How To Tell If A Job Candidate Is Lying In The Interview
This article originally appeared on Forbes by Mark Murphy, Founder of Leadership IQ
Do you ever find yourself suspicious that an applicant is lying during a job interview, but you’re not sure how to uncover the truth without resorting to over-the-top interrogation techniques? The science of textual analysis tells us that truth-tellers actually speak differently than truth-stretchers, and you can apply that data to make better hiring decisions.
In a research study called “Words That Cost You The Job Interview” we discovered that interview answers rated poorly by hiring managers contain very different language than interview answers rated highly.
Vague responses, where the candidate responds to questions by speaking in generalities rather than specifics, is one of the biggest linguistical tips offs that someone may not be telling the truth.
During interviews, candidates are typically asked about situational experiences and they are expected to respond by telling about ‘a time when.” Qualified high performers are stacked with detailed stories about their great accomplishments and are eager to share those stories. They have no reason to lie, and this is apparent in the specific nature of their words.
Consider, for example, this candidate’s response to the interview question ‘Could you tell me about a time you worked as part of a team?’
I was asked to help develop a professional services model with a team of my peers. Each of us provided our thoughts and ideas and shared our professional experience. I remember how we were all huddled in a room with a big whiteboard walking through the exercise step-by-step. I went home that day thinking how much fun it was to work with great people in a dynamic, free-flowing, brainstorming way. I felt really lucky to be part of a team where we all applied experience from our past, respected each other, and stayed on task until our deadline was met.”
This response is full of specifics including how the candidate thought and felt and how the team interacted with each other. The memory of huddling around the whiteboard sounds like an impromptu detail (as opposed to pre-rehearsed) lending even more credibility to the response.
We also hear the use of first-person pronouns (I, me, my) that reveal personal ownership (even when talking about teamwork). Collectively, these specifics are strong indicators that this person lived this experience and is telling the truth.
On the flip side, a candidate who lacks any situational experience working on teams but wants to lie about it, or who is trying to hide an unsavory truth about teamwork abilities, has no real-life story to roll out. This person will have to construct a story, and the cognitive strain of this often reveals itself in a lack of complexity, where explanations about events (that didn’t happen) sound unrealistically straightforward or vague.
Liars will often try to compensate for this by throwing in a few qualifiers to amp up their story. In addition to truncating their speech, people looking to omit or hide something (like a bad attitude) tend to use second and third person pronouns which give them psychological distance from their lies.
Here’s an example of what a less than truthful response sounds like:
There was a really great team at my last job, they were really smart people. We met all the time and we were always coming up with lots of great ideas that could have short and long-term impact.”
We hear no specifics that link the candidate with having lived this experience. We do hear second person pronouns, qualifiers (‘really great’ ‘really smart’ ‘all the time’ and ‘always coming up with)’ and hypothetical language (‘could have’), all of which are strong indicators that this response is more fiction than fact.
Let’s take a look at another suspicious response, this time in response to the question ‘Could you tell me about a time you faced competing priorities?’
This happened daily at my last job. Usually our leaders would very clearly communicate the priority, but in the absence of that, the thing to do would probably be to default back to overall goals outlined previously by leadership or prioritize actions based on the near term or long-term ROI to the company.”
If this situation truly happened daily, then surely there are specifics to share about a ‘time when’ as the question demands. Note the use of ‘would’ and ‘probably that introduce a hypothetical instead of actual response to the situation, and the lack of first person pronouns. There are no details here that tell us “this is what happened to me and what I did about it.”
Now, could it just be interview jitters rendering these candidates taciturn, and couldn’t we maybe draw out some specifics with a bit of probing? Yes, possibly, but the first probe I would use would be silence. I’d let this person’s response sit and I’d slowly and silently count to three. And if the candidate didn’t start speaking by the time I got to three, I’d count to three all over again, all while wearing a calm and neutral expression on my face.
Probing with silence can be painful to do, but it’s going to be twice as painful for your candidate. So painful that they will start talking, and the words that they choose to use will be entirely their own, which will allow you to continue your scientific textual study.
The problem with verbal prompts is that they often lead candidates to give a more truthful sounding response (e.g. ‘Tell me what it felt like to be part of that team?’ or “Tell me what you did next?’). This is when candidates say to themselves “Whew! I didn’t have to keep talking and they just told me what I’m supposed to say so now I don’t have to give that next layer of information that might reveal I’m telling a lie.” Using silence to force the candidate to keep talking is a simple technique that really works.
As we know from our Hiring For Attitude research, 89% of hiring failures come from attitude rather than from technical skills. And where does attitude manifest itself in a job interview? In the language that candidates use. So stay silent, listen to candidates, and if you’re not getting sufficiently specific answers, you may very well have a liar (or at least a withholder) on your hands.