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March 2019
Insights/Finding the Skeletons in Your Closet—Before the Media Does

Finding the Skeletons in Your Closet—Before the Media Does

By Daniel Nardello & Sabina Menschel

Front pages across America lit up in early February with the revelation that Virginia governor Ralph Northam was indeed one of those in a college yearbook photo showing one white person dressed in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan regalia.1

Just days later, the Northam news was sidelined by accusations of sexual assault against his lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax. Fairfax—who contends that the two incidents were consensual and who would be in line for the state’s top job if Northam were to resign—has asked for the FBI to conduct an investigation in order to ensure “due process.”2

How much better, though, if both Fairfax and Northam had done their own due diligence before being elected to high office?

This is among the most recent, but hardly the first example, of embarrassing skeletons coming into public light well after the fact. Uncovering these skeletons in one’s own closet isn’t exactly best practice in management circles. There’s no leadership manual for how to scroll through one’s past and hold up for scrutiny every tipsy teenage romp or tactless move or impulsive act, let alone to gauge its impact on one’s career today.

But perhaps there should be. We would argue in these days of fishbowl visibility and overnight exposure and viral messaging, those being appointed to high-profile corporate jobs and political positions must carry out some form of due diligence on themselves—and do so at regular intervals.

Leaders already have access to the means and the mechanisms with which to do that. In a previous Insights column, we described some of the methods that companies should apply when vetting new candidates for C-suite and board positions.

We extended that thinking to examination of current roles, urging directors in particular to stay alert to any indicators that suggest the need for a full-scale investigation of a top executive or fellow board member, and citing the value of periodic “refreshers” during a leader’s tenure.

As the headlines about Northam and Fairfax—regardless of their veracity—prove, “vetting” tactics should also be adopted proactively by leaders, before they become a corporate requirement or take on a high-profile position. Yes, it goes against human nature to highlight one’s less illustrious behaviors, much less seek out early examples of them, but better to know what’s there and get out ahead of the story rather than have the media or a troll find it—and own it.

Three self-due-diligence tactics stand out right away:

  • Launch “open source” investigations of one’s own public records. It’s relatively straightforward to do this, and do it exhaustively. Examination of available records, including litigation-related and criminal records as well as news accounts, can reveal past litigation filed by individual employees, groups of employees, or the EEOC against a person, identify instances of misconduct—including sexual misconduct or harassment—and reveal the atmosphere and culture at the companies where that person was previously employed. These public record searches need to be done both online and in the government and regulatory agencies in the relevant jurisdictions where the person has lived and worked. Equally as important is a comprehensive review of social media, including employee blogs and chat rooms. Such searches should cover both the individual and the companies where they’ve been employed, and should extend as far back as possible. Social media accounts of close family members, including spouses and children, also need to be reviewed.
  • Figure out what non-public evidence exists. It’s not enough to search only in publicly available records. Think about that yearbook or school newspaper in the attic. Or the photos in a fraternity buddy’s photo album. Ralph Northam, as well as now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, have learned all about such vulnerabilities. But how to figure out what’s “out there,” let alone who might have it? It’s hard for any leader to do that alone. Professional investigators can, in disciplined but discreet ways, sit down with that individual to tease out potential sources of disclosure from decades earlier.
  • Authorize interviews of objective sources. This mechanism is familiar to HR and executive search firms as a way to supplement standard reference checks of potential new hires. Similarly, it is a useful tool for any leader who is looking to vet his or her own background. Trained investigators are able to identify and conduct interviews with a broader set of sources, including former employees, business partners, and even former classmates, and ask specific questions about sexual and other misconduct. While there has been much talk about the role that NDAs have played in silencing victims, as an investigative matter, an NDA is not necessarily an impediment: a robust investigation can reach knowledgeable individuals not bound by an NDA.

One thing that no investigator or interviewer can do, of course, is expunge the bad bits from someone’s personal story. And it must be an absolute no-no for any right-thinking leader to consider whitewashing any past peccadillos.

But facing up to that history, with all of its embarrassments and maybe worse, is something every leader must now be ready and willing to do. In more innocent, more genteel times, perhaps, leaders could rely on that great quality of forgiveness; everybody a sinner, everybody showing some very human frailty. These days, not so much: everybody a subject for malicious gossip, everybody a target for someone.

Just ask Justin Fairfax, now hoping that the FBI can uncover a shinier narrative or at least expose flaws in his accusers’ statements. Fairfax has been a meteoric political star until now. The key words there may be “has been.”3



Sabina Menschel

Partner, President & Chief Operating Officer

1401 K Street, NW
Suite 725
Washington, DC 20005
T: +1 202 545 3000
F: +1 202 379 3299

Daniel Nardello

Chairman & Chief Executive Officer

565 Fifth Avenue
Suite 2200
New York, NY 10017
T: +1 212 537 5300
F: +1 212 537 5333


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