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Employee Complaints About Snap Personnel Chief Led to Outside Inquiry

There might not be a more unique, or controversial, human resources chief than Snap’s Jason Halbert, a decorated ex-military officer who served two tours in Afghanistan.

Mr. Halbert, who came to Snap with no experience in corporate human resources but is close to CEO Evan Spiegel, is infamous for regaling the staff with military stories that range from odd to inappropriate, according to interviews with nearly a dozen current and former Snap employees. To many, he reflects an increasingly combative and paranoid company culture that has driven away several experienced executives and drained morale.

The Takeaway
• Snap personnel chief is former soldier hired by Spiegel
• Has no corporate human resources experience
• Complaints about unprofessional behavior led to inquiry

Mr. Halbert, 41, is known less for standard HR initiatives than for holding employee training sessions on subjects like picking a deadbolt lock. During a presentation on employee safety, he went on a tangent about rapists and mass murderers. He likes to discuss how many psychopaths are in the population. He’s mentioned that during military deployments he used sexual fantasies to help him meditate, which brought him to orgasm.

When one female employee said that she was heading to a vacation in Mexico with her boyfriend, Mr. Halbert launched into a story about how he couldn’t visit Mexico because in the past he’d hunted terrorists there, gotten into a gun battle and now local drug dealers have a contract out on his life, according to a person with knowledge of the exchange.

This spring, Snap quietly launched an investigation following numerous complaints that Mr. Halbert’s behavior was unprofessional, according to four people familiar with the matter. The investigation began internally and was later taken over by an outside law firm.

Around 10 employees came forward to report dozens of examples that they said created an uncomfortable working environment. The outcome of the inquiry couldn’t be learned. One thing is clear: Mr. Halbert still oversees Snap’s Human Resources department.

Snap declined to comment on this story. Mr. Halbert did not respond to a request for comment.

Close Confidant

Mr. Halbert remains one of Mr. Spiegel’s close confidants. The CEO is often seen in Mr. Halbert’s office and in his company elsewhere, said a former employee. Mr. Halbert likes to remind employees of his close ties to Mr. Spiegel. The executive is part of an inner circle “boys club” that many in the company see as untouchable.

“Does Jason deserve a second chance? Maybe. Does he get it because he’s a bro? Sure,” a former senior Snap employee said.

The Snap employees who spoke with The Information said they fear reporting anything negative about Mr. Halbert because of his relationship with Mr. Spiegel. But many expressed bewilderment that Mr. Halbert remains in his position. In addition to the complaints about his behavior, several employees complained that Mr. Halbert hadn’t done enough to advance some of the diversity and female-focused mentorship initiatives that employees wanted. A person close to Snap disputed that and said Mr. Halbert has strongly advocated for many diversity initiatives and had promoted women in the HR department at a higher rate than the rest of the company.

Employee unhappiness about Mr. Halbert’s role, and Snap’s corporate culture generally, have emerged at a sensitive time for the company. Its image this year has gone from tech darling to punching bag for wary investors, as it has consistently reported slower-than-expected growth.

Meanwhile, employees say they’ve grown disillusioned by the internal politics and favoritism; several say they’re looking to exit soon, or at least once their vesting period comes up. A large outflow of talent, in either the management or the rank and file, could be costly to Snap if it has to keep increasing its already high compensation to attract and retain employees.

Mr. Spiegel’s non-conventional approach to running a company was seen as a key to Snap’s early success—it’s launched products and marketing strategies that stand out from the Silicon Valley mold. But it hasn’t managed the shift from scrappy startup into the bureaucratic structures that help support a legitimate public company—one whose workforce has ballooned to nearly 3,000 employees from 600 in the past two years.

Even before Mr. Halbert got involved in the personnel area, it was a scene of tumult. Two senior executives in the department, both women, had left. Then Mr. Halbert arrived. More departures followed, including two other female executives.

The most recent to leave was Kathy Mandato, a 15-year-long human resources executive in the entertainment industry who joined Snap from NBCUniversal in June, reporting to Mr. Halbert. Ms. Mandato left Snap in November.

Odd Fit

In any large company—much less one staffed mainly by millennials focused on a product aimed at teenagers—Mr. Halbert’s background makes him an odd fit as its head of people. Typically, HR executives are steeped in corporate recruiting, legal or entrepreneurial work. Facebook’s head of people has been there for nearly a decade and has 20 years of executive experience. Uber’s HR chief, Liane Hornsey, also has a decade of executive experience at tech companies.

Mr. Halbert has a background in psychology, to be sure, which is an element in HR work—although he hadn’t previously worked at a company in a personnel-related field. He attended the University of South Alabama, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in applied psychology, according to his LinkedIn profile. He joined the military in 2005 and worked as a medical services officer focusing on behavioral sciences and clinical psychology. He served in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2012, according to his military service record.

Mr. Halbert launched into a story about how he couldn’t visit Mexico because in the past he’d hunted terrorists there, gotten into a gun battle and now local drug dealers have a contract out on his life

In 2013, after the military, he joined R&D Strategic Solutions, a trial consulting firm. That same year, Mr. Spiegel hired R&D after he and his co-founder, Bobby Murphy, were sued by the company’s jilted third co-founder, Reggie Brown.

Mr. Halbert was part of the team that worked on Snap’s case, and Mr. Spiegel was impressed enough that he hired Mr. Halbert to be Snap’s “director of special projects,” a newly created position, in mid-2015. Among other things, Mr. Halbert served as an informal advisor to Mr. Spiegel, assisting him with public appearances, like a guest spot on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” (This video shows Mr. Spiegel arriving at the studio, with Mr. Halbert walking behind him.)

But Mr. Halbert’s role at the company expanded after Snap’s veteran chief talent officer, Simmi Singh, left in the fall of 2015, creating an opening atop the personnel department. Mr. Halbert and Robyn Thomas, who had been one of Snap’s employment counsels, jointly assumed the role. Ms. Thomas handled legal matters, and Mr. Halbert handled hiring.

When Mr. Spiegel initially introduced the executive to the recruiting team, he explained that Mr. Halbert’s military background made him a good fit to lead the department. Mr. Spiegel has often rhapsodized about Mr. Halbert’s powers of insight and perception. When Mr. Halbert began leading recruiting, he made it clear to the team that he hadn't done HR work before. Instead he said his qualifications came from his time in the military building teams of soldiers that went out on high level missions, said one former employee.

Abrasive Style

As Snap’s de facto head of hiring, he’s responsible for interviewing many of its high level job applicants. Mr. Halbert has cultivated an interview style that several people in the company have described as non-traditional and abrasive. He’ll often pose a question, and after the subject responds say, “Yeah, but what do you really think?” or “You’re wrong,” several sources say. Though some have written this off as more of a quirk, other say his style has often deterred candidates from taking a job at Snap.

One former employee recalled that at company meetings, Mr. Halbert would trot out the mind games that have endeared him to Mr. Spiegel. In a meeting with his team of recruiters, he asked one of them why he wanted to be a recruiter. The recruiter responded, and Mr. Halbert nodded and then asked the question again. Again the recruiter responded. Mr. Halbert asked the question a third time, and this time the recruiter stumbled in his answer. Mr. Halbert said he was trying to prove the point that the recruiter’s answer was inauthentic. But the group members were confused as to the value of this demonstration and considered it a pointless waste of time, the former employee said.

Current and former employees said Mr. Halbert brings up his military experience frequently. They said he often recounted stories of interrogating “the enemy” and took over conversations at company meetings and corporate events to describe his previous missions in exacting detail. That’s made him a popular figure with some—the ultimate “guy’s guy,” a few employees remarked—while others find the constant injection of his heroics, like the tale of his mission in Mexico, annoying or uncomfortable.

Call Me ‘Doc’

Mr. Halbert also boasts about his skills as a psyops specialist with a keen understanding of people’s thought processes and likes to analyze their movements and motivations. He pairs that performative streak with frequent reminders of his academic background. He lists a PsyD from the Georgia School of Professional Psychology on his LinkedIn profile. At Snap, he asks that people call him “Doc.”

He’s also created a sense of paranoia, according to some employees, by intimating to team members that he’s surveilling their communications.

There’s been a trend toward hiring non-traditional HR executives, said Scott Kehoe, a partner at Headhunting firm Launch Search partners. Still, it’s rare for a public company like Snap to hire someone without prior corporate experience, Mr. Kehoe said.

Mr. Halbert’s joint oversight of personnel with Ms. Thomas didn’t last long. The two fought over control of the department, according to people with knowledge of the situation. Earlier this year, Mr. Halbert was promoted to be VP of people, which brought HR under his oversight in addition to recruiting. Ms. Thomas left a few months later.

In June, Mr. Halbert hired Ms. Mandato, the veteran HR executive from NBCUniversal, to run HR, reporting to him. Many employees saw her as a competent and experienced executive who could finally help stabilize the HR department. But she didn’t last long, leaving abruptly last month.

Somehow, her departure still came as a surprise, according to multiple current and former employees.

Tom Dotan joined the Information in 2014 covering the media, advertising and streaming video businesses. He is based in San Francisco and can be found on Twitter at @cityofthetown.