Most employers don't expect job candidates to lie in an interview. After all, in this day and age, when it's so easy to do a background check, why would anyone take a chance and lie about something you can confirm with a few mouse clicks?
Still, you have to expect it. "It’s naive to think that all job candidates are going to be truthful," says Cathleen Faerber, managing director of The Wellesley Group Inc., an executive search firm.
Richard Brenner, owner of Chaco Canyon Consulting, an organizational and employee performance consulting firm, agrees: "Technically, an exaggeration is a lie, but most people don't see it that way, so most people exaggerate." But it's not the exaggerations you need to be concerned about. According to Brenner, you don't need to figure out the "exact truth." As he explains, "All you need is a handle on the extent of the exaggeration."
So while some lies may be little more than white lies, it's the ones that are more blatant that can end up causing future problems. Kirk Johnson, managing director of Kirk Johnson Executive Search, says, "I've had job candidates customize a resume with fictitious employers ... and candidates who claimed they were still employed by their most recent employer when, in fact, they were let go months ago."
If you can't believe everything you're told during an interview, how can you tell if a prospective employee is flat-out lying? Try the following four tips for catching candidates in an out-and-out lie.
1. Verify What You're Told
You may not feel you have time to verify everything, but you should spot-check as much information as you can, especially the closer you get to feeling that this is a great hire and you're going to extend an offer.
Barry Maher, owner of motivational speaking firm Barry Maher & Associates, has consulted on "far too many hires to take anything at face value," he says. Maher has a handy tip for catching inconsistencies on a resume: "I always tell the candidate that I'll be checking them out myself with a fine-tooth comb," he explains. "Then I ask in a completely neutral, non-accusatory voice, 'Is there anything I might uncover that's different from what's on your resume that you might want to explain now?' It's astonishing what people will tell you then."
But Maher says you'll find out even more interesting facts when you start making phone calls. "Some candidates fudge their references by substituting the name of a company friend for that of their immediate superior," Maher explains. "Call to check the reference, and the friend will tell you the candidate is a cross between Jack Welch and Mother Teresa. That's when the fun begins, especially if the candidate wasn't smart enough to send the friend a copy of their resume."
That's when Maher digs deeper to confirm the information the candidate supplied on the resume. At that point, he'll look at the resume, such as the line showing that the employee made $70,000 a year when he worked at the company he's speaking with. Then he'll ask something like, "So, can you verify that the candidate made $125,000 during their last full year there?"
"It was right around there," the friend will often say, thinking he's being cagey. "Maybe a few dollars more, a few dollars less, but that's in the ballpark."
2. If Something Looks or Sounds Off, Probe Deeper
If a red flag goes up as you're reviewing a candidate's resume or during the job interview, don't ignore your gut feelings—dig a little deeper to get the answers you need. And don't feel bad questioning the truthfulness of what a job candidate may be telling you: As their potential employer, it's your right to know what the facts are, after all.
Paul Millard, who owns the technology and engineering executive search company The Millard Group, recalls interviewing one candidate who looked great on paper except for the three-year gap on his resume. When Millard asked about it, he says, "The candidate was a bit too ready to explain this gap in almost too much detail."
Millard's radar went off, and he later Googled the person. "Lo and behold, there was some jail time served during this gap," Millard says. "On to the next candidate."
While that may sound cruel to an entrepreneur who likes the idea of giving people a second chance—after all, they might think you'd never hire them if you knew the truth—it could also be a neon sign of shoddy character, and this ex-jailbird could have shown some if he'd simply told the truth.
In any case, what you never want to do is dismiss a blatant lie if you discover one. Dennis O'Neill, who runs an eponymous executive coaching and assessment firm, remembers one candidate who was vying for a finance position and was just two credits shy of having an MBA. On his resume, however, the wording used to describe his academic achievements was awkward, and it gave O'Neill the sense that he might not have it.
So he asked the candidate about the wording and emphasized that the job didn't require an MBA. The candidate was emphatic, however, that he had one. Unfortunately, when O'Neill looked into it, he discovered that he didn't.
"Had he just stated that he was two courses shy of his degree, not only would he have gotten the job, but the company would have paid for the two outstanding courses," O'Neill says. But nobody wanted to take a chance with someone who was willing to offer up an outright lie.
3. Test the Candidate
If you suspect an interviewee doesn't really have the necessary job skills despite what's on their LinkedIn profile, give your candidate a pop quiz. If you don't have enough experience to decipher the readings on the BS meter—maybe you need somebody who can create source code, and all that jargon is Greek to you—have someone more knowledgeable speak with your interviewee.
"Ask about their experience, [as well as] the details of certain situations—how they handled it, why they handled it that way and what was the outcome," suggests Steven Raz, co-founder of Cornerstone Search Group LLC, a life sciences executive search firm. "By getting into this level of detail, and [especially] if you have a functional expert interviewing the person, you should be in good shape."
Frank Green, president of ExecuSource, a staffing firm that specializes in accounting, finance and IT, agrees that you need to drill down to see if you've struck oil (or found a rock). "The easiest way to discover if a candidate is lying is to simply get into the nitty-gritty mechanics of it all," Greens says. "Through the course of the conversation, push the candidate to explain how a specific project in which they claim to have been the head coordinator actually worked."
If you've decided you need to dig deeper, don't be mean or relentless. After all, plenty of job applicants presumably aren't lying, and you don't want to turn off a terrific hire because you've become paranoid that everyone's lying to you. But you should ask questions until you're satisfied with the answers. "Dishonest people aren't consistent," Faerber offers. "I'll go back to clarify information and ask the same question but with a different twist."
Charles Mitchell, who co-owns the recruiting and hiring firm All About People with his wife, Sherri, emphasizes the importance of follow-up questions or asking for an example when someone tells you how great they are at a certain skill. "If the candidate stumbles through the example, you can assume there are holes in their story," Mitchell says. "We also often ask a candidate to walk us through the daily tasks of their previous job to get a better sense of the depth of their knowledge in a particular area or function."
And if you do catch someone in a lie? What you decide to do at that point is really dependent on your own comfort level. For instance, you may want to point out the fib to see what they say. As Faerber notes, "I never let it slide. I ask for clarification and probe for the truth ... It's important for people to understand that lies or embellishments aren't acceptable."
But it's also perfectly acceptable to make some polite chitchat as you show them the door. Let the fact that you didn't offer them the position do the talking for you.
Just be careful if you decide the lie (or lies) aren't important and you make a job offer, anyway. If you do, and something detrimental happens later with that employee, you'll be sure to look back at this decision as one of your less-than-finer moments. After all, you may be a softie, but you should never take a lie lying down.
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