What It’s Like to Recruit for the CIA

By Roy Maurer Jan 19, 2017
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​Ronald Patrick, chief of talent acquisition for Mitre Corp.

Recruiting for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has got to be markedly different than talent acquisition anywhere else, right?  

Well, yes and no. SHRM Online spoke with Ronald Patrick, a 30-year veteran of the agency, about those similarities and differences. During his career at the CIA, Patrick served as chief of talent acquisition, chief of human resources for science and technology, and a deputy director overseeing diversity and inclusion programs. He is currently the chief of talent acquisition for Mitre Corp, a not-for-profit organization that manages federally funded research centers.

SHRM Online: What differentiates the recruiting and hiring process at the CIA from most other sectors?

Patrick: The CIA's screening and onboarding process is one of the most thorough processes utilized today. It evaluates a candidate's qualifications, skill sets and organizational fit [for] both an occupation and the culture of the intelligence community, and the overall ability to receive and maintain the highest levels of security and medical clearances. While there is an overall approach used with all hires, including student interns, each occupation has unique screening additions. Upon completing the process, each hire must meet the qualifications of an intelligence officer in addition to his or her subject matter expertise, such as engineering or analysis.

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SHRM Online: What is the average time-to-fill for different types of staff?

Patrick: It is a lengthy process to join the agency since every new hire comes in with security and medical clearances to allow them to do the work required on day one. The process can range anywhere from 6-9 months on average from resume [submission] to onboarding, but may take longer depending on the locations a person has lived, their specific qualifications, the location of their future position and other administrative considerations.

SHRM Online: What is the CIA's recruitment process like, step by step?

Patrick: The agency's process generally follows a traditional path similar to many other organizations. Applicants are found in various ways, including campus recruiting, professional organizations, community partnerships, employee referrals, conferences and professional networking. Many applicants initially meet an agency recruiter at an academic or professional networking event and learn general information about a career at the CIA. Other applicants directly apply. Ultimately an applicant must apply directly to the CIA's website, and his or her resume submission is screened against the current openings. Most applicants receive a telephone screening if there is an initial reciprocal interest. Following a favorable telephone interview, applicants receive online screening to further evaluate their potential, fit and general intellectual aptitude. If the results are favorable, candidates are invited to send writing samples or other occupation-specific exemplars of their capabilities. Afterward, candidates may receive multiple recruiter interviews, which may include a focus on their knowledge of current events, depending on their career goals. Following a review of all gathered information, a conditional offer of employment is made, followed by the security and medical clearance processes. Once a candidate is fully cleared, he or she is scheduled to onboard with the agency.

SHRM Online: How are applicants assessed?

Patrick: Like many large organizations, the CIA applies a multiphased assessment to all new hires. There are four main areas which are assessed: an applicant's qualifications, the applicant's recent adult lifestyle, the breadth of an applicant's background, and the applicant's ability to meet and hold security and medical clearances. The breadth of an applicant's background refers to an applicant's range of experiences, knowledge, talents and attributes that may directly or indirectly affect his or her ability to grow in an intelligence career, such as language skills or aptitude and past overseas travel and living experiences. Various methodologies are used to assess these factors, including the application, interviews, applicant testimony, background investigations, medical and security screening, and the use of other screening processes.

SHRM Online: What are some typical interview questions?

Patrick: The interview spans a range of topics specific to an applicant's qualifications, background and career goals. Many questions ask about an applicant's demonstrated ability to approach and solve complex issues within his or her discipline. Other questions gauge an applicant's awareness of his or her interpersonal qualities and preferences such as working on teams, under pressure or in unusual environments. Many questions focus on an applicant's motivation to ensure alignment to what a career at the CIA can offer.

SHRM Online: What makes a good culture fit for the CIA?

Patrick: Honesty, ethical behavior, consistency, dependability, patriotism and a drive to provide service to others are common cultural characteristics of the CIA. That may not sell books or movie tickets, but it is the foundation of what makes a good fit between a new officer and the organization.

SHRM Online: How is something like honesty or ethical behavior assessed?

Patrick: These characteristics are not situational. For most people, honesty and ethical behavior is based on a consistent belief system. During the evaluation phase, recruiters simply ask an applicant directly about these areas. In addition, the agency looks for alignment of the stated beliefs with behavior in the workplace, home life and social relationships. These are then verified through investigations and the polygraph interview. The CIA wants to ensure that applicants are really who they say they are in all facets of life.

SHRM Online: What types of behavior will eliminate a candidate from consideration?

Patrick: Like any organization, the CIA insists on consistent honesty and integrity throughout the evaluation process. If it comes to light that applications were falsified, information was omitted or past events were "shaded," the agency will not invest further time in an applicant. Recent behaviors involving illegal drug use, financial impropriety, or engaging in actions that may potentially be used as leverage against an applicant once he or she is an officer are usually disqualifying. All new hires must be U.S. citizens, which eliminates foreign national candidates. A simple way to look at this is that the agency spends a great deal of time and effort to ensure that the person the applicant presents is really who he or she is on all levels before being hired.

SHRM Online: Has there been a re-examination of the zero-tolerance policy on marijuana use in order to attract younger candidates?

Patrick: No. The CIA adheres to the Director of National Intelligence guidelines on illegal drug use and misuse of prescription drug guidance in the adjudication of clearances. If applicants have used any illegal drugs or misused prescription drugs within 12 months prior to their initial application, they cannot be hired until that behavior has ceased and is not going to be a part of their future lifestyle.

SHRM Online: What kind of interviewer training is done?

Patrick: CIA recruiters complete extensive training related to interviewing and assessment, including the dreaded videotaping of interview performance, resulting in candid, informative feedback. Recruiters also receive training in legal guidance, diversity and inclusion equities, ethical issues, and the role of bias in interview assessments. Officers also receive training in the corporate aspects of recruitment, such as dealing with media and protestors and handling questions about sensitive topics. Following training, recruiters are paired with seasoned officers who help mentor and guide new recruiters as they gain familiarity and confidence in their recruitment roles.

SHRM Online: What are the most frustrating misconceptions about the CIA's hiring process?

Patrick: There is no vast warehouse with complete files on every American. Some applicants believe the CIA already knows everything about them before they apply so they choose to not discuss relevant issues during the hiring process. When those issues come to light later in the process, it then becomes a question of an applicant's candor or willingness to trust in the process.  Of course, another frequent frustration is with the applicants who believe that what they see on TV or at the movies or read in books is actually what CIA employees do every day in all positions.

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