News & Insight
March 2003

Q&A With Dan Fisher, Ph.D. Getting Candidates To Tell the Truth

Dan Fisher, Ph.D.

How can you tell when a job candidate is not telling the truth? Unfortunately, there's no easy answer. Many people are "masters of deception" in the workplace, creating illusions that appear to be real -- until they are caught. Daniel R. Fisher, a member of the WJM Associates faculty, is a licensed New York State psychologist who received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He has provided personality and leadership assessment to senior executives at many of the country's top corporations. His pre-hire assessments provide critical insights into how individual applicants are likely to perform in specific positions and cultures.

Businesses are placing great emphasis today on honesty, ethics and personal integrity. How easy or difficult is it to accurately assess the trustworthiness of candidates for executive positions?

It's a challenge, to be sure. Individuals may consciously try to deceive or impress in a manner different from how they understand they really are, or they may actually believe they are one way when, in fact, they're quite different. Someone who is actually quite unethical and/or ineffective in leading others may describe himself as a very ethical and very effective leader.

Is that self-denial?

Yes, insofar as individuals may have extremely poor self-awareness or understanding of how they really are. This may be due to specific psychological defense mechanisms shielding them from a more realistic understanding of themselves, or it could be from other general limitations in their self-awareness. People tend to overestimate how trustworthy they themselves are rather than underestimate. We are prone to rationalizing why we don't follow through on promises or violate justifiable rules.

What techniques can hiring managers and others use to gauge trustworthiness in candidates?

Besides getting solid, candid feedback from the candidate's previous employers, the best way is to ask candidates to provide specific historical data and to go back and check and see if it's actually true. If they're lying to you in the interview, which is not uncommon, that's an indication of someone who doesn't have a problem about not telling the truth at work who would engage in similar types of behavior.

How useful are assessment tools at predicting trustworthiness?

They are not bad, but highly intelligent candidates who are savvy about testing might know how to respond to self-report test questions in such a manner that they impress as more trustworthy than they actually are. The 16PF questionnaire, which is a commonly employed assessment tool, identifies a number of personality traits, including "rule-consciousness" and its opposite, "expediency." It gives an indication of people 's tendencies to adhere to or stray from stated values and morals, and can help identify individuals who would follow the spirit as well as the letter of the law.

So one way to identify trustworthiness is to see if people tend to be more rule-conscious than expedient?

That's one factor, but you could have people who overlook certain bureaucratic rules in order to get things done, but are extremely ethical and would be unlikely to violate their values and traditional social mores. They would be willing to sidestep some processes and push things through, because that's the only way things will get done in a dysfunctional bureaucratic system, but they would restrain themselves from violating more serious ethical codes and mores.

How the environment elicits behavior is also very important. If corporate culture reinforces ethical behavior, it's more likely to elicit trustworthiness.

What can interviewers do to get a sense of how trustworthy executive candidates might be?

I like to ask candidates about their own personal honesty and trustworthiness. Particularly on a pre-hire assessment, people are not going to tell you that they are dishonest, but it's important to get them to first tell you how much they value honesty. Then talk to them about other people, and how honest they think others are. Oftentimes, individuals who are highly vigilant and suspicious may be dishonest themselves. It's not a hard-and-fast rule, but it's a flag to look at further.

You could ask candidates about attribution for dishonesty. If people tend to rationalize why others are dishonest, they themselves may be a little more inclined to forgive themselves for being dishonest. You also could explore how severely punished they think someone should be for not being truthful and trustworthy. If candidates are particularly lenient, that's another potential flag of someone who is less likely to be trustworthy.

Finally, it's useful to try to get candidates to explain their personal understanding of honesty and trustworthiness. You're looking for a sophisticated understanding. You're looking to see if they are able to appreciate situational contexts and at the same time maintain moral reasoning that is not fast and loose.

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