That One Time I Was a Corporate Spy and Got Fired for It

The second time I got fired, it was for corporate espionage. I’ve never told anyone this.

In my mid-twenties, a few years before I became a coach, I recruited for high-tech companies in the Bay Area. I mostly hated it. It’s not uncommon practice in that world to “poach” employees from one company and move them to another. To do that, you have to get contact information for people not looking for jobs. That sometimes required behavior of questionable integrity.

I was trained how to “ruse” by the recruiting agency I worked for. It was considered a high-level of skill and accomplishment. Let’s say your client is Apple, and they want the next iphone to include cutting edge virtual reality capabilities. They need technical product managers with VR experience. So you google executive names from say, Oculus, then call Oculus HQ posing as one of those execs. You ask the receptionist to fax you the company directory because you’re off-site planning a company event and forgot to take one with you.

I’m glad that I don’t know if that works anymore. It sometimes did, back then. We had a small library of company directories. Rusing made me feel terrible, but only always. My heart raced, my body flooded with fear, and I was consumed with a deep sense that I was doing something wrong.

That’s how I felt the day I got myself fired. My agency had farmed me out to a tech company to work onsite for them as a subcontractor. I was making copies one day and saw someone had left about twenty pages of spreadsheets on the copier. It was a guest list for an event they sponsored: names, title, email, phone number. For a recruiter, that’s like finding a stack of hundred dollar bills. Suddenly, I was like a secret agent, frantically watching a progress bar downloading files onto a thumb drive before the security guard arrives.

“C’mon, c’mon!” I pleaded with the copier, like Tom Cruise in one of the Mission Impossible movies.

No security guard. Mission accomplished. Proceed to rendezvous point. I was so proud I immediately emailed my boss at the agency, because of course he would share in the spoils.

A few days later, my other boss, the client, asked to meet with me. “You know, we randomly sample email here as part of a regular security program,” he began.

My heart sank into my nauseated stomach. My mouth was full of cotton. Oh crap. When I had bragged about my heist, I had foolishly emailed my agency boss using the client’s company email. Ironically, the email he caught was the agency boss’ reply, congratulating me, so my agency was caught red-handed, aiding and abetting.

I’d royally screwed up. Mission failed. The best part was when the client said, “If you had just asked for that list, we probably would have given it to you.”

I was escorted back to my desk by an HR person to collect my things before being perp-walked out of the building, disgraced. That was probably the worst day of my life up to that point, but I’ve had far worse since then.

In the following year, I began earnestly studying virtues like integrity and honor. One of the lessons of this experience was that going along with the morality of others in power wasn’t enough for me. I was doing things I knew was wrong, but I didn’t trust myself. That was a key moment where I learned to go my own way.

Moreover, I learned something I think is largely missing in our society. We’re subjected to quite a lot of information about values: religious values, moral values, cultural values, company values, etc. We’re bombarded with information that says, “This is how you should think and behave.”

Mostly, we experience values as being from some Other, and for some Other, whether that’s God, your society, or your boss. “Be a good little human” is the messaging, and this is how we treat children who cannot yet understand what’s in it for them. It’s an immense missed opportunity.

Living according to coherent values serves you!

Nevermind what you’re “supposed” to do—that just gives you something to resist. How do you feel when you’re being dishonest? How do you feel when you break your word? Do you like yourself more or less when you do that? If you pay careful attention, you can experience it.

If you’re self-aware, you don’t need anyone to tell you what’s right or wrong. I was miserable as a recruiter because I wasn’t paying attention. Fortunately Life has a way of making corrections for you even when you’re not paying attention.

Certainly, whatever Other there is telling you what’s right and wrong can be useful while you gain this awareness, but it’s easy to forget our own self-responsibility in the matter. And this is where the power is.

This idea has a number of applications, but let’s look at it in terms of company values. Most companies present their values as an outer morality that employees are expected to follow blindly, like subjects of a kingdom. This is very limited. Instead, engage with employees with questions that elicit their self-interest in the matter:

  • How do these values challenge you to be a better person, whatever that means to you?
  • What personal goals do you have that these values support?
  • What kind of person do you want to be in five years, and how do these values point the way?

In other words, company values are not for primarily for the company. They’re for the people!

Flipping this around creates far deeper engagement and is a form of mentoring, which is what employees routinely report is at the top of their list of needs.

Thanks for listening. I feel much better having shared this, because it expresses my values of honesty and vulnerability.

What are the values that serve you?  If you want help figuring out all the ways in which you can become the best expression of those values—in your very being—head on over to my new Facebook group, Conscious Leaders and Entrepreneurs. Because although personal growth is by its very name and nature personal, it’s always easier with support from others who are on the same journey. We’d love to have you join us!

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