"How to Spot Deceit"

On August 18, the President of the United States admitted that he "gave a false impression" when he spent seven months telling his family, his staff, and the American people that there was no sexual relationship with a White House intern.

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 we are in spotting liars? If there are, what can we learn from them?

I Can Spot Deceit A Mile Away!

Most of us in retained search 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%. We don't believe search professional are more gifted than the rest of the population, despite their job tasks.

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 lies.

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 such films. The other half were actually watching gruesome scenes not likely to elicit positive reactions.

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 average 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.

Why Secret Service?

Observers were more optimistic about their abilities to spot deceit than their actual performance warranted. Secret Service Agents in the study, however, were better able to judge honesty than any other professional group.

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.

Secret Service officials spent their time interrogating people who threaten harm to senior officials. Most of the time, Secret Service offices believe that 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.

The operating assumption of the Secret Service is that the individual is telling the truth. Agents become sensitive to deviations from that assumption.

Other participants in the survey from the criminal justice community had a different operating assumption. That assumption is people they interrogate are lying. They must, therefore, be sensitive to cues that the individual is telling the truth. Truth becomes the deviation from the operating norm.

Cynical Recruiters

A lesson from this study is that cynical recruiters are not more likely to identify liars than the rest of the general population. And there are a number of people in our profession who assume this ultimately useless pose.

Verbal and Nonverbal Cues

In the study, successful observers used both verbal and nonverbal cues in helping to make their decisions. Indeed, they emphasized nonverbal cues over verbal cues. The less successful lie catchers tended to emphasize verbal cues alone.

Both successful and unsuccessful lie catchers verbally acknowledged the importance of being sensitive to nonverbal cues. But only the successful group used nonverbal cues.

Implications for Job Interviews

Here are some commonsense suggestions for improving your hit rate when conducting job interviews:

Like the Secret Service, it might be best to assume that the person on the other side of the table is telling the truth. Be sensitive for cues that might suggest that your working assumption is wrong.

Cues for lying might come from obvious contradictions in written or verbal content. Don't count on it.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. These nonverbal cues may be your best sign that more due diligence is required on your part.

No one ever regretted taking the extra step in doing a thorough job of reference checking. And reference checking is a two way street. Job candidates should check out references of both the company and the person who would be the boss.

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 Associates, New England's oldest firm devoted to achieving "smooth transitions" for very senior level executives. Core services include retained executive search, management coaching, and retained search.

Stybel Peabody clients include six of the largest twelve public companies in Massachusetts, seven of the largest eight private institutions of higher education, four of Massachusetts' top seven manufacturing employers, five of the ten largest hospitals in the region, two of the three largest mutual fund advisors, 14 of Boston's largest twenty-four law firms, and three of the Big Five CPA firms.

Its programs are endorsed by the Massachusetts Hospital Association. The American Medical Association refers assignments to Stybel Peabody. The Associated Industries of Massachusetts has selected Stybel Peabody as its partner in the area of senior executive transition services. Based on annual surveys of the readership of MASSACHUSETTS' LAWYERS' WEEKLY, Stybel Peabody earned "Best" in class for 1998, 1997, and 1996.

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For further information contact Maryanne Peabody at 617/371-2990.

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