It takes more than a reference check to weed out liars

By Pamela Babcock Mar 3, 2008

If you're back in the hiring mode, beware: A substantial number of job candidates fudge the truth on resumes and job applications. ADP Screening and Selection Services, a unit of the Roseland, N.J.-based ADP payroll and benefits managing company, says of the 2.6 million background checks it performed in 2001, 44 percent of applicants lied about their work histories, 41 percent lied about their education and 23 percent falsified credentials or licenses.

Whether it's competition for jobs, continuing problems with corporate ethics or some other reason, it appears more people are lying about their qualifications—and that spells trouble for managers who screen job candidates inadequately. "One bad hire can just wreck an organization and create a legal and financial nightmare for a company," says Lester S. Rosen, an attorney and president of Employment Screening Resources in Novato, Calif. At a minimum, hiring a liar can burden you with the extra costs of recruiting, hiring and training that employee's replacement.

So, how do you maximize your chances of weeding out applicants who lie? First, be aware that you're unlikely to detect lies through body language. Fidgeting, stuttering or avoiding eye contact could simply be symptoms of nervousness about the interview rather than indicators of intent to deceive.

"Most people cannot tell from demeanor whether someone is lying or telling the truth-but most people think they can," says Paul Ekman, author of 13 books, including Telling Lies (W.W. Norton, 2001). Over the years Ekman has tested about 6,000 people-among them college students, police officers, judges, lawyers, psychiatrists, and agents of the FBI, the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Administration-to determine if they can tell if someone is lying. He has found, he says, that "95 percent of them are close to chance—they'd do just as well flipping a coin."

Ekman's advice to managers: "Be cautious about your own judgments based on demeanor, and be cautious about people who claim that there are signs of lying that they can teach you quickly in this situation. The most important thing to know is you'd better not trust your intuition, because it's probably wrong."

Visual clues aside, if you suspect an applicant is lying, you can take further steps. First, compare what the person says with the information on resumes and applications. By asking pointed questions, you can make it harder for an applicant to construct a series of lies, says Phillip Maltin, an attorney specializing in employment and business litigation with K&R Law Group in Los Angeles.

"If you suspect someone is lying, never attack the big lie, but ask questions about the facts that surround it, focusing on details," Maltin says. Listen closely. If an applicant says "I supervised a staff of 100," or "I'm a turnaround artist who takes businesses from financial instability to financial success," ask for further details. Here are some other tips:

  • Ask a candidate to describe a work experience as it relates to a specific job skill you are trying to evaluate.
  • Take extensive notes, and follow up on inconsistencies or contradictions. Probe for details.
  • Tell the candidate you'll need to verify the information, and ask for contact names.
Kevin Wilson, an HR consultant with PeopleResources.Net, a recruiting firm in Boston, says behavioral and situational interviewing may be useful if you suspect exaggeration. "I might say, 'Tell me the story of your last PowerPoint presentation and how you got through the steps and how you did it,' " Wilson says. "Obviously, if they've done one, it's pretty easy for them to tell you how they did it, and you can make a judgment whether it's valid." Or if an applicant claims to have supervised employees, use situational interviewing by asking, "How would you handle an irate employee?"

Background and reference checks are other common procedures that can unveil lies, but it's important to go beyond the obvious. An applicant's claim to possess a degree from a particular university can be checked easily with a phone call to the school, of course, but checking employment references can be more difficult because most companies refuse to provide anything but the basics. That's why managers need to pursue other avenues, such as calling peers, former employers, former supervisors who are no longer with the company, advises Mary Cheddie, SPHR, vice president of human resources for the Orvis Co., a Manchester, Vt., mail order sporting goods firm. "I also listen a lot to the unspoken words. Like if I ask, 'Would you rehire this employee?' and the person says, 'Ahh, umm.' "

One of the most effective ways to avoid hiring a liar or to preserve the right to fire one is to use a standard application, experts say. An application can state that supplying false information is grounds for not being hired or for dismissal. Also, the information given-or the information gaps-on applications can suggest productive lines of questioning in interviews or can provide reasons to drop the applicant right away. Warning signs include neglecting to sign the application, which could shield the candidate from being accused of falsification or not consenting to background screening, says Rosen. Other signals include not answering questions in the criminal record section, failing to explain periods of unemployment or reasons for leaving previous jobs, and not providing enough information for reference checks.

Also, it's crucial to know the person's previous addresses because if you need to do a criminal record search on an applicant, you will have to do it at the courthouses serving the areas where the applicant has lived. There is no official national criminal database available to most private employers, leaving courthouse searches as your primary option. There are more than 10,000 courthouses across the country, and information on previous addresses can help you search effectively.

If an applicant appears to be lying, can managers simply drop the candidate and move on? A hiring decision based solely on a subjective impression that the person has lied—with no objective grounds or reasons offered to the applicant—may be hard for an employer to defend in a discriminatory-hiring suit, Rosen says. "Without any third-party verification" that the person was lying, he says, "it can be a tough legal position." But Cheddie, at Orvis, says that as long as businesses abide by nondiscrimination laws, they have the right to choose the best-qualified applicants. "The company is the one who holds the cards," she says. "It's our decision if we believe somebody's lying."

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.

Terms of Use: Advice for Supervisors from the Society for Human Resource Management © 2004 Society for Human Resource Management. Members of SHRM are authorized to distribute copies, excerpts or e-mails of this information for educational purposes internally within their organizations. No other republication or external use is allowed without permission of SHRM. The information is not intended to serve as a substitute for legal advice.

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