June 2013 Online Extra

Is That the Truth?

When conducting interviews, auditors should be on the lookout for signs that the interviewee is being dishonest.

James Ratley

Part of listening to and assessing the information in an interview includes watching for signs of dishonesty. The professional skepticism that internal auditors are expected to have is especially vital in this regard. Most people inherently want to believe what they are told, but an effective interviewer must maintain an attitude of skepticism, even while establishing the necessary rapport with the interviewee. This difficult balance can be achieved by understanding both the reasons for, and the manifestations of, dishonesty in individuals.

 

WHY PEOPLE LIE

Everyone lies at some point, although some people lie more often and more easily than others. Individuals typically lie to receive rewards or to avoid punishment. The rewards sought might be financial or material, or they might involve getting the approval of other parties or even maintaining self-respect. Similarly, the punishment to be avoided might include formal sanctions, but also could involve being reprimanded or losing the respect of someone the individual values. Additionally, in extreme cases, someone might lie to control the situation or the other person.

Auditors also should keep in mind the two mechanisms for dishonesty: deception by omission and deception by commission. The first category involves leaving out incriminating information when talking. Omission is passive and is much easier to accomplish; thus, it typically is the first type of dishonesty displayed by someone who wants to avoid the truth. In contrast, deception by commission involves actively stating something that is untrue, which is more stressful for the dishonest person, as it requires intentionally creating and remembering the lie. Most individuals resort to lies by commission only when they feel they are cornered and must address the point of contention directly.

Understanding the underlying motives and mechanisms for dishonesty can help an auditor determine the best approach to address sensitive issues, as well as frame the responses received. If the auditor’s goal is to gather factual information, then it is important to mitigate, as much as possible, any motivations the interviewee has to lie. For example, if the interviewee seems hesitant to provide certain information — such as in the case of someone who is covering for a colleague’s error or wrongdoing — auditors might mention to the individual how much they appreciate the individual sharing everything he or she knows about the situation and that they will let the person’s boss know how helpful he or she has been. Or, in the case of someone attempting to lie by omission to avoid punishment, the auditor could state, “I understand this might be hard for you to talk about, but I promise you I will do everything I can to make sure your cooperation is well known and taken into account when assessing the situation.”

 

SIGNS OF DECEPTION

When assessing the interviewee’s responses, it’s important to understand that there are no universal signs that someone is lying. Rather, people typically display verbal, vocal, or physical signals that can indicate feelings of distress. Being alert for such signals can help identify lines of questioning that make the interviewee uncomfortable, and thus more likely to be dishonest. Distress-related symptoms can stem from stating something that is untrue. Skilled interviewers know how to watch for such signals, as well as how and when to follow up on them to uncover sensitive areas of questioning and potential deception.

In analyzing body language, vocal patterns, and word choices for signs of dishonesty, the auditor should not look for specific behaviors, but rather for changes in behavior that indicate stress or discomfort. For example, in the accounts payable scenario at the beginning of “Become a Better Interviewer,” the interviewee, Phil, responds calmly and appears relaxed during the introductory questions of the audit interview. But he begins shifting in his seat and asking how much longer the interview will last when the questioning turns to a sample transaction involving a suspected shell vendor. The auditor should note this behavior change as a warning sign that Phil appears stressed and might be hiding something (see “Warning Signs” for other common warning signs of deception).

Auditors also should be mindful that some individuals will be nervous or uncomfortable in any interview situation. These interviewees are likely to display stress symptoms frequently throughout the interview, making the display of any of the common warning signs a much less informative or reliable indicator of potential dishonesty. 

James Ratley, CFE, is president and CEO of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners in Austin, Texas.

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