For most recruiters, taking candidates at face value is second nature. With multiple, urgent roles to fill, tons of resumes to go through, and dozens of interviews to schedule, you don’t always have the time to dig into a candidate’s background as thoroughly as you would like. Most of the time, this isn’t a problem–the majority of candidates are honest, upstanding people just trying to find the right opportunity.
But every once in a while, you will find a bad actor who chooses to exaggerate or even flat-out lie about their experience in order to get the job they want. If hired, the consequences can be disastrous. Replacing an employee–even if they’ve only been there for a short amount of time–is time-consuming, expensive, and tedious.
So the next time you have an interview with a candidate that seems too good to be true, make it a priority to check for these signs that a candidate is lying or exaggerating.
1. Their answers are vague or unrelated
We’ve all encountered it before: You ask a candidate a thoughtful, multifaceted question, and they respond with an irrelevant or imprecise answer. This isn’t just a sign that a candidate didn’t sufficiently prepare for the interview–it could also indicate that they’re not telling the whole truth.
“Vague and incomplete responses to questions are a warning sign of embellishment or otherwise falsified accounts of a candidate’s responsibilities,” says Tammy Cohen, founder and chief visionary officer of background screening company InfoMart. “An applicant failing to use common industry jargon or who doesn’t cite processes, metrics, or team members’ roles may also be exaggerating the scope of their work.”
When faced with this situation, recruiters should push candidates to elaborate to determine whether they’re exaggerating their credentials or just nervous.
“The interviewer should look to remain silent if the candidate has provided a vague or limited response, in order to encourage the candidate to expand. Although it may initially be awkward for both parties, this method is more likely to generate a much more individual response than spoon-feeding the candidate with further questions,” says Lars Herrem, group executive director at recruitment agency Nigel Wright Group.
Herrem also suggests “repeating a question, be it immediately after the candidate’s response or later in the interview, [to] highlight whether a candidate is being consistent, and therefore honest, with their answers.”
2. Their body language gives them away
You may have seen “human lie detectors” on TV shows and in movies who are instantly able to tell whether or not someone is lying just by observing them. But the truth is, you don’t need to be FBI-trained to spot signs a candidate is lying.
“Constant fidgeting, darting eyes, or complete avoidance of eye contact during important questions can mean an applicant is unsure of their answers,” Cohen explains.
Keep in mind, though, that these could also simply be signs that a candidate is nervous, so context matters. There’s a big difference between a candidate who bounces their knee every once in a while during lulls in the conversation and a candidate who goes on and on about grandiose achievements while refusing to meet your gaze.
3. They lean too heavily on group accomplishments
It’s true that collaboration is essential in the modern workplace, but beware the candidate who only talks about their accomplishments as part of a group–it could suggest that they’re not as individually adept as you might want them to be.
“Personal pronouns like ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘my’ are reflective of firsthand experiences, rather than the use of ‘they’ and ‘we,’ which suggests the candidate is borrowing examples from other sources or people,” Herrem says.
Don’t let impressive-sounding team achievements sway your opinion without digging deeper.
“If they mention a group project, then ask them what their specific role was, or ask them to tell you about something they did on their own,” says Executive Resume Writer Donna Svei.
4. They get defensive
Every once in a while, a candidate will give you a hard time if you ask probing questions into their backgrounds. According to Susan Hosage, senior consultant and executive coach at OneSource HR Solutions, this is one of the telltale signs a candidate is lying.
“Despite the submission of resumes and cover letters detailing their extensive experience, I had two candidates who specifically had memorable issues during the interview. I had one candidate angrily say, ‘I don’t know who created these questions?’ To which I replied, ‘That would be me.’ The candidate abruptly changed his attitude, but unfortunately, didn’t do any better responding to the remaining ones,” Hosage shares. “I had another candidate who ended his panel interview by saying, ‘Now, I want to ask you a bunch of questions you can’t answer.’ Needless to say, he left a big impression on the panel–but it was a bad one!”
It won’t always be as clear cut as these examples, but if a candidate you’re interviewing appears to deflect a probing question or dismiss your concerns, you may have a fibber on your hands.
5. Their skills don’t pass the sniff test
One of the most common things candidates lie about or exaggerate is their experience with a given skill. Fortunately, there are relatively easy ways to assess their competence.
“Candidates tend to exaggerate about their software skills. An example would be someone who says ‘Excel power user’ on their resume. I found the best way to separate the truth tellers from the boasters was to ask this simple interview question: ‘Tell me about the most complex thing you’ve ever done with Excel,'” Svei says.
Another simple way to gauge a candidate’s proficiency in a given area is through an assignment or exam.
“You can see flamboyant details in the resume, but when you assess the skills with a questionnaire or test, it’s all spoof,” says Ketan Kapoor, CEO and cofounder of HR technology company Mettl. “Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that someone who has fared so [well] on the resume can flunk an assessment. But if it happens, think before you take your chances.”