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Somewhat surprisingly, the glamorous worlds of espionage and employment law—despite having so much in common (the sharply dressed practitioners; the exotic locations; the weaknesses for strong cocktails and beautiful people)—rarely meet.
Upon reflection, the reason for this comes down to good common sense: by the nature of their role, spies tend to know an awful lot of bad things about their employers; they know where the bodies are buried, in a figurative and quite often literal sense. This provides the average spy with a degree of leverage most employees simply don’t have over their employers. The burnt-out or misbehaving spy isn’t the sort of individual an employer is in a hurry to get on the wrong side of.

Even the greatest traitor known to the history of British intelligence—the Soviet double agent Kim Philby, outed as being the elusive fourth member of the Cambridge spy ring after over 2 decades at the top of the British establishment— could not be sacked by MI6. Instead, he was spirited away to a quiet life on a desk in the foreign office in Beirut where he couldn’t cause any more trouble.
Philby eventually defected to Moscow through sheer boredom, right around the time his old school friend Nick Elliot was starting to turn the screw.
It was this kind of attitude by handlers in MI6 however that led to the one significant contribution espionage has made to the world of employment law: the term “gardening leave”.
The phrase is derived from its euphemistic use by members of the secret services to describe the employment status of a colleague whose loyalties were no longer be trusted. They couldn’t remain on active service; neither however could they be cast into the wilderness, lest they give the whole circus away. They would remain on full pay but with nothing to do. And with the unwanted attentions of MI5’s infamous spycatchers hot on their tail, always looking to do one over on their blue blooded colleagues in MI6, the leave turned into a period of virtual house arrest. The spies would quite literally end up spending much of the period of leave tending to their gardens and drinking heroic quantities of afternoon G&Ts.
Questions of loyalty aren’t the only problem a spy’s employer will need to have cognisance of: “Burnout” is another genuine occupational hazard.
The day-to-day life of the spy is both high risk and high pressure; not least because the spy operates in a world of secrets. The spy cannot go home and offload about his day to his partner; the only person the spy can confide in is another spy, which is an activity normally carried out in the corner of a smoke-filled gentleman’s club over a few large glasses of scotch.
The wages of all this secrecy also place an emotional distance between the spy and his partner; and often those spaces carved open for secrets of the professional nature will—over time—come to house secrets of a more intimate nature. Indiscretion and infidelity are never far away....
But while the image of the hard drinking, promiscuous spy has been presented to our national consciousness as fiction by the likes of Fleming, Greene and Le Carré, what many people don’t know is that Fleming, Greene and Le Carré remarkably all actually served in MI6 during the 1940s and 1950s. Perhaps the likes of James Bond, Maurice Castle and George Smiley may be more real than we imagine…
The stakes involved in spying couldn’t be higher: the game is played against hostile foreign powers and global terrorism; the price of losing the game is catastrophe.
All this takes its toll: the scotches get larger, the emotional distance greater. And the burnt out spy can be every bit as dangerous to his employer as a disloyal one: after all, who knows what he’ll say and to whom, the state he gets himself in?
The burnt out spy will often meet with a worse fate than the disloyal. He may be placed on a period of special leave with the express purpose of sobering up and reconciling with a wife or partner, but if the demons return, he will often be let go.
All of this, then, seems at odds with the story broken by the former MI5 spy who came forward to vent spleen about his recent dismissal for gross misconduct.
The unnamed spy had allegedly been dismissed for leaving a spying manual in a shed. Quite how ‘top secret’ an MI5 spying manual is wasn’t disclosed on the news programme: one hopes it would be crammed full of such vital spy-knowledge as how best to mix a Vesper Martini or fold a pocket square, Swedish chat up lines and so forth, but the truth is that it was likely something more banal.

Alas, even the thought of the intelligence services succumbing to the Human Resources behemoth tramples all over childhood fantasies of debonair, dinner jacketed spies battling baddies over rooftops and blackjack tables, full of panache and derring-do.

Consider James Bond returning from his latest mission seducing the wife of an international super-villain before single handedly defeating his evil empire and avoiding all-out nuclear war with Russia, only to open an email from Carol at HR advising that he was now subject to Stage 1 Performance Management because of his poor Key Performance Indicators and lack of engagement with his competency framework agreement. It doesn’t bear thinking about!

But in any event, the old truths hold true. And perhaps the reason this particular spy was forced to hawk his wares to the BBC rather than to a more lucrative buyer (the Chinese, the Russians, etc) was that he simply wasn’t that good a spy in the first place…

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