Lumber Liquidators Chairman's Behavior Deceptive on Tainted Flooring Issue
On March 1, 60 Minutes aired a segment about illegally high levels of formaldehyde found in laminate flooring sourced from China and sold by Lumber Liquidators, a Virginia-based retailer of hardwood flooring. In the segment, correspondent Anderson Cooper interviewed Lumber Liquidators founder and chairman Tom Sullivan about independent laboratory tests of samples of this laminate flooring, which found these high levels of formaldehyde in violation of state and federal air safety regulations. QVerity's behavioral analysis of the interview concluded that Sullivan was likely aware that his company was selling flooring that was non-compliant with these regulations, and that he appeared to be withholding information, the disclosure of which could result in serious negative consequences for himself and his company.
We have drawn that conclusion on the basis of the high volume and the specific types of deceptive behaviors exhibited by Sullivan during the course of the interview. Nearly all of these behaviors fell into one of the following categories:
Aggression behavior, to include multiple attacks directed at 60 Minutes and at other parties. Such behavior is a strong indicator that Sullivan may have felt that the facts were closing in on him, compelling him to lash out in response.
Persuasion behavior, to include a high volume of convincing statements aimed at casting Lumber Liquidators in a favorable light, as opposed to providing the specific information being sought by Cooper.
Reaction behavior, in the form of non-verbal deceptive indicators exhibited involuntarily by Sullivan in response to questions that appeared to create a spike in anxiety.
Evasion behavior, to include Sullivan’s failure to answer the question as to whether he had ever been informed that his company was selling non-compliant laminate flooring, and his failure to deny that Lumber Liquidators was selling this flooring.
Following are highlights of deceptive behavior identified during the interview:
- Sullivan was in aggression mode from the outset, when he attacked the manner in which the tests were conducted as “not a real-world test of the laminate.” The demonstration of this aggression behavior so early in the interview appears to be an attempt by Sullivan right out of box to limit the depth of inquiry. It strongly suggests that Sullivan was highly troubled by being questioned on the issue, possibly because he was withholding information about the nature of the laminates.
- In response to Cooper’s statement that he didn't understand how tests could be conducted on the company’s Chinese-made laminates that resulted in every sample failing to meet the emission standard, Sullivan engaged in significant reaction behavior (licking his lips, a significant swallow, eye closure/shielding), and said, “Well, people have different reasons for this test. This is a group of lawyers who are suing us, selling short on our stock.” This response constituted an especially large deceptive cluster, as the non-verbal deceptive behaviors were followed by aggression behavior in the form of an attack on unidentified lawyers, who Sullivan claimed were behind the tests because they were short-selling the company’s stock. Moreover, Sullivan failed to deny that the laminates fail to meet the emission standard. Collectively, this behavior strongly suggests that Sullivan was aware of the non-compliance, and that he had little recourse but to try to get Cooper to back off.
- At one point in the interview, Sullivan said, “Our goal is to sell a good product at a good price. And we don’t get the price by skimping on anything. We get the price by low overhead, huge volume, and being very efficient in what we do. We’re never going to sell something unsafe.” This stream of four convincing statements constitutes a significant deceptive cluster that apparently aimed to paint a halo around his company, rather than to convey any meaningful information in response to the findings of the lab tests or his company’s compliance with the California Air Resources Board (CARB 2) standard for formaldehyde emission. Moreover, Sullivan’s statement, “We’re never going to sell something unsafe” is a non-specific denial——it constitutes convincing behavior, as distinguished from a true denial, which would be expressed by something to the effect of, “We do not sell unsafe products.” This behavior reinforces the likelihood that Sullivan was aware of the non-compliance, and that he had chosen deception as a response to the findings of the tests.
- When Cooper asked him whether he trusts his mills in China, Sullivan responded, “We do. We have inspectors that double-check them. I mean, the mills are licensed by California—the Chinese mills we deal with in the laminates are licensed by California.” Here, Sullivan followed the “We do” with two convincing statements, which belie the truthfulness of his response. His behavior suggests that he recognizes that his mills in China are operating inappropriately. When Cooper pressed him on the issue, noting that “licensed in California” doesn’t mean that the products are CARB 2-compiant, Sullivan engaged in hand-to-face activity and offered the convincing statement, “But our specs are to make it to California standards.” This deceptive cluster suggests that Sullivan may have been aware that his mills in China are not producing CARB 2-compliant products.
- Cooper informed Sullivan that all three mills in China told 60 Minutes that the laminates they make for Lumber Liquidators are not CARB 2-compliant, and showed him hidden camera footage to that effect. Smiling throughout his response, and engaging in anchor-point movements, Sullivan said, “I don’t know the whole situation here. I will guarantee you we’ll be in that mill tomorrow and test it. And that is not anything we can condone in any way to save one cent.” The fact that Sullivan had a perceptible smile throughout his response constitutes aggression behavior in the form of an inappropriate level of concern about a very serious matter. This aggression, combined with non-verbal deceptive behavior in the form of anchor-point movement and the convincing behavior in his response, strongly suggests that Sullivan knew that the truth was not his ally.
- When Cooper asked him if this was acceptable to him, Sullivan engaged in anchor-point movement and responded, “If it’s true, no.” Here, Sullivan exhibited attack behavior by suggesting that the video evidence that 60 Minutes presented to him may have been false evidence. Combined with the anchor-point movement, this constitutes a deceptive cluster. Cooper followed up by saying, “All three mills told us they falsely label your products as CARB 2-compliant. That’s cheating.” In response, he reiterated his attack on the veracity of the evidence by saying, “That would be, if that’s true.”
- Finally, Cooper asked, “Nobody has ever reported this to you?” In response, Sullivan said, “Again, we’ll investigate it. If there is anything going on, we will stop it immediately. I don’t know if it’s true or not, I don’t know what the whole story is. But we will investigate immediately.” Here, in what may be the most troubling response in the entire interview, Sullivan failed to answer the question as to whether this had ever been reported to him. Instead, he responded with a referral statement; reiterated his attack behavior by continuing to suggest that the evidence 60 Minutes presented may be false evidence; engaged in convincing behavior; and demonstrated reaction behavior in the form of anchor-point movement. Collectively, this behavior strongly suggests that Sullivan may have approached the interview with the intent to conceal information that he believed would result in serious negative consequences if disclosed. Moreover, it’s worth noting that Cooper made the mistake of phrasing his question as a negative question, which made it extremely easy for Sullivan to respond with a simple “No.” His failure to do so, even when presented with a golden opportunity, is very telling.