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.

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