Businesses facing scandalous revelations about a high-profile hire often wish they had known about it sooner. Before it played out in public through adverse press coverage. Before, even, they moved ahead with the hire. But as organizations like the New York Mets are learning, background checks are more art than science, and limiting themselves to phoning references or checking standard public records such as criminal litigation proceedings will not always yield the results they need—which is why the art of the interview, as practiced by professional investigators, can be so valuable.
Mets team president Sandy Alderson recently told reporters he did a background check on former general manager Jared Porter before appointing him in December 2020, though he indicated this check was limited to speaking with references. “There wasn’t really a dissenting voice,” Alderson was quoted saying. One month after this appointment, ESPN broke the story of how Porter sent explicit, unsolicited texts and images to a female reporter in 2016, while he was working for the Chicago Cubs. Porter was fired soon afterwards. Then, in February 2021, The Athletic reported allegations of sexual harassment against former Mets manager Mickey Callaway by multiple women who work in sports media. The allegations reportedly spanned a five-year period that began before Callaway joined the Mets in 2017. Alderson told reporters his organization was “shortsighted” in its hiring process while vetting Callaway, who has denied any wrongdoing. “We’re probably taking our background checks and so forth to a somewhat higher level to the extent that we can,” he added.
More than ever, clients who wish to vet a candidate for a top job at a high-profile company, or the C-suite of a startup they wish to acquire, as two examples, are concerned with uncovering any history of allegations of unprofessional or harassing behavior. Yet one of the lessons of the growing press coverage of high-profile figures accused of abusing their positions of power in a workplace setting is that there may be no paper trail for such allegations against them—at least not one that is publicly accessible. ESPN’s coverage of Porter, for example, relied not on a public record but on a copy of the text message history between Porter and the woman, which ESPN obtained “after being alerted to their existence by a baseball source,” and then verified directly with the former reporter, who gave her consent to publication.
In some instances, it is possible that a thorough public records investigation will uncover allegations of bad behavior in the workplace. For example, litigation surrounding a biased or hostile work environment filed in federal or state courts would be discoverable by anyone who goes looking. But what if a victim opts not to file a civil suit, and neither they nor anyone else creates a public record about the offending behavior, such as posting allegations on social media or giving an interview to a reporter? What if there is no public paper trail?
One approach is to interview current or former colleagues and associates who are female—something Alderson acknowledged to reporters that he did not do in the case of Jared Porter. However, when taking this approach, it is best to proceed with caution: it would not be recommended that while vetting a male candidate for a top role, the investigator reach out to all current or former female colleagues and ask if he has a history of harassing, unbecoming, or unwanted behavior. Such a blunt line of questioning might have the effect of tarnishing the candidate’s reputation without cause, and could even scare off potential sources who might know something.
A more productive line of inquiry might be to open with a broad conversation about the candidate’s competency and leadership skills, then segue to some neutral questions about workplace culture and the working environment. For example: What are they like to work with? Are you aware of any issues or concerns? Is there anyone you think we should talk to? It might also help establish trust and rapport with an interviewee if, instead of cold calling, investigators obtain an introduction through a mutual contact. Then, if that interview goes well, investigators can request an introduction to the next person they wish to speak to.
There is no guarantee this approach will always turn up everything a client would like to know about a person, but investigators are often surprised by things learned through such interviews that do not turn up in the public record. This approach also requires a bit more strategizing—and budget—than the standard reference check or public records background investigation, but it can potentially save some embarrassing headlines that could impact an organization’s long-term reputation.