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Illustration By Sébastien Thibault

 How to Hire from a Distance

How do you hire from a distance? Office closures and social distancing measures brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have forced the contract security guarding industry to change how it recruits, evaluates, and hires new personnel, and while many changes are temporary, others can present long-term opportunities for improvement.

Over the last decade, the contract security industry has seen marked changes in both the applicant pool and the officer skill sets required by customers. A more recent development has been interviewing and conducting applicant processing and onboarding remotely as much
as possible.

In particular, the 2008 financial crisis changed the landscape for security talent management. While many industries faced setbacks, the recession presented unexpected benefits for contract security companies.


From 2008 to early 2017, hiring for security firms was a straightforward activity in the United States. Given the generally high but stable unemployment rate and slowly growing economy, the labor pool was both diverse and plentiful. It was not uncommon for a security officer applicant to have substantial life experience or college degrees. The stability of the security industry offered steady employment, albeit rarely at an individual’s prior salary range. Turnover—always an issue in most service industries—tended to be more manageable; keeping a job often trumped seeking a new job.

During this same period, technology finally found its way to contract security. Unprecedented industry consolidation, driven by a wave of retiring owners and uncertainty with the U.S. Affordable Care Act, led national and international firms to differentiate themselves through technology and service. This, however, required a different level of security officer skill set.

21st Century Skill Sets

One important area of service that has fundamentally never changed in the contract security field is that security personnel are expected to show up when and where they were supposed to, look the part through uniformity, understand their responsibilities, be prepared to document both the routine and the extraordinary, and know the right person to notify when necessary.

However, the sophistication level and visibility required of today’s security officer stands in stark contrast to what was needed just a few short years ago. Primarily, the evolution has centered on the demand for more extensive training and the ability of each officer to perform, communicate, and respond professionally in a seemingly ever-growing range of safety and customer service-related areas.

Customer expectations for proficiency have never been greater. Security officers must be prepared to control access, welcome important guests and escort each to their destination, interact with local law enforcement, lead evacuations, respond to medical emergencies, de-escalate tense situations, and mitigate risk.

Technology tools and the skills to use them efficiently have become the industry standard, with a goal of maximizing officer performance and collecting risk management data. Today’s security officer is searching for and locating potential threats, while controlling access using technologically advanced surveillance systems. Routine security officer functions now include electronic incident reporting, camera monitoring, and collecting patrol tour data, which is accessible in real time.

Security companies have also created online programs to make training more accessible, markedly enhancing the skills and knowledge of each officer. Professional security officers now actively pursue computer skills and additional training as a path to upward mobility.

Multigenerational Hiring

Between 2016 and 2018, numerous industries that had been idling during the recession reentered the hiring competition with gusto. For contract security firms, educated and experienced applicants seeking employment and stability evaporated. The trouble was: prospective and current clients’ service needs had not evaporated in the slightest.

Veteran hiring, long a panacea for security firms, was in vogue. As the Iraq War wound down, veteran recruitment became a highly publicized hiring initiative in multiple industries, substantially reducing a crucial and previously consistent security industry employee base. Compounding this challenge, many mature men and women retired or left the workforce. This senior applicant pool, a critical part of the infrastructure of a stable security company, couldn’t be replaced in anywhere near the numbers needed. Suddenly, almost every conversation between industry executives centered more around recruitment, hiring, and retention than any other managerial obstacle.


With this evaporation of veterans and mature candidates, the era of the millennial security officer arrived and with it would come a bushel full of new generational challenges.

Recruiters and talent management experts have devised many strategies for attracting and retaining highly educated millennials—an age range that generally includes people born between 1981 and 1996. Most of these recruitment efforts emphasize values alignment, flexible schedules, being tech savvy, and personal investment in the work. The true question for the private security industry, though, was how would the strata of entry-level, hourly millennial service workers fare?

Security hiring has commonalities and stereotypes. Previously, successful job applicants arrived on time or a few minutes early for an interview, were polite to the receptionist, dressed up for the opportunity, and seemed generally interested in the job for which they were applying.

However, the tight labor market changed the caliber of job applicants, especially for entry-level jobs. Suddenly the average applicant exuded an air of boredom and disinterest. Tattoos, piercings, and colored hair went from rare to common.

During interviews, staffing specialists faced conflicting demands—a need for officers and a group of applicants that refused to work for the rates offered. Pay and billing rates—many of which had remained unchanged or barely affected since late in 2008—now faced strong upward pressures. Heightened demand for frontline guarding services during the pandemic only made recruiting and training qualified candidates more challenging.

New Efficiencies

The mission during COVID-19 was to reduce time spent “in the office” during processing in every imaginable way possible, including while recruiting and hiring security personnel. Technology provided solutions.

The year 2020—due to more modern software, cost-effective access to video, and the need to minimize in-person interaction—will probably be seen as the inflection point when security officer processing became primarily remote. Fully remote processing may currently be a bridge too far, but the groundwork for continuing these trends lies before us. When necessity dictated the change to remote employee processing, the industry responded quickly.

Recruitment. Recruiting today barely resembles the version of just a decade prior. Long gone are the days of newspaper advertisements.

Advancements in job posting sites have seen many come and go, and sites are constantly jockeying for position. For example, is currently the “king of the hill” for security officer job listings, given that LinkedIn and have generally focused on white collar applicants. Glassdoor is seeking to transition from a place for employees and applicants to complain about employers to a more well-rounded employment platform.

Social media advertising is inexpensive and can be targeted, but it comes with the vitriol that even seemingly random commenters care to tag ads with—editing comment sections is a new but essential task for human resources.

Remote interviewing. After the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations worldwide were almost immediately affected by the requirements of social distancing and limits to the number of people in an office. Human resources departments converted almost instantly to the various video platforms, and screeners sought to maximize video conferencing tools to visually observe applicants and their mannerisms.

As the author’s company pivoted to remote interviewing, Erica Montoya, the firm’s human resources director, found that the crucial components of an in-person interview, such as punctuality, attentiveness, and overall effort into being ready for a job interview were still applicable. Her team of staffing specialists readily agreed. Each had stories of exceptional applicants who interviewed well, along with funny tidbits—including an applicant who commenced baking brownies during the interview.

These changes may have implications beyond the duration of the pandemic. Several aspects of winnowing the applicant pool had already lent themselves to modernization, such as applying through an employee portal, often with a “screening” function in the process separating the potential successes from the likely failures. Other efficiencies, such as a secondary six to eight question screening phone call, will most likely fold into the video interview.

Dr. Benjamin Dobrin, dean of the D. Henry Watts School of Professional Studies at Virginia Wesleyan University, believes that wholesale commitment to distance interviewing—while born out of the necessities of the pandemic and associated social distancing precautions—will likely remain in effect long-term.

“This has been a jump start, if you will, for businesses still practicing traditional hiring techniques,” Dobrin says. “Those that have been slow to embrace interviewing technology were just forced to make a quantum leap. History tells us that once the waters recede, the pluses of non-present interviewing will lead to even more widespread adoption.”

Paperwork. In early March 2020, there were a few variations in how traditional hiring paperwork was completed. Across the United States, some security officer candidates arriving for processing started their day with a clipboard, a pen, and the usual suspects: I-9s, tax forms, and handbook acknowledgments.

Fast-forward a few short months, and the clipboard is all but obsolete. Software that captures digital signatures eliminates touching shared objects like pens, and it means paperwork can be completed in the safety and comfort of one’s home. Doing so reduces risk and potential exposure to both the processor and new employee, and it carries the inherent message that the organization cares about its employees and their health, which is definitely a sound message to have ring out loud and clear to people joining the team.

The transition was not without its challenges. Multigenerational employment pools communicate very differently. Montoya and the processing portion of her team found themselves revising flow charts to account for remote processing tasks. Email was the only effective method for detailing what items needed to be completed remotely, as well as what identification documents must be brought for the inter-office visit.

The trouble with email, though, is that not all applicants check it regularly, with reasons frequently split along generational lines. To mitigate the risk that essential tasks might go unread, mature candidates receive phone calls reminding them to look for emailed processing task lists, whereas younger applicants receive text message reminders.

Training videos. Across the security industry, the spectrum of pre-assignment training videos had often been limited to an office-provided terminal with a VHS tape, DVD, or Web link, usually supervised to ensure that materials were viewed and comprehended.

A mass migration towards providing pre-assignment subject matter remotely has been aided by two developments. First, content can be set up so that it cannot be fast-forwarded or skipped, but otherwise employees can learn at a pace that works for them. This eliminates the concern of “pencil whipping” information that is important for officers to know: attention to detail, customer service, daily and incident report writing, and the use of force continuum.


The second benefit of remote viewing is the ability to embed quiz questions throughout the subject matter or as a comprehensive final quiz. Failure—either because the applicant was unable to absorb the content sufficiently or not paying attention at all and winging it—is a strong indicator that a person is destined to fail in their role as a security officer. For these reasons, completing videos remotely easily passes the test for streamlining processing.

Orientation. Few things can match being welcomed in person with a clearly delineated list of expectations and responsibilities, the chance to meet coworkers, a comfortable environment that invites questions and feedback, and the opportunity to rub elbows with the company’s support staff.

Social distancing and infection mitigation pushed this type of orientation into the realm of “the way we used to do it.” Blessedly, with so many meeting software platforms, a combination of prerecorded and live orientation material can accomplish much of the same goals at a substantially reduced risk.

Uniforms. Paperwork, pre-assignment videos, and orientation lend themselves much more easily to software and remote technology than the age-old process of issuing uniforms. When an officer visits the office to pick up his or her uniforms, even after calling ahead to a uniform room manager with sizes, it makes the most sense to have the officer try the items on then and there.

If an in-person office visit is required, the employer can maximize the officer’s visit by completing any additional tasks—such as providing an actual copy of the Employment Handbook and the employee’s first weekly schedule, confirming healthcare choices or dependents on tax forms, and meeting the account manager in person—in one short, concise session.

History shows us that times of great strain and upheaval often end up being catalysts for marked change, and for the private security interview and hiring process that adage has proven true. It is doubtful that even a partial regression will occur after COVID-19, given the ease and efficiency of digital interviewing and the degree to which it highlights an applicant’s familiarity and comfort with technology. If someone cannot manage a Zoom or Webex interview, how effectively can they be expected to use a mobile device complete with accountability and reporting software? The transition to a more digital age arrives in time for the tech-savvy millennial generation, who won’t think twice about remote processing.

Clients’ expectations grow as the world becomes more complex and risks—both old and new—are added to the list of security officer tasks and concerns. Finding people who will be alert, attentive, pleasant, and professional in appearance has historically been the source of success for private security human resources staffing specialists. Their tasks are aided by technological advances, but complicated by generational tendencies and public health roadblocks.

“We are living through arguably the most accelerated amalgamation of technology and public health concepts in human history,” says Dobrin. One thing will always be for certain though: human resources staff must function in a constant state of urgency and innovation, given that the phone rarely stops ringing and the operations department’s “needs lists” will always be in the email inbox early each morning.

Chris Stuart is vice president of Top Guard Security. Employed in the security industry since 1988, he has served on several ASIS Councils and the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Private Security Services Advisory Board. he is Past President of the Virginia Security Association.