A tap on the shoulder from a university professor. A call from an unknown number leaving a vague voicemail message. Finding yourself strapped to a polygraph machine in a windowless room in Langley, VA, being told you might be lying when you’re not …
No mystery to solve here: This is classic CIA recruitment. Except these days you can also apply online.
“Coming to work at the CIA is not like coming to work at a technical company or a big retail chain,” says Ron Patrick, the CIA’s head of recruitment. “You are serving your country. You are serving your family, your friends.” When it comes to deciding to interview at the CIA, or hiring a particular candidate, choices aren’t made lightly.
A 29-year veteran of the CIA, Patrick has overseen the recruitment of some of the agency’s—and the world’s—best spies, as well as equally critical analysts and support staff.
“The amazing thing about our agency is that there is no super secret password or thing to say,” Patrick explains. It’s not as if “someone has a glimmer of [what the right words are so] we let you in the club.” I feign a sigh of disappointment as he continues. “It doesn’t work that way at all. Everything out there—movies and books—make it seem as if there is some secret way to get into the CIA, when in fact it’s not so secret.”
The CIA’s recruitment procedure is a multi-step process that looks at the “whole person,” as Patrick puts it. For almost all occupations, the CIA conducts a resume review in which an applicant’s skills and experiences are considered, along with knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary for the position. This review is followed by a telephone interview to determine general qualifications and basic security compatibility.
An applicant is then given several online tests that look at key competencies such as writing skills and problem-solving abilities. These tests also evaluate whether the applicant has the right “interpersonal fit” to work at the agency. Following this, a face-to-face interview occurs and, if successful, medical tests and a psychological screening. For some occupations, candidates have to undergo a current events knowledge screening.
“For an applicant interested in a clandestine position, the questions tend to be more focused on overseas events, the skills required to be successful in that occupation, and the true elements of the occupation,” explains Patrick.
All of this sounds pretty standard. However, it’s intriguing to consider how far the CIA drills down to evaluate a candidate on attributes such as honesty and integrity.
“We look at what jobs they held and how well they did in them. We look at their academic performance: How good of a student were they? Were they respected or looked at in any way by their professor as disloyal? Were they loyal members of groups, or did they exhibit indicators that suggest otherwise? We look at how they live their lives day to day. Have they lived their life in an honest and open way? When they said they’re going to do something, did they do it, and how well did they do it? And if they didn’t, why not? Was it something out of their control?”
During the background investigation and polygraph testing any inconsistencies will be noted.
“We ask directly: give us an example of a time when you were not straightforward or honest—how did that work out, what did you learn, and how have you changed since then?”
Other questions one can expect in an interview with the CIA include:
1. Why do you want to work for the CIA?
2. Tell me about the expectations that will be asked of you by working at the CIA.
3. Share an example from your recent professional or educational experience where you successfully navigated an ambiguous situation.
4. Please describe an example of a time you were in a leadership role and failed. What were the lessons learned and your subsequent change of behavior?
5. In what ways have you recently or currently serve others?
I know what you’re thinking. These questions seem far too simple and straightforward for one of the most elite organizations in the world (I did actually convey the thought multiple times to them), but consider this: the difference between the CIA and other employers is actually how much value they put on the answers – not on the questions being brilliant or different.
And despite what some may suggest in job sites online, the CIA does not record interviews. Patrick explains that would be cost prohibitive and not terribly useful.
“There are applicants who don’t make it through recruitment and they write about it on the Internet and say, ‘These were the questions I was asked.’ Some of the questions are accurate, but many are not. There is a lot of information out there, and there are people who are putting it out there for a number of different reasons. When you are looking for a job at the CIA, don’t look at that stuff—don’t look at what people who tried to get into the CIA and failed wrote—because you won’t get the right answers.”
A job interview at Langley is viewed by the CIA recruiter as a dialogue or conversation, he says. “If there are behaviors that suggest deception, we jump into that. But it’s a job interview—not a law enforcement interview. There is a different kind of information exchange. The interviewer helps the applicant share the abilities and skills they have to the best of their ability. We’re not there to trip up an applicant but to make sure the CIA is a good fit for them and they are a good fit for the CIA.”
Even so, Patrick believes that the interview is actually the “weakest link” in the CIA’s hiring process. “We all have biases and issues we bring to every conversation,” he explains. “A couple of years ago, I was asking questions in an interview and the candidate was trying to put their best foot forward. But at the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘Something is not right here. This person is being deceptive.’ I sat back and thought, was it me or was I not feeling right about the applicant’s skills? And I had made a decision and that decision was getting in the way. So I stopped the interview and assessed the situation in my head. In the end, I realized I was not being fair because I was already pre-judging him. If you are not aware of your biases, it can really disrupt a good interview and derail a very good applicant from getting the job.”
It’s for this reason that the CIA does not put any more emphasis on the interview compared to other aspects of the hiring process—and interviewers are given training in identifying how their own hidden biases might be creating false impressions of the applicant.
I asked Patrick how the CIA worked out whether someone had “dodgy connections.”
“This will quite simply blow people’s myths about the CIA, but one of the ways we do it is we simply ask: ‘Are you connected with a foreign government or do you have relatives working for a foreign government, or do you have any connections or allegiances that may be a conflict if you were working for the CIA?’”
Even if the candidate answers yes, the CIA assesses whether this is prohibitive enough for them not to do their job.
Who doesn’t get hired?
“Typically, in a number of background screening steps, if someone has a connection to anything in their life that would put national security at risk, we would not hire that person,” says Patrick.
Which brings me to Carrie Mathison — the lead character in the TV show Homeland. How realistic is she? Could someone with bipolar disorder, for example, be recruited and indeed rise up the ranks at the CIA?
While Patrick has never watched the show himself — and I did suggest to him that he absolutely must — his response was somewhat of a pleasant surprise.
“People who come to the CIA are normal people, meaning they’ve had some difficulties in their life, perhaps a physical or mental disability, or went through a bad period. But as long as they meet our threshold, and they can perform the job while holding a security clearance, we will hire them. If it’s a medical issue, we have a lot of conversations with our doctors and the applicant’s doctor. And if everyone is in agreement that the issue won’t be a problem or is under control, we go ahead. There is a flip side to this as well. There are things that can happen to you as a person when you are working for the CIA. I could be driving home and get into a car wreck and get injured and my whole life is now different because of an incident. We try really hard to take care of our employees in that respect. If the employee can maintain the responsibility required of their security clearance and do the job, we take care of our employees. Some people say you have to be the ‘perfect’ person to work at the CIA. We are normal people. We try and accommodate things that happen to people.”
Patrick gave an example of a candidate who admits to having smoked marijuana in Colorado, where state law allows it but federal law does not. “We are going to say, listen, you need to let some distance pass, at least one year, so you can’t apply now. Some issues are situational and take some time. One thing we can’t get past is if the applicant is a convicted felon. Even if they have been out of jail for five to ten years, it doesn’t matter.”
A downside to the CIA’s thoroughness in recruiting is that it takes longer to recruit and get someone on board. Whereas a traditional corporation can identify a skill or a manager with a certain background that’s needed and be able to bring that person on in less than a month, that’s not the case with the CIA. They have to be able to respond instantly to situations around the world with the team they have in place.
According to Patrick, current events do not change how the agency recruits its next generation of employees, but admits the CIA’s mission changes based on global trends. “We may find that a certain set of skills is more in demand now that will help us achieve our mission that wasn’t there five years ago—based on world events, the economy or shifting demographics. Every year, we update the skill set we look for based on where we think the CIA needs to be five years or ten years out. But we do not alter recruitment over one issue the U.S may be dealing with. Our recruitment needs to reflect not only the breath and depth of America in terms of our citizens, but we also need to work with and interact with cultures from all over the world. So we need cultural knowledge, geographical knowledge and language skills—skills that allow us to do our job in that part of the world.”
“Doing their job” means that their achievements are rarely made public; their failings magnified, scrutinized and, arguably, overhyped by those looking to score political points.
The way I see it, if you sign up, you’ve gotta suck it up.
So, despite the lack of potential for public recognition (though to be fair, spies and analysts really don’t want the attention) and other considerable downsides to the job, it still might rate as one of the most unique and fulfilling careers out there.
“This is a service organization, and it comes with an amazing adventure and can take you places and you do things you never expected. But it comes with responsibility—both in terms of security clearance and being the best professional you can be. Some people think this is a cool job, or this is a neat job, but we ask them to stop and think for a minute about what you are looking for and what we are asking for.” Patrick believes that what’s asked of officers has to be weighed along with what the CIA does to protect their people. “Individuals have to ask themselves: Am I ready for this and can I take this on? Every day, they have to ask themselves: Am I ready to do this today or even next month? And if the answer is no, then it’s time to walk away.
But you can’t walk away from the CIA …”
When I hear this, I straightened up in my chair, imagining an operative diving into the ocean to escape from the clutches of her employer.
“You can’t walk away from the CIA?” I repeat, grinning widely, but clinging to some miniscule hope that the CIA’s chief recruiter may just have tripped up and revealed a Bourne Identity-esque truth about his organization.
He chuckled. “You need to give two weeks’ notice.”
This article was written by Maseena Ziegler from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. SmartRecruiters is your workspace to find and hire great people.