Raising The Bar of Professionalism in Private Investigations and Security

By Tamara Shelley | Investigations

Feb 13

Raising The Bar of Professionalism in Private Investigations and Security

“Professional is not a title you give yourself. It’s a description you hope others will apply to you.” –David Maister True Professionalism

This is such a perfect quote. While some are content to do the bare minimum, and are happy to be mediocre, some of us want to be known as the professionals.

As I’ve been building my business and building my network, I have been mentally putting people into one of two categories, professionals I would love to work with and those who are unprofessional. It may sound like I am being judgmental, and I am. My business and career depend on it. I only want to work with Professionals. In our profession (which some refer to as an industry), we all need to help raise the bar to improve our image. Hollywood portrays PIs and Security Officers as something of a joke, or sleazy. Let’s face it, some are. But we cannot erase what Hollywood and the media puts into people’s minds unless we change our own behaviors and reputations to prove to the general public that this is a respectable profession.


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Fail to take even one of these steps and you open the door to losses and significant risk.

I have decided to put on paper what I believe makes an investigator or security officer a “Professional”.

Dress for success. If you want to be viewed as a pro you need to dress the part. A wrinkled shirt, an ill-fitting suit, or an unshaven face will immediately make you look sloppy. No matter how good you may be at your work, the client and your peers will see you as unprofessional.

Do more than you have to do.  Think of the best athlete you can think of. That person probably puts in more hours, watches more film and trains more than what is required by the coach. They hate to lose so they hustle when others are slacking. That is a true professional.

Be prepared. Always know as much as you possibly can before you begin the job. Make sure you have the proper equipment, and prepare for the unexpected. Use your own experience and that of others to help you prepare for a specific job. Charge batteries, clear memory cards, do an advance of the area, even if it’s a virtual one. Bring the right stuff even if you end up not needing it.

Respond in a timely manner. Whether it is responding to an email from a client, returning a phone call or replying to a team member, be timely. We all expect to be paid in a timely manner, so deliver your reports in a timely manner. It demonstrates you do not waste time or procrastinate.

Be creative in your thinking. Some investigations or security jobs come with unique circumstances. It’s a good idea to be thinking of innovative ways to solve the problems or deal with a situation. This demonstrates you are a thinker and you are willing to get out of your comfort zone.

Specialize. If you do everything, you do nothing well. Choose what you do best and specialize in that area. Laser focused people are usually very successful in their niche. This also allows you to be perceived as an expert. If you do not have a specialty, decide what you want to do and learn as much as possible about it and work with the best people in that field to gain knowledge and experience.

Keep it above board. Ethics are a big issue in our profession. Some will cut corners and charge the client for more hours than they put in, others may bend the rules when it seems beneficial or convenient to them. These people will soon be exposed because their deeds will come back to bite them later. Operating in an ethical and morally responsible manner is what true professionals do.

-Know when to walk away. We’ve all had that client. The one who wants illegal things to be done in order to gain an edge is not a good client. The one who wants things done that are not physically possible, but expects magic to happen is also not a good client. No matter how much money someone offers you, sometimes it is best to politely decline a job because the scope of work is not realistic or it is not legal or ethical. Sometimes the client has absolutely no chance of obtaining the information they desire. If the case will absolutely not be fruitful and you know there is no hope for the client, decline.

Know when to talk them out of a case.  Some of you may strongly disagree with this point. Some would argue that you never turn down money. A professional will not take money from someone that has no case or that can do the work themselves. In some situations, the client only needs something that a simple google search could turn up, or a simple login to their bank may reveal. In that case, advise them, save them the money they would spend and you may end up with a new client after all.

Follow up. It is so important to follow up with a client or someone who has given you a job opportunity. The little things can go a long way toward building up your professional cadre. If you were invited to work a job by a colleague, send a thank you note. Email the team leader after the job to just show your appreciation for the opportunity. Thank your client after an investigation and ask for a referral. You’d be amazed what a little follow up will do for your image.

Network and give referrals. We all want to increase our base of clients and fellow investigators. Networking is more than going to a meeting. Make introductions to those you feel would benefit each other. Follow up with the client after you have referred a job to someone else. Publicly acknowledge or thank someone for their help or ideas. Invite those you respect and like to attend meetings or training seminars with you. Forward email invitations to events and training that you think a colleague would appreciate.

Be organized and prompt to meetings. Being organized is tough sometimes. However, having a notebook for papers, having the proper information and access to it while mobile will help you stay organized. Being on time is paramount to being viewed as a professional. In fact, being a few minutes early never hurts. Even if it means leaving an hour or more before you want to. You can always find a way to burn some time if you’re early, but you can never get it back once you are late.

Stay relevant. This means constant learning. Whether it is learning new technology, or old fashioned primitive tactics, never stop learning. Take advantage of all the free webinars and classes you can as well as invest in conferences and training programs. A great way to learn new things is to spend some time with someone whom you respect and consider a professional.

Do what you say you will. This is the crux of building trust. When you say you will email something, do it. If you say you will call someone, do it. It is a trust factor that people look at when deciding if you are a man of your word. Just because it may be a small thing, blowing it off could mean you don’t get the job or you are not invited back for a second job. Small things are big things and doing what you say you will builds that trust with not just clients, but your peers.


There are many more things that we can do to increase our professionalism. I challenge you to make a list of things you think make a professional. Then, ask yourself how well you do those things. There is probably some room for improvement somewhere in your habits and behavior. Be honest with yourself and do what needs to be done to improve your professional image and make it become a habit.

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