HOW TO SPOT LIARS DURING JOB INTERVIEWS.
“CAN YOU SPOT THE LIAR?"
President Bill Clinton admitted that
he gave a “false impression” after spending seven months telling his family
that a White House intern was spreading malicious lies about him. Two days later, BOSTON GLOBE columnist
Mike Barnicle resigned in the wake of allegations that he had fabricated a
story about two children being treated for cancer at a Boston hospital.
The world is full of liars. And
some of them want to work for your company.
Can you spot liars during job
interviews? Are there people who are more gifted than you in spotting them?
Have a Gift.”
Most of us like to think of
ourselves as having special abilities in spotting deceit. Twenty years of
research reveals that few people in the general U.S. population ever get
above a 60% accuracy rate. Statistical chance alone makes the average person likely to achieve an
accuracy rate of 50%.
In the September, 1991 issue of
"American Psychologist," researchers Paul Ekmann and Maureen
O'Sullivan reported on an experiment designed to identify ability to spot
liars. Observers saw a videotape of
ten women, each describing positive feelings as she watched what she said
were nature films. Half of the women
were indeed watching neutral nature films. The other half were watching gruesome
scenes but stating that they were watching nature films.
After viewing each scene,
observers were allowed 30 seconds to record their choice as to whether the
woman was honest or deceptive. Observers consisted of people whose professions might make them better
than most of us in spotting deceit: (1) U.S. Secret Service Agents (2)
professional operators of lie detector machines (3) Judges (4) Police
officers (5) Psychiatrists (6) Central Intelligence Agency agents and (7)
National Security Agency analysts.
Observers were more
optimistic about their abilities to spot deceit than their actual performance
warranted. Most of the experts scored no better than the average U.S.
citizen. Secret Service Agents in the
study, however, were better able to judge honesty than any other professional
In trying to explain the results,
Ekmann and O'Sullivan point out that much of Secret Service work is designed
to guard important government officials from attack. They spend much of their
time scanning crowds. And scanning crowds for potential threats requires
exquisite sensitivity to nonverbal cues.
Much of the Secret Service
interrogation process involves interviewing suspects who might be threats to
senior governmental officials. Based
on their experience, Secret Service officers believe that most suspects are
indeed telling the truth when they claim that their threats were nothing more
than harmless braggadocio. It is the rare individual who is lying. Most law
enforcement frameworks, however, begin the interrogation with the premise
that the individual is lying.
By using the operating assumption
that individual tell the truth, they are sensitive for deviations from that
Verbal and Nonverbal Cues
In the study, successful observers
used both verbal and nonverbal cues in helping to make their decisions.
Indeed, Secret Service agents emphasized nonverbal cues over verbal cues. The
less successful lie catchers tended to emphasize verbal cues. While professional law enforcement
officials all acknowledge the importance of being sensitive to nonverbal
cues, the Secret Service was the most successful in actually using nonverbal
cues to form opinions.
Implications for Job Interviews
are some suggestions for improving your hit rate in spotting liars during
the Secret Service, it might be best to assume that the other person is
telling the truth. Be sensitive for cues that might suggest that your working
assumption is wrong. Do not count on spotting subtle contradictions in verbal
content. Try to observe subtle
changes in voice pitch, facial expressions, and body movement.
If you have any gut
"feelings" after the interview, jot them down immediately after the
interview. If these uneasy
"feelings" are tied to nonverbal cues you observed, be sure to make
a note of the non-verbal behaviors as well. Note what was said at the time these behavioral cues were
observed. These nonverbal cues may be
your best sign that more due diligence is required on your part.
The vast majority of job interviews
proceed honestly on both sides. But most of us know horror stories where
honesty was lacking. The best way to
avoid being a victim is to observe carefully.
Laurence J. Stybel and Maryanne Peabody are co-founders of Stybel Peabody
Lincolnshire. Since 1979 the firm has
assisted in helping manage critical leadership transitions. Their website is www.stybelpeabody.com. They can be contacted at 617-371-2990.