Background Investigations Conducted Over the Telephone: Part II

Written By: Brian C Jayne
Feb 01, 2003

Phrasing Interview Questions

In the January web tip suggestions were offered for initiating a telephone interview. At the outset of a telephone interview, the investigator's goals are to (1) elicit a commitment from the subject to be interviewed for a reasonable period of time, (2) talk to the subject in a private setting and, (3) introduce the interview in a manner that encourages truthfulness. Once these goals are accomplished, the investigator will seek information about the applicant by asking questions.

Because of the inability to evaluate nonverbal behavior during a telephone interview, it is especially important to phrase interview questions properly. A fundamental principle of question formulation is that an investigator should never phrase an interview question in a manner that expects the subject to volunteer adverse information about another person. To do so goes against all tenants of human nature. Even when interviewing someone who is very honest and truthful, the investigator must recognize how difficult it is to offer negative information about an acquaintance who is the subject of a background investigation. Therefore, interview questions need to be phrased to not only encourage truthfulness, but also to discourage deception. Proper question phraseology during an interview can be reduced to a number of guidelines.

1. Do Not Ask Negative Questions

During a recent telephone interview in which I was contacted to provide background information about an acquaintance the investigator asked me, "You're not aware of any problems (applicant) has had with alcohol, drugs or criminal behavior are you?" This is called a negative question in that it is phrased in a way that expects agreement. Negative questions such as, "You've never witnessed (applicant) abuse alcohol, have you?" or, "The applicant is patriotic, isn't he?" invite deception and even the most honest person is unlikely to respond, "Actually you're wrong. The applicant is a member of an underground terrorist group."

2. Do Not Ask Compound Questions

A compound question addresses multiple behaviors in the same question. Consider the previously listed question, "You're not aware of any problems (applicant) has had with alcohol, drugs or criminal behavior are you?" as an example of a compound question. When I answered "No I'm not" to this question was I referring to the applicant's alcohol use, drug use or criminal behavior? The investigator has no idea. A deceptive subject who, for example, knows that the applicant uses cocaine will psychologically focus on the parts of a compound question to which he is telling the truth. This makes detecting deception very difficult. These three behaviors (alcohol abuse, drug use, criminal behavior) should each be addressed as separate topical areas within the interview..

3. Do not use judgement phrases within an interview question

A judgement phrase allows the subject of the interview to assign a meaning or interpretation to a particular word within the question. In the earlier example the investigator asked me whether the applicant had any "problems" with alcohol, drugs or criminal behavior. Consider that I know this particular applicant smokes marijuana on weekends and drinks eight cocktails a night. Depending on how I define "problems" I can easily justify my negative response to the question. Interview questions should seek objective information that is not subject to interpretation. Questions such as, "Has (applicant) ever told you that he experimented with illegal drugs?", or "Has applicant ever been convicted of a crime?" have only one possible truthful response. If the subject tells less than the truth, the investigator can often pick up on behavior symptoms indicative of that fact, e.g., "He's never told me that he experimented with any hard drugs" which would stimulate an appropriate follow-up question, such as, "What social drugs has he told you he experimented with?"

4. Do not use inappropriate qualifiers within an interview question.

During my telephone interview I was asked, "Do you know of any security risks (applicant) presents?" This questions contains the qualifying phrase, "Do you know." Qualifying phrases weaken the emotional impact of a question making the question easier to lie to. This question should have simply been phrased, "Does (applicant) present any security risks to our country?' Other common qualifying phrases that should be avoided when asking interview questions are, "Do you happen...", "Can you remember...", and "Do you think..."

When a subject may not reasonably know an exact answer to a question it is appropriate to use qualifying phrases. For example, "Do you happen to know when (applicant) last traveled outside of the United States?" However, when seeking specific information such as whether or not the applicant has been the subject of a criminal investigation, the question does not require any estimation from the subject. Either the subject has this knowledge or he does not. Therefore, it would invite deception to ask, "Do you happen to know if (applicant) has been the subject of a criminal investigation in the last 2 years?"

5. Use opinion questions appropriately.

As the name suggests, an opinion question seeks a qualitative assessment from the subject. Examples of opinion questions would be, "On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rank (applicant's) patriotism?" or, "How would you describe (applicant's) temperament?" Opinion questions are not designed to elicit incriminating information, but rather to assess the subject's possible knowledge about the applicant in a particular area. Consider that a subject described the applicant's temperament as follows, "Like all of us, he loses his temper on occasion but it hasn't been a problem with me." This response should suggest a number of follow-up questions that may elicit meaningful information. For example:

"When is the last time you've seen (applicant) lose his temper?"

"What caused him to lose his temper?"

"Did (applicant) become physical?"

"How many times (a week/month) does (applicant) lose his temper?"

"What is the worst thing you've seen (applicant) do when he lost his temper?"

"Why do you believe (applicant) has not lost his temper with you?"

A common error investigators make when asking opinion questions is the failure to elicit specific examples when the subject's opinion is favorable. As an example, if I ranked an applicant's patriotism as a "10" the interviewer should then ask me to cite some examples to support why I ranked the applicant so high.

It is inappropriate to use opinion questions to elicit specific information about an applicant's background or suitability. For example, a negative response to the opinion question, "Do you consider the applicant to be a threat to this country?" offers no reassurance of the applicant's threat-potential to the United States. Interview questions which elicit an opinion should not be used as the basis for a hire / not hire decision, but rather as an introduction for more objective information.

6. To Evaluate an Applicant's Suitability, ask Behavior-based Questions

The ultimate purpose for conducting a background investigation is to develop objective information about an applicant that will reflect on that person's qualifications for a position. The investigator needs to establish specific information about what the applicant has or has not done in relevant areas. This requires the asking of behavior-based questions.

The first step in planning a background investigation is to identify the topical areas that need to be discussed. For a particular applicant the investigator may come up with the following list:

Military experience

Family relationships


Alcohol use

Illegal Drug use

Criminal behavior

Blackmail potential

Once topical areas of the interview have been identified, the investigator should develop a subset of questions to address each area. While these additional questions will add time to an interview, the importance of asking questions that address specific behaviors cannot be overemphasized. A fundamental principle of lie-detection is that it is much easier to lie to a broad question than one which specifically addresses what a suspect has actually done. A bank teller who has stolen overages from her cash drawer will experience little anxiety when denying the question, "Have you ever stolen any money from the bank?" However, this same teller will experience considerable anxiety if asked, "Have you ever kept an overage in your cash drawer?" A competent investigator should ask questions that stimulate the greatest level of anxiety if the subject chooses to lie to the question.

In addition, when developing specific questions, the topic should be introduced with non-threatening questions that allow the subject to make minor admissions. This is done to establish a pattern of the subject offering information to each question. The questions should eventually target more relevant areas. The following dialogue would be effective in developing specific information about an applicant's alcohol use:

What type of alcoholic beverage does (applicant) drink?

How often a week do you have alcoholic beverages with (applicant)?

How often a week does (applicant) consume alcoholic beverages?

What is the most number of alcoholic drinks you've seen (applicant) consume?

Has (applicant) driven a car after consuming more than six drinks?

Has (applicant) consumed alcohol prior to lunch time?

Has (applicant's) use of alcohol been discussed among your friends or co-workers?

In conclusion, it is certainly possible to conduct an effective background investigation over the telephone. The topical areas discussed during the interview should each be addressed separately, and the investigator needs to be aware of the importance of properly phrasing interview questions to encourage truthful responses. When possible deception is detected, it is important to ask follow-up questions to further evaluate the subject's behavior or elicit an admission.

For in-depth information on asking background questions see our courses on Hiring the Best offered as an in-house seminar or in CD ROM format. (

Permission is hereby granted to those who wish to share or copy this article. In those instances, the following Credit Statement must be included "This Investigator Tip was developed by John E. Reid and Associates Inc. 800-255-5747 /" Inquiries regarding Investigator Tips should be directed to Toni Overman