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goldminerIt seems that every time a crime or terrorist act is committed, the perpetrator’s family, neighbors and schoolmates say something along the lines of “Fred would never do that, he was such a nice guy.” Cases in point: Alton Nolen beheads his coworker and attacks another with a knife. His mom states “My son was a good kid…that’s not my son.” James Holmes massacred 12 and injured 70 people in an Aurora, CO movie theatre. A friend was quoted as saying James was a nice kid and seemed pretty normal. There are plenty of other less violent examples of seemingly innocent people conducting espionage and stealing assets.


How can we improve our ability to identify people who have the potential for being a threat to their fellow colleagues, customers, community?


In the workplace, there has been an uptick in usage of personality tests as part of the hiring process, particularly for customer service jobs. Yet at the same time, civil rights activists are litigating against personality tests claiming that they are discriminatory. They claim that test results which reveal a medical condition, such as a mental health issue, should be protected. Is this another example of political correctness obliterating common sense? Surely one’s personality is an important component for success at a given job, to ensure a good fit. It makes sense to test an applicant’s empathy when applying for a job in customer service, for example. What’s more, if a personality test given as part of a recruitment step were to show a person to be deranged, well, would that not be a good thing for everyone to know?


The typical components of a hire are the resume and job application followed by an interview and sometimes criminal background check. I bet if you looked at the hire documents of Jonathan Pollard, Aldrich Ames or Anders Breivik, very little would stand out as problematic as regards their propensity for violence or betrayal. There is a tendency to think of recruitment as objective, a process that needs to be fair. But honestly, the whole process is subjective, especially the interview. The interviewer cannot help but bring their personal experience, values, perspective and mood to the interview, by necessity informing their impression. Applicants know this. That’s why there are books written to instruct applicants on how to dress, speak and act during an interview.


Like it or not, the best way to test for potential vulnerabilities, loyalty or extreme behavior is to push an applicant’s buttons, to try to dig into their core values. For example, asking a question like … “what is worth dying for?” Take the answer whether it my children, honor and then go with it, drilling down. Both the answers and the behavior of an interviewee fielding this kind of discourse can be revealing. An interviewer is like a miner, digging for informational gold.


The annual employee review is an excellent opportunity for management to assess not just how an employee is doing at his or her job, but to scan for potential security issues, as well. It is a tool for countering insider threats.  Does the employee have problems – financial, familial, that would make him vulnerable to criminal behavior? Does the employee have anything they would like to say, off the record, about a colleague? The employee review is an intelligence gathering opportunity too often missed.


Alas, in some cultures, these interview techniques may seem inappropriate. Asking about colleagues is akin to ratting out a brother. An employee’s personal life is off limits. In the U.S., there are strict legal boundaries governing what can be asked. But when the safety of people and security of assets is at stake, does that not give us license to question in a way that could reap useful answers?