Credibility – Who’s Telling the Truth?

How can you tell when somebody is telling the truth? The author shares some advice from his extensive legal career.

One of the most difficult things to do is deciding whether someone is telling the truth.

Gaging credibility is a professional occupation for judges and arbitrators. Supervisors and managers must also know how to discern what’s true and what’s fiction. This is also the case in all relationships such as between parents and children, between spouses and between friends or just acquaintances.

How do you know if someone is telling the truth?

Many people determine whether someone is telling the truth by their “gut” instinct.

One person who I worked with believed that he had an unerring ability to tell who was truthful and who was lying. No one has that ability. We all can be “conned” by an expert liar.

The purpose of this article is to give you some tools to help you in determining the credibility of someone you are dealing with. Determining truth is a process requiring the careful consideration of a number of different factors and the use of information available to you. 

I spent the early part of my career as a trial lawyer prosecuting criminal cases, handling EEO hearings, grievance arbitrations, and prosecuting unfair labor practice complaints. I have seen my fair share of people on the witness stand telling what I believed were fanciful versions of the truth or outright lies. Sometimes the judge or arbitrator agreed with my viewpoint and sometimes he or she believed the witness.

I have always told classes on trial practice that few witnesses outright lie instead they just tell their version of the truth. Unfortunately, their version of the truth may not be the same as yours.

We are in a society now where truth is under siege, where facts don’t matter and where honesty is hard to determine. This article is not intended to provide the end all be all on how to tell where the truth lies. I will try to set some parameters that can be used when faced with the question of who is telling the truth in the workplace.

The Hillen Factors

As I mentioned above, there are some people who believe they absolutely know when they are being lied to. Whether they really know or not doesn’t matter, it is what they believe.

However, the vast majority of us are not always 100% sure where the truth lies. To deal with the issue of credibility, the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) has a series of factors called the Hillen Factors which MSPB Judges are supposed to use when deciding credibility. These may be of help to you in deciding the credibility of one of your employees. 

The Hillen Factors:

  1. The witness’s opportunity and capacity to observe the event or act. The personal knowledge of place/time/proximity. 

    Someone comes to you and says they saw an employee doing something contrary to the standards of conduct. This first factor would tell you to ask how did the employee come to see or know what the employee did to not abide by the standards of conduct. You would want specifics of where it happened, when it happened and how close was the employee who reported the violation to the incident that took place.
  1. Character – prior misconduct or history of veracity. When an employee denies that they’ve done something, ask yourself what their prior history of telling the truth has been.
  2. Prior inconsistent statement – causes doubt to the truthfulness. Did the employee give you inconsistent versions of what took place? 
  3. Bias – certain relationships and circumstances can impair the impartiality of the witness/human reaction. Is the employee you are talking to a close friend of the employee you are investigating?
  4. Contradicted by or consistency with other evidence – If the employee says they came in on time, is this contradicted by other employee statements or video?
  5. Inherent improbability – Does what you have been told by an employee make sense? Is it probable that it could have, or would have, happened as related by the employee?
  6. Demeanor – observation of carriage, behavior, manner and appearance. Does the employee’s body language indicate a reason to disbelieve the employee? 

How to Apply the Hillen Factors

So, what do these factors mean to you in deciding whether someone is lying?

Using these criteria can help you to make a well-reasoned decision about an employee. It will hopefully prevent you from making a snap judgment that someone is lying or not lying when you haven’t really thought through what you have heard and know about the employee.

Accusing someone of lying shows a lack of trust in the person. If you are later proven wrong, it can be difficult to repair the relationship. It’s worth the time to investigate first before making a judgment which may have serious consequences. 

The seventh factor – demeanor, is the one that people use the most frequently in deciding whether someone is lying.

Body Language and Verbal Patterns

When I teach classes on how to conduct administrative investigations, the class spends a lot of time on what body language and verbal patterns can tell you about a witness during an investigation.

As Americans, in our culture, one of the things we use most often in determining whether someone is telling us the truth is whether they can look us in the eye when they are talking to us. Direct eye contact obviously means some isn’t lying. Not so fast, it may just mean they’re good at looking someone in the eye. 

In my book, How to Conduct a Workplace Investigation, I’ve included a whole chapter on body language and verbal patterns of employees you are interviewing and another chapter on what your own body language is telling people you are talking to.

I don’t have the space in this article to explain all aspects of these two important subjects, however I will try to give you some general information and some examples.

The basic rule is never ignore body language and verbal patterns. Body language gives context to what a person is saying and is often a more effective communication device than actual speaking. Verbal patterns give you the opportunity to look behind the words themselves.

When someone is called into your office, they can have any number of reactions. A few common behaviors may be that they act afraid, carefree, or baffled as to why you want to talk to them.

I used the word “act” because you can never be sure whether what they are showing isn’t just an act. However, the vast majority of employees’ reactions are not an act, it is an accurate depiction of how they really feel. Most employees do not lie, quite often they tell you more than you need to know and more than is good for them. 

The following are some examples of generalizations about body language:

  • The body posture of truthful people is open, upright and comfortable.
  • The body posture of deceptive people is unnaturally rigid and erratic in its changes.
  • Truthful people tend to look at the person they are talking to longer than do deceptive people.
  • The expression of fear is more likely to be an expression of guilt. 

The following are some examples of generalizations about verbal patterns:

  • Truthful people generally answer specific questions with direct and spontaneous answers.
  • Deceptive people tend to deny their wrongdoing(s) specifically while truthful persons will deny the problem in general.
  • Deceptive people may evade the answer by talking off the subject. 

These generalizations are just that, generalizations. You can‘t take them to the bank and rely solely on them in making a decision. However, they give you information to assist you in forming an overall opinion of the truthfulness of an employee. If you consider both the factors described above and the body language and verbal patterns of an employee you are in a much better position to come up with the right answer about whether you are being lied to by an employee. 

About the Author

Joe Swerdzewski, former General Counsel of the FLRA & owner of JSA LLC is the author of The Essential Guide to Federal Labor Relations, A Guide to Successful Federal Sector Collective Bargaining, etc. For more info on JSA’s services, email or subscribe to JSA’s newsletter.