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March 27, 2024

The Challenge of Conducting Internal Investigations

Why do interviewees try to deceive you?   

Written by Meric Craig Bloch, Certified Fraud Examiner, Certified Financial Crime Specialist, Certified Compliance and Ethics Professional-Fellow, Professional Certified Investigator    

Does the name Meric Craig Bloch “ring a bell”?  If you completed the AIHC Internal Forensic Auditor - Conducting Investigations certification course, then it should!  Meric is the author of the textbook for the investigative interviewing lessons. One of the biggest challenges we face when investigating a complaint as a healthcare administrator or compliance officer is obtaining facts.  Do you know how to tell if someone is being deceptive?  

Interviewees try to deceive you because they believe that deception will help them more than telling you the truth. You need to convince the interviewee that telling the truth will be better for them than lying through the interview.

Deception means that the interviewee is taking steps to keep the truth from you. Lying is a type of deception, but it is not the only type.

Lying is not natural human behavior. It must be done consciously. Consequently, it can be seen. And do not jump to conclusions about the reasons the interviewee may be lying. Liars have plenty of reasons for what they do.

One way to detect lying is by comparing it to telling the truth. Because the interviewees are not afraid of the true facts about which you are asking, there is no need for them to be unusually anxious or respond in a convoluted way. Their answers are simple, direct and respond to the question. Look for these characteristics in a truthful interviewee, which will bolster the credibility of their information:

  • The interviewee keeps direct eye contact.
  • The interviewee is audible and clearly spoken.
  • The interviewee speaks directly to you.
  • The interviewee answers your questions without excessive requests for clarification.
  • The interviewee responds to the questions you ask.
  • The interviewee appears relaxed and composed.
  • The interviewee shows interest and concern.
  • The interviewee is cooperative.
  • The interviewee does not try to rush the interview.
  • The interviewee answers quickly without too much thought about the answer
  • The interviewee is open with answers and body language.
  • The interviewee provides information.
  • The interviewee can repeat the same answer or give the same answer if you later ask the same question in a different way.

How many types of lies are there? There are five basic types of lies that the interviewee may use.

The first type of lie is the simple denial. Its simplicity might lead you to think that this type would be chosen often. But many interviewees avoid denying the incident directly. Psychologists call this “cognitive dissonance.” To avoid this, the interviewee will go to great lengths to avoid having to deny it directly.

The second type of lie is the lie of omission. This is the most common type. It is the simplest lie because the interviewee merely tells the truth but leaves out the information that could be embarrassing or incriminating. Because the remaining part of the interviewee’s statement is true, it can be repeated consistently. If the interviewee is presented with the omitted information, they can just say they forgot to mention it. A lie of omission can only succeed if you are not prepared to force the subject, for example, by mentioning the excluded information.

The third type is the lie of fabrication. This is the most difficult type of lie because it requires the interviewee to be inventive and have a good memory so that the lie is still consistent. This type of lie also creates the most stress for the interviewee.

Ask questions when this type is suspected to show that the explanation does not hold up to specific questioning. If the investigation can disprove the interviewee’s sequence of events or details it may prove as damning as a confession of wrongdoing.

The fourth type of lie is minimization. Here, the interviewee offers a small admission of fault hoping that you will be satisfied and stop any further questioning. When this type of lie is used, it is a strong sign that other information is being withheld.

The final type of lie is the lie of exaggeration. An interviewee may exaggerate the actions of another person or an aspect of a particular conversation. The lie may be used by someone who wants to increase the value of his information or inflate his own importance. If you keep a healthy skepticism and question each claim, you should be able to find any contractions.

Lies told in an interview can be as powerful as a confession. Lying in a workplace investigation exposes the interviewee to disciplinary action. You must constantly be aware of the possibility that the interviewee is withholding information or intentionally trying to deceive.

Finally, the detection of a lie is not the time for a “gotcha” moment. When it happens, first confirm that you understood the interviewee clearly, and that this was what they intended to say. Second, do not dwell on the topic but move to another one temporarily. (This may lead them to relax, believing that they have fooled you.) Eventually come back to the point and confront them with the details you know. Remember that a lie also leaves you with a factual contradiction the investigation must resolve.

On a related note, if you predict that the interviewee may lie to you, try to preempt it by hinting that you already know the answer to your key questions before you ask them. (Of course, this is most effective when interrogating the subject in the final stages of the investigation.) Boxing in the interviewee so they have no alternative but to give you the truth may be your most-effective path to understanding what happened.

Lying interviewees pose two risks to an investigator. First, falsehoods deny you relevant information and may send you off pursuing leads in the wrong places. Second, proven falsehoods on one or more interview topics destroy the credibility of the interviewee for those topics on which they might have been telling you the truth.

Interviewees will lie to you if they believe that lying helps them more than telling you the truth. It makes sense, therefore, that a good way to get the truth in an interview is to persuade the interviewee that telling the truth is more beneficial than lying.

Liars have different motivations. But try to understand what motivates the lies so you can overcome them. Is it a fear of getting involved? Is the interviewee lying because they fear retaliation from the subject or being labeled a “rat?” Does the interviewee have some minor culpability that they now fear you will link to the larger problem under investigation? If you can understand the motive, you might be able to overcome it and get truthful testimony.

A zero-tolerance towards lying in an investigation is good as a basic rule—as with similar rules, who in your company leadership would oppose it? But it has limited practical value. If you are investigating issues so you can explain them and offer business-focused help, firing someone for lying, however justified, will not get you that information. You need to see a lying interviewee as a challenge, not an opportunity for a “gotcha” moment to get them fired.

If you cannot overcome the interviewee’s desire to lie to you, the integrity of the investigations process requires you to address the falsehood. But you will still have to prove the lie. You will need sufficient facts to show that the interviewee made a deliberate misstatement of fact that was intended to deceive or mislead you. This can be done by assembling sufficient contradictory testimony or circumstantial proof to show, by a preponderance of evidence, that the interviewee’s statement was knowingly false.

Either way, a lying interviewee does not help you gather the relevant facts to give business-focused advice. You must try to sidestep it or stamp it out. It is better to encourage the interviewee to rationalize his behavior in some factual context—like the proverbial hangover caused by a night of drinking, which seemed like a good idea the night before—rather than fight the lie. Admissions of fact would show misconduct, however rationalized. These admissions will bring you closer to your goal.

About the Author

Meric Bloch is the Principal of Winter Investigations, a consulting firm specializing in workplace investigations. Meric has designed, implemented, and managed workplace-investigations processes for multinational public companies. He has trained thousands of HR and compliance professionals to conduct workplace investigations. Meric has personally conducted over 800 workplace investigations globally. Learn more about Meric by visiting his website:  www.winterinvestigations.org.

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