How Employers Can Detect Lies and Deception: #SHRM18

Can you tell if someone is lying during an internal investigation? The truth is most people can’t because they’re looking for the wrong cues, said Michael Wade Johnson during a riveting presentation at the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) Annual Conference and Exposition in Chicago.

But while there may not be a perfect, smoking gun to detect when an employee who is the subject of an investigation is lying, there are some steps HR professionals can take to increase their odds. Chief among them, Johnson asserts, is knowing that “old-school beliefs” about how to spot deception are often based on badly misguided assumptions.

Johnson – a former Justice Department trial attorney who now trains professionals on how to conduct investigations – said the vast majority of the classic signs of deception are false. For instance, he noted that:

  • Liars are NOT more likely to avoid eye contact;
  • Liars do NOT become more fidgety;
  • Liars do NOT necessarily blink more; and
  • Liars generally do NOT respond to tough questioning at the outset.

Knowing how people may behave when lying is crucial because HR often becomes the star witness in an investigation, especially in the he-said, she-said world of sexual harassment. Johnson says it’s getting those investigations wrong, or not acting upon them, that led so many women to remain silent prior to the #MeToo movement.

But the advice is applicable to all sorts of investigations. For instance, Johnson notes that controlling one’s gaze is a rather easy thing for liars to do. Thus, the fact that someone is looking you in the eye and sitting calmly in the face of questioning does not mean that individual is telling the truth. Meanwhile, someone who is fidgety may simply be nervous rather than deceptive, he adds. And that’s not all.

“Liars are smart enough to know that details are their enemy,” says Johnson. “They know details are dangerous because they may forget them later or be contradicted.” As a result, Johnson explains that a witness who is lying may:

  • Provide a shorter, bare-bones account of an incident;
  • Speak using passive voice; and
  • Use fewer pronouns.

As an example, Johnson cited the case of disgraced former New York congressman Anthony Weiner. Accused of sending an explicit photo of his private parts, Weiner said, “Photos can be doctored.” Johnson notes it was not an accident that Weiner chose that careful phrasing, rather than saying, “Someone doctored the photos,” which would have been a lie.

Johnson told his SHRM audience that’s why politicians often use the infamous phrase, “Mistakes were made” when asked about possible wrongdoing because it sounds less damaging than “I made a mistake.”

So what can HR pros do to better spot deception during an investigation interview? Johnson is a fan of cognitive interviews with open-ended questions. Some good techniques he likes include:

  • Starting with casual conversation on nonthreatening topics.
  • Asking “What happened?”
  • Following up with “Then what?”
  • Remaining non-confrontational, staying away from a bad cop approach.
  • Asking unexpected questions later in the interview.

Johnson adds that a good interviewer should still be suspicious, but should never show that suspicion or else the employee will stop talking.

He also recommends using the “reverse order technique” when asking people to recount events if there are conflicting stories. For the truthteller, this technique will help to jog people’s memories and potentially get them to supply more details. But the liar, Johnson says, is more likely to get tripped up by having to tell their story in reverse order, claiming studies have shown it accurately detects 75% of lies.

Some of these same techniques that Johnson has employed in investigations, he says are equally applicable to spotting deception in the hiring process. When interviewing applicants for his company, for instance, Johnson lets people talk as much as possible with open-ended questions. He then asks follow-ups about the same topic from different perspectives.

Whether it’s a high-stakes investigation or interviewing a job applicant, Johnson says it’s more important to listen rather than look. That’s because if you think that you can spot a lie by whether the interviewee looks you in the eye and other visual cues, he suggests, you may well be wrong.

Michael Wade Johnson is founder and CEO of Clear Law Institute. Do you have a story about the most deceptive conduct you’ve observed during an investigation? Let us know by leaving a comment below.


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