• United States



A World of Difference

Jul 01, 20059 mins

Ex-cops are popular recruiting targets for top security jobs. But that background can be bad for business. Here's a better way to hire right.

I’ve observed what appears to be a popular notion among some senior management types (and headhunting firms) that middle-to high-ranking law enforcement leaders make good security leaders. I don’t have any numbers to back up my observation, but I’ve rubbed elbows with people on both sides of the issue during my 40-year career. The cops, whether from local, state or federal agencies, are, in the minds of people filling senior security roles, the talent pool from which to draw.

There’s one problem with that line of thinking: It doesn’t work because the corporate security field can be worlds apart from their experience working in law enforcement.

Feelings on the subject can run pretty deep. And it is hard to discuss it in law enforcement circles because you hate to offend people who have laid their lives on the line out on the street. I’m confident we can, however, honor their years of service in law enforcement while still recognizing that the security profession is different from the law enforcement profession.

I’ve learned this insight the hard way. Before I made my own first bad hiring decision in this regard, I was part of the crowd who thought a retired senior FBI agent would be an excellent fit for what I needed: a six-figure-salaried senior analyst and writer on security trends for CEO-level consumption. The person I picked was a great guy who had had a marvelous career in the Bureau. He had a good work ethic, was positive, charming, articulate. But as it turned out, he was a round peg in a square hole.

While I needed someone who could convey an in-depth analysis of technical security trends using effective writing, this guy expressed enormous resistance to “sitting behind a desk” all day. As a field agent, he had grown accustomed to traveling, and in spite of clear information on what the new job entailed, he clearly hated it. My bad decision to hire him was at least as much my fault as his. I didn’t do well in relating a Bureau resume to what I needed. I made too many wrong assumptions. Had I known better, the whole situation could have been avoided.

Since then, I’ve moved on. Now, many years later, I am once again confronted with this situation of mismatched perceptions. At a time when the nation is expanding security positions to wage war on terrorism, I find myself in charge of a considerable number of current and former law enforcement officers who are, how shall I put it, “out of place.”

I need them to have skills they do not possess; I need them to have a viewpoint they do not understand (and often resist); and I need them to do things they do not like to do. Mostly, this involves “security work,” which many of them despise for its lack of law enforcement heft, and working with security people, whom they largely disrespect for their lack of a shared background.

Look Who’s Behind the ID Badge

Perhaps before going any further, we should talk about this “square badge” and “shield” controversy. At the bottom of the ladder in the private security world, be it corporate security or guard company, is the man or woman sitting at the desk, 24/7/365, at low wages, keeping our shopping malls and corporate office buildings monitored, if not exactly safe. Traditionally, their only badge was a tag with their name on it, although most modern guard companies now use shield badges with the company name because it projects a more professional image. The low wages in this sector will pretty much guarantee you get very young, inexperienced people or very old people who need a supplement to Social Security. They come with zero to low medical or retirement benefits, and often work part-time. Its easy to stereotype these folks, often unfairly. But take a closer look at their bosses.

The leaders of these security companies often have advanced business or law degrees; they have more surveillance cameras than all of the police departments in the country; they manage more employees than all of the police departments in the country; and they possibly make more arrests than all of the police departments in the country. They are nonetheless tarred with the same desk-guard brush, and therefore, they make less attractive candidates for the headhunter to put in front of a client than the special agent in charge of some alphabet agency.

Here’s how bad it can get. I was once talking to a counterpart at another company, a former police chief. He hung up on me when I told him I had never been a sworn law enforcement officer. Unbelievable! Because I needed to deal with this person, I worked hard to get the relationship on track. We have since developed an effective, if not close, working relationship. But I remain astounded at the depth of his negative feelings about people who are unsworn.

Maybe I should have worked into the conversation, early on, that Im a wounded combat veteran. Ive often wondered if that would have made any difference. But he was senior enough to be expected to overcome his own personal biases and act more professionally.

I do try to remember from my own combat days how the shared experience of putting your life on the line every day can create strong bonds. What also happens, unfortunately, is that the people who share this experience can too easily become “we,” and everyone else is “they.” I often wonder why, when the law enforcement crowd hears about a security guard being killed or wounded during some sort of armed robbery, they dont allow him to become a part of the “we.” After all, security guards put their lives on the line every day, too, and for a lot less money!

Thats the background to the problem I see in taking your average law enforcement executive and trying to make him into a security executive in business.

The key here is to find one of those few law enforcement executives who actually did more than just enforcement. You want the person who did the department budget on his way up. You want the guy who worked with the city council and learned how to compromise. You want the woman who joined nonpolice professional associations such as ASIS International or The International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium. You want the guy who learned the skills you will expect him to possess post-police. Somebody who can behave collegially at the conference table. Someone who can listen and support other important business missions besides security. Someone who can think objectively and write well. Someone who can educate other businesspeople about important issues in a convincing way.

Too often, though, I see that the ex-cops will insist on their way, and if you dont accept it, youre weak on security. Its frustrating because many are smart enough to work at the executive level. They just dont see any need to change what worked so well for them in law enforcement, even though the business world is a different environment with different demands.

How to Assess Talent

The way to solve this situation is to avoid bad hiring decisions and create circumstances that lead to great hires. Get past the cachet of he was chief of police in Colorado somewhere. Instead, assume nothing about what candidates did in law enforcement. During the screening process, identify their business and staff skills. Focus on these qualities:

  • Attitude. Look for people who seem as interested in the job as in the money, who genuinely like people, and who dont need to remind everyone who they were in their old line of work.
  • Administrative skills. Nobody can succeed in business today without understanding all the tasks that go into reaching a good decision and then implementing it. This includes getting buy-in on new policies and intangible qualities like remembering Administrative Professionals Day.
  • Critical thinking. Look at how well they can bend the best of what they know from experience to fit their newly aspired role.
  • Writing skills. Have them provide examples of pieces that they have written for publication or for internal consumption. Ask them to draft the outline of a policy on the appropriate use of company PCs. This will demonstrate their analytical, logical and English composition skills, not to mention their out-of-the-box thinking abilities.
  • Technical proficiency. They must understand the technical basis for how their security systems work, especially when it comes to computer networks. No security executive should need to have explained to him the optimum frame rate of a video surveillance system to avoid excessive bandwidth consumption.
  • Business proficiency. It is difficult to work effectively with the companys senior leaders, or understand what they are talking about, without understanding how the business makes, raises, allocates, spends and accounts for money.

I have met some senior law enforcement retirees who I would love to hire and some (two, actually) who I hired to good advantage. In both cases, it was clear that these folks had put their former profession behind them. As they gained experience and pursued their genuine interest in the work, they took on a new persona and the ex-cop part of them faded away. They also worked very hard, did not complain that they used to get overtime and willingly accepted coworkers suggestions.

I dont want anybody to think you should not hire a former cop when the fit seems right and you have done the evaluations suggested above. Evaluate candidates business acumen and look for other required traits. Do this, and youll get a good hire—regardless what kind of badge he used to wear.