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Staffing Management: The Face of a Liar?

Stephenie Overman  1/10/2007
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Vol. 3, No. 4

Are there visible signs that an interviewee is lying to you? Experts say yes ... and no.

 Philip R. Maltin has made his share of interviewees squirm. As a young lawyer, "I used to take depositions. When I hit them with [a 'zinger' of a question], I would think 'they are so lying.' But they probably knew that was the [most crucial] question. And I was staring at them," says Maltin, a partner in the Labor and Employment Law Department of Silver & Freedman in Los Angeles.

When conducting job interviews, it's easy to conclude that nervousness on the candidate's part is a sign that he or she is lying, Maltin says. But "mainstream researchers will tell you there's no one form of nervous conduct that exists across all situations that betrays dishonesty," he says. Statistics show that people are not as good at detecting duplicity as they secretly believe they are, Maltin notes. Studies, in fact, indicate that "the higher the confidence, the greater the error," he says. "The inclination is to think you've got somebody in a lie when you've really got somebody in something else. You have to spend some time in finding out what that something else is," he says, and whether it even relates to the job question at hand.

When you begin an interview, try to be non-threatening and engaging, suggests Maltin, who gives presentations on the interviewing process. It's natural for job candidates to be nervous at first, but how does the person respond after the first couple of questions? Establish a baseline to determine how the person reacts normally. "Ask warm-up questions to put the candidate at ease.

If you want to see how the person responds to situations that require quick thinking under pressure," he says, you need to see how they react to situations where they normally shouldn't feel any pressure. After you've established a baseline, look and listen for any "hot spots" that indicate you're not getting a fully open and relaxed account. Hitting a hot spot doesn't necessarily mean that a candidate is lying, but it can indicate that you need to probe more deeply in that area.

Listen for changes in intonation, for "mental laboring" and for other indications that the candidate is doing more processing than he or she should, Maltin says. Watch out for "time buyers" who pause, repeat the question, ask the interviewer to repeat the question and then ask for clarification or additional information.

Also look for body language that is inconsistent with baseline behavior, he says, or is temporarily disjointed from the comments being made. For example, "when I'm nervous, I blink. I try to mute my voice to show selfcontrol," Maltin notes, but an interviewer would need to have established a baseline to see that those actions are not his normal behavior. "Pay attention," Maltin stresses. "That's a skill that is developed. Most people are not born with it. You should not only listen to what's being said and how it's being said, but [observe] what message the person is delivering from the top of their head to their toes."

While you're looking for changes in tone, speed, pitch, facial expression and gestures, watch out for changes in your own behavior as well. "If you, as the questioner, change your body language, you will create the anxiety and nervousness. You will create you own reality. If you ask the question, then lean forward and furrow your brow, you will make them nervous. They will wonder what's going on," he says. Don't expect a sudden, dramatic revelation, he says. "You're not going to get a 'Perry Mason moment' in an interview."

Prescription for Better Interviews

How can you improve your technique, the better to uncover hot spots and inconsistencies? Industrial and organizational psychologists who train interviewers recommend choosing questions that are clearly linked to aspects of job performance and probing so candidates have to be as detailed as possible in their answers.

"Ask: 'What would you do?' 'What did you do?' Use follow-up questions. It's hard to fake a response when there are three or four follow-up questions," says psychologist Dr. Brian Cawley, a senior consultant with CorVirtus in Colorado Springs, Colo. "Go back and forth between 'What did you do?' and 'What would you do?' "The interview itself is just one part of the hiring process, Cawley notes. "Up front, remind candidates that you take a comprehensive approach, that you will view them through many different lenses.

Let them know you will be looking for consistencies and inconsistencies." Dr. Jeffrey Daum, president and CEO of Competency Management Inc., which has offices in Las Vegas and Detroit, notes that candidates often have pat answers ready, and "You can often trip up a person who has prepared just a single response for what they think you want to hear. "Say to the person, 'I'm interested in what you did then and what you did after that.'

Most people will begin to feel uncomfortable if you do that and they're making it up." Watch for non-verbal clues and listen carefully to whether the candidate responds to questions in generalities, Daum says. "It's the responsibility of the interviewer to 'train' the interviewee to be very specific. Some people may avoid using the word 'I.' Going for the 'we' may be a stylistic response," but it might also be a sign that the individual is claiming credit for group efforts. Taking notes during the interview helps make clear to the candidate that you are likely to remember their remarks and maybe even to check up on them, say Daum and Cawley.

But these notes are not the place for an interviewer to evaluate the candidate's performance. "It's too complex if you're listening and trying to evaluate at the same time. Hold your judgment until the interview is over," Cawley says. And, "rather than going cold into your first interview, you can practice and get some feedback." "Don't write statements such as 'outstanding response,' "says Daum. Spell out the response. "Don't say the person was 'a good leader,' say what they did" in detail. It's difficult to pick up on non-verbal cues while you're taking notes, "but you can focus on non-verbals as they think about the response," Daum says. "Use the pauses. While you're pausing, watch posture changes," especially after a question to which it seems that the candidate hasn't been completely candid. And, he says, have another person in on the interview "to cross check" and to "buy each other time" during the process.

Dr. Douglas Waldo, SPHR, the lead researcher for CraftSystems Inc. in Bradenton, Fla., trains interviewers, through coaching and role playing, to listen for "behavioranchored responses." He advises managers who are not wellexperienced in interviewing to align themselves with seasoned mentors.

During role-playing exercises, groups of interviewers–Waldo recommends team interviews–learn to pick up on inconsistencies and spot candidates who are too "overly polished." Like Maltin, Waldo believes interviewers should learn to establish a comfort zone, then "look for dramatic changes. You can tell when you hit a hot spot. They're not necessarily lying, but they're uncomfortable. The best line of defense is that probing question, that follow-up," he says.

"I'm still optimistic enough to think that the average person is honest, but, at the same time, we have to be good stewards of our resources," by really honing those interviewing skills, Waldo says.

Stephenie Overman is editor of STAFFING MANAGEMENT.


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