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Good eye contact is crucial in interview situations

How can you tell when a candidate is lying?

If you’ve worked in HR for more than a few weeks, chances are that you’ve encountered lies from candidates. Whether it’s a little lie about an ancient exam grade or a big lie about relevant experience, almost every candidate embellishes the truth at some point. I should know, I’ve interviewed my fair share of applicants and all I can say is that it is a goddamned minefield out there.

So, why is it that so many of them feel the need to be dishonest when they are trying to bag a job? Surely honesty is the best policy, right? Wrong. In fact, according to a CareerBuilder survey, as many as 58% of employers have said that they have discovered lies on a resume.

For recruiters and HR professionals, these stats provide something of a challenge. After all, dealing with the uncertainty of hiring a potentially unsuitable candidate is not straightforward. We like to work with logic and make selections based on accurate assessments and candidate criteria. So, when a lie throws all of those systems out of whack, it can cause something of a headache. The candidate proves themselves to be untrustworthy, dishonest, and deceitful and they haven’t even stepped foot in the office door yet.

In my view, there is only one question you need to ask potential candidates so that you can gauge their reliability and suitability for the role, but in case you decide to proceed with a full interview (more fool you), then here are some pointers on how to spot those sneaky little lies falling through the cracks.

candidate is lying

Body language is another giveaway when it comes to the interview

Ambiguity

A surefire giveaway of any lie is the inability to be specific on the details. As soon as a candidate becomes ambiguous or vague, red flags should be raised. When a qualified interviewee responds to a question, they will be fluent with specifics and details about their accomplishments, whereas someone who is being less than honest will find it very hard to fill the gaps in a convincing way.

Pronouns 

When asking about previous experiences, keep an ear out for the pronouns the candidate uses in response. An experienced candidate is far more likely to use first-person pronouns that demonstrate ownership of the experience and indicate that the event really happened. They will usually describe how they felt or how the experience impacted on them personally. However, someone who did not have the experience but is attempting to portray that they did is much more likely to use second- and third-person pronouns. This is likely to be because the use of this language absolves them of the responsibility of owning the experience.

Eyes

We all know that eyes are the windows to the soul, but this is especially true when it comes to telling lies. When a candidate cannot easily make eye contact or is making too much eye contact, they might just be telling a lie. Rather than trying to decipher a candidate’s eye movements by paying attention to which way they are looking and when instead watch out for sudden deviations in their eye movements that could alert you to a falsehood. It is worth remembering, however, that this technique is not going to turn you into a foolproof human lie detector, but it is good to have a grasp of the basics so that you can identify when you need to probe with trickier questions. You will come up against candidates who are extremely well-practiced at a poker face, and while there are a few situations when this skill comes in handy it is never a good sign if a candidate is using it during their interview. If you spot any red flags, start asking those difficult questions, fast.

Body

The pressure of an interview situation means that body language can be a tricky way of determining a lie. Often people can fidget and squirm in stressful situations without even realizing they are doing it. Watch out for sudden changes in fidgeting, such as going from still to fidgety or fidgety to still. Also, pay attention to the feet. Lots of shuffling can indicate that the candidate subconsciously wants to run away. Lip biting, hand-wringing, face touching, and head movements are all signs that you need to probe further.

Remember, the most important factor in determining a lie is usually your intuition. Use the indicators above as a guide, but always go with your gut instinct if you feel something is right or wrong. Good luck!

One Response to How to Tell When a Candidate is Lying
  1. Martin H Snyder

    I hate to be a negative, argumentative commenter (not really!) but what you posted is pseudoscience, and possibly some pretty bad advice.

    I’d ask you to dig in a little more on the real science behind each item.

    As to memory: it’s a complex process entwined with emotional encoding, and people actually do forget tons of details, of even important events. Indeed, crisp interlocking detail without any ambiguity can be a tell of deceit. When forensic accounts find no mistakes in the numbers, they become more suspicious.

    As to language and pronouns, this can be a cultural or idiosyncratic thing and there is no known relationship between a particular syntax/grammar and deception. A sudden switch in overall syntax (e.g. becoming more formal or more casual) can indicate an emotional state change, but that may not be indicating deception. You see that often when people being interviewed on TV are trying to sound “official”.

    As to body language? Totally unreliable. In fact, good liars are masters of fake body language, because it’s easy to fool our mental heuristics, which brings me to:

    Your intuition. You suggest to use the indicators above as a guide, but to always go with your gut instinct if you feel something is right or wrong.

    This is disastrous in a great number of instances. Intuition is not only random and personal, it’s incredibly easy to manipulate. Obviously going against your intuition can be uncomfortable, and “intuition” can be teased into something more concrete with a structured inquiry.

    Instead, just don’t be in a position to be damaged by lies. Don’t proceed on trust except, when you absolutely have no choice. If you can’t independently verify what someone is telling you, or at least surface some corroborating evidence, then don’t depend on the representation. If you can’t simulate the job, be prepared for variability in performance.

    As to your one killer interview question? It’s a good one. It can be more broadly stated as:

    “When people tell you who they are, it’s usually best to believe them”.

    www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/spycatcher/201203/the-truth-about-lie-detection