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How to tell if a job candidate is lying

Bad news: Candidates regularly lie. Good news: There are ways to tell.

How to tell if a job candidate is lying
[Photo: DadoPhotos/iStock]

We all want to stand out during a job search, but for some that can mean fudging the truth. According to the Employment Screening Benchmark Report by HireRight, an employment background-check provider, candidates regularly fabricate parts of their résumés. In 2012, 66% of employers had uncovered a lie or misrepresentation on a résumé, and in 2018 that number grew to 84% of employers.

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Falsification of information on a résumé or application is usually grounds for rejection or termination and most savvy candidates are careful about what they record, says Diane Arthur, president of Arthur Associates Management Consultants, Ltd., a human resources development firm, and author of Recruiting, Interviewing, Selecting & Orienting New Employees.

“Verbal lies, on the other hand, can be less consequential and harder to pin down,” she says. “They are, therefore, more commonplace. It’s up to interviewers to be thorough in their questioning and focus on seeking the truth.”

Candidates generally lie for one of three reasons, says Arthur:

  • To enhance what they believe to be insufficient skills, knowledge, or experience
  • To cover up something in their employment history they feel could jeopardize their chances of being hired, such as being fired from a previous job
  • To attempt to outshine their competition

To identify a candidate who may be lying, hiring managers should watch for two tells.

Notice body language

Accurately interpreting body language can be tricky, says Arthur. “Experts assert that there are seven universal emotions: anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise,” she says. “Those emotions are expressed through facial expressions, gestures, and body movements. But here’s where it gets interesting: Each of us expresses these universal emotions in a way that is unique, making it difficult to absolutely interpret what we see.”

Instead, watch for microexpressions. “These are brief, involuntary facial expressions that are evident even when a person is trying to conceal the seven universal emotions,” says Arthur.

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Microexpressions are based on the work of physiologist Dr. Paul Ekman, explains Arthur. “It is believed that these mini bursts of emotional expressions can occur as fast as 1/125th of a second—faster than the blink of an eye—and cannot be repressed,” she says. “When these emotional sparks are briefly revealed, we cannot always tell exactly what emotion is being expressed, only that something is not right—an imbalance of sorts between verbal and nonverbal, worthy of further exploration.”

Microexpressions include increased blinking, an exaggerated and broad smile, unusually high or low levels of eye contract, and longer than ordinary pauses before speaking.

“The fear of being caught in a lie could additionally be revealed through eyebrows drawn together or slightly flared nostrils,” says Arthur. “Beware of jumping to conclusions, however. Use the microexpressions as a sign that you need to probe further.”

Pay attention to speech patterns

A candidate’s answers to your questions may also provide hints that he or she is lying.

“Absolute terms such as ‘never’ or ‘always’ are potentially concerning, as is a variation of the phrase, ‘to be perfectly honest’ or ‘believe me,'” says Arthur. “‘The way I remember it is’ can also be a red flag that something is not true.”

Arthur is also wary of candidates who focus on minutia and those who steer clear of important information. “Then there as those who use sweeping generalizations, such as, ‘things didn’t work out quite the way we’d hoped,'” she says. “While none of these are absolute telltale signs of lying, the topics they are responding to should be pursued.”

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What to do if you suspect someone is lying

If you suspect a candidate isn’t telling the truth, ask additional questions or seek clarification about previous answers. Megan Moran, senior human resource specialist at HR service provider Insperity, suggests asking questions twice. “Managers should prepare a list of questions that focus on areas of a candidate’s résumé that appear unclear,” she says. “During the interview, rephrase and repeat the questions to reveal more detail.”

Asking competency-based questions or posing competency statements is an interviewer’s best bet, says Arthur. “These questions and statements require specific examples supporting the candidate’s answers,” she says. For example, “Tell me about a specific time when you worked as a member of disparate team. How did you resolve any differences that arose?”

“Making up answers to questions requiring detailed responses is, of course, doable; however, it becomes increasingly difficult to sustain when asked to repeatedly supply concrete examples,” says Arthur. “At some point, a candidate who lies is likely to start revealing conflicting body language and contradicting previous statements. Simply stated, it’s harder to sustain a lie than to tell the truth.”

Look for inconsistencies across their résumé and LinkedIn profile, says Dana Goren, chief customer officer and vice president of human resources at Hibob, a people management platform. “Most people are connected with previous colleagues on LinkedIn, and are therefore unlikely to put false information on their public page,” she says. “Consider looking at the start and end dates for previous roles in both places to make sure they match up.”

And bring another interviewer into the process to get a fresh perspective, says Goren. “Don’t share your suspicions to avoid bias and ask them strategically what they think of the interviewee,” she says. “If you have to engage in this step, your gut is probably telling you that something fishy is going on.”

Trust your instincts, says Goren. “If you end up hiring someone who isn’t trustworthy, it will affect your subconscious and your relationship with them during their tenure,” she says.

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