You’re Only Human: The Importance of Understanding Human Behavior in Interviews

 Photo: Piotr Piwowarski

Interviews are a critically important part of a fraud investigation. Whether you are an outsider trying to get context for the victim organization’s culture, or an in-house fraud examiner trying to obtain a confession, your interviews, if successful, will provide you with insight and information you will need to close your case. With so much weight on this step of an examination, some professionals in the anti-fraud field may spend time strategizing and preparing all while overlooking a fundamental truth — your interview is a conversation between human beings.

In his presentation, “Challenges of Human Behavior in Interviews,” at the 2019 ACFE Fraud Conference Europe in Zurich, Ivo Hoppler tackled the importance of acknowledging your own human faults as well as the humanity of your interviewee. Hoppler, the chief cyber development officer for Aon Switzerland AG, said, “We can do quite a lot with the controls in place, but if we do not understand humans, we underutilize the natural potential [for interview outcomes].”

One of the first steps in using human behavior in interviews is to accept that the interview situation is stressful for both the interviewer and the interviewee. When humans are under stress they tend to act differently than normal — interviewers may deviate from their interview plan and interviewees may shut down and become unresponsive or hostile to questions. Hoppler suggested one way of assuaging that stress is for the interviewer to establish a rapport with the interviewer and acknowledge their comfort level. Something as simple as making sure the interview room is a comfortable temperature for them or asking if they need something to drink in the beginning can help set the tone for the rest of the interview.

“A few minutes of additional relationship building, and you’ll get more information from the interviewee … the ability to make a relationship is valuable,” said Hoppler. “The goal of every interview must be to break down barriers and to obtain cooperation of the interviewee … altruism on the part of the interviewer promotes trust.” Building that rapport can be as simple as introducing yourself as the interviewer and stating why they are there. Interviewers can also gain trust by engaging in casual conversation before the interview and finding common ground on a subject or interest.

Another important factor in rapport building is active listening. People will usually talk more if the person listening to them is physically reacting in some way, such as nodding or asking follow-up questions based on what they just said. Since interviews are often critical to fraud examinations, interviewees may naturally want to stick to their predetermined questions in order to not forget any questions. However, if you only stick to questions you’ve already prepared, you may miss out on important information you were previously unaware of that the interviewee provides on the spot. Taking the time to truly listen to the interviewee can create a more comfortable environment that leads the interviewee to offer up more information than they previously intended.

Using what you know about human behavior in how you interact with an interviewee is important in obtaining information from them. Equally as important is recognizing that you, as the interviewer, are human, as well, and therefore predisposed to certain behaviors. One of the biggest hurdles for interviewers is their own biases. Those biases may be conscious — like a conflict of interest — or unconscious. Anti-fraud professionals, in particular, can suffer from confirmation biases coming into interviews. If you’ve already spent hours examining a case and all the evidence points to your interviewee being one half of a duo committing fraud, you may have prepared many questions trying to figure out who their partner is without keeping an open mind to more perpetrators, or that they worked alone.

Hoppler explained one of the best ways to minimize this type of confirmation bias is to develop alternate hypotheses and document them. Reflecting on where you as the interviewer are coming from when going into the interview, and obtaining outside opinions before and after the interview, can help as well.