How To Tell If A Candidate Is Lying In An Interview

One of the biggest complaints about job interviews is that candidates can misrepresent themselves, which can lead to a bad hire. So how can you tell if a job candidate is lying during an interview? Spoiler: You can’t. Not really.

But the research reveals that there are some clues we can use to decide whether someone is telling us the truth.

how to tell if a candidate is lying

We’re bad at detecting lies

In a series of experiments, Professor Roulin and colleagues tested how well people were at detecting when someone was lying to them in an interview. Job interviewers were able to correctly detect when a job candidate was lying only 13-22% of the time. And prior experience didn’t help: university students with no interviewing experience had the same ability to detect lies as hiring managers with up to 10 years of interviewing experience.

And the experts don’t do much better. Professor Vrij reviewed 28 studies on police officers, police detectives, and parole officers and found that, on average, they correctly identified 56% of liars and 56% of truth tellers. That’s only 6% more accurate than the 50% detection rate expected by chance alone.

Body language cues that don’t reveal lying

One of the reasons why we’re so bad at detecting lies is because we use the wrong cues. The most common belief that liars act nervously is wrong because in high-stakes conditions – like a job interview – truth tellers also act nervously. Research conducted across 75 countries found that using cues of nervous behaviour to detect lying is completely unreliable including:

  • avoiding eye contact
  • fidgeting

Body language cues that might reveal lying

Professor DeSteno’s experiments on trustworthy body language found that a set of four cues, taken together, seems to indicate deception:

  • hand touching
  • face touching
  • arms crossing
  • leaning away

body language cues that indicate that someone is lying

Verbal cues that might indicate lying

In their review of the research on lie detection, Professor Vrij and colleagues found that there’s no single verbal cue (or nonverbal cue) that is uniquely related to lying. The few cues that were found to be correlated with lying include:

  • being vague/providing fewer details
  • contradicting yourself
  • being overly scripted and chronological

The personality trait that makes you better at detecting lies

A study by Carter and Weber found that, contrary to popular belief, interviewers high in trust were significantly better than those low in trust at detecting lies, and were less likely to hire those liars.

One theory is that by trusting others, we interact with them more often and consequently, have more opportunities to practice our skills in reading people, whereas being skeptical makes us avoid social interaction.

Should you try to detect lying in an interview?

The research tells us that trying to detect whether a job candidate is lying during an interview is difficult and probably not really worth the effort. A better use of your time is to make sure your interview is designed to best predict the candidate’s future job performance. This means:

  1. Increasing validity by asking questions related to the knowledge, skills, abilities, and characteristics required for the job.
  2. Increasing reliability by asking each job candidate the same questions in the same order.
  3. Reducing error and subjectivity by recording and scoring each candidate’s answers with a quantitative rating scale.
  4. Making an objective, data-based decision by using these ratings to compare job candidates.

The truth is that job interviews often fail not because the job candidate is deceptive, but because the interviewer isn’t conducting a proper interview in the first place.

How do you decide whether a candidate is telling you the truth during a job interview? Let me know in the comments or tweet @recruit_smarter.

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Ji-A Min

Ji-A Min

Head Data Scientist at Ideal
Ji-A Min is the Head Data Scientist at Ideal. With a Master’s in Industrial-Organizational Psychology, Ji-A promotes best practices in data-based recruitment. She writes about research and trends in talent acquisition, recruitment tech, and people analytics.
Ji-A Min