When it comes to subcontracting private investigators for your firm, due diligence is a must.
by Andy Kay
Whenever I talk to a fellow private investigator, we end up discussing the people who work for us. There’s always some issue with a new subcontractor or drama with a long-time contract investigator who has fallen off their A-game.
Deciding whom to hire, how to seek new hires, and when to let someone go are never easy calls to make.
I look for versatile people with real-world experience who can think beyond one knowledge base—people adept in many areas: building a house, putting out a fire, fixing a car. I find that investigators with a science background, who understand how things work, make better decisions on the spot. They think fast on their feet. Also, knowing about many things opens up conversations in all kinds of situations, a skill that can be extra helpful when interviewing someone—or convincing them to to talk with you in the first place.
It’s difficult to find these jack-of-all-trades types. Even ex-law enforcement folks, who you’d think would make ideal PIs, don’t always perform well in the field. Being a cop or insurance adjuster for 20 years does not always add up to a wealth of diverse knowledge. What’s more, you may have to work with them a little bit on their bedside manner. Many cops are used to the rights and privileges that go with a badge; they’re trained to be more aggressive in interviews and may tend to give orders in situations that call for diplomacy. I often have to guide them back to “civilian-style” interactions on the job. But it’s tough to change the habits and social exchanges someone learns on the job.
First Impressions (and Covering your A**)
The first thing I look for when hiring subcontractors and investigators for our firm is obvious but necessary:
The Paper Trail
Licensing (their state PI license), insurance (liability and E&O), and good resume and references are the absolute musts. If an investigator is not licensed, you’re taking on all of the responsibility for anything the subcontractor does wrong on the job. I know a lot of investigators who are willing to take on that responsibility. However, quite often they find themselves in a nasty lawsuit after the investigator working under the company license does something illegal—sometimes knowingly, but more often because they don’t have the proper knowledge or training.
Depending on your state laws, you may only be allowed to subcontract to a private investigator who is licensed. For example, in California it’s illegal (in most cases) to hire a private investigator as a subcontractor if he/she is not licensed. Not abiding by these laws may result in the revocation of your license and greatly affect your livelihood. So be sure you know the laws in your state.
Also, do your due diligence by running a background check on the new hire—before you put them on the job. I know this may sound obvious, but believe it or not, a lot of investigators don’t do this. I always do a full-scale national criminal and basic background check on anyone I am considering using as a sub-contractor.
You may be surprised to find that that some applicants have a questionable past, even though they claim to have a clean rap sheet.
After a candidate’s qualifications, the verbal interview is the next most important thing for me. Talking with them tells me very quickly whether an applicant is conversant in a range of subjects and whether they can think on their feet. We generally only hire one out of every five we talk to, and then after a few cases, we halve that number again.
Avoiding Common Pitfalls
What’s one of the most difficult things with new hires? The unknown.
There’s really no roadmap for how a private investigator approaches the work; each case is full of surprises, and there are multiple strategies for approaching any given problem. Many people get so lost in their search for answers that they fail to document the route of their search along the way.
I try to make sure all new hires fully understand their duties, are clear on what information they need to gather, and are diligent about checking in with our office regularly along the way.
My advice is this: Tell your newly hired agents that you want a text when they head toward the job, photos when they reach the location, and a text when they leave the job. That might seem like a lot of checking in. But trust isn’t given; it’s earned.
Trust isn’t given; it’s earned.
You’re doing your clients a disservice if you trust your subcontractors absolutely. You may want to be friends with your investigators, but don’t let it imperil your business. People need to be held accountable. And the best way to do that (without treating subcontractors like grade-schoolers) is to be very transparent and organized about your expectations up front.
Clear and concise case assignment sheets will go a long way toward keeping your investigators consistent, professional, and methodical. For sure, investigations require creativity in the field, but they also need an organized approach to information gathering along the way.
The Dating Game
A new hire is like a new relationship: You have to take it slow. I never throw a new subcontractor into a complex investigation without first putting them through some tests—to be sure I feel comfortable having them handle sensitive information and delicate cases.
How long does it take before you know someone is a good fit for the company or not?
They may seem like a good fit right off the bat but fizzle out after a few months. Or you may not find out about key strengths or weaknesses until they’ve worked multiple cases and encountered a wide variety of problems to solve. For example, they may be good at surveillance but terrible at interviewing or public records research.
I once hired a subcontractor who came from a law enforcement background. I assumed that after years of being “on the force,” he’d be punctual and strict about checking in, and I also expected him to deploy police-style canvassing and interview tactics.
I was surprised by how little he seemed to know about how to conduct a proper investigation.
That experience taught me to assume nothing. I’ve hired some great former police officers but a lot of duds, too. My point is: Don’t assume that just because someone has a certain professional background that they were ever good at it. Make them prove themselves over a long probationary period before you fully trust them as one of your regular subcontractors.
And then, once you know each investigator’s skill sets, you can put different subcontractors on different aspects of cases, assigning them to areas where they will shine. Don’t try to make a right shoe fit a left foot.
I recommend joining the discussion on message boards and online groups/communities specific to private investigators. You’ll find a lot of useful information, lessons learned, and advice that other investigators are happy to share. It’s a great place to connect with others in the industry, and it’s also a potential pool of subcontractors that may be a great fit your company.
For most industries, it’s so important to meet others in your same line of work and connect with them for resources and help; this industry is no different. Networking with your peers is not only enjoyable; it’s good for business.
About the Author:
Andy Kay is owner of Kay and Associates Investigations in California. He studied criminal justice, political science, law, and engineering at Sacramento State University and USC. Kay got his private pilot’s license in 1987 and a PI license in 1992. After working for many years in the construction and mining business, Kay has built a specialty in construction investigations, and has also worked cases involving child custody, infidelity, asset location, fraud, criminal defense, insurance, cyber security, celebrity protection, surveillance, background checks, and missing persons. Find him on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram: @KAinvestigates, and Twitter: @AssociatesKay.