Listen - Don't Look - for Lies

By John Scorza Jul 1, 2015
​LAS VEGAS—Can you spot a liar? Most people can’t, and that’s because they’re paying attention to unreliable cues to deception, said Michael Wade Johnson, CEO of Clear Law Institute, during a June 30, 2015, mega session at the Society for Human Resource Management 2015 Annual Conference & Exposition.

When HR professionals investigate possible workplace misconduct, they often look for classic signs of deception, for example, that a person is fidgety or reluctant to look them in the eye. But those signals aren’t worth much. “It turns out a lot of what we thought about cues to deception were flat-out wrong,” Johnson said.

Instead, those behaviors may indicate that an employee is nervous, he said. Many HR professionals take a formal approach to interviewing employees during investigations, and that can make employees nervous, which can in turn lead HR to misinterpret signs of nervousness as guilt. So while body language and facial expressions can help detect emotions, they’re not very helpful for detecting lies.

“It’s much more important for you to listen, rather than look,” Johnson said, “because looking can lead you astray.”

Rather than a formal investigation—where HR takes on the role of prosecutor and judge—you want to put the employee at ease to discover the truth. Don’t show that you’re suspicious. And the most important thing during a workplace investigation is to let the employee talk, Johnson said. “The No. 1 way to detect deception is to make them tell a story.” Think of the interview as a funnel, he said. Ask broad questions to open the interview, such as “So what happened? … Then what?”

After they tell their story, look at the specific questions you might have prepared and focus on what the employee hasn’t addressed. You want the employee to provide as many details as possible. Then you can look for inconsistencies and evidence or witnesses to contradict the employee’s story. “Detail is the enemy of a lie,” Johnson said.

If an employee is lying, she may give some verbal cues during the interview, he noted. After all, it’s not easy to make up a story, provide details and stay consistent.

“Lying can be mentally taxing,” Johnson said. Verbal cues of deception may include shorter answers, long pauses before answering, or speaking more slowly and in a carefully crafted manner, he said. Throughout the interview, listen—don’t look—for cues to deception.

John Scorza is associate editor of HR Magazine.

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