Tag Archives: Career Management

Then & Now

I was chatting over lunch last week at the John Marshal Hotel here in Richmond with a former officer of our Chapter when the subject of interviewing came up; interviewing generally, but also viewed in the context of the challenges and obstacles that fraud examiners of the next generation will face as they increasingly confront their peers, the present and future fraudsters of the Millennial and Z generations.

Joseph Wells says somewhere, in one of his excellent writings, that skill as an interviewer is one of the most important attributes that a CFE or forensic accountant can possess and probably the one of all our skills most worthy of on-going cultivation. But, as with any other professional craft, there are common pitfalls of which newer professionals especially need to be aware to increase their chances of successfully achieving their interviewing objectives.

Failure to plan sufficiently is without a doubt, the primary error interviewers make. It seems that the more experience an interviewer has, the less he or she prepares. Whether because of busyness or overconfidence, this pitfall spells disaster. Not only does efficiency suffer because the interviewer might have to schedule another interview, but effectiveness suffers because the interviewer might never discover needed information. Fraudsters often take time before interviews to prepare answers to anticipated questions. The ACFE reports having briefed career criminals on their tactics, thoughts and behaviors about interviews, and they typically respond, “I had my routines that I was going to run down on them” and “I always had my story made up”.

During his or her planning for an interview, the CFE must carefully consider the interviewee’s role in the fraud and his or her relationship to the fraudster (if the interviewee isn’t the fraudster), available information, desired outcomes from the interview and primary interview strategy plus alternate, viable strategies. The success or failure of the interview is determined prior to the time the interviewer walks into the room. Either the interviewer is part of his or her own plan or she is part of someone else’s. The CFE, not the interviewee, has to control the interview.

An interviewer whose mind is made up before an interview even begins is courting danger. Confirmation bias (also known as confirmatory bias or myside bias) greatly decreases the likelihood that an interviewer dismisses, ignores or filters any contradictory information during an interview, whether the interviewee expresses it verbally or non-verbally. Thus, interviewers might not even be aware that they’re missing important information that could increase the examination’s effectiveness.

How many times have experienced practitioners been told by colleagues that they believed that particular interviewees were guilty only to later discover they were actually innocent? If such practitioners hadn’t been aware that their colleagues could have caused them to have confirmation bias, they might have dismissed contradictory interviewee behaviors during subsequent interviews as minor aberrations. It’s imperative that the interviewer maintain an open mind, which isn’t so much a skill set as an attitude. The effective interviewer gives the interviewee a chance by looking at all the data, listening to others and theorizing a hypothesis without precluding anything. Also, the ACFE tells us, if the interviewer maintains an open mind, the interviewee will perceive it and be more cooperative.

A guiding principle should be, the interview is not about the CFE; the CFE is conducting the interview. The interview is a professional encounter. If you don’t conduct the interview, someone else can conduct it, but the interviewee remains the same. Interviewers are replaceable; interviewees aren’t. Never lose sight of this foundational truth. If the interviewer personalizes the interview process s/he will focus on his or her inward emotions rather than on the interviewee’s verbal and non-verbal behavior. An interviewer’s unfettered emotions will have a debilitating impact on a number of levels.

If the interviewer becomes personally involved in an interview, the interviewer becomes the interviewee and the interviewee becomes the interviewer. Most of us want to search for connections to others. But if we connect too strongly, we will become so similar (at least in our own minds) to interviewees that we might have difficulty believing the interviewee is guilty or is providing inaccurate information. Once that occurs, the interviewer probably wont obtain necessary evidence or could discount incriminating evidence.

Before each interview, remind yourself that your objective is to collect evidence in a dispassionate manner; you won’t become emotionally involved. Focus on the overall objective of the interview so that you won’t be caught up in details that could connect you too closely with the interviewee. If, for example, you discover that the interviewee is from the same part of the country you’re from, remind yourself of the many persons you know who also are from that area so you’ll dilute the influence that this information could have on your interview.

With regard to interviewing members of the present and up-and-coming generation, a majority of our youngest future citizens spend an inordinate amount of time looking at plastic screens as a significant mode for learning, communicating, being entertained and experiencing the world instead of interacting directly with others in the same space and time. This places novice CFE interviewers at a disadvantage because they have been formally trained that much of the communication between an interviewer and an interviewee takes place non-verbally. Concurrently, the verbal aspects of communication are replete with meta-messages. For example, what kind of impression does an individual make whose voice inflection rises or falls at the end of a sentence? Can this inflection be as adequately and consistently communicated via a text message compared to in-person communication? This example (and there are many more) contains the essence of the interviewing process. Unfortunately, nuances, interpersonal communication subtleties and appropriate responses that were previously thought to be integral parts of the social modeling process aren’t as readily available to the current generation of interviewers and interviewees as they were to previous generations. Research has shown that electronic devices, such as tablets, cellphones and laptops shorten attention spans. Web surfers usually spend no more than 10 to 20 seconds on a page before ads or links distract them and they move on to burrow down into succeeding rabbit holes.

A great deal of communication now takes place via 244-character communication snippets on Twitter. The average person checks his or her phone once every six minutes. Psychologists have recently coined the term ‘nomophobia’, the fear of being out of cellphone contact; shortened from ‘no-mobile-phone-phobia. A 2015 global study reported that students’ ‘addiction’ to media is similar to drug cravings.

The attention span of the average adult is believed to have fallen from 12 minutes in 1998 to five minutes in 2014. If interviewees’ attentive capacities are just five minutes, or less, then after that point interviews provide diminishing returns. Our attention deficits probably result from a lack of self-discipline and the delusional belief that we can cognitively multi-task. We can’t do anything about our natural limitations, but we can discipline ourselves to pay attention. We can also plan and conduct our interviews with few distractions. Interviewers new and experienced should require that all participants turn off their cellphones and, when possible, interviewers should try to ask questions in an unpredictable order.

So, we can expect that a new generation of fraud examiners will soon be interviewing individuals for extended periods of time who have as much of a dearth of direct, face-to-face interpersonal communication as they do. At the extreme, we can envision two or more uncomfortable people in an interview room. All of whom can only remain in the moment for five minutes or less and are fidgety because they need plastic-screen fixes.

An additional challenge will be that CFEs of the Millennial and Z generations will soon be spending hours interviewing older interviewees who are more familiar, explicitly and implicitly, with the subtleties of interpersonal communication. These are people who have spent significantly more time in direct, face-to-face communication. The interpersonal communication-challenged interviewer will be at a significant disadvantage when interviewing guilty, guilty-knowledge, deceptive and/or antagonistic interviewees. As my lunch companion pointed out, many experienced fraudsters are master manipulators of inexperienced interviewers.

It is urgent that younger fraud examiners and forensic accountants be instructed in the strongest terms to put down their plastic screens and practice engagement with others in direct communication, with friends, family and those who cross their paths in the normal flow of life. As a lead CFE examiner or supervisor, encourage your younger employee-colleagues to write down their communication goals for each day. Suggest they read all they can on face-to face interviewing and questioning plus verbal and non-verbal behaviors. They can take interviewing and public-speaking classes or join a toastmasters group. Anything to get them to converse and observe body language and expressions.

Interviewing techniques are the vehicles that ride up and down the road of interpersonal communication. If that road isn’t adequate, then drivers can’t maneuver their vehicles. Your younger employees are the only persons who can bring themselves up to the necessary interpersonal speed limit to make their one-on-one interviews successful.

Skilled for Success

Our Chapter is periodically contacted by human resource staff and others seeking CFEs for recruitment to both in-house staff and management positions. I took the opportunity afforded by one such call this last week to query the caller about what her ideal CFE candidate would look like. What attributes came to mind when she pictured the experienced CFE she was seeking? Technical ability? Investigative knowledge? Attention to detail?

All of those were certainly important, she said, but since this position would supervise others and deal directly with clients, she mentioned what she called ‘success skills’ (sometimes termed soft skills) as of over-riding importance. I asked her what she meant by success skills specifically and she said that for her and for many other human resource professionals, the culture of the organization she is recruiting for and the professional’s interpersonal behaviors and critical reasoning and judgment can frequently heavily outweigh technical skills and relevant experience. After I referred her to several folks who had furnished our Chapter with resumes for just this kind of enquiry, my caller pointed me to several sources where I could obtain information on the types of skills to which she was referring.

My somewhat cursory research revealed that some of the most common success skills employers look for and which they use to assess experienced employment candidate CFEs today include:

1. A strong work ethic — are they motivated and dedicated to getting the job done, no matter what? Will they be conscientious and do their best work?
2. A positive attitude — are they optimistic and upbeat? Will they generate good energy and good will especially with subordinates and clients?
3. Good communication skills — are they verbally articulate and good listeners? Can they make their case and express their needs in a way that builds bridges with colleagues, clients and team members?
4. Time management abilities – does the CFE candidate know how to prioritize tasks and work on a number of different projects at once? Will they use their time on the job wisely?
5. Problem-solving skills — are they resourceful and able to creatively solve problems that will inevitably arise during challenging investigations? Will they take ownership of problems or leave them for someone else?
6. Being a team player — will they work well in groups and teams? Will they be cooperative and take a leadership role when appropriate?
7. Self-confidence — do they truly believe they can do the job? Will they project a sense of calm and inspire confidence in others during investigative assignments? Will they have the courage to ask the questions that need to be asked and to freely contribute their ideas?
8. Ability to accept and learn from criticism — will they be able to handle criticism? Are they coachable and open to learning and growing as a person and as a professional no matter their present experience and authority level?
9. Flexibility/adaptability — are they able to adapt to new situations and challenges? Will they embrace change and be open to innovative ideas and investigative approaches?
10. Working well under pressure — can they handle the stress that accompanies investigative and reporting deadlines and crises? Will they be able to do their best work and come through for the employer in a pinch?

Armed with this information, I got back in touch with my caller and asked a few more questions; she was very forthcoming. It turns out that there is a wide range of questions interviewers can ask when trying to gauge the soft skills of a potential CFE hire. When it comes to interpersonal skills, my interviewee told me they may ask candidates to describe an unusual person they know and why the person may be different. Communication skills can be determined by having candidates relate their experiences with an angry or frustrated corporate counsel, client, coworker or interviewee. A popular question that is often asked to measure the ability of a candidate to work on a team is centered on the discussion of an investigative project that was not successful and how it was handled. The question of solutions to problems may also deal with negative situations and how they were overcome. Therefore, questions used to assess success skills often have an individual addressing the how and why, rather than what, where or who.

The next question I had for my respondent was regarding her opinion as to how a candidate CFE could go about acquiring and strengthening these skills since they really don’t involve the type of technical matters typically focused on in the everyday business school training curriculum. She replied that working with people who exhibit strong soft skills is an effective way of learning those skills. Many professional organizations like the ACFE run internal mentoring programs so that senior practitioners can pass on their knowledge and experience to newer professionals. Training events of local chapters of associations such as the ACFE are another good place to meet with experienced professionals who can assist with mentoring and soft skills.

It seems to me that success skill communication especially under-pin all aspects of the CFEs work. I can remember very early on in my auditing career reading that communication is not easy because something said doesn’t mean it was said correctly; something said correctly doesn’t
mean it has been heard; something heard doesn’t mean it was understood; something understood doesn’t mean it has been agreed upon; something agreed upon doesn’t mean it has been applied; something applied doesn’t mean it has been continually practiced. Communicating anything effectively as a professional is, therefore, an on-going continuous process that is almost never complete and seldom perfect.

The desire to grow professionally and develop a successful career is evident in most CFEs, as in all other professionals, and while the opportunity to be on the forefront of this challenge exists, it is not emphasized enough, hence what recruiters and human resource professionals have identified as the success skills gap. Critical success skills, such as interpersonal behavior, communication, report writing and presentation skills, that augment technical skills are important in developing a successful career. However, to the disadvantage of employees, especially young professionals, these skills are seldom even emphasized let alone actively taught in the typical workplace. Similarly, employees do not recognize the lack of or need for such skills and miss valuable opportunities to improve them.

In an increasingly information- and technology-driven society, success skills increasingly shape the structure of the workplace. This fact is found to be especially evident in the audit, investigative and information systems environments. Assurance professionals need to interact seamlessly with customers/clients, work in teams, communicate technical details and build relationships.

Managers hiring new and experienced CFEs will always ask: Is the candidate able to lead a team successfully, communicate effectively, make presentations or write an investigative report to management? These are key skills that determine promotions, raises and job success.

In summary, CFE job applicants are always weighed on their technical ability and, increasingly today, on their success skills. Employers often ask whether job candidates are the best fit for the organization or whether candidates will align well with the organization’s culture. Furthermore, as a number of headhunters have told me, employers can easily teach the technical skills. The success skills that make up a candidate’s character and demeanor are not so easily taught yet can have an enormous impact on whether a candidate eventually gets his or her dream job or the top-floor corner office. So, a mix of both cognitive and noncognitive skills, the latter such as motivation, self-esteem and perseverance, determine many life outcomes, including education, health and even involvement in crime.

To benefit from strong success skills and develop a long-term career, the foremost step for young professionals as for any other professional, is to own their career. The ability to direct and fill roles in opportunity areas highly depends on career ownership and effective personal management. Success skills are increasingly becoming the often-unrecognized element for career mastery; as recruiters tell me, the bottom line is that a full professional success depends on their mastery.