When you ask someone a question, you want a truthful answer. Unfortunately, that’s not always what you get, especially in a job interview where a candidate is trying to look good. It’s possible to get a person to share less than perfect details, however, if you properly phrase your question, says Eric VanEpps, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business.
Working with researchers from Harvard Kennedy School, Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, and the Wharton School, VanEpps examined at the relationship between questions and information disclosure. The team’s study, which was published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, found that job candidates are more likely to reveal undesirable information when they’re asked a question that’s phrased to presuppose problematic behavior.
“Asking questions that presume the problem makes it harder for the interviewee to be dishonest,” says VanEpps.
For example, instead of asking, “Do you ever use work time for personal email or social media?” or “Have you used a sick day when you weren’t actually sick?” VanEpps suggests phrasing your question with the negative assumption.
“‘You’ve used a sick day when you weren’t sick, right? Or ‘You use work time for personal email, right?’ ” he says. “Someone is more likely to answer, ‘Well, yeah, I do.’ The phrasing conveys that we understand you might do this and want to know.”
When phrased in the opposite way–“You don’t ever use work time for social, do you?”–candidates were less likely to indicate that they have, says VanEpps. And the least effective phrasing to get the truth is asking a general question, such as, “How do you use your time at work?”
“It’s a matter of omission or commission,” he says. “If an interviewee is asked, ‘You don’t ever do this?’ and they do, they’re unlikely to want to correct you. However, questions that are presumptive of the negative behavior are more likely to get disclosure.”
Turning the tables
Presuming behaviors is also beneficial to job candidates who want to get the truth from an interviewer. VanEpps and his team did another study from the opposite perspective, with the interviewee assuming negative behaviors on the part of the employer. For example, “I know you’ve had problems in the past with bad managers, how many negative complaints has your HR department received this year?”
“Employers were also more likely to admit to the existence of a toxic corporate culture when the problem was presumed,” he says. “When asked more general or less presumptive questions, though, participants kept negative information to themselves.”
Presupposing problematic behavior might feel uncomfortable when you’re trying to impress a perspective employer, but VanEpps’s study found that interviewees were not rated as being worse for asking those questions by the interviewer.
“It didn’t come across as being negative,” says VanEpps. “It’s okay to ask if it’s important to know. Such questions can demonstrate that you are both smart and assertive, and you will get a more honest response.”
Asking negative-assuming questions is not only useful in job interviews; VanEpps found that it works when negotiating, “any time that you need honest information to make an informed decision,” he says.
While this type of questioning can get at the truth, it can be overused. “You wouldn’t want to ask presumptive about everything under the sun,” says VanEpps. “It could lead to over-disclosure and you might not know how to use that information. It also can indicate distrust. If there are specific behaviors you want to screen for or when you’re deciding between two candidates, this is a good strategy.”
Also be cautious about the type of behaviors you presume. In the study, VanEpps found that candidates who were asked the question, “You do online gaming at work, right?” negatively evaluated the interviewer. “Presuming an uncommon behavior is a mistrustful thing to ask,” he says. “It might offend.”