How to tell if a candidate is lying in an interview
Sometimes a candidate may stretch the truth to land a job. Needless to say, this isn’t the basis on which you want to engage new employees—so it’s important those involved in hiring learn to spot deception.

We asked a recruitment director and a deception expert how to uncover lies, and get to the true and useful information you need to make the right hiring decision.

Common lies and how they can harm

Research for SEEK shows that 26% of candidates say they haven’t been completely honest in their interviews. 

Nicole Gorton, director at Robert Half, says the lies recruiters are most often told fall into three main categories:

  • A candidate’s level of skill or experience in a particular area.
  • The salary they have been earning.
  • Their reasons for leaving a job.

The research supports this, with 27% of Kiwis saying they haven’t been honest about why they left a previous company, and 29% stretching the truth on their perceived personal weaknesses.

Elly Johnson is a former police officer and a truth and deception expert who works with businesses on better approaches to interviewing. 

Johnson says some people feel they must lie in interviews to keep up with the competition. “There are plenty of people who have lied in interviews that are doing great in a job, and we never know,” she says.

In some cases, however, people who lie to land a role can do real damage to a business if the truth isn’t found, and they are hired. “We need to be aware that it’s a small percentage of people who tell harmful lies, and it can cost the business time and money,” Johnson says.

We generally aren’t as good at spotting deception as we think, Johnson adds. “Typically, we miss many of the signs. We can misread behaviour and fail to notice clues that are right in front of us.” But there are strategies to help you separate truth from fiction.

In the interview

The interview is key to uncovering a candidate’s skills and experience in more detail—so you want to ensure that detail is truthful.

Put skills to the test

Competency-based interviewing can help to test whether a candidate has the skills and experience they claim to, Gorton says. A subject matter expert takes part in the interview to draw out detail from the candidate on what they’ve achieved in a role and how.

“The more you ask for examples against those skills, very quickly, the person has the ability to answer or not,” she says. The expert might ask the candidate to describe the systems and processes they used, how they interacted with a team and how much they were responsible for.

While competency-based interviewing involves close questioning, it’s not an interrogation, Gorton says. “It’s more getting them to relax, talk, open up and explain,” she says.

As well as uncovering exaggeration, this approach can work in the opposite way, revealing skills and achievements a candidate hasn’t mentioned. “You’d be amazed at how many times people downplay themselves,” Gorton says.

Set the tone for truth

Encouraging truth is as important as detecting lies, Johnson says. “It’s not just about spotting deception—it’s also about creating a truth-telling environment,” she says, adding that once deception starts, it’s hard to backtrack.

One way to encourage truth from the start is “giving truth to get truth”. “If you want truth from someone, then you have to be transparent as well,” she says. This could mean acknowledging challenges in your business, not just the great things. Be authentic and genuine in the way you talk about the role and business.

It's also important to make clear that you are looking for the right match for the role and that is why two-way honesty is important. Make it ok for someone to say they don’t know something or can’t do something to avoid them trying to present a ‘perfect’ version of themselves.

Asking the candidate if there’s anything from their application they’d like to add, change or correct can also encourage open, honest discussion. “Give people some wriggle room,” she says.

Gorton says asking the candidate what their referees might say on a certain point can also set the tone for honesty and openness. “It’s very transparent,” she says.

Don’t rely on instinct

There’s no doubt practice can help interviewers become more efficient at uncovering a candidate’s abilities, Gorton says. But she warns not to rely on “instinct” when vetting a candidate.

For example, if you’re finding what a candidate says in an interview doesn’t ring true, it could be because they’re not answering questions in a way you expected. It’s important to be objective at this point, Gorton says.

You might think to yourself: “They’re being a bit closed. I want to try and talk to them about the fact that I feel like they’re being closed, or I can leave it and I go and double back and do some referencing.”

“No one should ever rely on their instinct. You’ve really got to drill down and uncover and back up your instinct,” Gorton says.

Beyond the interview

Interviews aside, it’s important to look to other sources to sure up candidate details.

Conduct a thorough reference check

Confirm a candidate’s skills and experience with nominated referees, checking dates of employment, companies worked for and assigned tasks. It can be worth asking challenging questions in a reference check to get the whole story.

The subject matter expert can drill down to confirm the candidate did what they claim to have done. They can also check the candidate’s salary and reason for leaving.

Treat social media with care

Sometimes, a profile could be a starting point for checking against a candidate’s resume. “You can say ‘that’s interesting. Your resume says that, but your profile says this. What’s the discrepancy and why?’” Gorton says.

But it’s worth exercising caution around using social media. Johnson warns our own unconscious biases and filters can make it easy to read too much into the information available on social media now. “I think it’s made things harder, rather than easier, in some cases,” she says.

Take your time

Proper planning and review time can also help to sort fact from fiction. The aim when hiring should be to get information that’s truthful and useful, Johnson says.

She says it can be easy for discussion go down a “rabbit hole” during an interview, so it’s important your questions work to measure key competencies the role requires. That doesn’t mean the interview should be a rigid question and answer format—it should be an open discussion—but well-planned interview questions will help you gain the most from it.

“Don’t skimp on the planning stages, and don’t just wing it,” Johnson says. “Really plan the interview out, and think about, ‘why am I asking this question?”

Then take time to weigh up all the information from the interview process and other sources, Johnson advises. “People can jump to conclusions really quickly based on the information that’s given to them,” she says. “I always say to slow down and collect the data, consider, and check before you conclude.”

Uncovering true and useful information is key to making a confident decision when you hire. Employing these strategies can help you create an open and transparent process that leads you to the person who’s truly right for the role.

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