eBay’s cyberstalking fiasco is a case of employee engagement gone horribly wrong

Hm, I wonder if I can get a deal on cockroaches.
Hm, I wonder if I can get a deal on cockroaches.
Image: AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
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Engaged employees are a wonderful thing. They make workplaces more productive and more profitable. They boost morale and perhaps entertain their children with hilarious, detailed bedtime stories about what happened in meetings that day. They sleep with their phones right next to their beds, so they can subconsciously absorb any emails that come in while they’re asleep, and wear dress shoes with their pajamas in case an important client shows up in their dreams. When they rise at dawn, they look at themselves in the mirror, quivering with excitement and energy, saying, “Lo, anyone who besmirches my company’s name is my sworn blood nemesis! May swarms of live cockroaches and pig fetuses rain upon them!”

Sounds a bit over the top, you say? Plotting the downfall of mere mortals who dare to criticize your boss isn’t part of your ideal job description?

Humph! It seems you do not have the passion for your work that distinguishes people at eBay—or at least, one group of former employees on the e-commerce giant’s global security team.

In an apparent case of employee engagement gone way, way too far, six former eBay employees allegedly conspired to harass a Massachusetts couple whose newsletter was critical of the company. According to a federal criminal complaint, the ex-eBay employees sent the couple “live cockroaches and spiders, pornography, a bloody pigface mask, a preserved pig fetus and a funeral wreath, and attempted to secretly install a tracking device on the couple’s car,” as NPR explains.

US attorney Andrew Lelling said at a press conference this week that the cyberstalking campaign was intended to “emotionally and psychologically terrorize this middle-aged couple,” thereby stopping bad press about eBay. One offending post in the newsletter, EcommerceBytes, criticized the compensation of former eBay CEO Devin Wenig, prompting eBay’s public-relations head Steven Wymer to text Wenig, “We are going to crush this lady.” In another text exchange, Wenig texted Wymer, “Take her down.”

Neither Wenig nor Wymer face charges, but prosecutors say their wrath provoked the revenge scheme, which was allegedly inspired by a plot point in the 2008 Leonardo DiCaprio movie Body of Lies. The ensuing fiasco is a reminder to a) never do what DiCaprio does in the movies (don’t impersonate people and don’t get rich off pump and dump schemes, either) and b) be aware of the dark side of employee engagement.

A healthy amount of engagement at work really is a good thing. People who care about their jobs and feel that their work is meaningful have a greater sense of well-being, and they’re better employees to boot.

But it’s definitely possible to become overly invested in work, whether that means running ourselves ragged with 12-hour days, letting our personal relationships wither, or conflating our identities with our jobs to the point that any professional struggle or defeat is a major blow to our sense of self-worth.

Perhaps the latter point is why the eBay employees got so worked up about the newsletter: When you believe your job is what gives you value, any criticism of the company you work for may well feel like a personal attack.

But this kind of thinking is not only misguided—it’s ultimately self-defeating. These six former employees were apparently so devoted to eBay that they were allegedly willing to break the law for it, but they got fired in September after the company conducted an investigation into their actions.

To be clear, it’s absolutely appropriate to fire people who are sending strangers live cockroaches and funeral wreaths in the mail. But perhaps things never would have reached that point if the employees in question had a better sense of the boundaries between themselves and their jobs.