Spotting the Liar

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Shifty eyes? Crossed arms? Gaps in the resume? 

To some, these things might signal that an employee or job applicant isn’t being entirely forthcoming. But detecting deception requires more than familiarity with body language or red flags on applications, HR experts say. 

“Eye contact, crossed arms—most of that stuff is meaningless unless you know the person’s normal behavior,” said Joseph P. Buckley, president of John E. Reid and Associates, which trains people how to conduct investigative interviews. “You may not look at me much during an interview because of your culture, even though you’re telling me the complete truth. There’s no behavior unique to lying. You can only draw inferences, and you have to look at all factors involved.”

Reading Body Language 

One way to deduce if body language reveals deception is to observe the person’s behavior early in an interview, Buckley said. Begin by discussing topics that aren’t threatening. For instance, ask questions that elicit basic biographical information, or inquire whether the individual watched the football game the night before—subjects that have little to do with the job opening or the disciplinary matter. 

“See how they sit and look and respond, so that when you get into issues like, ‘Has an employer ever let you go?,’ you can watch to see if they drop their head or close up. Then you can see if the change is significant” from their baseline behavior, he said. 

Gary Aschenbach was a criminal investigator and undercover officer for the Maryland State Police. Today he trains law enforcement officers, military investigators and HR professionals on how to spot deception and elicit confessions. 
He said interviewers may mistakenly conclude that someone is lying if they rely on techniques they’ve read or seen on TV. 

“Anyone who watches TV says a person who crosses their arms is a liar, and that’s not true,” he explained. “They may do it because they’re cold or tired.” 

A more reliable approach is to consider when body language and oral communication aren’t in sync. For instance, when Barbara Walters asked George W. Bush if he celebrated Saddam Hussein’s capture, the former president said no but nodded his head in the affirmative. 

“Body language is more reliable than words, because we think faster than we speak,” Aschenbach said.

Buckley noted that before people tell a lie, they often stall for time by coughing, clearing their throat, repeating a question or taking a sip of water. 

“It means they need a few seconds to frame an answer,” he said. “When you ask a fact-related question like, ‘Were you fired?’ no truthful person needs time to answer that question. It’s the deceptive person who needs those few seconds.” 

He cautioned, however, that these clues mean little unless the interviewer and employee are face to face. 

“When you’re on the phone, you don’t know what happened at the time you asked the question. Maybe a kid came in the house crying or the boss knocked on the door, so the applicant says, ‘Excuse me, what did you say now?’ Everything has to be viewed in context. So many people don’t consider the context, and it makes a world of difference.” 

While certain phrases can signal deception, interviewers need to be careful before drawing conclusions. 

“Sometimes a person who’s lying tries to convince you they’re telling the truth by saying ‘Frankly speaking,’ or ‘Honestly,’ or ‘To be perfectly honest with you,’ ” Buckley said. “Most truthful people don’t talk like that. However, some people have a habit of saying these things all the time. If you’ve been interviewing for half an hour and they don’t use that language, but you get to a sensitive subject and then they’re using that language, you might want to start paying attention.” 

Interviewing Styles 

Sometimes, a manager’s questions make it easier for someone to deceive. A good example is the common practice of an interviewer’s inquiring only about job experience on a resume, rather than asking a candidate to re-create her job history orally. The dishonest or evasive person who’s filled out several applications typically can’t recall what she put down on each. 

“It’s much more effective to pretend you don’t know anything about the subject,” Buckley observed. “Say something like, ‘I have your application and resume, but I’ve found people often don’t put everything down, so I’d like to talk about your background. Can you re-create your job history?’ Often, they’ll tell you things like, ‘Well, I did have a part-time job for only three months, but I didn’t put it down,’ and then you discover there were two or three part-time jobs, and now there’s an issue of possible instability.”

An applicant is also more inclined to reveal unflattering information if he believes that the interviewer has already done a background check. 

“We set up all interviews with an opening statement that helps enhance truthfulness,” Buckley said. “We tell them, ‘It’s important that what you tell us during this interview is consistent with what we’ve learned.’ You’re not lying and saying you’ve already done these things, but you’re creating that question mark in the mind of someone who might try to hide something from you.”

While most interviewers think they’re good listeners, many aren’t, the two experts said. They’re often in such a hurry that they miss comments that suggest dishonesty. 

“People will drop little clues that tell what really happened, but we don’t listen because we’re so intent on getting to the bottom line,” Aschenbach said. “We’re trying to cut to the chase to save time, so we influence their responses. Get away from closed-ended questions. Let them tell their story, keep notes, then go back and ask specific questions.” 

Listen for long explanations that don’t directly answer a question. 

“When Timothy McVeigh was asked if he bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City, his response was to say he was going to plead not guilty,” Aschenbach said. “That’s not saying ‘I didn’t do it.’ We’re looking for yes or no; anything else is evasive.” 

Take the hit-and-run driver who lies to authorities, Buckley said. Common evasive statements include: “I’m not that kind of person”; “I can’t believe you’d think I’d do something like that”; “If I had hit that car, I would have told someone”; “Look, I’m a good driver”; and “I can’t believe you keep asking me that.” 

“The truthful person will say no because they know that word is strong enough to support the truth,” he said. “The innocent person explains what happens; the guilty one tries to convince you of what happened.”

Ask pointed questions, even if they’re delicate. 

“A lot of HR people are very gun-shy—afraid it might sound offensive or an applicant won’t work for someone who asks questions like, ‘Have you ever been fired?’ or ‘Did you ever resign because you thought you were going to be asked to leave?’ ” Buckley said. “The honest ones, they don’t care, because they can answer truthfully.” 

Many applications ask candidates if they’ve been convicted of a crime. But, as Buckley pointed out, the vast majority of people who commit crimes are never convicted. Another thing one can ask is, “Have you ever done anything against the law?” 

“You’d be surprised how many applicants will actually start talking,” he said. 

The Confession 

HR managers who investigate allegations of wrongdoing often lack the solid, empirical evidence they need to ascertain the truth. In other words, they need a confession. According to Buckley, getting one can be easier than you think.

“Most people are looking for a way to tell someone what they did, because for most of them it’s out of character,” he said. “We look to shift the blame to their life circumstances or to someone else for provoking them. You always want to offer them some psychological justification. Anyone who’s done something wrong at work has rationalized it.

“Let’s say you think someone’s embezzled money. You say, ‘I know the pressures you’ve been under—your spouse doesn’t have a job, one of your kids has an illness not covered by insurance—and I think you’re the kind of guy who did this for his family.’ You present him with a good reason for what he did—not a reason that makes it OK, but that makes it understandable. The number-one reason people say they confess to something is because their interrogator seemed like someone who understood their circumstances.” 

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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