When Hiring for Attitude — Catch ‘Attitude Fraud’ Because Candidates Fake It

“Attitude fraud” — when candidates with an undesirable attitude purposely deceive and act as if they have a great one to get hired. Even though it is a major problem, few in recruiting make any attempt to detect or avoid it.

Most interviewers think that they can accurately spot deception. Unfortunately they are wrong. Data reveals that even sophisticated and highly trained individuals at the FBI, the CIA and psychiatrists can’t detect deceptions better than a random guess. Candidates know that they need to act with a great attitude because by including it in your job description you undoubtedly alerted them. In addition, because candidates often get the interview questions (including those questions covering attitude) in advance from Internet sites like Glassdoor, they know to prepare for the question. And because they know that attitude is important, during the interview, I estimate that as many as 40%= percent of candidates use some combination of acting or lying to purposely deceive (and incidentally I find that most don’t consider this deception to be unethical).

And there is also “nervous deception.” A high level of candidate nervousness may cause interviewees to display attitudes and behaviors that don’t accurately reflect how they would act in the workplace. And consequently, I find that attitude fraud is one of the primary reasons why 46 percent of all new-hires fail within 18 months.

A Few Firms Have Made Identifying “Attitude Fraud” a Standard Practice

A few firms that absolutely require a great attitude have made identifying “attitude fraud” standard practice. Southwest Air has a corporate recruiting strategy where it “hires for attitude, and trains for skills.” And because accurately assessing attitude is so critical to it, years ago Southwest developed a formal process that encouraged employees to assess the attitude and behaviors of candidates. That assessment could occur anytime during travel to the interview on its planes to informal interactions outside of the interview process.

The Internet retailer Zappos designated its shuttle driver who drives interviewees to and from the Vegas airport to make the same type of informal “when they’re not looking” assessment of attitude. If the candidate treats the driver poorly, they are not hired. The CEO of Charles Schwab uses an innovative approach for some jobs where he arranges to meet a candidate for a breakfast interview. He gets there early and arranges for the restaurant manager to, purposely, mess up the breakfast order of his guest. He then assesses how the candidate responds to the frustrating situation.

Consider Adding These “Attitude-fraud Reduction Approaches”

If you are one of the many recruiters or hiring managers who absolutely require a positive attitude or strong customer service skills among new hires, take proactive action. The first step in combating this “attitude fraud” is to automatically assume that the attitude that you witness during the interview probably isn’t fully accurate. Then modify your hiring process so that it better identifies “attitude fakers.”

Fortunately, in my research, I have found that there are numerous ways that you can cut through the faking and discover the real attitude of a candidate. The most effective approaches can be put into four categories: 1) catch them when they are off guard, 2) increase their contacts with employees, 3) ask them to force rank their skills, and 4) put them in pressure situations. Unfortunately, because every firm is different, there is no single magic bullet approach. However, there are a wide variety of “already tried” approaches that you should consider.

The top 10 most practical approaches to consider

  1. Assess candidates when they’re not expecting it — give candidates a badge to wear when they are on site that quickly identifies them to all as possible hires. And then encourage all employees to interact with them when their guard is likely to be down. Especially rely on those classes of employees who they are most likely to interact with including receptionists, secretaries, recruiting coordinators, café workers, service workers, security guards, and have these employees assess and immediately report their attitude assessments. Having a designated cab/Uber driver give them a ride after the interview can be especially revealing. If you put candidates up in a designated hotel, you can ask hotel staff to report any with a bad attitude.
  2. Purposely insert activities that increase interaction  Zappos purposely designs its hiring process so that after the interview, there is an opportunity for an extended facility tour or employee shadowing opportunities. These extended interactions expand opportunities to catch those who are acting. After the interview, Toyota manufacturing has even made candidates work on the assembly line with the team for the rest of the day. And surprisingly many of the candidates themselves realized that after that hands-on experience, that they don’t have the attitude or stamina for the job.
  3. Hold peer interviews — consider supplementing regular interviews with peer interviews. The interviewees are exclusively peer coworkers. These types of interviews are effective because, without a manager present, the candidate is more likely to let their guard down. In addition, because coworkers realize that they will need to work alongside this individual, they are more diligent in identifying any signs of a bad attitude and poor customer service skills.
  4. Hold onsite events to assess  as previously noted, Zappos considers new-hire attitude and shared values to be critical to the success of the firm. Therefore it makes it a practice to hold what it calls “the social test.” It invites candidates to informal departmental or company events where they can interact with many employees. They also encourage interviewees to meet with employees over coffee.
  5. Ask candidates to force-rank their soft skills — you can, of course, ask candidates directly during the interview if they have a positive attitude or strong customer service skills. But you are unlikely to get a completely honest answer. Instead, before or during the interview, give the candidate a list of soft skills and ask them to rank the ones that they have, from the strongest to the weakest. This forced ranked list can quickly reveal at least which of the soft skills that they assess themselves to be the strongest in. Of course, if they rank a positive attitude or any essential customer service skill toward the bottom of the list, you should be concerned.
  6. Have references force-rank a candidate’s soft skills — references, obviously, know the attitude of an individual, but they’re not always forthcoming about it because many are trying to help the candidate. As a result, asking references if the candidate has a specific attitude or soft skill almost always gets a “yes answer.” So instead, give the reference a list of soft and customer service skills and ask them to force rank the ones that best reflect the candidate. Ask the reference to give an example of how they have seen the candidate exercise their positive attitude. If you’re especially concerned about a candidate’s attitude, make it a point to call a handful of individuals who they did not provide as a reference. You should also ask your employees who have worked with the candidate at other firms to provide an attitude assessment.
  7. Ask candidates which soft skills will be required on the job — ask the candidate to list (from most important to least important) the top specific soft skills that they know will be required to excel in the job. If they don’t know which soft skills will be required, or if they list attitude and customer service skills low on the list, be concerned.
  8. Give candidates a problem that requires customer-service skills — before or during the interview, give, the candidate a real customer-service problem situation at your firm. Ask them to walk you through the steps on how they would solve it. If they leave out key customer service actions, including consulting with the customer, putting the customer first, and avoiding a negative public scene, you should be concerned.
  9. Hold an informal offsite event — some firms have used outside meetings over coffee, restaurant meals, or meeting over drinks to further assess a candidate’s attitude in an informal setting where they are more likely to let their guard down. The alcohol component can be effective, but at the same time, it is, obviously, problematic.
  10. Online attitude assessment tests — there are a variety of attitude assessment tests available from vendors. However, I would be suspicious of any assessment test until you applied the test to your current employees. Give the test to a handful of your current employees and make sure that your employees with the best attitudes score much higher on these tests than your employees with an okay attitude.

These four additional approaches are effective, but they may be a stretch for some

  • Use data to identify the most accurate attitude assessors — certain individuals are especially accurate at assessing attitude. So to identify who they are, with each new-hire, record the attitude assessment score that was provided by each interviewer/assessor and each unique assessment approach. Use the data over time to determine which employees and process steps have routinely accurately predicted the on-the-job attitude of new hires.
  • Offer top candidates temporary projects — although it’s a little difficult to arrange, by far the most accurate way of assessing attitude is to give candidates an opportunity to work with the team. So when feasible, ask them to work on a night, weekend, or short duration remote project with the team. And then ask team members to assess their attitude.
  • Post-hiring continued assessment — once you realize that the best actors can fool you no matter what you do during the hiring process, continue the assessment of a new-hire’s attitude and customer-service skills during onboarding and their initial training. And during this continued assessment, if you find individual new-hires who don’t meet the standards, they can either be offered additional training or be released. Zappos even offers new hires $3,000 to quit after their first week of training to get rid of many hiring mistakes. Assess attitude during the first six month’s performance appraisal, as well as every time that you need to discipline or release a new hire because of their recently discovered “bad attitude.” And if these failures occur frequently, you should have a systematic failure analysis process for identifying how the new hire managed to disguise their “real attitude” and what new discovery techniques need to be added.
  • Consider the use of neuroscience assessments — even though this might initially sound outrageous, neuroscience assessments can recognize those that deceive. Vendors like HireVue offer a combination of AI technology, deep machine learning, and facial recognition technology to assess taped interviews. This technology allows the assessment to go beyond the actual answers and to assess phrases, facial expressions, voice inflection, and even subtle physical movements that humans simply couldn’t catch. As a result, neuroscience approaches can even today accurately detect deceptions that humans cannot.

Be Wary of These Questionable Deception Identification Approaches

Many hiring managers and recruiters actually believe that they can assess deception during interviews by observation. And as a result, it is quite common for interviewers to use approaches like assessing body language, eye contact, voice inflection, hesitation before answering, extended facial expressions, etc. as an indication of lying. Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, even the FBI, the CIA and psychiatrists can’t accurately detect deceptions.

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Final Thoughts

Few even like to talk about it, but deception is unfortunately quite common throughout the hiring process. Data reveals that 46 percent of resumes contain false information, and one study showed that up to 22 percent of candidates purposely lie during interviews. And even though there is no specific data covering attitude fraud during interviews, I estimate the number to be up to 50 percent of all candidates. And unfortunately, over 95 percent of the firms that I have worked with do nothing to identify and minimize attitude fraud formally.

So my final my recommendation (as one of the few experts in the field of attitude fraud) is to try at least one of the mitigation factors listed above. Select an approach that makes sense for your situation. But after you implement it, be sure and use the split-sample/control group approach to measure its impact accurately. The split-sample control group approach is where you add one or more attitude assessment approaches to the hiring process for half of your candidates for a position with multiple openings. And then do nothing new to the other half of the candidates. After six months on the job, see if those hired from the group with the added assessment approach perform better with fewer attitude problems than the control group of new hires (where nothing new was added).


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Dr. John Sullivan

Dr. John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions. He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," Staffing.org called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website www.drjohnsullivan.com and on www.ERE.Net. He lives in Pacifica, California.