Viewpoint: How to Use an Investigative Approach When Interviewing Candidates

By Tadd Downs Jul 24, 2017

As a career criminal investigator, my job for the past 25 years has been to put bad guys in jail. Yes, I know this has nothing to do with human resources, and I am sure you are asking, "Why is a criminal investigator writing an article for an HR publication?" It's simple: An investigator and an HR professional have more in common than you may think.

The more I speak to HR folks, the more I am convinced they could benefit from what I call an "investigator's mindset."

In essence, both sets of professionals conduct investigations. The law enforcement investigator does so to solve crimes, while the HR professional investigates applicants and candidates before hiring them. This can be challenging and frustrating. If the HR investigation is done right, a qualified employee is hired. If it's done wrong, the employer ends up with a problem employee. However, avoiding a bad hire is easier said than done.

[SHRM members-only sample document: Interview Questions]

During a candidate interview, the HR professional ideally tries to have an open and honest conversation with the applicant so that the former can make an informed business decision. However, scientific studies show that applicants often lie in interviews to obtain a job. In addition, applicants may go to great lengths to try to impress the interviewer.

In my research, I've found that interviewers are often poorly prepared to detect a job seeker's misleading statements. Here is where using the investigator's mindset can help the HR professional.

Criminal investigators are experts at what I call creating a "psychologically safe" environment. When an HR professional uses an investigator's mindset for hiring, he or she needs to:

  • Become a student of nonverbal communication.
  • Recognize the seven universal emotions.
  • Properly prepare.
  • Lower the cognitive load.
  • Listen aggressively.

Become a Student of Nonverbal Communication

Investigators know that they can't rely on "gut instinct" but on facts. One way to do this is by becoming a student of nonverbal communication. Investigators know that while the mouth may lie, the body likely doesn't. By becoming a student of nonverbal communication, the HR professional can look beyond any impression an applicant tries to make. An excellent and easy-to-observe example of this is when an applicant answers a question verbally with "no," but their nonverbal display—nodding their head—indicates "yes."

Understand the Seven Universal Emotions

There are seven universal emotions shared by cultures throughout the world, according to a series of experiments by Dr. Paul Ekman, a professor emeritus in psychology at the University of California San Francisco, a researcher and an author best known for his work on nonverbal behavior.

These emotions are anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise. Recognizing these emotions can allow the interviewer to determine whether what a candidate says coincides with what he or she is feeling. For example, an interviewer can ask, "How well did you get along with your previous supervisor?" If the applicant displays emotions such as contempt, disgust or anger, yet indicates they had a "great relationship," the applicant's emotions do not support his or her words. This would indicate that the relationship might not have been so great. However, if the interviewer sees happiness during the applicant's answer to the same question, the emotions and the verbal response are congruent.

Properly Prepare for the Interview

Interviewing takes preparation and practice. Setting aside time to prepare allows the interviewer to:

  • Avoid confirmation bias, which is a tendency to look for information that confirms one's beliefs or hypotheses about a candidate, while neglecting information that might contradict that bias.
  • Avoid truth bias, which is the tendency for interviewers to want to believe others, despite evidence to the contrary.
  • Avoid overconfidence bias, which is the tendency for an interviewer to believe that his or her ability to interview is better than it actually is.

Lower One's Cognitive Load

Cognitive load refers to the amount of mental effort being used in one's working memory. When your cognitive load is great, it impairs your ability to assess what it is you're seeing and hearing. In layman's terms, if too much is going on in your mind, you're not able to conduct a successful interview. Your cognitive load will place a "road block" in the way of adequately interviewing your applicants.

The primary way an interviewer can reduce cognitive load is by recording the interview. This will replace the need to take notes. Additional techniques to reduce cognitive load include:

  • Adequate preparation.
  • A scripted introduction for the interview to put the interviewer at ease.
  • A standard set of questions that all applicants are asked.

Aggressive Listening

Stephen Covey said it best in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People (Free Press, 1989). "Most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand." Thumb-twiddling, rubbing of the legs or hands, and self-hand-holding are a few examples. Maintaining eye contact is one way to listen aggressively to an applicant. Eye contact shows interest in what the candidate is saying, and scientific studies have shown that by maintaining eye contact, you are better able to recall what has been communicated.

Lastly, use the power of silence—your silence. After all, if you are talking, you are not listening.

Tadd Downs has over 25 years of experience conducting interviews and investigations. His law enforcement career began with the Virginia State Police, after which he spent over 21 years as a special agent with the U.S. Secret Service. He is the author of Using the Investigator's Mindset: How HR Professionals Can Interview Like an Investigator to Avoid Bad Hires, (self-published, 2017) in which he takes an in-depth look at the applicant interviewing process.

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