Several years ago, I worked with an analyst on several projects. He was a friend of a friend, and a capable interviewer and researcher. He was charismatic and intelligent. He ran his own company. I liked and trusted him.
But after a few months of working together, I started seeing red flags. Subcontractors were calling me to find out why he hadn’t paid them. He had become defensive and secretive and seemed to be controlling communications between me and his clients.
Then I learned that his professional license in another state had been suspended. I finally did the due diligence I should have done months before. Turns out, after a little digging, there was more. Bankruptcy. Unpaid debts. And his degree? From a so-called “university” that offered diplomas for “life-experience”–for a fee.
My background checking didn’t turn up anything illegal or immoral. But the facts painted a picture–albeit a hazy one–of someone with whom I no longer wished to do business. Our working relationship ended soon after that.
It was a painful lesson in the importance of “trust but verify” hiring practices.
It’s easier than you think to do basic due diligence on prospective employees. But before you start, know relevant laws, federal and state. There are some things you just can’t consider in the hiring process. It’s also a good practice to have applicants sign a form that gives you permission to perform a background check.
In the spy world, a backstop is an identity built to allow an agent to operate unnoticed. A good backstop, or legend, has supporting documents–also known as “window dressing”–and enough truth to be believable and seem natural coming from the agent.
In the business world, job-hunters whittle their professional narrative into a one-page resume. Research the accuracy of all claims in this document. Occasionally, an applicant might “sanitize” a CV–deleting any sensitive information he’d prefer you didn’t know, such as gaps in employment or even jail time.
The most valuable information about an applicant comes in the form of HUMINT–spy code for intelligence gathered from human sources. Obviously, call all references. Ask detailed questions, and request an additional reference or two from each person you call.
Think like a profiler. Try to get a nuanced picture–not just of whether the resume is truthful, but of what this person is really like.
Verify all school claims. A great place to start is studentclearinghouse.org, a site that authenticates enrollment and degree records. Usually, when a person has a degree, they’ll simply list the degree, year, and university, and not say that they “studied XYZ at XYZ University.” (Spy tip: “Studied at” and “attended” can be red flags.)
Also be sure that degrees listed are from actual educational institutions, and not some unaccredited strip-mall storefront or concrete block bunker behind a rural church. You can find listings of diploma mills at geteducated.com.
Of course good employees don’t have to have a university degree. Plenty of smart people never graduated from college. But better someone who is upfront about their lack of formal education than someone who tries to pull the wool over your eyes.
Be prepared. Before you sit down with prospective employees, learn all you can about them. You’ve vetted their resume. Now scour social media feeds and blog posts and see whether the personality portrayed fits with the information you’ve learned so far–or in spy slang, “the take.”
Take the resume data and your research and prepare a list of topics you want to explore. Remember, you’re not just looking for grades and job titles, but experiences and adventures, attitudes and personal philosophies. Ask the applicant about his trip to Vietnam or the punk-rock band she drummed with in college.
Think of yourself as a spy agency handler recruiting assets. You want to find out how recruits will handle unexpected situations, what motivates them, what their values are. This will be a gentle interrogation. Start from a place of trust, but have information in your pocket, and observe carefully.
Law-enforcement interviewers are trained to look for physical indicators of deception, “microexpressions” such as averting the eyes, blinking, fidgeting, sweating. Unfortunately, lie-spotting isn’t that simple. What “deceptive” body language reveals is actually just anxiety, but discovering the cause of that anxiety is another matter. After all, applicants may fidget or stutter because they’re nervous about the interview, not because they’re hiding something.
Some law-enforcement agencies are beginning to reject conventional wisdom about body language and deception, and to turn away from potentially coercive interrogation methods that subject interviewees and suspects to great stress. You should do the same. You’ll learn more about applicants by putting them at ease than by intimidating them and watching them sweat.
Instead, try a technique outlined by the authors of the book Spy the Lie: Former CIA Operatives Teach You How to Detect Deception. It’s called “L2,” which stands for “look and listen.” This common-sense approach suggests that an interviewer keep an open mind and begin from a place of respect and trust. The key is to ask carefully-crafted questions that elicit thoughtful, complex answers–for example, opinion questions beginning with “What do you think about…?” and catch-all questions such as, “Is there anything we missed?”
Listen carefully to the answers, and listen with an open mind. But also keep in mind the intelligence you’ve already collected. For the most part, your goal is to have a real conversation, not bait applicants to catch them in a lie. But if you’ve done your homework, you’re much more likely to spot discrepancies or deceptions as they arise.
Vetting employees, contractors, and even potential business partners requires basic spy skills and a little extra effort. Apply a little tradecraft, and you may avoid costly blowback from a bad hire or imprudent partnership agreement–in agency speak, a “roll-up,” an operation gone bad.
—Hal Humphreys is founder/lead investigator of [FIND] Investigations, a PI agency in Nashville, Tennessee, and the executive editor of Pursuit Magazine. He also co-authored an online course for investigators on the basics of deception detection. When he’s not interviewing witnesses or training professional investigators, he’s also a writer, radio producer, hiker, and fly fisherman.