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How to detect a lie, especially when it comes from a job applicant

Lots of lying goes on in job interviews. Some management professionals estimate that as many as 70% of job applications carry some sort of misrepresentation. And business losses to fraud from dishonest applicants have been shown to be as high as $600 billion a year.

Besides verifying the resume, the best way to separate fact from fiction is to know the signs of a lie, says Stan B. Walters, a/k/a The Lie Guy, a Lexington, KY, behavioral analyst who heads fraud investigations and also teaches businesses and law enforcement agencies how to spot deception.

People miss 50% of the deception that’s right in front of them.

Shifty eyes don’t always count

The signs aren’t what people commonly believe, Walters says. For example, studies show that in 46 countries, a glance to the left is considered an indication of truth and a glance to the right a sign of lying. Yet eye diversion and lack of eye contact are not necessarily signs of dishonesty.

Neither is discomfort. To the contrary, it can be an indication the candidate is trying to perform well.

Unreliable too is motionless body language, or the fact that an individual becomes still when asked a serious question. More likely, the person has become still while thinking about the question.

The same for crossed arms. Most people see that and think “Aha! now he’s hiding something” when in fact the person is cold or has just become relaxed enough to change to a more comfortable position.

The movements and the words

The true signs of lying are found only somewhat in body language and mostly in verbal expressions, Walters says.

With body language, they come in response to stress questions such as have you ever been terminated? or are you eligible for rehire? or even have you ever stolen from a company?

Watch for these elements:

• During the answers, the applicant puts his hands over his eyes or mouth or ears.

• There’s an aggressive movement away from the interviewer. The applicant turns her torso or shoulders or head away from the interviewer while still maintaining eye contact.

With the verbal language, the signs are these:

• A repetitive no answer. When someone says “no, no, no,” the truth is more likely “yes, yes, yes.”

• Overselling expressions such as trust me, believe me, why would I lie? or to be totally honest with you. An oversell on truth is a marker “that the person is withholding information.”

• Unsolicited self–aggrandizing comments such as I’m a good Christian, I’m a good employee, I would never do anything like that! or I’d put my hand on the Bible. Like oversell, they are cover-ups.

• Time bridges. The applicant is telling about an event at a former job and skips to “and all of a sudden he was in my office yelling at me” or “out of nowhere I was fired.” Something happened in those blocks of time and the applicant is hiding it.

• Repeating the question. The question is “have you ever used cocaine?” and the response is “have I ever used cocaine?” That’s a stall tactic. The applicant is cooking up a response – a response that isn’t true.

• Guilt-reduction phrases such as “I was accused of something, but nothing really ever happened.

• Qualifiers such as basically, hardly ever, essentially, and most of the time.

• Identifying people only as they as in “They told me it was okay to leave early.”

• Bargaining comments. People use evasion tactics more than pure deception tactics, Walters says. Their purpose is to change the perception of what’s happened, and they do so with comments designed to “diminish the significance” of the situation. For example, I didn’t lie; I was misquoted or I didn’t steal it; I just borrowed it or I really wasn’t fired; I was just asked to leave.

The same is achieved by trying to look like a victim, perhaps saying some action was done because of a drinking problem or because “my mother passed away.”

But it takes more than one

Be careful, however, Walters warns.

By itself, any one body language or verbal sign is not necessarily indicative of lying. It’s when they come in clusters that the danger is obvious.

Watch out if the hands go to the eyes or mouth or ears while at the same time the head turns away from the interview and a big “no, no, no, I’ve never done that!” comes out.

How to ask the questions right

Equally important to getting the truth is asking the questions in such a way as to make the signs of deception surface. Walters advises doing this:

• Keep a poker face. A good liar is adept at reading the other person to see if the story is being believed.

• Start off with everyday conversation and keep talking until a comfort level is established and the applicant is at ease. Then it’s easy to see when there’s a change in behavior to a tough question. A change won’t necessarily mean there’s deception, but, says Walters, it will show “there’s some emotional change” going on.

• Ask questions that produce stress, such as What was your greatest disappointment? If you were your supervisor, would you rehire you? And If you were assigned a supervisor here, what would you tell that person about the type of work environment you like?

• To find out if some statement is true, don’t settle for one response. Keep digging: Oh really? Can you go into more detail about that? Are you sure?

Suppose the question is Was there any idea that you came up with that helped you improve your job? And the response is I came up with several. Ask what they were. Then ask for details about each one.

It’s also possible to get to the truth by asking the same question twice, but each time in a different way.

• Once an answer is given, don’t move straight on to the next question. Instead pause, as if waiting for more. A pause causes people off guard. It says the interviewer expects there’s more to the story, so in response the other person starts to fill in the blanks. And if the initial answer was bogus, there’s likely to be some fumbling around.

The truth about liars

Walters adds three more points to be aware of in understanding the workings of deception:

1. Deception, he says, “is always done to benefit the deceiver.” So whenever a statement is questionable, ask why that person would want or need to be deceptive. The answer will fall into one of the three Hs: to hide something, to hype something, or to harm something. He points out that it was into that third category that the 911 hijackers fell.

2. Look at every job applicant as “somebody standing at the gate who wants access to the firm.” And access holds what Walters calls “frightening possibilities,” not the least of which are data destruction and harm to the firm’s image and reputation.

3. The biggest losses to fraud and theft don’t come from mid- to lower-level employees, but from those at the top, starting with the lateral hires.

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