How do you hire trustworthy employees for your private investigations firm, when lying, hiding, and eavesdropping are essential traits for the job?
Let’s face it: Hiring for the private investigation field is … different. We are an atypical industry that requires workers to perform atypical tasks. We are basically asking candidates to cast aside most of what Western society has ingrained in them since toddlerhood.
Take hiring a surveillance investigator for example:
Society says: Mind your own business.
PI industry says: Find out everything you can, even the most personal details. Dig through the trash? Great idea!
Society says: Don’t’ stare at people.
PI industry says: Not only stare, videotape EVERYTHING! Subject’s going to the gym or beach? Great, so are we!
Society: Be truthful.
PI Industry: Use pretext, subterfuge, and distortion to obtain required information.
Society: Don’t eavesdrop.
PI industry: Yes! Eavesdrop, watch, listen, and then write a ten-page report.
Any job seeker willing to put aside social norms and behave on the job like a snoop or a sociopath must already have a screw loose, right? The trick is to find those rare souls who have a screw that’s just loose enough to get the job done, but not too loose.
You want your investigators to be able to deceive-on-demand. But you don’t want them deceiving you.
Choosing the right candidate is difficult enough for ordinary companies in ordinary industries. In the PI field, finding the right candidate is a kind of artistry.
We’ve had candidates with great educational and employment histories fall flat on their faces when they hit the street. One candidate checked all the correct boxes: a college degree, some experience, and a decent surveillance vehicle. But he was a complete nightmare on the job: He was frequently late to surveillance and was always asking to leave his post early. He set up too far away. He put in minimal effort and achieved zero results.
He did not last long—an expensive mistake.
I’ve hired people with no college degree and little field experience who turned out to be dream employees. One of my top investigators came from an urban school police department. He was street smart and eager to learn. He actually told us he would be our top gun during his employment interview.
Six months later he was just that—a terrific investigator. And he stayed with us for years.
What I’ve learned in hiring dozens of investigators over almost twenty years is that degrees and stellar resumes mean very little in this field. Hire for desire, and gauge that desire through the training period and the first months in the field.
Here are some qualities I watch for during the interview-training process, clues that a candidate will do well with us in the long term:
I want to know how a person will perform after a major setback. Think: Will this investigator continue to investigate after being personally threatened in a high-crime neighborhood? Because this will happen in the field. We always say the true test of a surveillance operative is: Can they function after having the SWAT team lay them out on the sidewalk?
A strange benchmark … for a crazy industry.
No “Municipal Mindset”
I define the “municipal mindset” as doing a bare minimum, or having a “that’s not my job” mentality. The phrasing comes from my experiences with municipal agencies—the intentionally discourteous DMV clerk who knowingly allowed you to wait in the wrong line for an hour. Or the lethargic court clerk who’s openly offended that you asked him to actually do his job.
Nothing destroys an organization faster than this attitude. Be alert for this mindset when interviewing former law enforcement agents. Typically, they’ve worked for many years in such environments. A slow, do-nothing bureaucracy can infect a person’s work ethic—and there seems to be no cure.
I know, the bane of an investigator’s existence, right? Nobody enjoys writing reports. But I advise you strongly to get a writing sample before you hire. We can teach a lot of things, but we shouldn’t need to teach grammar and punctuation.
I don’t expect employees to be John Grishams, but I do want them to accurately report what they observed, in clear and precise prose that anyone can understand. Watch out for lazy writers. In my experience, a lazy report writer will also do shoddy work in other crucial areas.
For us, the ability to write an accurate investigative report with a concise summary is mandatory for hiring.
Firing an employee is one of the hardest things you will do as an investigative manager. I’ve fired dozens of people. It’s difficult, even soul-crushing at times. I managed to get better at it, but it never really gets easier.
When I started my business, I usually gave struggling employees an opportunity to “turn it around.” I tried counseling and monitoring. I tried time and patience. I found that nothing worked—the turn-around never happened. In my experience, a bad hire never transforms himself into a good hire. Once I get that gut feeling that someone isn’t working out, the story always ends with a termination.
Giving employees a chance to redeem themselves usually makes the firing a little easier for me—I’ve tried everything, I tell myself. But I wondered whether I am harming my business by not removing problem employees sooner.
Of course, I’ve never hesitated to fire someone for integrity-related offenses. The real heartburn comes from firing for performance problems—when employees are legitimately trying but simply don’t get it. If after many tries they still cannot conduct mobile surveillance, write timely reports, or follow directions, I have no choice but to try someone else.
I hired one investigator who seemed bright enough for the job, but he lacked that killer instinct. He simply did not want to succeed badly enough, and he seemed to lack common sense. The final straw? When I checked on him in the field, I found a large man in a bright-red shirt, looking about as invisible as a major-league mascot through the un-tinted windows of a white compact sedan. (He’d said he was driving an SUV with tinted windows.) There he was, working a million dollar case in what amounted to a fishbowl of a surveillance vehicle, resplendent in his tomato-colored outfit.
I was furious. I fired him the next day. Great guy, lousy surveillance investigator.
I always do an after-action report after terminating an employee, in an attempt to learn where I went wrong. What characteristics did I miss during the hiring process or in the field? What signs did I ignore? Did the fired employee have anything in common with other investigators I’ve fired in the past?
Sometimes there are answers, sometimes not. As I said, there’s an artistry to hiring the kinds of hard-working snoops and magicianlike sneaks who will perform well for your business, in this crazy industry. Eventually, you’ll get better at seeing the signs up front that someone isn’t a good fit.
And you will also get better at firing people. But it’s never stress-free—nor should it be. Making tough choices for your business—choices that affect people’s livelihoods—is the heavy price of leadership.
About the Author:
Barry Maguire is a twenty-year veteran of the surveillance industry. He has conducted and /or supervised more than 5,000 surveillance private investigations cases to date. Barry has owned and operated New England Risk Management Investigations since 2001. He lives in the Metro Boston area with his wife and three children. Feel free to connect on LinkedIn.