Business Sabotage: Miscommunication is at the root of almost all disagreements.

Part 1: A Story of Sabotage Most Organizations Would Never Tell You


Miscommunication is at the root of almost all disagreements. What we believe about people has to do with ourselves more so than others, or the way we have been treated. For Smart Self this lesson went from crystal clear to VVS diamond-clear recently, when a disgruntled freelancer took down all of Smart Self’s websites.


For Real?! Yes.


Unfortunately, this is no joke.The spaces where we generate leads, make sales, communicate with our communities, and invested thousands of hours and dollars was purposefully taken hostage early last week.


Here’s the situation: In preparation for launching a new learning platform, Smart Self sought a very niche developer skillset to help us build custom functionality. This is common work for us because we often build unique solutions for us and our clients. Like we usually do, we found and screened a few candidates, and ultimately hired a contractor.


We did have one concern. It’s a concern we have faced and successfully navigated before. Prior to hiring the candidate, we shared with him that we were concerned about our ability to communicate clearly given some English fluency differences.  


As any confident vendor should, the gentleman reassured us that communication would not be a problem. He reiterated that he had the precise skillset we were seeking and had worked with clients like us regularly with no confusion. In all fairness, even in the interview process, we didn’t gel. Nonetheless, we allowed ourselves to be reassured.


Awesome. Let’s go.


Two work days go by, and the developer is working away. At this point we notice the custom work is being approached differently than we requested. This didn’t immediately raise red flags, because that’s the road toll for working with external contractors. We had the developer explain his approach, then put his work on hold as we began testing to verify our concern. Before we told him his approach wouldn’t work (and that’s why we were asking for a custom coded approach)


We explained his administrative access would remain intact but asked him not to make any changes until we reported back with our findings. Development can be finicky and we wanted to mitigate the risks of having multiple system changes happening concurrently.


Although we hadn’t completed all of our testing, it was becoming evident that the work this person was doing was in line with solutions we had already tried, and ruled out. We updated him on our initial thoughts but that we weren’t yet done our testing.


Everything Changed Overnight


Overnight, the developer went to log in to the development site. His login didn’t work. Glitches like this are common during development, though we were not aware anyone’s login had been affected. Now, things really get off the rails. Based on the developer’s login not working, he made an assumption. (Keep in mind, we had asked him not to log in at all for fear that two developers working simultaneously would be problematic.)


This developer assumed that we had cut his access intentionally so we could take the work already done and get out of paying. He took matters into his own hands, logged in to our servers (we had given him access because it was required for the work) and took down our site. Many hours later when we began our day, we discovered a number of accusatory messages and all our sites were down.


We gave the developer the benefit of the doubt, assuming that there must have been a technical error during our testing. He responded promising to ‘help us’ put it back online once he had been paid.




Fixed & Focused


Now, being humans of our word, paying him for hours completed was always the plan. Many people in this position may have withheld or stopped payment completely. In spite of everything, we would not compromise our own integrity by not paying this person for his work, irrespective of how we were being treated at the moment. We stand by this decision, even now.


We refused to be reactive and we chose to honour our end of the agreement. We let him know that payment for hours completed had already been processed and asked him to reverse what he had done.


Assumptions Gone Wild


This developer chose to retaliate against a perceived injustice by taking down all Smart Self websites in hopes of teaching us that mistreating freelancers has consequences. This person wanted to make a point that, “freelancers are not animals”, and hoped that we would think twice before “treating freelancers this way”. Over lengthy messages between Smart Self and this person, it became clear to the developer that we were not, in fact, trying to pull the rug out from under him, and the magnitude of the mistake he had made slowly dawned on him. In trying to protect himself, he had unintentionally and irrevocably harmed people who meant him no ill-will. Even worse, in his haste he caused damage that couldn’t be reversed and unknowingly tampered with our back-ups as well. Rushing to judgement caused thousands in damage, lost work and productivity, and a challenge to Smart Self’s ability to trust external contractors.


Apologies & Thank Yous


In the end, this developer was incredibly apologetic and embarrassed over what he had done. To his credit, he did attempt for an entire day to restore the sites. In the end, he was unable to make the necessary restorations and a significant amount of work and content was lost completely. With available back-ups, work to rebuild lost content, and the help of GoDaddy Ireland and David Quigley of KoDesign, we have been working to restore all properties.


We Live, We Learn


Now, there are many ways we could have chosen to respond to this situation: with anger, with hatred, with closed hearts, and with a distrust similar to that which the developer showed us. We could hold on to this moment and never work with another developer again that isn’t directly employed by our company. We could make assumptions about non-native English speakers. We could be bitter and judgemental to protect ourselves going forward. As a company, and as a collective, responding that way would not speak true to our values. We forgive. We learn, but we forgive.


For insights on what we learned, read this post:

Business Sabotage