Meeting Employee Dishonesty with Compassion in an Interview

Do you exhibit compassion when you're investigating employee dishonesty?

history of interrogation, employee dishonesty

Take a moment to think about a time when you did something wrong. Do you remember the person who confronted you about it? Did you tell them the truth? How did you decide what information to share? Compassion can be an important component to assist people when they decide to tell the truth.

The dictionary defines compassion as “a feeling of deep empathy for another’s suffering or misfortune.” So how might you, as an interviewer, apply this definition of compassion to your conversations about employee dishonesty?

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Empathy and Rapport in the Face of Employee Dishonesty

Our research has shown the three biggest reasons why people tell the truth are: (1) they believe they have been caught; (2) they can relieve feelings of guilt; and (3) they can offer explanations allowing them to save face. Although loss prevention professionals wear many hats, at times the most rewarding part of the job occurs at the conclusion of the investigation when you interview the dishonest employee. Finally, you get the opportunity to sit down with the employee, but one thing you must remember is they are real people facing real challenges and an uncertain future. An interviewer who exhibits empathy can touch the individual’s true feelings of guilt, which were buried deep inside.

The interviewer’s compassion extends into the very structure of the interview itself. Beyond following the Golden Rule of treating others as you would like to be treated, you should fashion an interview approach that infuses empathy to help the individual get to grips with the consequences of their illicit actions.

Some think this means being a good actor in the interview room. It can be tempting to put on a false mask of compassion or use an authoritarian, aggressive approach by speaking in a condescending tone. This does not touch the individual’s feelings of guilt or allow the person to preserve their self-image. What it does is create an adversarial environment counterproductive to the entire process.

Interviewers can show compassion non-verbally through a calm demeanor, open posture, empathetic eye contact, and tone of voice. During this difficult time, it is important the individual be supported emotionally, so they can decrease their internal feelings of guilt. You should spend time evaluating the individual’s verbal and non-verbal behavior and should not forget your subject is interpreting your behavior to assess your trustworthiness. The compassionate demeanor of the interviewer is important because it complements the powerful structure of the Wicklander-Zulawski (WZ) method’s introductory statement.

Expressing interest in your subject is part of the compassionate process, which most of you would recognize as establishing rapport. The early stage of an interview with a dishonest employee begins by finding some common experience or interest to initiate the relationship with the individual. The initial rapport is more of a social obligation each party has after first meeting, but it lacks the more open sincerity of a long-term relationship. Expressing interest opens both parties to explore common experiences and creates a curiosity to engage the subject more fully.

The first three parts of the WZ method’s introductory statement combine to convince the individual that their guilt is known. It is designed to do so in a gentle fashion, slowly, using curiosity to buy time as the words build an awareness of their situation. The indirectness of this approach softens the impact psychologically on the individual, allowing the interviewer to maintain rapport and smoothly move into expressing empathy.

While the individual gets to grips with the fact that their dishonest activities have been discovered, the interviewer attempts to soften the shock by shifting to an expression of understanding. Showing compassion at this point is critical to begin allowing the individual to save face and relieve guilt. In many cases, the person appears panicked, wearing a hunted expression of fear matching their underlying uncertainty of the situation.

To help the individual find their way, the interviewer takes the lead, offering a summary of justifications to reframe the person’s motives into more socially acceptable reasons for their dishonest actions. Expressing these understandable reasons helps the person to begin moving towards a resolution of their current situation. The interviewer’s compassionate offer of face-saving explanations helps the panicked mind of the person begin to organize their confused thoughts.

Some interviewers fail to take the step of offering empathy to help the person find their way and instead ram directly into the dishonest activity, leaving the individual emotionally wounded. The truly compassionate interviewer helps soften these emotional bumps to encourage the individual to purge themselves of their guilt. A quick summary and compassionate approach provide the first step in the face-saving process at a point where the subject feels that perhaps they are the victim.

Showing understanding, the interviewer offers empathetic statements in the form of rationalizations to assist the associate in saving face. The structure of each rationalization is crucial to conveying a compassionate message. These rationalizations are further softened for the person when the interviewer relates them in the third person, so the subject does not have to reject the premise because it is too personal.

But this also does something much more powerful: it shows the person they are not alone—others have similar problems. By telling the story in the third person, you allow your subject to identify with the main character of the story. This emotional bond with the individual in the story removes feelings of alienation and begins the process of transferring blame and relieving guilt.

When an interviewer expresses understanding of a person’s life challenges, it removes the individual’s feeling of being judged. The compassionate interviewer is suggesting that they deal with good people who have made poor decisions. People generally do not do things they cannot rationalize, so the empathetic approach provided by the interviewer supports the positive view people have of themselves.

The interviewer must now deal with the person’s feeling of being victimized. Regardless of what individuals have done, they visualize themselves as the victims in these encounters. The empathetic interviewer offers a more compassionate view of the situation, reframing it so that the individual has the sense of power of choice and that their actions can affect the situation’s outcome. This is done by allowing the person to view another’s actions from the perspective of the decision maker. By understanding the subject’s situation, the interviewer moves them into a more rational frame of mind to look at an incident though the eyes of a decision maker.

Moving the Conversation Forward

This compassionate approach presented by the interviewer assists the individual in making their first truthful statement about their wrongdoing. To assist the employee, the interviewer must deal with the final internal conflicts and suspicions the individual may possess. As the interviewer handles these final barriers, they cement rapport with the subject and often see the individual’s behavior mimic their own.

Finally, to assist the subject over the last hurdle in the conversation, the interviewer asks for the truth assumptively and then quickly supports the individual’s willingness to share details. As information about the incident is developed, the interviewer again uses compassion and empathetic statements to encourage the conversation to continue.

Too often, we hear stories from the field involving interviewers still applying the scare tactics and intimidation that Hollywood feeds you on a regular basis. As an interviewer, you need the ability to show compassion to employees who have made poor decisions. This change in your approach may just help them through a difficult time in their lives.

Take a moment to reflect. Does your interview delivery show compassion? You must recognize the human side of each individual you interview. Doing so will help you select an approach that treats the person with respect. Combine that with a sincere delivery, and you can achieve success through compassion.

This article was originally published in LP Magazine EU in Spring 2016 and was updated August 17, 2017.

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