Background Investigations Conducted Over the Telephone:Part I

Written By: Brian C. Jayne
Jan 01, 2003

Starting the Interview

Recently I was interviewed by telephone concerning the suitability of an acquaintance applying for a job involving national security. The interviewer started out saying that he just wanted a few minutes of my time and, indeed, I was on the phone for less than four minutes. The reason the call went so quickly was that his questions were all similar to the following,

"You're not aware of any past problems (applicant) has had with alcohol, drugs or criminal behavior are you?"; "Do you know of any security risks (applicant) presents?"; "Would you recommend (applicant) for a position of national security?" Fortunately, I am confident this applicant is qualified for the position. However, if I did possess adverse information, I probably would not have revealed it during this telephone interview. One of the reasons for this is how the investigator started the interview.

Unless there are just one or two specific issues to be resolved, it is not possible to conduct a meaningful background interview in four minutes. While it is certainly proper to advise the person being interviewed of an estimated length for the interview, the stated length should be over-stated, perhaps suggesting 20 or 30 minutes. This will give the subject the impression that the investigator is interested in detailed answers and that it is not a peripheral inquiry. In addition, the investigator does not want to interview someone who is facing a time deadline such as having to leave for work in 10 minutes. If the subject does not have 30 minutes to talk with the investigator, a more convenient time should be arranged for the telephone interview.

Because telephone interviews lack the human connection of a face to face interview there is a tendency for the investigator to "please" the subject. This may be apparent by the investigator assuming an apologetic tone because the subject was called at home or by softening questions in an effort not to offend the subject. The investigator needs to remember that because of the convenience and less threatening environment a telephone interview offers, almost every subject would prefer to be interviewed by phone rather than in person.

To establish control during a telephone interview it is advisable to seek the subject's permission to be interviewed with a statement such as, "I would like to talk to you about (applicant). If you prefer not to do this over the phone I would be happy to meet with you in person. What would you prefer?" Once the subject has agreed to be interviewed over the phone it is their choice and the investigator's demeanor should be the same as when conducting a face to face interview. That is, he or she should be professional and non-accusatory, but also clearly goal-oriented and persistent in seeking the truth.

A subject will share much more personal information during a telephone interview if he or she is alone and not distracted. Because I answered the phone in our family room, my interview was conducted with my son and wife present while they watched a football game (and also overheard my side of the conversation). To establish a private environment it is appropriate for the investigator to make an initial request something like, "Because we will be discussing sensitive issues, you may want to switch to a phone in a private room. Do you have another extension that would be more private?"

Before any questions about the applicant's background are asked, the investigator should introduce the purpose for the interview in such a way as to encourage truthful and complete answers. A possible opening statement to make in this regard is the following:

"As part of our screening process for this position we conduct a very thorough background investigation which includes interviews with personal acquaintances, neighbors and past employers. In addition, we conduct a very thorough criminal, civil and financial record check of each applicant. It is important for you to realize that many of the questions I will be asking you are simply to verify information already known. With that in mind, how long have you known (applicant)?"

This introduction encourages truthfulness and candor in a number of ways. First, the subject is led to believe that because the investigation is so in depth that the investigator is likely to already know of any adverse information the subject possesses. Psychologically, It is much easier to be the second person to confirm information rather than the first person to volunteer it. In addition, this introduction would cause the subject to be concerned about being caught in a lie if he withheld certain information, e.g., "How is it that you didn't know...". Contrast the previous introduction to the one used during my telephone interview. It went something like this:

"I hate to disturb you at home on a Sunday but I was just assigned this investigation and haven't even received the background on (applicant) yet but since you lived in Wisconsin I wasn't sure if you'd be available to speak with me tomorrow in Chicago so I though I'd try you at your home number. You were listed as a reference for (applicant) who is applying for a position involving national security. I will only take a few minutes of your time, are you sure this is a good time to talk to me?"

This introduction does little to encourage truthfulness (or confidence in the investigator's ability to detect possible deception). As soon as the investigator identified himself I told him that I had been expecting his call and indicated that he had called at a good time. Nonetheless, he continued to apologize for calling me on a Sunday. His contrite demeanor diminished his position of control during the interview which became very evident when he started asking the interview questions.

Second, he revealed that he had no background information on the applicant - I could have lied through my teeth without experiencing any fear that my answers were inconsistent with known information. Finally, by relating that I was listed as a reference put me in a position where I felt obligated to speak favorably of the applicant. The investigator should have started the questioning process by saying, "Our records indicate that you personally know (applicant). Please tell me about the nature of your relationship."

During the next web tip, the topic of formulating questions during a telephone interview will be discussed.

For in-depth information on conducting telephone interviews, please see our product catalogue for a CD course on that topic:

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