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I Hired a Con Artist

To Hire the Right People We Need a Mentalistic Approach

Even under the best of circumstances, hiring the right people can be a complex endeavor. Hiring people in India, however, adds quite a few new layers of complexity, especially for a non-native like me.

Years ago, while working as GM for a Dutch IT subsidiary in Chennai, India, I needed to hire a senior-level sales manager to establish a sales department and oversee the sale of our software in the Indian market. Thankfully, I was assisted in this task by the local subsidiary’s HR manager, who was well acquainted with the hiring “rituals” of the local employment market, which, needless to say, bore little resemblance to those of the Netherlands.

The recruitment process for this position was a challenging undertaking. The Indian subsidiary was a medium-sized software developer that competed for talent with much larger, and better known, multinational players. Every time we thought we had landed a suitable candidate, our prospect was snapped up by firms that carried marquee names like KPMG and Accenture.

Unfortunately, our “new hires” would not share with us the news that they had chosen another company over ours. They simply didn’t show up at our offices to sign their employment contract. Eventually, we started to extend job offers for any open position to two candidates at the same time, with hope that at least one of them would actually show up and start working. When even that didn’t work, we became increasingly desperate to hire a seasoned sales manager. It didn’t help that we had the Dutch headquarters breathing down our necks, eager to commence software sales in the Indian market. Eventually, I did the following:

I hired a con artist…

Yes, I hired a genuine scammer…

Now, you might think, “Wow that sounds pretty desperate.” In my own defense, at the time I hired this person, I did not know that he would turn out to be nothing more than a calculating hustler.

So, what went wrong?

After all the time and effort that we put into finding a suitable sales manager, finally along came this candidate who seemed to have skills in both sales and marketing, and who was immediately available. For purposes of this article, let’s call him Ravi.

Ravi was a raven-haired man of average height with a well-groomed appearance and an air of confidence and competence. He exuded can-do energy and enthusiasm for the job. However, beneath his promising appearance lay a shrewd and cunning mind…

Relieved to have finally found a promising candidate, we proceeded with our due diligence, scrutinizing his credentials, inviting him for a series of job interviews, and calling his references. Everything checked out. Lucky us! … or so we thought.

There was, however, one moment during his final interview when I asked, “So Ravi, are you ready to do the sales job for our company, then?” 

Ravi looked a little puzzled, and paused just a little too long for me to be convinced that he was genuinely looking forward to working for us. Still, I decided not to read too much into his behavior, and assumed he had just needed some time to process my off the cuff remark. My suspicions gave way to my optimistic inner voice, which was already cheering: “We finally found our sales manager!”

Early on in his tenure as sales manager, Ravi’s performance looked as promising as his professional demeanor had suggested during the interview process. He understood what we needed him to do, and he presented us with an endless supply of good ideas. Ravi and I collaborated together to formulate aggressive, but achievable, sales objectives, and we discussed resources and strategies that would support him in meeting these objectives.

From my office, I could see that Ravi was staying busy all the time. He cold-called sales leads with the relentless fervor of a telemarketer, and I regularly joined in when he scheduled meetings with high end prospects.

Ravi and I met on a biweekly basis to discuss his progress and results. Early on, I noticed that the way he reported his market development activities and sales results was not sufficiently explicit to allow me to make any sense out of either. I repeatedly asked him to present me with verifiable data. I even helped him to put together a new sales prospect datasheet so that he knew exactly what we were looking for.

Despite my feedback and guidance, Ravi’s sales forecast reports remained vague and inscrutable. 

After six weeks on the job, there was still no hint of an actual sales agreement between a client and the subsidiary. Considering the fact that we had only recently commenced sales and marketing activities in India, the absence of sales revenue was not yet cause for concern, although I did feel the need to share some of our concrete efforts with the Dutch headquarters. Accordingly, I decided to manage Ravi more closely.

As we continued to spend time together, I noticed that I was feeling an increasing sense of irritation and discomfort toward him. 

With other employees, I could, at times, feel a little frustrated when the working relationship was not going well. But this felt different. It became more and more difficult for me to maintain my composure with him. Eventually, my frustration with Ravi became so obvious to the rest of the management team that they asked me whether I wasn’t being a little too impatient with him. After all, he seemed to be working so hard.

As the end of Ravi’s probationary employment period drew near, we needed to decide whether we were going to renew his contract. Given how difficult it had proven to fill the position, we were inclined to continue the employment relationship. In keeping with our normal HR procedure, however, before offering Ravi a contract extension, I sat down with him to discuss our respective perspectives on the progress he had made during his probation period, and to exchange thoughts on our future cooperation. In advance of the meeting, I consciously resolved to pressure Ravi to deliver any information that contained the sort of verifiable data that I needed in order to evaluate his sales performance.

During one discussion we had about the prospect datasheets, Ravi became noticeably agitated, especially when I asked him for his list of prospects, including contact information, phone numbers and sales call/meeting notes. Although I wasn’t prone to micromanaging my direct reports, I considered this to be the bare minimum of work product that Ravi should have been able to generate during his probationary period in order to deserve a contract extension.

His reply stunned me! First, he leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms and glared at me with contempt. The next words out of his mouth were even more insolent: 

“You know, a REAL manager would trust their employees, and would never ask them for such detailed data.”

For a brief moment, I was taken aback by his reaction. After all, during the entire time I had known Ravi, I had not encountered any hostile behavior on his part. His reaction did, however, immediately arouse the same feelings of irritation and discomfort that I had been sensing when working together with him.

As soon as I was able to reclaim my hijacked brain from my astonished affective state, I understood that Ravi was intent on keeping this information for himself. I asked him why he did not want to share the information with me. He retorted: 

“I have done everything you asked me to do, so you should be satisfied without any proof.”

When he wasn’t able to offer an acceptable explanation for his conduct, I asked him to wait a moment, and I headed straight for the office of the HR manager. I shared my concern that we might have a problem with Ravi, and asked her to reverify all of his references. I then returned to my office to resume the meeting with Ravi.

A short time later, the HR manager knocked on my office door and asked me to step out of the meeting for a minute. She informed me that all but one of the phone numbers for his references were no longer in service. When she called the one number that was still working, it wasn’t answered by the same person she had spoken to previously. The person who answered the phone on this occasion informed our HR manager that she had reached the office of the CEO. Confused, the HR manager asked her for the company’s name and web address.

Armed with this information our financial manager began making inquiries at the Chamber of Commerce, only to find out that the company was developing software similar to ours, and that it was about to open a subsidiary in Chennai. And the coup de grâce … the company belonged to Ravi’s brother!

I instantly understood the discrepancy between Ravi’s appearance as a hard-working employee and the utter lack of results that he was able or willing to show for his efforts (at least when it came to our organization). Ravi was sincere in claiming that he was doing exactly what I had asked him to do. He just wasn’t doing it for our organization! He was developing a network of prospects for his brother’s future subsidiary in Chennai, all the while being paid by another organization, namely, us. Very clever, indeed!

After being apprised of our discoveries, Ravi was immediately terminated and physically removed from the premises. As I found out later, Ravi did not take this “severance package” treatment very well. The building security guards had seen him loitering around the entrance to the office building, and when they asked him what he was doing there, Ravi told them that I had instructed him to wait there for me. Luckily, when my driver came to pick me up at the end of the day, Ravi realized that I would not be leaving the office alone, so he changed his plan and waited for our financial manager, who drove herself to and from work every day. He chased after her, but he wasn’t able to keep up with her in the chaos of the Indian rush hour traffic, and she made it home unscathed. We instructed the guards to keep an eye out for Ravi in the future.

Later that evening I was trying to think back to missed clues that might have revealed Ravi’s clever ploy sooner. I suddenly remembered his reaction to my question: “So Ravi, are you ready to do the sales job for our company, then?” He probably looked puzzled for a moment when he thought that I had figured out what he was up to.

Quite a costly mistake on our part, considering the time and resources it took to find and onboard a new sales manager (who turned out to be a con artist), and the prospects we lost (or maybe never had in the first place).

A few years later I was tasked with conducting job interviews for an international organization that recruits employees from all over the world. As I didn’t want to make another costly interviewing mistake (one Ravi experience was more than enough), I decided to research my arsenal of undergraduate psychology books in preparation for my first slew of new candidates. I wanted to understand which skills I needed to brush up to enhance my interview and assessment competencies. 

In the course of my research, I became increasingly intrigued by the human capacity to mentalize about others. Mentalization involves our ability to infer mental states from the verbal and nonverbal behavior of people, upon which we can base our explanations of their past, and predictions of their future, behavior. Studies show that we actually mentalize all the time, which would suggest that we should be really good at it. But are we?

There is an interesting study dating back to 2005 by Sillars, Koerner and Fitzpatrick, on how well family members understand what was going on in the minds of one another.(1)

What do you think? Are family members good at mentalizing about each other?

Sillars and colleagues invited families to sit together in a room to discuss topics that represent typical areas of disagreement between parents and adolescents. Their discussions were captured on videotape. Afterwards, each family member was interviewed separately by a research assistant. During these interview sessions each family member would review the recording of the discussion and be asked to report what they were thinking at different points in the discussion, and what they believed the other family members were thinking. The following is an excerpt from the Sillars et al. research article:

Understanding of immediate thoughts was strikingly low. Indeed, two-thirds of the thoughts reported by a given family member during video replay had no direct overlap with the thoughts attributed to that family member by the others.

What is going on here? 

When we try to explain or predict behavior we often revert to the following strategies:

1. We assume that mental states don’t change Sillars and colleagues argued in an additional study(2) that a possible reason for the low understanding of mental states between family members was due to a perception of familiarity, leading them to believe that they have encountered the information previously (i.e., “they already heard it before”). Did their family members still think the same way, though?

2. We use common sense reasoning Although we assume that much of our common sense reasoning is fairly accurate, studies show that often, it is not. For instance, imagine you are at a restaurant and want to order an appetizer to share with your foreign friends. Your common sense reasoning may tell you that everybody likes chicken livers, as did all of the folks with whom you grew up. Do they really, though?

3. We assume that other people think and feel the way we do  This relates to the bias known as False Consensus Effect. In cognitive behavior therapy, this bias is called Mind-Reading Error — where we assume we know what other people are thinking or feeling on the basis of our own thoughts and feelings. For example, it’s your friend’s birthday and to surprise her you take her parachute jumping because you think that’s the coolest thing in the world, so she must be thrilled with it too. Is she really, though?

4. We base our assumptions on prejudice or stereotypes This strategy is used when we explain and predict behavior upon a preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience. For instance, an Asian-owned company selects an Asian to run its African subsidiary, because, in management’s opinion, he will be the most suitable candidate. Is he really, though?

5. We use scripts to explain or predict behavior A script in an ordered set of events with which we predict or explain what someone ought to do. Scripts are very effective in straightforward and familiar situations. In other situations, however, they might not even be applicable. Imagine you are invited to have dinner with a Japanese family. Your script might say that you will be eating while sitting on a chair at a table, using cutlery. Will this really be the case, though?

6. We use perception-goal reasoning  When making perception goal inferences, we look at the goal a person is trying to achieve and assume what that person is going to do based upon logical reasoning, without considering what they are thinking or feeling. To illustrate, you have loaned some money to an acquaintance on the assumption that she will immediately start saving up to pay you back. Will she really, though?

I am not saying that the foregoing strategies will never enable you to make an accurate prediction. They can be effective as long as we use them:  

— in circumstances that are straightforward and familiar, 

— in situations with people whom we know well, such as friends or family members, and 

— when the consequences of our assumptions aren’t consequential.

Predictions of complex and consequential behavior should, however, never be made on the basis of:  

— our own mental states,  

— unfounded assumptions such as prejudice and stereotyping,  

— what a person ought to do, or  

— the expectation that the other person uses logical reasoning. 

Many studies have shown that people often don’t behave in a way that we would ourselves behave, and they often do not follow “logical rules” in their behavioral choices.

So, what can we do?

Understanding more complex social interaction requires a personalized perspective of the other’s mental states, and therefore a true mentalistic approach.

Looking back to the time I hired the Indian con-artist, I had not trained my mentalizing faculties well enough to understand how I should react to his lukewarm reaction to my question, “So Ravi, are you ready to do the sales job for our company, then?” Nowadays, I would no longer simply make up excuses for such an incongruous reaction. I always verify whether my inferences are correct.

Additionally, I recognize that I frequently let my feelings of irritation and discomfort bleed into my conversations with Ravi. Instead, I should have focussed my attention on what was really going on, regulated my emotional states, and allowed my mentalizing faculties to come back online. Allowing myself to become affectively distracted actually made it easier for Ravi to get away with his subterfuge for a longer period, as I was more focused on my own mental states than on his.

During my last meeting with Ravi, I was finally able to bring my mentalizing faculties back online, albeit unconsciously. I inferred Ravi’s true mental state from his verbal and nonverbal behavior. This mental state information helped me to unravel the “mystery of the unproductive sales manager.”

When he started to feel cornered, Ravi tried to knock me off balance with his hostile and aggressive behavior. For a brief moment, it did distract me, but I didn’t fall for his trap by starting to defend myself. Instead, I reclaimed my mentalization faculties and came to understand that there was an entirely different underlying problem, and that the information that I would need to expose Ravi’s ruse would not come from this two-timing scoundrel himself.

Have you ever been mislead by a cunning scammer? In hindsight, what could you have done differently to infer the person’s true intentions?





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