Questioning Applicants in a Manner that Facilitates Truthful Responses

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We all know that people lie. From the small white lie to the whopper of a Ponzi scheme, deception is a guaranteed part of human interaction. So as employers, human resources professionals and decision-makers for our companies, how can we successfully navigate the complex waters of human communication and its deceptive components? This is a difficult task and one that is not easy, or realistic, to get right 100% of the time. There are however, a few strategies that we can employ in order to up our odds.

As reported by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) 2010 report to the nations, résumé fraud is on the rise. The job market is highly competitive. This competitive atmosphere is ripe for dishonesty. As a species, we tend to adjust our morality to the situation we are in. If we are desperate to find work, embellishing a résumé hardly seems that bad when compared to the prospect of starvation. Also, much like a game of poker in which the players have no moral opposition to lying to their opponents by bluffing, since bluffing is understood to fall within the parameters of the game. The lie is expected. In the workforce, this mindset can also be found. Many feel that dishonesty is simply part of the work environment in order to get ahead, and this mindset reduces any apprehension an individual may have about being dishonest. Hiring managers are now faced with considerable deception in acquiring new talent. Once your HR department has sifted through the résumés and scheduled interviews, they have already committed considerable resources to a pool of (hopefully) qualified applicants. Enter the interview.

During the course of an applicant interview, the HR professional can phrase questions in a way that facilitates truth. One strategy is alter the reference point for the applicant. What this means is, change the expected normal response of a question in order to allow the applicant to comfortably answer honestly. For instance, let’s say you wanted to ask the applicant about their history of tardiness at work. This is an important question, as conscientiousness is a good quality in an employee and can be indicated by punctuality. If you ask your question like “So, John, how many times were you late for work at your last job?” you have essentially placed the applicant’s reference point very low (likely zero). Any response other than “none” will possibly be difficult for him to say, even if not true. Applicants want to be seen in the most positive light possible, and when forcing them to answer questions in which the truth may obstruct this goal causes what is known as dissonance. Dissonance occurs when there is internal conflict.

So instead of placing the applicant in a position where they must make a difficult choice between the truth and a lie, it would be better (for us) to place them in a position where the truth is simply easier to tell. This will help remove or diminish the psychological dissonance or conflict the applicant is experiencing. In this example, we could ask the tardiness question differently; “John, when we contact all of your former employers and ask them how many times you were late for work, what do you think they will tell us? 15 times? 25 times?” Now, we have raised John’s reference point from zero to 15 or 25. With the question being phrased this way, we have (hopefully) made it easier for John to be truthful. The question establishes that we are going to verify his response by checking with prior employers, but also set the bar for unacceptable tardiness at 15 or 25 (obviously not the true level, but that is not the point). John should be able to easily get under this bar with an honest answer. In this scenario, the applicant can comfortably answer the question honestly, with reduced dissonance. If he had been late 5 times to work in the past that is not nearly as bad when compared to 15 or 25. This is the benefit to raising the reference point.

When tackling the task of recruiting new talent to your organization, you have a difficult job, and one that if you get wrong can cost your company considerably, in both time and money. Doing everything possible to properly vet a potential candidate is vital. Utilizing techniques that can assist in uncovering the truth in the applicant interview will only serve to streamline that process and reduce the risk of a potentially costly bad hire

Ryan Mann is the lead forensic credibility assessment analyst with the investigative firm Diamond and Mann Investigations (A1200042) in Central Florida. He has been a guest lecturer for the University of Florida and the University of Central Florida covering topics of deception detection, body language and interviewing strategies. He is the United States representative of Body Language Learning ®, a UK based communications coaching company. He has consulted for organizations of all sizes and has conducted seminars across the state of Florida for several professions including attorneys, CEOs, Human Resources, Financial Managers and marketing/advertising professionals. He can be reached at 386-624-3055 or ryan@centralfloridainvestigations.com

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