Liars, Schemers, and Thieves Need Not Apply

by Mark Goulston, M.D.


An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of litigation.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news to business owners, but there is a cottage industry growing on the coattails of the workman's compensation morass that has plagued employers for many years. Firing poorly and being sued has now circled around to the problem of not hiring well. Evolving regulations are making it more difficult and even illegal to check into or provide information regarding a potential employee's troubled past unless it can be directly tied to their work product. A potential employee's references are now only permitted to provide the equivalent of "name, rank, and serial number" in the form of dates of service, job responsibilities, and highest position held.

Business owners will increasingly need to take other measures to protect themselves from hiring a bad egg and having him or her rot out the vitality of their enterprise by lawsuit or underperforming and then making matters worse by blaming their poor productivity on others. You will need to rapidly assess the integrity of potential employees, both before hiring and soon after hiring them. You can accomplish this in a number of ways.

One might consider a trial period of employment, but when that is too impractical as in today's market, what can you do to protect you and your company from making that wrong hiring decision? How can you prevent hiring a person you will later regret working for you and who may not be so easy to get rid of when you do not have the benefit of useful information from prior employers?

You can use an Integrity Check Interview. Simply stated, a potential employee who has nothing to hide has nothing to fear. But if you're dealing with someone who does have something to hide, you'd do better to find out sooner than later. You can do this by doing a projective style of interviewing that goes deeper than asking applicants about their backgrounds and what they would do in various hypothetical situations. Your potential employee doesn't need to be a rocket scientist to come up with satisfactory answers to typical problems in the job they are applying for. There are even books and courses to help applicants counteract probing questions designed to smoke out typical weaknesses that a potential employer is trying to detect.

You will obtain more revealing information if you use psychologically open questions such as: "What shouldn't I know about you?" "Why shouldn't I know that about you?" "If I were to ask your last boss what were your greatest strengths, what would they say?" "If I was to ask them what were your greatest weaknesses, what would they say?" "Why should I believe and trust that you'll do what you say you'll do?" "How do you decide when you are in over your head in a work related situation?" "Tell me about such a situation from your prior job?" "What did you do in that situation?" "Why did you do that?" "How did it work out?" "How would you recognize a situation that was over your head the next time? What would be the warning signs that you'd look for?"

While you are asking these questions try to be aware of revealing body language for clues of conflict in your interviewee. Eyes looking below the horizontal indicate submission as if they are expecting to be punished for some wrongdoing. Avoiding eye contact indicates evasiveness. Increased nervous movement of their ankles, feet, legs, arms, wrists, hands and fingers also indicate lying or withholding of truth. Such signs usually mean they are hiding something so if you observe any of these behaviors try to ask more probing questions.

Another useful lie detecting device is to describe a hypothetical problem your potential employee might face on the job. Then ask him what he would do (action), why he would do it (thinking), and how he would feel about taking that action (emotion). People who are lying will have trouble keeping their actions, thoughts, and feelings in sync. Actions, thoughts, and feelings represent three separate parts of a person's mind and it is very difficult to keep a false story straight when you are asked to speak from all of those areas.

Few businesses have the luxury of having a poorly hired employee blindside their enterprise by underproducing or creating negativity among other workers. Ask any employer their biggest regret about firing a bad employee and most will respond: "That I waited so long to fire them." Your best defense against firing poorly is to hire well.



Dr. Goulston is a UCLA psychiatrist, management consultant specializing in psychological ergonomics, author of Get Out of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior 1996, available in the Amazing Bookstore Catalog. Contact Dr. Goulston: 1150 Yale St., #3; Santa Monica, CA 90403; Tel: 310.998.1150, fax: 310.998.1988.

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