When interviewing potential employees, have you found yourself questioning the trustworthiness of their responses? Do they really have the experience they claim? Can they actually perform well under pressure? According to Weiss and Feldman from the University of Massachusetts, over 80% of individuals lie at least once while being interviewed for a new position—especially when it comes to technical skills. In this article, we take a deep dive into why people lie during interviews, what circumstances push candidates to lie, and how we can prevent uninformative and fabricated interviews.
Why people lie
On January 10, 2021, the Wall Street Journal published an article about why people lie in job interviews. The article was largely based on the findings from “The Influence of Competition on Motivation to Fake in Employment Interviews” from (Ho, Powell, Barclay, & Gill, 2019). In the article, researchers proposed that individuals are believed to lie during interviews for the sake of “Impression Management.” In other words, interviewees frame what they say in such a manner that helps them win an offer. At Arete Coach, we wondered if there was more insight for employers that could be obtained by mining the academic research and experience from industry practitioners.
Impression management & reinforcement
Impression management is the modification of behavior for the sake of reward. In the interviewing process specifically, the long-term reward is a potential job offer, whereas; the short-term reward is to appear well-equipped, likable, and employable. Because people want to be seen as successful, talented, and skilled, individuals will often change their behavior during interviews to achieve these goals and avoid the negative consequence of not receiving a job offer.
According to the psychological principles of behaviorism, people learn behaviors for the sake of rewards called, “reinforcements.” Behaviorism also states that people learn best with immediate reinforcement or immediate negative consequences. “Being entirely truthful is not in the applicants’ best interests” because it is perceived to have negative consequences for their long-term goal of obtaining a job offer (Ho et al., 2019). This desire to lie and sugar-coat experiences is only reinforced by the potential increase in the likelihood of a job offer. Lying during interviews also has no immediate negative consequence.
Since interviewers can rarely tell the difference between fact and fiction in a thirty-minute conversation, there are little-to-no immediate consequences for lying. However, in many cases of deception, there is an immediate reward such as verbal praise or even an offer. As mentioned earlier, principles of behavioral psychology indicate that the quicker the consequence, the better the learning. Therefore, since there are no immediate negative consequences for lies in interviews, it is likely that lying behaviors will continue amongst candidates unless methodology is changed. With little to no immediate negative consequences for lying in interviews and the push of impression management, it isn’t surprising that most candidates fabricate their responses.
As one could assume, personality is believed by some to play a distinct role in the number of lies told (Weiss & Feldman, 2006). In an article from Psychology Today, research has shown that individuals high in manipulative behaviors, low in self-esteem, conscientiousness, or openness tend to lie more (Hart, 2019). However, without the ability to accurately and empirically analyze personalities, we have to focus on how to monitor impression management and what behaviors we reinforce in our interview processes to avoid potential discrimination of specific personalities.
Factors that influence an applicant’s willingness to lie
If we can infer that people lie because of impression management and experienced reinforcement, can we identify potential conditions that encourage lying? Understanding what influences a candidate’s willingness to lie was the main objective of the research done by Ho et al.
They hypothesized that an applicant’s willingness to lie was dependent on two factors: the ratio of those hired versus applied and the total amount of applicants. Ho et al. conducted their research using undergraduate psychology and business students from a Canadian university. 1,294 students were given surveys about their willingness to cheat and feel competitive towards other applicants and 775 cases were approved for use after questionnaires that were incomplete or failed the attention check were removed.
Students were given one randomly selected questionnaire from four different variations as follows:
Few competitors and a low ratio of hired applicants
Few competitors and a high ratio of hired applicants
Many competitors and a low ratio of hired applicants
Many competitors and a high ratio of hired applicants
The results of their research supported the hypothesis that competition increased among a small number of applicants, specifically when there is a low ratio of hired applicants. This can be explained by a phenomenon called the “N-effect” (Garcia, Tor, & Schiff, 2013). This sociological phenomenon relates to the amount of competition an individual perceives. The more competition a candidate perceives, the less likely they are to engage in comparing themselves to their fellow applicants. This means that if an individual sees a small number of applicants, they are more likely to compare themselves to what they believe the other applicants’ credentials are and they may exaggerate their own skills when compared to a small pool of candidates.
This can lead candidates to adopting the impression management concept, and lying to get ahead or win the position. However, once the individual perceives a large number of applicants, their desire for comparison dissipates. They have no desire to compare themselves to the other applicants because the possibility of being hired seems highly unlikely and not worth the effort of competing. Applicants essentially lose their sense of optimism and drive for competition in the face of a large number of competitors, especially when few applicants will be hired. Applicants want to win and land a job of their choice, but will still avoid unnecessary effort when the likelihood of a job offer decreases.
How do we avoid candidate deception?
With this research in mind, we have the opportunity to strategically look at how we conduct our interviews and current procedures. Are we creating an atmosphere of competition amongst a large or small population? How might our interviewers be encouraging lies? What are some situational clues that an individual is lying? Here we propose three potential methods of reducing deception in interviews.
Increase the number of applicants
According to research done by Ho et al., when individuals perceive a small number of applicants, they are more likely to lie to land the position. Because of this, we can conclude that it’s beneficial to the employer to either not disclose the number of applicants or accept more applications for positions overall. Avoiding the perception of a small competitive job applicant market is the best way for employers to avoid deception in interviews. Consider telling them that you have X number of applicants in the pool and you are pleased they have been up-selected to the next stage.
Train interviewers in lie detection strategies
As previously stated, interviewers can rarely tell when an applicant is lying during an interview. Because of this, it is important to learn potential cues that could indicate applicant deception. Adela Belin states in an article from Talent Acquisition Excellence Essentials that there are 5 main signals interviewers need to be aware of when interviewing potential candidates (2019). These five main signals include fidgeting, lack of eye contact, changes in tone, inconsistent responses, and the inability to justify their resume (Belin, 2019). When a candidate is presenting these signs it is important to remember that they are not fail-proof assurances that deception is taking place. Candidates might be anxious or intimidated by the interviewing process, so it is important to always check the validity of their claims using explicitly qualitative data if you sense that they are lying.
Ask probing past-based questions
From ePraxis’ Executive Search practice, their recruiters recommend asking candidates past-based questions particularly in the early phases of candidate selection to weed out those who can actually do the work with the pretenders. Sometimes called behavioral questions, past-based questions are helpful to ferret out those who have learned the jargon of an industry, from those who have actually performed work in an industry. Examples of past based questions include:
Please share from your past experience your greatest innovation in your role as X?
How did you come up with the idea; were there others involved in creation of the idea?
How did you implement your innovation?
What was the monetary value of the innovation to your company?
Importantly, were you ever able to do this again or was it a one-time innovation?
Note, repeatable success is valued far higher than an accidental or luck-based one-time win. For example in sales, we might ask, what was your largest sale to date? And what was your next largest sale?
Also from ePraxis another behavioral question example may include:
Tell us about your most colossal failure in business?
Tell us what it was, how did it occur, how did you resolve the issue, what did it cost?
What did you learn from this failure?
Has it ever happened again?
Getting specific with questions in an interview can help one ferret out the truthfulness of the story, and whether they learn from failures. In ePraxis’ Executive Search practice, research has shown that 30% of executive candidates say they have never had a colossal failure: and in this, the candidates either deny failure of any kind (a sign of extreme hubris and self-blindedness), or they have failed to risk trying at all, like someone who says they’ve fallen while skiing and you find out they never left the bunny slope for fear of falling on the mountain. A lack of trying due to fear of failing, is still failing.
What does it all mean?
Lying happens during job interviews for reasons such as impression management, positive reinforcement, and personality differences. By understanding how applicants perceive the potential job market and experience the interviewing process, employers can manipulate interviews to decrease the likelihood of applicants lying.
Applying these insights to practice
With current research in mind, interviewers and employers are encouraged to monitor the competitive perception of their job application processes. They can do this by accepting more applications for jobs or keeping the number of applicants for the position private and unknown to applicants. This reduces the chances that applicants will lie during interviews for an increased competitive edge. Interviewers are also encouraged to train their lie detection skills. By noticing indicators of an applicant lying, interviewers can revisit and check the validity of the specific applicant’s claims.
In order to create interviews that support honest answers from candidates, employers are encouraged to increase the number of job applications and disclose the number in the pool. From the research above, the more competition an individual perceives (and the larger the pool), the less likely it is they will engage in comparison between themselves and their fellow applicants.
Employers are also encouraged to ask more past-based questions (as opposed to hypothetical questions about the future), and explore more deeply the past experience of a candidate.
By combining these tactics, employers can increase honesty and prevent deception in interviews.
Belin, A. (2019) 5 Signs A Candidate is Lying During The Interview. Talent Acquisition Excellence Essentials, 2019
Feintzeig, R. (2021), “The lies we tell during the job interview,” Wall Street Journal, 1/10/2021.
Garcia, S. M., Tor, A., & Schiff, T. M. (2013). The psychology of competition: A social comparison perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8, 634–650. https://doi.org/10.1177/ 1745691613504114
Hart, C. (2019) Some Lie a Lot. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-nature-deception/201910/some-lie-lot#:~:text=In%20one%20recent%20study%2C%2060,or%20two%20lies%20per%20day.&text=It%20seems%20that%20a%20relatively,of%20the%20lying%20and%20dishonesty.
Ho, J. L., Powell, D. M., Barclay, P., & Gill, H. (2019). The influence of competition on motivation to fake in employment interviews. Journal of Personnel Psychology, 18(2), 95–105. https://doi.org/10.1027/1866-5888/a000222
Severin Sorensen, ePraxis, “Identifying and Capturing Difference Making Top Talent,” (2021) speaker presentation drawn from executive search practice of ePraxis LLC. https://www.epraxis.com/blog/2015/04/identifying-and-capturing-difference-making-top-talent; see also, https://www.epraxis.com/blog/2014/01/identifying-difference-making -top-talent-an-executive-recruiters-perspective. Material drawn from 3-hour training course.
Weiss, B. & Feldman, R. (2006). Looking Good and Lying to Do It: Deception as an Impression Management Strategy in Job Interviews. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 36(4), 1070-1086.
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