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How to Interview for Integrity

Background checks are great, but skilled interviewing is even more essential.

Jay Meschke recalls the case well: "We had an unethical CEO candidate who actually used his wife as a reference," says the president of Overland Park, Kansas, search firm EFL Associates, a CBIZ company. The pair had different last names and used an international phone number to confuse matters.

The deception failed when a recruiter called to check references, then later visited with the candidate's wife and recognized her voice from the reference call. "We uncovered it only through sheer luck," Meschke admits.

Luck is great, but you can't count on it. And that's troublesome when scarce jobs and a volatile economy can pressure candidates to embellish and outright lie just to be considered for a position. "This is a rampant problem now," Meschke says. "And it's gotten worse over the years."

Background checks, whether done professionally by an outside service or informally through a scan of search engines, comprise a key part of exposing falsities. But background checks work best when combined with skilled interviewing. And a well-done interview can trip up even an accomplished liar.

Wise interviewers use resumes only as starting points for reading between the lines of a candidate's work history. "One pretty easy thing a lot of people don't do is ask about jobs not listed on resumes," Meschke says. This simple question puts candidates on the spot to either admit or deny leaving out past jobs that may not support the image they want to portray.

Next, get details of start and end dates for past employment. "People will omit things," Meschke says. "Once you can check out their background more thoroughly, you can find out whether the truth matches."

While you're at it, delve into specifics about claimed past job titles. For example, if someone says on a resume that he was CFO of General Electric Co., it's possible he was only a junior finance officer in a much smaller entity, Meschke says.

Also inquire about previous supervisors. Ask for the name and title of the person to which the applicant reported directly. "Get the names of people, so you can go back and get the best reference," he says.

Thus, armed with reference and background checks, you bear a better chance of turning up accurate and informative data. But interviewers can still do more, simply by listening for signs of evasiveness. If you ask a very specific question and receive an overly general reply, for example, take care. "That's a huge red flag," Meschke says.

Another technique consists of scheduling multiple meetings with different interviewers, individually and in teams, then comparing notes. "That's to make sure the candidate is being consistent in answers," Meschke says. "The habitual liar can't keep everything straight over and over again."

If evidence reveals a lack of integrity, think twice before doing anything. For instance, you may be legally required to disclose that a background check provided information leading you to reject a candidate. And even if your best efforts at interviewing leave the interviewee smelling like a rose, don't assume all is completely well. "The best liars are very good," Meschke warns. "Nothing is ironclad."

Mark Henricks writes on business and technology for leading publications and is author of Not Just a Living.

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This article was originally published in the April 2009 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Interview for Integrity.

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