army really likes to change its mind. The week after I moved, Army Personnel sent me a new set of orders sending me to South Korea for an unaccompanied one year tour. “Unaccompanied,” in Army parlance, means married people can’t bring their spouse with them and parents can’t bring their children. Soldiers expect one or two assignments like this when we’re on active duty, but for your first assignment? Bit of a shock. Also, being in Korea the following year would significantly – if not totally – interfere with me attending my own wedding.

One of the most commonly quoted aphorisms shared among squaddies is “If the Army wanted you to have a spouse, they would have issued you one.” The Army’s needs always come first, even when those “needs” are pointless.

My fiancée and I talked it over and agreed that our best option was to accelerate our plans and get married immediately. The Army Personnel section would likely keep jerking me around like this so long as I showed up in their database as a single soldier with no dependents. We raced around getting our paperwork in order and got married in the Brigade Chapel there on Fort Sam Houston on a Friday afternoon after my classes were over. Fortunately, the Army completely understands expedient weddings and dutifully processed hew “new dependent” paperwork.

To recap: first the Army screwed up my commissioning orders. Then they assigned me to a job series to mitigate their own force planning mistakes. Then they assigned me to a unit that got me kicked out of government quarters. Then, after I’d moved out of the VOQ, they changed my orders to invalidate my scheduled wedding. Do you think this was enough careless buffoonery to transform a young subaltern into a disgruntled squaddie? You’d better believe it!

To add insult to injury, I received my third set of “official” assignment orders the week after my new wife and I had eloped: I was to report to Fort Hood to become the S-2/3 (Intelligence and Operations staff officer) of the 67th Medical Group (Caretaker). I tried to report to the 67th immediately after graduating AMEDD OBC … only to find out that the unit didn’t exist.

“Yea, we were planning to create that unit to oversee our reserve component hospital units,” the personnel clerk told me, “But then we decided not to. So now we’re going to dump you in a new battalion.” I reported to the 61st Medical Battalion (Area Support) only to find their old World War 2 barracks building empty. All the soldiers were off having a parade to officially open the unit for business. Typical bloody army.

To really stick the dismount, that same personnel clerk phoned me a few weeks later and told me that there was some drama between his office and the Personnel people in D.C. … Apparently, I’d been scheduled to go to paratrooper school between leaving Fort Sam Houston and arriving at Fort Hood. Fort Hood being the largest armour base in America. Fort Hood, the Army base with no paratroopers on it. That Fort Hood.

I suppose parachuting skills might come in handy if these giant metal beasts were fitted with ejection seats.

The trouble was no one had ever told me that. It seemed that someone at D.C. had prepared the orders sending me to paratrooper school and never finalized them. The training sergeant asked if I still “wanted” to go. Maybe he could pull some strings? [3] I told him “Thanks, but no. I’ll pass.”

The next day, my new company commander called me into his office and gave me orders sending me to Korea … at the end of the week.

I share this story for two reasons: first, because I think it’s funny as hell. It’s the sort of “this can’t be real” comedy fodder that would’ve made a great episode of M*A*S*H. Second, it illustrates just how easy it is for a clueless, inept, and/or uncaring bureaucracy to foul up an employee’s life.

I was lucky; I’d enlisted in the Army in high school and had already served four years as an enlisted man before I was commissioned. I knew how fouled up everything related to Army personnel management could be. I was angry, sure, but I wasn’t traumatized by it. I knew how to manage the system; that’s why my finance and I accelerated our marriage plans. We knew that our gambit would disrupt the Personnel office’s decision-making process. By getting her registered as an official “dependent,” the range of base assignments for me would change. Sure enough, our early marriage redirected my assignment orders from Texas to Korea back to Texas. Mission accomplished (more or less).

Many squaddies aren’t so lucky. My platoon sergeant in my first assignment with the 61st Med was so thoroughly disgruntled that his ultimate goal in life was to retire, leave the Army forever, and become a backwoods cannabis farmer. He had joined the Army after high school to get the hell out of rural Louisiana. Army personnel, in its infinite wisdom, then assigned him to the 5th Infantry Division … at Fort Polk, Louisiana. Still, how bad can one four-year assignment be in a twenty-year career? Sure! One hitch was endurable … but every single time the Army moved my sergeant to a new base, either the unit he was assigned to or the base he was on was shut down and all its soldiers were forcibly relocated to Fort Polk, Louisiana. Every. Single. Time. My sergeant spent nineteen years at what he considered the duodenum of the U.S. Army. The heat of his rage could’ve fired a battleship’s boilers.

Yeah, I know I’m mixing my metaphors here. It just … the older I get, the more I wonder how different (read: better) my life would have been if only the Navy recruiters’ office hadn’t been closed when I first went in to enlist.

This isn’t just a military thing. You don’t have to be a squaddie to have your company’s HR section mess up your life. HR people hold tremendous power over workers’ lives. It’s a profession that (I believe) requires ironclad integrity, deep empathy, creativity, communication skills, and a commitment to fair play. Unfortunately (in America, at least) HR people often feel that their loyalty is to the company first, and to the company’s employees last (if at all). This disconnect, combined with their exceptional power to disrupt workers lives, makes HR the logical place to start looking when investigating who in your organisation might be creating new disgruntled employees where none need exist.

If you’re looking to score some easy wins in your nascent insider threat program, start by seeking out the people who are angry with the company over something that HR did to them … or that HR failed to do for them. Either way. Even if you think your HR crew is top notch, there’s always going to be someone extremely upset with them. It’s the nature of the job. Maybe finding these people and getting them the help they need can prevent a security incident and bring a disgruntled employee back in to the ranks of the adequately gruntled.

[1] Screwed up, in this case, means the Army didn’t commission me into a “branch” (e.g., infantry, cavalry, supply, etc.). I didn’t know what kind of officer I was to be, which meant I didn’t know what qualification school I’d be going to … or when.

[2] Man makes plans, the Army laughs.

[3] Pun intended.

Keil Hubert

Keil Hubert

POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert. You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store. Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant. Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

© Business Reporter 2021

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