How The CIA Keeps Employees Happy


MARCH 1, 2013

You may think an organization with dangerous working conditions, mind-blowing stress, and thankless assignments would have trouble with retention. You would be wrong. Here’s why top secret agents stick around.

Obviously, the CIA is not a perfect place, and the job isn’t for everyone. As with any job, there are pros and cons to the undercover profession. The bureaucracy can be maddening, advancement can be slow, and there are plenty of incompetent jerks, just like in any large organization.

Yet the clandestine service manages to retain many officers whose skills, education, and experiences would allow them to pursue their choice of opportunities in the outside world. In fact, the retention rate in the clandestine service compares very favorably to the private sector. So why do the employees stay?

A big part of the reason for the impressive retention is because of the CIA’s mission. Case officers believe in what they do, and they like making a difference in the world. The travel opportunities, the glamour of the job, and the excitement also keep people around. But while these factors are not fully replicable in the corporate world, the CIA also utilizes a number of organizational strategies that can certainly be duplicated by private employers to keep talented and in-demand employees happy and productive.

The following organizational structures and strategies used by the CIA are listed not only because they appeal to high-performing individuals, but because they also contribute to high-performance for organizations:

1. Encourage frequent rotation. CIA officers change assignments frequently. My own assignments have lasted everywhere from 60-day stints in war zones with minimal infrastructure to almost three years in a more stable position. Perhaps more important, each of my assignments was drastically different from the last. For a self-confessed job-hopper such as me, this was very appealing. There was little opportunity to get bored and ample opportunity to learn.

High performers hate stagnant environments. Small companies in particular, though, frequently face headroom limitations that make upward mobility difficult. A company with only six employees simply can’t justify promoting to the management ranks everyone who shows potential; to do so would result in a top-heavy, unproductive organization. However, allowing talented employees to move between departments, functions, and locations breeds a multidimensional workforce, and also helps to circulate knowledge and talent throughout your organization. It also keeps things interesting for your employees, who might otherwise begin to feel stuck. The next item is related:

2. Be a résumé builder. Ironically, the best employers are often those who make it the easiest to find work elsewhere. That’s because the top employers provide the best training opportunities, the most challenging assignments, the most capable mentors, and the most diverse experiences. The better and the more challenging the job, the better it makes as an entry on a résumé.

It’s hard to beat “Clandestine Service Officer, Central Intelligence Agency” for an eyebrow-raising résumé entry. By becoming an employer recognizable in your own right for the quality and talent of your workforce, though, you become more attractive not only to the top candidates, but also to your customers and clients.

3. Match the person, not the title, to the task. After I finished my year of training to become a clandestine service officer, I reported for my first day of work expecting not much more than instructions on where to find my desk and introductions to my new colleagues. I was stunned, then, when the first words out of my new boss’ mouth were, “Did you pass your firearms training?” I had–in fact, I had done surprisingly well for someone who doesn’t like guns–but I couldn’t imagine why she was asking. It turns out that she wanted me to head to Afghanistan. As soon as possible. It was not the first day on the job that I had anticipated, but this was shortly after 9/11, so I quickly agreed to go.

If you are serious about attracting the top talent in your industry, you can’t afford to let your employees languish in unchallenging positions. Too often, employers recruit bright and talented individuals, but then hesitate to give them any real responsibility until they are more “seasoned” or more senior in the organization. In the meantime, the talented recruits are bored out their minds and likely to spend their ample free time surfing the Internet for a better job.

I’m not advocating that employers put untested new hires in situations where a beginner’s mistake could be costly for the organization. I do, however, believe that employees’ skills and abilities–not their seniority or job title–should determine who is best qualified for the highest-stakes assignments.

When the CIA identifies a high-profile target, careful attention is given to selecting the right officer for the job. Consideration is given to language, nationality, personality, gender, age, and area of expertise. It does not always make sense for a 55-year-old English-speaking white male electrical engineer from Wisconsin to try to recruit a twentysomething female hijab-wearing Middle Eastern student who speaks only Arabic, for example–even if the 55-year-old is a highly skilled senior officer.

Human resource practices within the CIA are substantially different from those within a private organization. Because of the nature of the work and the requirement for top-secret security clearances, clandestine careers can be far more intrusive and emotionally involved than a typical nine-to-five job. Moreover, CIA officers are in demand from private-sector employers, and–yes– sometimes even from foreign governments that are just as eager as we are to establish penetrations of their rival intelligence services. All the more reason, then, for the CIA to employ an organizational and personnel structure that facilitates critical work while simultaneously motivating and monitoring employee performance.

Whether or not national security depends upon your organization’s success, your workforce can benefit from some of the CIA’s recruiting and organizational strategies. Whether you are hiring a CEO or a fry cook, you should have confidence that your selection process is fair, accurate, and effective. And once you have built an organization, you should put in place a structure that maximizes performance and attracts and retains top talent.

Related: Work Like A Spy: An Ex-CIA Officer’s Tips For Business Success

Excerpted from Work Like a Spy: Business Tips from a Former CIA Officer.
Published by Portfolio/Penguin. Copyright J.C. Carleson, 2013.

J.C. Carleson is a former undercover CIA officer and corporate stategy consultant. She spent nine years conducting clandestine operations around the globe before trading the real world of espionage for writing about espionage.