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Persons applying for sensitive jobs, like at the airport, hospital, school, financial institution or in law enforcement, must submit to a detailed background investigation. Consequently, many people do not apply, knowing they will be washed out.
Among those who do apply, a significant number are rejected at the conclusion of the investigation. Derogatory information may be developed when a criminal history is revealed, a poor credit record, past employment problems or disqualifying information from a reference, relative or neighbor comes to light.
The source document for the investigation is a candid employment application form signed and submitted by the applicant. It reflects the quality of their work standards and ability to conduct a credible investigation on themselves.
Skilled investigators confirm the information provided.
Hopefully, the investigator will not take risky shortcuts. Neither should the prospective employer, government agency or private business conducting this service for a fee. Not all investigations are the same.
The methods used often produce dramatically different conclusions about the applicant. Here is an example.
That critical extra step
During the early 1970s, I was a new FBI special agent working in a Midwest office. New guys got the background investigations. It is a good way to learn the territory. The bureau’s legendary investigation standards are a respected benchmark.
One morning, the supervisory special agent summoned me to his office. He handed me a new case file and assignment ticket.
“Cut your teeth on this, Heidtke,” he growled, “I will be following your progress closely! If any problems arise, check with me before taking any action.”
I was a California cop with a college education. I was not like many lawyers or accountants who had been hired in the past. Mr. Hoover wanted more of us with practical law enforcement experience. He needed experienced boots on the streets. I was one of those new soldiers he was counting on.
I saw some irony in my new case. It was a background investigation on a popular local police lieutenant. He applied to attend the FBI National Academy (FBINA) at Quantico, Va. Only the most trusted and qualified individuals are afforded this prestigious 11 weeks of advanced training. The FBINA is a citadel of law enforcement.
My former police chief was a graduate, and he was an exceptional professional. I expected that of the lieutenant in my new case. He would have to measure up to established high standards.
Every aspect of the investigation was proceeding in a normal fashion. Maybe I was going to make the deadline with three days to spare.
The principal’s office
The last step was the verification of his education. His high school was a two-hour drive into farming country. I resisted covering the lead by phone. My better judgment led me to meet the principal. Good thing!
The school was a grand, two-story structure serving grades 1 through 12. It smelled like the inside of an old library and was quiet like one, too— in spite of having more than 100 kids inside.
I think I may have been the first FBI agent ever to visit there.
I had an appointment with the tenured principal. She was a graduate of the school.
She was waiting for me on the front steps, immediately shook my hand and led me inside. It was good that I was on time.
Her gaze at me was penetrating. Removing my hat and trench coat, I extended my FBI credentials for inspection. She took them in her hands, carefully comparing me with the ID photo.
She nodded her approval as she handed them back, motioning to a chair next to her big wooden desk. I bet that a lot of kids sat there.
Her office gave me flashbacks of my grade-school experiences. I sensed this woman ran a tight ship. A paddle was hanging on the wall.
At first, we talked about the FBI. She asked tough questions. I was glad I had the right answers, realizing she was “sizing me up.”
She was prepared for my questions about the applicant. On her desk were files to back up her answers. I unlocked the brass padlock stamped “U.S.” on my bureau-issued leather brief case and removed the field folder. I discreetly began taking notes.
As she talked about the applicant, his family, brothers and sisters listed on the application, her expression softened with affection. They were good people and she knew them all very well—and much more.
Suddenly, she arose and closed the door. I stood up. She leaned toward me and asked in a whisper, “May I speak confidentially?” Her eyes met mine as I replied, “Absolutely!”
She told me the applicant had a brother and a sister who were not listed on his application. He was born at home into another family and given away in his infancy to the family that raised him.
His biological father and mother were dead, but his brother and sister were still living in the community. She had their school records, and they were responsible, law-abiding people. She doubted the applicant fully realized this important part of his family history.
Because I met with her, I was able to receive important “deep background.” Use of the phone alone would certainly have fallen short, with an incomplete result. Interviewing in person is clearly superior.
My crusty supervisor and I conferred, and I left with his instructions.
Another agent and I then met privately with the lieutenant.
His eyes widened as I revealed the new facts. “A trustworthy confidential source has informed me thatee” was the way I began. He made notes about his “new” brother and sister.
I instructed him to independently verify this information and to report to me within two days for a signed statement amending his application.
He told me he visited his brother and sister. There were tears as they reminisced. As kids in school, they often wondered about the similarity of their appearances. His burden was finally lifted.
He became an FBINA graduate.
Competent background investigations
I learned early in my career that 90 percent of effective human communications is nonverbal. Therefore, telephone and written communications alone are far less effective. Communicating in person allows for reading a person’s body language—a valued advantage.
Be wary of background investigations conducted solely with the use of electronic data files and telephone interviews in order to save money. Cheap investigations produce inferior results.
Value those investigations that are conducted with the use of “in-person” interviews and signed statements when they are indicated.
Following the November elections, a new federal administration will be sworn in. Many priority background investigations will be conducted. A timely and thorough vetting of critical staff members is fundamental to the integrity of our national security and trust in government.
John Heidtke has been employed with municipal, county, state, federal and international law enforcement agencies since 1963.