Yes, literally. In my career I have had several former employees try to blackmail the company. Once, in fact, the blackmail attempt was directed at me, personally, in an attempt to secure my "help" to negotiate an outrageous separation agreement.
In none of these instances, was I guilty of anything. Nor did I think that there much of a credible threat of any of these stories being turned into anything, at least not without liberal lying and fabrication of data.
But that didn't stop any of these amoral jerks from making a run at our wallets.
The first rule of protecting yourself from blackmail must be -- don't do anything you're ashamed of. Remember that every action you take as a representative of the company can be put under a microscope. Successfully avoiding questionable actions, however, does not mean you won't be targeted.
In one such instance, a the senior manager of a former licensee tried to blackmail my employer into dropping pursuit of a claim of technology theft. The subject of the blackmail? A fake letter supposedly sent by one of my subordinate, authorizing the licensee to sell in an embargoed country. The fact that we could easily see the signature had been forged on this letter didn't mean there wouldn't be major trouble if it was turned over to the U.S. Government. In preparation to call their bluff, however, we investigated and found other documentation that could cause trouble for the accused employee. We backed down on our complaint.
Blackmailers: 1, Company: 0
The second rule for dealing with blackmail is to assume the worst if (and when) any evidence winds up in unwanted hands (customers, authorities, bosses, etc.). There seems to be a natural tendency for people to believe the accuser and doubt the accused. "Where there's smoke, there's fire." And if the accused is a big company, that tendency is amplified. So review everything the blackmailer has in the worst possible light -- out of context, with his spin, and among a group of people predisposed to doubt your version of events. That's the reality you're dealing with.
In another blackmail incident, I demoted an HR employee, and he didn't like it. Unfortunately, he was engaged in an investigation into pornography that was being viewed and, in some cases, forwarded using the company's computers/email system. After the demotion, I received a letter from his attorney demanding a substantial severance package. Among other accusations, he implied that the "reason for his demotion" was his uncovering of sensitive information during his investigation of the porn scandal. Of course, this was completely preposterous -- had I been worried about that (and, quite frankly, I wasn't even informed as to what was going on with the porn-thing), the last thing I would have done was to provoke him with a demotion. But I realized no one was exactly sure what he had and hadn't seen, or what he might or might not have taken with him. When I refused to accept his blackmail demands, he eventually filed a lawsuit where the implicit threat was thta all the embarrassing porn stuff would come out in court. I eventually had to back out of the situation, and let another exec settle with the guy.
Blackmailers: 2, Company: 0
The third rule of dealing with blackmail is to not let your personal feelings get in the way. Often it is better to compromise, rather than fight. Yeah, I know that stinks. My natural inclination (and I'm sure, that of most people who are wrongly accused) is to meet force with force -- lawyers, demands, counterclaims, or any other weapons at my disposal. While this might feel good, it can be costly. If you wonder how, re-read rule 2. Even if you win, it can be both expensive and exhausting. When it doubt about what to do, seek advice from someone who isn't in the fray.
In my final example, I was personally blackmailed by a former employee who was fired for breaking the law. After his termination, he demanded a huge settlement, and told me in an email that he had audio recordings that proved "a senior executive at the company" was in on his scheme. He never specified who the "senior executive" was, and there were four or five of us that all felt like he could be pointing our direction -- including me. Except, I knew there could be no such recording if he was referring to me, as I had no idea his scheme existed. This time I fought back, daring him to produce the recording and to name names. Nothing came of it. As it turned out, we still had to make a payment to the jerk despite his outrageous behavior -- a clash of U.S. and foreign laws was at the heart of that decision -- but it was a far cry from the huge sum he initially attempted to extort.
Blackmailers: 2, Company: 0, Ties: 1
My final admonition is to never, ever let a blackmail attempt stop at your desk. No matter what. If you're guilty of something, better to confess it now and take your lumps. Living with a blackmailer repeatedly tapping you on the shoulder is no way to exist -- it would be horrible to sit around waiting for the next demand to arrive. And if you're innocent, letting the matter come to rest just makes you look guilty. Take the accusation to your boss, the CEO, your ethics officer, or even to the police if so warranted. 13.3
Other Recent Posts:
- When in Doubt, Cut it Out
- Comply, Or Else
- Running to Mom (or Dad)
- Me and my Big Mouth, er, I Mean Email
- Does Analysis Lead Intuition, Or Is It The Other Way Around?
If you are intriqued by the ideas presented in my blog posts, check out my other writing.
Non-Fiction: NAVIGATING CORPORATE POLITICS
Novels: LEVERAGE, INCENTIVIZE, DELIVERABLES and now HEIR APPARENT (published 3/2/2013)-- note, the ebook version of DELIVERABLES (a prequel to HEIR APPARENT) is on sale for a limited time at Amazon for $4.99.
These novels are all based on extensions of my experiences as a senior manager in the world of public corporations.