Separating truth from fiction: How to tell when a candidate is lying

Sometimes a candidate will stretch the truth to win themselves a job.

Needless to say, this is not the basis on which hiring managers want to engage new staff, so it is important that those involved in the recruitment process learn to spot when a candidate is lying.

Nicole Gorton, Sydney-based director of Robert Half, says there are three common lies told to recruiters: firstly, when candidates “upskill” themselves and suggest they have had experience in a particular area when in reality they were part of a team that was responsible for their work; secondly, when they increase the salary they say they were earning; and finally, when they aren’t truthful about their reasons for leaving their job.

Gorton shares four tips on how to tell if a candidate is lying:

Testing candidate skills

An effective way of testing whether a candidate has the skills and experience they claim is to have a subject matter expert take part in the interview and conduct what is known as ‘competency-based interviewing’.

“Effectively, what they’d be doing is asking the potential employee to evidence what they’ve done and how they’ve done it. The more that you ask for examples against those skills, very quickly, the person has the ability to answer or not,” says Gorton.

The subject matter expert can drill down into some very specific information, such as asking the candidate to describe the system and processes they used, what they did and how they did it and how they interacted with the team to carry out their role, and who did what within the team.

“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.

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

This can also have another benefit. Along with those candidates who exaggerate their skills and importance, there are also those who fail to offer up with skills and achievements, and close questioning can help reveal these. “You’d be amazed at how many times people downplay themselves,” says Gorton.

Reference checks

Along with confirming a candidate’s skills and experiences after a successful interview, reference checks can also play a role in the interview itself, says Gorton.

During the interview, it is worth asking the candidate: ‘What do you think your referees would say on this point?’

“It’s very transparent,” Gorton 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’.”

When it comes to conducting the actual reference check with the nominated references, the dates of employment, companies worked for and assigned tasks should all be checked.

When conducting a reference check, it is also important to ask challenging questions to find out the whole story. As they did 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 that the candidate did what they claim to have done.

They can also check on the candidate’s salary and their reason for leaving.

Social media profiles

Social media profiles are generally public, so there is nothing to stop hiring managers from looking at them.

In most cases involving employment, LinkedIn is a good starting point for checking that a candidate’s CV and their online profile align.

The recruiter can then check on anything that doesn’t match up. “You can say ‘that’s interesting. Your CV says that but your profile says this. What’s the discrepancy and why?’” Gorton says.

Experience & instinct

When a recruiter has been in the job for some time, their experience helps them become more efficient at asking the right questions and uncovering a potential candidate’s abilities, Gorton says.

But she cautions about relying too much on “instinct” when vetting a candidate.

For instance, if a recruiter is finding that what a candidate says in an interview doesn’t ring true, then it might be because they are not answering the questions in the 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.

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About the author

Christopher Niesche

Christopher Niesche is a finance and business specialist with two decades of journalism experience, including as deputy editor of the Australian Financial Review. Christopher started his career at The Australian, before becoming New Zealand bureau...

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