How the FBI Overhauled Its Hiring Process to Improve Diversity and Create a Better Candidate Experience
November 4, 2019
In 2016, former FBI director James Comey realized the organization was facing a diversity crisis in its special agent ranks. While the U.S. population was becoming increasingly diverse, the FBI’s special agent population was becoming more homogenous — with the share of agents from underrepresented groups dropping from 18.9% in 2006 to 17.9% by 2016.
Comey tasked the HR team with fixing this issue, which was no small feat in itself. But as the team started to investigate, it realized this lack of diversity was actually a symptom of much larger issues that were fundamentally impacting the bureau’s ability to hire. The FBI’s hiring process was plagued by out-of-date processes and attitudes, a lack of planning, and limited visibility into its data.
“We thought we had one problem,” says Peter Sursi, senior executive of recruitment and hiring at the FBI, “and we found a million others.”
At LinkedIn Talent Connect 2019, Peter revealed some of the flaws the FBI uncovered in its hiring process, and the roadblocks it faced in trying to fix them. Here’s what the government agency learned from the experience — and the steps it took to modernize recruitment, improve diversity, and, ultimately, keep the public safe.
1. Collect real-time data about your pipeline and ensure that your team has the bandwidth to review it
To figure out where they were losing diverse candidates, Peter and his team decided to start by looking at the last step of the bureau’s intensive hiring process: FBI Academy, the 20-week training program at Quantico that all recruits must go through before becoming special agents. With a new class starting the following week, Peter’s boss decided to ask about the breakdown of the group.
The answer was concerning. No one could tell them how many women and people of color were in the upcoming class — at least, not until the class picture was taken.
That lack of visibility wasn’t just a problem at the final stage of the hiring process. Even at the application stage, Peter’s team wasn’t sure how many diverse candidates were coming in. The data existed, but no one had been paying much attention to it.
“In our ATS, they always check a box saying what their gender and ethnicity are,” Peter says, “but we had just never pulled that into our data team.”
The reality was that the data team was too busy dealing with inquiries from Congress and the Department of Justice to keep a close eye on candidate data. To get around this, the FBI’s HR Peter’s team enlisted the help of other data-minded employees throughout the organization to really understand what kind of data they had and what they were looking at in terms of the breakdown of applicants.
“You have to do everything you can to build a great team,” Peter stresses. “If you have to steal people from the organization, do it. Call in every chit you have — everybody that owes you a favor, get them to come in.”
2. Make sure you understand the true scope of a problem before you try to fix it
Even as Peter’s newly bolstered team started looking at the diversity of its hiring pipeline, it noticed another glaring issue.
To become a special agent, candidates have to pass numerous steps, including an interview, writing test, and medical, physical fitness, and psychological exams. Knowing how many people typically fall out at each stage, combined with data like the number of seats available at Quantico and the time it took to conduct a background investigation, the team was able to figure out that at least 16,000 candidates needed to apply each year.
But in the fiscal year 2016, only 12,000 candidates had applied.
“Not only was there a diversity issue — there was a raw numbers issue,” Peter recalls. “That was not a story that the FBI even knew was a problem. Because all the senior executives came in 20 years ago, and in the past, there were tons of candidates. So everybody just assumed that was still a part of our FBI story.”
This was an even bigger problem than it first appeared. There is only so much space at Quantico, so the bureau can’t make up for it later if some classes aren’t full. And because the FBI had experienced a massive hiring boom 20 years earlier and most special agents retire after 20 years, many were on the cusp of leaving.
“Right at the time that applications are down,” Peter says, “there's this diversity crisis [and] attrition is rising. So we really talked about… what do we do first?”
Before you try to solve an issue facing your organization, take a step back and make sure you understand the true scope of the problem and any factors that are influencing it. Without getting to the bottom of an issue first, you risk only treating symptoms, not root causes, which can lead to more problems down the line. Once you know exactly what you’re facing, you can devise a more strategic plan to fix the underlying issues and make your process stronger.
3. Speak your organization’s language by tying your goals back to its mission and values
When Peter and the FBI’s HR team first started talking about diversity with the wider organization, they experienced some pushback. Some key stakeholders didn’t fully grasp why diversity was important or viewed it as “PC nonsense.”
To combat this, the team explained the issue in language they could understand — by framing it as an operational risk.
“If you do not have a diverse special agent population — a population that mirrors the people that we are meant to protect and serve — we risk losing our legitimacy as a law enforcement agency,” Peter says. “Those are victims that you struggle to comfort. Those are communities that you do not understand. Those are risks you cannot assess.”
The FBI’s mission is to protect the American people and uphold the constitution. By showing how a lack of diversity directly jeapordized that mission, Peter’s team was able to grab the attention of the executive team and get buy-in for their initiatives.
“You have to figure out how to tell the right story with your data,” Peter says. “The idea of the diversity crisis… was true, but was not resonating with our population until we redefined it in terms of mission risk.”
4. Be on the lookout for outdated attitudes that could hold your initiatives back
Even after getting the executive team on board, Peter realized that some major mindset shifts would be necessary in order to make vital changes. The FBI was founded over 100 years ago and some of its views on recruitment did not reflect the current needs and challenges of the hiring market.
“We really had to think about, what does the organization believe about itself?” Peter says. “And where is it wrong?”
One such outdated belief was the bureau’s attitude toward “wooing” candidates. In the past, candidates had always come to the FBI, not the other way around. The bureau would set up a table at college career fairs, but that was about as far as its recruiting efforts went.
This worked fine for some positions the bureau needed to fill — but not for special agents. The career path requires a college degree and a few years of professional work experience, meaning students and recent grads couldn’t even apply.
“You're going to have to go find people that [you] need, and meet them where they are and bring them to you,” Peter says. “You can't just show up at a university where you're invited and put up a table.”
Even when candidates did apply to the FBI directly, the application process was so long and complicated that it was turning many away. The organization didn’t feel compelled to improve it, since it was viewed as a test of a candidate’s dedication and grit.
Unfortunately, this attitude was creating a barrier to entry for diverse candidates.
“You know who won't crawl through broken glass? Women and minorities,” Peter says. “The opportunities for them are limited, and they don't have time to wait for you.”
To help change the out-of-date beliefs that were hurting the bureau’s hiring goals, Peter’s team held a recruiters conference to explain what wasn’t working. Peter says there were disagreements, but they were necessary. It’s important to have these difficult conversations, he says, so your organization can move forward.
5. Set clear diversity targets and factor progress into recruiters’ performance reviews
Since everyone had assumed that enough candidates were applying, the FBI didn’t have any clear recruiting goals, let alone diversity targets. Now that the organization’s HR team had some data-savvy employees on hand, it set out to create a national recruiting plan.
Knowing that the FBI needed a minimum of 16,000 candidates had to apply for special agent roles each year, the team used census data and historical application data to model how many candidates each local field office needed to attract. It also looked at the demographics of each area to set achievable diversity hiring targets. El Paso, for example, has a much larger Hispanic population than Salt Lake City, so it’s unrealistic to set the same target for both cities.
After creating hiring goals for women and people of color, Peter and his team took these targets to each field office. Here, they experienced yet more pushback. The recruiters felt the goals were unattainable.
To ease everyone in gently, Peter’s team made the decision to start small and build up to more formal goals. For the first few years, recruiters were given diversity targets, but if they didn’t meet them, it didn’t impact their performance reviews. Then in 2019, recruiters were told that their progress toward their diversity targets would be factored into their division’s performance plan.
“By then, this is like the fourth year we've talked about it, [so] they’re not as skittish,” Peter says. “We took that time to really make sure they understood where we were going to go.”
Peter notes that recruiters don’t get in trouble if they don’t meet their goals, but they at least needed to make a substantial improvement. This is important because some teams will face a steeper climb than others, so you can’t expect them to go from zero to a hundred overnight.
6. Update or replace outdated processes, especially ones that are hurting your diversity pipeline
To help recruiters reach their diversity targets, Peter’s team focused next on improving old and ineffective processes.
“All our processes had not changed in a million years,” Peter says. “Again, the more we went and looked at them, the more problems we found.”
One major problem area was a standardized test that was creating an adverse impact among some underrepresented candidate pools. Over the course of two years, Peter’s team developed an entirely new test, interviewing 2,000 agents, and performing a thorough analysis to tailor the test more closely to the job requirements.
After passing the standardized test, candidates undergo an interview and writing exam. But the interview questions hadn’t been updated in 10 years — and the exam hadn’t changed in 20. So Peter’s team replaced both, then put all interviewers through mandatory interview and unconscious bias training.
These changes were helpful, but there was still a problem: many candidates weren’t even making it that far. After speaking to IT, Peter’s team discovered that 40,000 candidates who had begun filling out the special agent application form had never completed it.
The team reached out to these candidates to gain a better understanding of the issue. The answers were clear: the application process was too long and demanded too much information all at once. And since Peter already knew this was causing women and people of color to drop out of the process at higher rates, something had to change — and fast.
“We stripped the application down to the studs,” Peter says. “We said, ‘What is the absolute minimum information we need to gather to get you to phase one?’”
By simplifying the initial application process, Peter’s team discovered that candidates were not only more likely to complete the application, but were more emotionally invested in the job. Passing the first test on the path to becoming an FBI special agent made them feel good, so when they were asked to submit more information later, they were more incentivized to see it through.
This is a tactic every company can use to avoid missing out on great talent who might otherwise drop out. Get candidates in the door first by focusing only on essential requirements, then focus on the nice-to-haves along the way.
7. Build communication into every step of the hiring process, nudging candidates who go silent and following up periodically
Contacting candidates who had previously dropped out of the application process came with an unexpected benefit. Some had clearly just forgotten to complete the form, because the FBI saw a sudden spike in applications.
This inspired Peter’s team to start emailing candidates who leave the job application or one of the later steps in the process half-finished. Today, an automatic email goes out after 24 hours thanking the candidate for getting started and giving them a little nudge to continue. A week later, if they still haven’t finished, they’ll receive another email.
“All these parts of the process where people were getting stalled out,” Peter says, “where they would start or they would get invited to take the next phase but they wouldn't come back… now we're emailing them on some periodic basis to say, ‘Hey, is there a question we can answer?’”
After building more communication into the earlier stages of the hiring process, the team realized it also needed to do a better job of communicating after a job offer was extended. The FBI’s vetting process requires a rigorous background investigation for new special agents. This can take up to a year to complete, so encouraging potential hires to stick with it is essential.
“We would automatically send them an email every three weeks just saying, ‘You're alive!’” Peter says. “‘You are still going through the process. Hang with us. Here's a cute little video. Here's the director talking. Here's something about our core values. Just don't leave.’”
This not only kept candidates in the loop but relieved the strain on HR, which was being inundated with anxious check-in calls. Despite this, the team experienced more pushback from the executive team.
“One of the big things we kept running into over and over again,” Peter says, “was ‘we don't want to handhold these people, because that shows they don't have enough grit.’”
Peter pointed out to the naysayers that they had all, at some point in their career, offered guidance, encouragement, and support to an applicant they knew — yet they didn’t consider this handholding.
“We've been doing that all along, but just for the people that we know,” Peter says. “And really, everybody needs to benefit from all of those things.”
8. Use social media to build an employer brand that supports your diversity goals
After going through all this effort to improve its hiring process and promote diversity and inclusion, the last big hurdle Peter’s team had to overcome was getting the FBI’s employer branding efforts online. As a law enforcement agency, the bureau was suspicious of social media. Some recruiters didn’t even want their picture on LinkedIn because they didn’t want to put it out into the world.
“I'm like, that ship has sailed,” Peter laughs. “You're in front of thousands of people every year. Somebody has taken your picture with a phone. So, now that I've crushed that dream of yours to maybe being undercover someday, I'm going to need you make a LinkedIn profile!”
Peter’s team created a LinkedIn career page for the FBI and the Twitter account @FBIJobs, and ensured that the brand is cohesive across every platform. It also held its first Facebook Live event, where a female special agent was interviewed about her role.
Peter says this kind of content would never even have been possible three years ago, because it would have been viewed as too fluffy. Creating a shift in mindset has to happen first, and then everything else can follow.
Less resistance, more progress
It’s been a long and challenging journey, but the FBI has made some serious progress over the past few years. The new shorter, more streamlined application process launched in October 2018, and the bureau is on track to hit 35,000 applicants for FY 2019. That’s created a new problem that the team will need to solve — too many applicants, rather than too few — but Peter says it’s an improvement.
The number of diverse applicants has also gone up significantly. In FY 2019, 45% of applicants were people of color, up from around 40% in 2016. And after flatlining at around 19% for a decade, the number of female applicants jumped to 35%.
Best of all, though, the bureau has undergone a massive shift in mindset.
“When we started,” Peter says, “we were getting… ‘Why are we doing this? It's not going to work. We can't do it.’ But, after three or four years, we're still getting really passionate people, but now the questions are, ‘Should we do it this way? This is too fast or too slow. Can you show me how to do this? Could we do this?’ And that is a huge win for us — just a massive shift.”
To learn more about how the FBI revamped its hiring process, watch Peter’s full talk from LinkedIn Talent Connect 2019: