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Spotting Lies

HR Magazine, October 2003As a first line of defense, HR can take steps to weed out dishonest applicants.

On Fox Entertainment’s reality show “Joe Millionaire” early this year, bachelor Evan Marriott duped 20 women into believing he was heir to $50 million. In reality, he was a $19,000-a-year bulldozer operator with no fortune in his future. By the time the taped series was aired, everyone knew about the ruse and how Marriott had accomplished it. He had learned to ride a horse and to fence, for example. He had studied wine and etiquette. He had practiced and prepared to be a convincing liar.

As an HR professional, you could encounter Joe Millionaires in your applicant pool. Some job seekers can be highly practiced at inflating salary histories, past job titles, or skills and accomplishments. They might be fabricating their educational backgrounds or, worse, trying to conceal criminal records. A substantial minority of job applicants might be lying to you.

In fact, about 30 percent of all job applicants make material misrepresentations on resumes, according to some staffing experts. ADP Screening and Selection Services, a unit of the Roseland, N.J.-based ADP payroll and benefits managing company, says that in performing 2.6 million background checks in 2001, it found that 44 percent of applicants lied about their work histories, 41 percent lied about their education, and 23 percent falsified credentials or licenses.

“I don’t think lying has diminished, and that’s sort of a gut feel,” says Gail Hyland-Savage, president of the Employment Management Association, a Professional Emphasis Group of the Society for Human Resource Management. The association’s members specialize in areas such as recruitment, strategic staffing and candidate selection. “I think possibly because of the competition for jobs, and what’s going on all around us with corporate ethics, that people just find it more acceptable to lie—not only when they interview, but just in general business dealings,” says Hyland-Savage, chief operating officer of Michaelson, Connor & Boul Inc., a real estate marketing and management company in Huntington Beach, Calif.

So experts advise HR to be alert. “We’re not telling HR professionals to assume that all their applicants are lying,” says Lester S. Rosen, an attorney and president of Employment Screening Resources in Novato, Calif. Most applicants “operate on good faith and at face value,” he says. “But one bad hire can just wreck an organization and create a legal and financial nightmare for a company.” At a minimum, hiring a liar can burden you with the extra costs of recruiting, hiring and training that employee’s replacement. At worst, your company might face lost business—or even lawsuits. (See "The High Cost of Careless Hiring." )

Are There Telltale Signs?

Some lies are fairly easy to detect. At the height of the war in Iraq, for example, a TV news account showed an Iraqi spokesman proclaiming that there were “no American infidels in the city of Baghdad” just as U.S. tanks drove past him.

But without such bold physical evidence, it’s hard to spot many lies. In fact, many experts say it can be a delusion for an interviewer to think lying can be detected in a person’s mannerisms. Fidgeting, stuttering or avoiding eye contact could simply be symptoms of nervousness about the interview rather than indicators of intent to deceive.

Practiced liars often show no such signs. “Really good liars often behave in the opposite way and appear unnaturally calm and make fewer gestures with their body,” says Daniel R. Fisher, a psychologist who heads the assessment practice for Worklab Consulting LLC, a New York-based management consulting firm. “People who are lying often slow down to think about their answers, using fewer gestures and maintaining eye contact as they concentrate on putting together a plausible falsehood.”

Some interviewees tell lies that they have ingrained in their life story—identities and legends of their own creation—and thus aren’t fabricating on the spot, says Rosen. “They put it on their resume and talk about it and tell their friends about it, and it becomes part of their personality, because they’ve told it so often,” he says. “To them, it’s second nature—they’re not sitting there making it up.”

Studies by Paul Ekman, a psychology professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco, have repeatedly shown that people are poor intuitive judges of truth and deception. “Most people cannot tell from demeanor whether someone is lying or telling the truth—but most people think they can,” say Ekman, author of 13 books, including Telling Lies (W.W. Norton, 2001). Over the years Ekman has tested about 6,000 people—among them college students, police officers, judges, lawyers, psychiatrists, and agents of the FBI, the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Administration—to determine if they can tell if someone is lying. He has found, he says, that “95 percent of them are close to chance—they’d do just as well flipping a coin.”

Ekman’s advice to HR professionals and others: “Be cautious about your own judgments based on demeanor, and be cautious about people who claim that there are signs of lying that they can teach you quickly in this situation. The most important thing to know is you’d better not trust your intuition, because it’s probably wrong.”

Acting on Your Suspicions

Visual clues aside, if you suspect an applicant is lying, you can take further steps. First, compare what the person says with the information on resumes and applications. By asking pointed questions, you can make it harder for an applicant to construct a series of lies, says Phillip Maltin, an attorney specializing in employment and business litigation with the Davis Maltin Law Firm in Santa Monica, California.

“If you suspect someone is lying, never attack the big lie, but ask questions about the facts that surround it, focusing on details,” Maltin says. Listen closely. If an applicant says “I supervised a staff of 100” or “I’m a turnaround artist who takes businesses from financial instability to financial success,” ask for further details.

Ask a candidate to describe a work experience as it relates to a specific job skill you are trying to evaluate. Take extensive notes. Follow up on inconsistencies or contradictions. Probe for details. Tell the candidate you’ll need to verify the information, and ask for contact names, says psychologist Fisher.

Kevin Wilson, an HR consultant with PeopleResources.Net, a recruiting firm in Boston, says behavioral and situational interviewing can be useful if you think someone might be exaggerating his or her expertise in a particular area—computers, for example.

“I might say, ‘Tell me the story of your last PowerPoint presentation and how you got through the steps and how you did it,’ ” Wilson says. “Obviously, if they’ve done one, it’s pretty easy for them to tell you how they did it, and you can make a judgment whether it’s valid.”

Or if an applicant claims to have supervised employees, he adds, you could use situational interviewing and ask, “How would you handle an irate employee?”

The Importance of Looking It Up

Background and reference checks are among the common procedures that can unveil lies. Other methods include verifying an applicant’s employment history, searching for possible criminal records and administering honesty profiles, which are designed to measure the likelihood that the test taker would steal under various hypothetical circumstances.

An applicant’s claim to possess a degree from a particular university can be checked easily with a phone call to the school, of course, but checking employment references can be more difficult. Although several states have laws protecting companies that provide good-faith references, many companies are unwilling to disclose anything but the basics about a former employee.

“It’s really difficult to get anything in a reference check,” says Mary Cheddie, SPHR, vice president of human resources for the Orvis Co., a Manchester, Vt., mail order sporting goods firm. She calls the HR department at one of the applicant’s previous employers for an “official” verification of employment dates. If the dates check out, she takes additional steps.

“I try to call peers, former employers, former supervisors who are no longer with that same company,” Cheddie says. “You get what you can get. I also listen a lot to the unspoken words. Like if I ask, ‘Would you rehire this employee?’ and the person says, ‘Ahh, umm.’ ”

In Texas, GECU—Greater El Paso’s Credit Union—has designed its screening procedures to ferret out dubious applicants early in the process. The steps, in order, are a credit check, a test that indicates an applicant’s ability to deal with numbers, an honesty profile, and aptitude and personality profiles.

Half of the applicants are cut because of bad credit, and 30 percent of those who remain fail the numbers-handling test. Then, 40 percent of the survivors fall short on the honesty profile, and up to 30 percent of those still standing are cut after the aptitude and personality profiles.

“By the time they get to the interview, we have very little left that would have lied after all that,” says Janie Shockley, SPHR, vice president for HR at GECU.

Credit checks used to be run last, but no longer, Shockley adds. They’re less expensive than testing, and when they’re used first, they shrink the applicant pool, leaving those who are apt to do better on the honesty survey, she says. “When you think about it, people who have good credit keep their promises and are responsible, so it made sense that if the credit was good, the honesty would be better.”

Of course, a bad credit report doesn’t necessarily rule out a candidate, Shockley adds. As required under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, she notes, a candidate who is disqualified because of a credit report is notified of it and is sent a copy of the report along with information on how to contact the credit reporting firm to correct any erroneous information. “If an applicant brings us the documentation to support the corrections being made to their report and it would then be acceptable,” Shockley explains, “we enter their application back into the process and proceed as usual.”

Honesty or integrity tests, like all assessments, carry legal risks if misapplied or improperly administered. The standard advice, says screening expert Rosen, is to avoid relying solely on a test when assessing someone’s personality or likelihood of behaving ethically. Make certain that the instrument itself is evaluated continuously to ensure that it is valid and reliable, is related to job performance, and is nondiscriminatory. The tests should be applied in a consistent fashion so that all similarly situated candidates are treated the same way.

Keep in mind, Fisher says, that some people can outsmart tests. “Studies have shown that the smarter you are, the easier it is to fake answers on the tests to make yourself look more honest and trustworthy than you may tend to actually be.”

In addition, Rosen says that although applicants for senior executive posts are often so intelligent and engaging that their candor and credibility seem unquestionable, their backgrounds should be checked diligently. Anecdotal evidence suggests that such applicants might be more apt to get away with lies than are those applying for lower-level jobs, he says, largely because recruiters might be reluctant to perform—or might be discouraged from performing—background checks on high-profile candidates.

“There is a trend, it seems, among larger companies to not do background checks on folks who have a senior title,” Rosen says. “There’s this sense that background checks are more for the rank and file and that it somehow violates a sense of the ‘old school network’ to be challenging other executives’ backgrounds.”

A Crucial Piece of Paper

One of the most effective ways to avoid hiring a liar or to preserve the right to fire one is to use a standard application, experts say. An application can state that supplying false information is grounds for not being hired or for dismissal. Also, the information given—or the information gaps—on applications can suggest productive lines of questioning in interviews or can provide reasons to drop the applicant right away. Warning signs include neglecting to sign the application, which could shield the candidate from being accused of falsification, or not consenting to background screening, says Rosen.

Other signals include not answering questions in the criminal record section, failing to explain periods of unemployment or reasons for leaving previous jobs, and not providing enough information for reference checks.

Also, it’s crucial to know the person’s previous addresses because if you need to do a criminal record search on an applicant, you will have to do it at the courthouses serving the areas where the applicant has lived. There is no official national criminal database available to most private employers, leaving courthouse searches as your primary option. There are more than 10,000 courthouses across the country; information on previous addresses can help you search effectively.

What Next?

If an applicant appears to be lying, can the company simply drop the candidate and move on? How much evidence does an employer need to justify a decision not to hire a person believed to be lying? A hiring decision based solely on a subjective impression that the person has lied—with no objective grounds or reasons offered to the applicant—may be hard for an employer to defend in a discriminatory-hiring suit, Rosen says. “Without any third-party verification” that the person was lying, he says, “it can be a tough legal position.”

But Cheddie, at Orvis, says that as long as businesses abide by nondiscrimination laws, they have the right to choose the best-qualified applicants. “The company is the one who holds the cards,” she says. “It’s our decision if we believe somebody’s lying.”

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.​


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