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Find them and fire them: 5 steps

Spotting and handling rogue employees before they make the news

By Jon Espenschied
October 1, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - After my first day with a client on the regional fringe of Iraq, I was happy to find a room with decent air conditioning and an Internet connection. Then I started looking around.

My first clue something was amiss with my hotel should have been the double concrete barricade at the street, the metal detectors at every door and the airport-style X-ray machine. But what clinched it was the swagger of tank-top-and-fatigue-wearing American men smoking in the lobby, each with a semiautomatic pistol jammed down his waistband or the overt machismo of a dangling combat knife.

The concierge explained I'd wandered into an R&R hotel for Blackwater USA, which recently had been in the news for its mercenaries' involvement in a string of violent deaths and allegations of weapons smuggling. (Blackwater refers to itself as a "private military company," but now that Iraq is nominally self-governing, supplying personnel and engaging in combat there is mercenary business according to Article 47.c of the Geneva Conventions.)

Watching how influential or powerful people act in their off-hours can be telling, especially in high-stress situations. After witnessing Blackwater personnel engaging in unprofessional behavior such as doing burnouts in a jacked-up Escalade, brandishing weapons, and spewing loose talk about company business (not to mention public consumption of alcohol in an Islamic locale), none of this news is even slightly surprising.

Five steps to find them

It's tough to find effective and ethical people to fill positions of influence or power. Whether the role is that of security guard for a convoy out of the Green Zone or security administrator for critical systems, missteps can directly lead to the death of innocent people, and intentional abuse is the stuff of nightmares.

Worse, it's the people who really want power and influence who are most likely to mishandle it. I don't have a line on ways to see into other people's minds and evaluate their current and future ethical capacity and personal risk factors, but here are a few steps you can take to spot an internal danger before too much damage is done.

(Note: Laws and social norms regarding termination vary widely, so the involvement of an attorney is key to making sure any termination process is handled reasonably and lawfully. These opinions are not legal advice and may contain information that is improper for your locale.)

1. Set clear goals. Drop authority into idle hands and corruption from power happens fast. Termination is an easy decision when someone simply doesn't have the professional or ethical rectitude to handle a job. The solution is to make sure employees have clear goals for their initial work, let them prove they can handle it, and then slowly add responsibility and authority. With good references and recommendations that speak to a person's ethical behavior and professionalism -- not just technical ability and certifications -- it also becomes reasonably safe to hire directly into positions of significant responsibility.

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