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Podcast: Investigations Expert Discusses How to Spot Deception

Despite what one might see on Law & Order and other shows, there is no foolproof way to tell when an employee who is the subject of an internal investigation is lying. But while there may not always be a "smoking gun," there are steps HR professionals can take to increase their odds of spotting deception.

On this podcast, investigations expert Michael W. Johnson tells Brightmine Legal Editor David Weisenfeld that many people stumble when questioning witnesses because they are looking for the wrong body language cues and operating on a number of misconceptions, including:

  • Good eye contact means it's more likely a witness is telling the truth;
  • Lots of fidgeting means someone is probably lying; and
  • Tough questioning will lead to the truth.

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In almost every case, Johnson asserts that these assumptions are wrong. "The mistake that investigators make is that they've heard the old stereotype that when people start to lie they're more likely to avert their gaze," said Johnson.

That is actually true with children, according to Johnson, but it is not the reality in high-stakes situations in which an employee might be meeting with a vice president of HR to discuss harassment allegations or other suspected wrongdoing. He notes that a guilty employee may be aware of the stereotype and will consciously maintain eye contact and avoid fidgeting.

Johnson is the CEO of The Clear Institute in Arlington, Virginia, which provides online training courses on numerous workplace compliance topics. His investigations training has been cited in The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker. Johnson shares a host of other tips, including the importance of asking open-ended questions that let the witness do the bulk of the talking.

Additional Resources

How Employers Can Detect Lies and Deception: #SHRM18

How to Conduct an Internal Investigation

Conduct an Internal Investigation Checklist