Lesley, please tell us a little bit about yourself and your fascinating background... you used to work in politics, correct?
I still work in politics and somewhat consider it my bread and butter. On a monthly basis, it makes up around 50% to 90% of my income. I do is financial compliance, vetting and opposition research for political committees (campaigns or PACs), with a little social media and website updates peppered in here and there.
Fast forward to when you had your sweet son: Did you still work outside of the home or did you begin to transition to more remote work?
My son was born in 2013 and I actually haven’t worked full time in an office since 2008. I have had a handful of jobs where I have spent part of my time in an office, but not since the end of 2012. The ground work was well laid before he came along.
Before meeting my husband and deciding to bring our minion into the world, the freedom of being remote first allowed me to be what I called a “fake professional runner.” Since I was only going into the office part time, I was able to fit adequate training to qualify for and compete at the 2008 Olympic Trials in the 3000m steeplechase. I missed qualifying for the 2012 trials by half a second, but had some solid personal achievements between 2008 and 2012, including a mile personal best and three weeks of racing in Europe.
At the end of 2012, we decided to have our son. At that time I was fully remote. I was also in a major dry spell with campaigns following the end of the 2012 election cycle, so I decided that was a good time to follow a suggestion from a colleague, who was also the CEO of a company that conducts background checks for the federal government. He had been urging me to do this as a supplement to an athlete’s lifestyle for awhile, but I was nervous about a job that required calling strangers and knocking on doors. However, at the time I was a little desperate and did not want to return to office life, so I decided to take the plunge.
You are now working as a freelance background investigator, which sounds like the coolest job ever! What exactly do you do and what does your day-to-day entail?
Conducting background checks for the federal government is a fully remote job because rather than sending one investigator around the country to investigate one person, they have thousands of investigators covering the entire country, each taking elements of the investigation. By elements I mean record checks in places a subject has previously lived or references they provided that live around the country. There is also a lengthy interview of the individual going through the background check.
Background investigations now fluctuate between my side-hustle and my main-hustle. The most I have worked as an investigator is a 65 hour week, which was terrible and clearly full-time. However, we moved from NYC to Colorado at the end of 2016 and now things are more reasonably paced. I currently average around 15 hours per week of background investigation work.
My days involve four different parts of the background investigation process: phone calls, interviews, writing and administrative tasks. I receive cases through a computer system, call the subject of the investigation or their references, interview them and then write it up. The administrative stuff mostly involves organizing notes and shipping my materials to the contracting company that I work for.
Subject interviews are basically recapping the last 10 years of their life and discussing their finances, foreign ties and past criminal activity. This process has played out pretty dramatically in the public eye thanks to Jared Kushner.
Examples of people I interview are employees at defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, federal employees at agencies like the TSA, ICE, CBP and the DEA, and the military.
How does one become a background investigator? Is it something you recommend for other stay-at-home moms?
If you go on Indeed.com and search far “background investigator” several options come up. The first will likely be KeyPoint, which is where I started. Far someone with no experience, that might be a good place to start, as they hire inexperienced investigators en mass. Other companies you might see are CSRA, ISN, CACI and SCIS. Those last 4 are smaller and are more likely to want experienced investigators. However, they will hire new investigators where there is need and are worth looking into if a job posting comes up. You can also go straight to all those websites and search for Background Investigator jobs. I am currently with ISN and they are a fantastic company. I highly recommend ISN and CSRA as the first place to look.
After getting hired, you go through the same background investigation process that you will be performing once you get cleared. It’s not a fast process, but it’s faster for investigators than it is for many other government positions, because they are always in need of more investigators. The background check took around 4 months for me to get through from filling out my paperwork to being notified of my adjudication. I then had 5 weeks of unpaid training, including three weeks of classroom training. This is definitely not a job for a parents who needs to start making money, like, next week.
Training varies by company and things have also changed since I went through the process. Classroom training out-of-state can now be as short as just one week. For me, I was lucky that I was going through all of the training while I was still childless. For someone who is already a parent, going through training definitely requires a supportive spouse and/or supportive family for the time training out of state and for financial support during that first five weeks (which will still be unpaid).
One thing I should clarify, though, is that this industry hires both full-time employees and contractors. I am a contractor, which allows me a tremendous amount of flexibility in how much I work, but it’s also why my training was unpaid (I did receive comped travel and a per diem). For full-time employees of the company, they start getting paid when they start training.
Once the barriers of getting hired, getting cleared and getting trained are cleared, it’s a fantastic job for a parent who wants to work from home.
I should add that there are also non-investigator positions with these companies that allow you to fully work from home. There are reviewer positions and jobs that focus on records that are obtained by fax or phone only, as well as supervisory positions that don’t go out in the field.
Give us a little glimpse into your day: I know from experience that every day with a 4-year-old is different, but what does your typical schedule consist of?
I wake up around 6 am, without an alarm. I think my body might permanently be on east coast time.
I try to make the first thing I do every day involve some sort of writing. If I have investigation reports to write up, I do that. If I don’t, then I will try to work on my own side hustle blog, lesleyhiggins.com.
My son wakes up around 7:30-8 am and at that time I usually drop what I am working on and switch into mom mode. I make him breakfast (a bagel) and prepare his lunch for school (usually leftover mac & cheese). During this the I also have to log onto a secure computer system to create a record of any material I am planning on removing from my home that day. This includes notes, filled out security forms and my credentials.
I take my kid to school at 9 am. He currently attends four half-days per week and my husband picks him up from school.
After dropping my kid off, my day varies quite a bit. If it is a day that I have scheduled an interview, I will drive to that meeting, which I usually schedule for 10 or 11 am. These interviews might be at their office, a library, or the airport. These interviews usually take between one to two hours. Reference interviews are much shorter and take 15 to 30 minutes. If I don’t have any interviews scheduled, I will head to the library to write up any pending reports, or head home to make phone calls.
After an interview I usually find a place to run nearby. Because of this, I am always happy to accept case work close to the foothills so I can hit the trails. If I don’t have any interviews scheduled, I will run near the library or my son’s school before diving into work.
By 3 pm I usually have to take over parenting again, as my husband is a high school track coach and has to get to practice. Our son is finally old enough to not be annoying, though, so if something comes up, our son can go to track practice with my husband. I do my best to not schedule interviews alter 3 pm, but sometimes it's unavoidable. Part of my job is working around other people’s schedules, especially of it's a reference.
On the weekends, if I am going to get any report writing done, it’s usually during that 6 am to 8 am window when no one else is awake yet. After that, my weekends are filled with my son’s activities and hanging out with my family. Conducting interviews on the weekends is incredibly rare.
What opportunities has this job given you and your family (whether it be meeting new people, travel, etc.)?
For me, flexibility is king. I haven’t had to request a vacation day in over a decade. I am currently on a flight to NYC with my 4 year old for a three day weekend and I didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission. I can do track workouts in the middle of the day and take my kid to the pool during the summer. We hardly ever have to arrange childcare.
I always like to end these interviews with a fun question, so can you share a favorite memory that stands out from working as a background investigator?
I have met some pretty interesting people through the course of this job. I have interviewed a former US Attorney General and one almost US Attorney General. I have chatted on the phone with a former FBI director while standing an my in-law's porch. The first reference I ever interviewed was an actor that was on the show Dexter. I also interviewed a Law and Order star as an reference. One of the more interesting situations I have encountered was a guy who few his plane to work several days per week. He worked in Manhattan.
Lesley is amazing, right?! To follow Lesley's adventures, be sure to check out her website.