Too good to be true: How to tell when a candidate is lying
Sometimes a candidate will stretch the truth to land a job. Needless to say, this isn’t the basis on which you want to engage new staff—so it’s important those involved in the hiring process learn to spot deception.

We asked a recruitment director and a deception expert for their advice on 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

Nicole Gorton, Sydney-based director of 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, and their reasons for leaving a job.

Elly Johnson is a former police officer and a truth and deception expert who works with businesses on better approaches to interviewing. She points to SEEK research that found 59% of Australians don’t think it’s acceptable to lie in an interview—which still leaves more than two in five who would lie. Johnson says she’s found over the years some people even feel they have to lie in interviews.

“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 brand or organisation the truth isn’t found, and they are hired. “It’s that small percentage of people that we need to be aware they do lie, 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 do get it wrong. We misread behaviour; we miss things that are right in front of us.” But there are strategies to help you improve your ability to separate truth from fiction.

In the interview

The interview is a key step in 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 be an effective way to test whether a candidate has the skills and experience they claim to, Gorton says. It involves having a subject matter expert take part in the interview to find out in more detail from the candidate what they’ve achieved in a particular 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 and how they interacted with a team to carry out their role. “If you’ve got a subject matter expert interviewing them, if they ask enough questions around the skill, they will uncover how much that candidate was responsible for their job function, effectively,” Gorton says.

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

As well as uncovering exaggeration, this approach can work in the opposite way, by revealing the 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 so much always about spotting deception—it’s also about creating a truth-telling environment,” she says. “If you’re already lying to me, we’re already down that path. It’s hard to backtrack.”

The aim should be to lay down the groundwork for truth from the start, Johnson says. One way to do this is by “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 particular challenges in your organisation, not just the great things about it. Be authentic and genuine in the way you talk about the role and the business from the start, she advises.

Johnson says another way to encourage open, honest discussion in the interview is by asking the candidate if there’s anything from their application they’d like to add, change or correct. “Give people some wriggle room,” she says.

Gorton says it can also help to acknowledge references during the interview, by asking the candidate what their referees might say on a certain point. “It’s very transparent,” she says. “They’re all of a sudden thinking, ‘Okay, you’re going to talk to my referees. I’m going to be completely honest because it’s going to come undone anyway.’”

Don’t rely on instinct

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

For example, if a recruiter is finding what a candidate says in an interview doesn’t ring true, it could be because they are not answering questions in a way the interviewer expected. The interviewer needs to be objective at this point, Gorton says. They might think to themselves: “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

It’s important to look to other sources to sure up candidate details outside of the interview process.

Conduct a thorough reference check

Confirming a candidate’s skills and experience with nominated referees is an essential step after interviewing. Dates of employment, companies worked for and assigned tasks should all be checked.

It’s also important with any reference check to ask challenging questions to find out the whole story. As in the interview, the subject matter expert—be that the HR person or the hiring manager—can drill down in the reference check to confirm the candidate did what they claim to have done. They can also check on the candidate’s salary and their reason for leaving.

Treat social media with care

Social media profiles are generally public, so there’s nothing to stop hiring managers from looking at them. Sometimes, a profile could be a starting point for checking against a candidate’s resume. The recruiter can then follow up on anything that doesn’t match up. “You can say ‘that’s interesting. Your resume says that, but your profile says this. What’s the discrepancy and why?’” Gorton says.

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

Take your time

Ensuring there’s 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 to let discussion lead you 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 has to take a rigid question and answer format—it should still be an open, two-way discussion—but having well-planned questions to come back to will help you gain the most from the interview and get to the truth.

“Don’t skimp on the planning stages, and don’t wing it,” Johnson says. “Really plan the interview out, and think about, ‘why am I asking this question?’ If you can’t tell me why you’re asking that question, what you’re actually measuring, then that question probably shouldn’t be in there.”

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.”