Why Interviews Are Not an Effective Means to Tell if a Job Applicant is Lying on their Resume or Job Application

Even if Diogenes had found an honest person, there is a body of modern evidence that suggests it is difficult for anyone, from ancient philosophers to modern day employers, to use an interview to determine who is really who. Employers have a distinct challenge when it comes to spotting liars; industry statistics suggest that as many as 30% of all job applicants falsify information about their credentials, but trying to spot liars at interviews is, well, difficult, if not impossible.

There are lists of so-called “tell-tale signs” that a person is lying . For example, employers might observe if a person is avoiding eye contact, fidgeting, or hesitating before answering. Unfortunately, it can be a costly mistake for an interviewer to think lying can always be detected by such visual clues by relying upon one’s own instinct or intuition, since some of the so-called “visual clues” can simply be a sign of nervousness about the interview, or stress, and not an intent to lie. In fact, accomplished liars are more dangerous because they can disguise themselves as truthful and sincere. An experienced liar will often show no visible signs.

The problem is further complicated because many people feel they can detect who is lying and who is not. Studies have demonstrated that most people are poor judges of when they are being told the truth and when they are being deceived. Paul Ekman , a psychology professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco , is the author of thirteen books, including Telling Lies. Ekman has tested about 6,000 people who are professionals trained to spot liars, including police officers, lawyers, judges, psychiatrists, and agents of the FBI, the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Administration, to determine if they can tell if someone is lying. According to his research, most people are not very accurate in judging if a person is lying. The average accuracy in studies is rarely above 60%, while chance is 50%. Even among professional lie catchers, the ability to detect liars is not much better than 50%. In one study, customs agents who interviewed people at customs stations did not do any better than college students.

Some interviewees tell lies they have ingrained in their life story. They have created identities and legends of their own and, when they tell their stories, they are not fabricating on the spot. They put “it” on their resumes and talk about it and tell their friends about it. It becomes part of their personalities and personal histories because they have told it so often. It becomes second nature as they retell it again and again.

Conversely, even if a hiring manager does have an inkling a person is lying at an interview, a hiring manager may squash that instinct as just a feeling and not act on it.

That does not mean that some liars cannot be detected at interview. Some firms offer a one-day course specifically designed around interviewing of applicants. However, for most people, it’s a flip of the coin.

Employers, HR and Security professionals should remember that as valuable as instinct may be, it does not substitute for factual verification of an applicant’s credentials through employment screening  background checks and other safe hiring techniques.