Screening, Assessment, Interviewing

Nobody Likes a Liar! Spotting and Assessing Résumé Lies and Exaggerations

If candidates make it through the recruitment process with false pretenses, it can feel like you’ve been duped. Worse, if they’ve misrepresented themselves, it could even mean they’re not actually qualified to do the job—and you end up with mistakes, lost customers, employee resentment, or other problems along the way. And you’ll probably have to restart the recruitment process on top of everything else—spending even more time and money to fill the position after all the dust settles.

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These are the risks employers face when they inadvertently hire individuals who have lied on their résumé.

Why do people lie on their résumé? Well, one of the more obvious answers is that people are competing for roles and want to have an advantage. But probably the more realistic answer is that a lot of people just don’t think they’re truly lying if they’re simply embellishing their accomplishments in an attempt to present themselves in the best possible light.

A lot of people probably exaggerate on their résumé without even thinking it could be considered unethical—it may even seem to be par for the course.

That is the dilemma HR professionals and hiring managers must solve—how can you differentiate between simple embellishments that are only meant to be flattering, not untruthful (though they may be borderline false), and actual lies and falsehoods?

There can be a fine line between presenting accomplishments in the best possible way and presenting them in a way that could be misleading.

Spotting Résumé Exaggeration and Lies

Here are some things to look for when trying to spot résumé exaggeration or lies:

  • Unsubstantiated claims that seem far too lofty (e.g., “Quadrupled sales within one week.”).
  • Job titles that don’t seem to be in alignment with the individual’s education and experience level or titles that don’t seem to follow a logical progression.
  • Inconsistencies in dates of employment. This could be simplification (and not a problem), or it could be a way to try to cover up job gaps or hide something else.
  • Educational attainment that seems out of line with everything else presented. For example, perhaps the applicant claims to have a degree from a well-known or Ivy League school when all other experience is local and less prestigious. Or, perhaps the degree noted seems unlikely given the applicant’s age (e.g., an advanced degree too soon after high school).
  • Vague or overgeneralized qualifications. For example, someone may list the subject of his or her degree but not the type of degree, which can lead to false assumptions while not technically being incorrect. Another example could be when someone lists overly vague responsibilities at a former job—that could be a red flag that he or she didn’t actually hold that job.
  • Specific qualifications that are not demonstrated elsewhere. This might be a technical skill that is listed but not shown to be utilized.
  • Degree listed comes from a school you’ve never heard of—or worse, can’t find much info about online. While there are small and obscure schools out there, there are also diploma mills. (And there are outright lies.)
  • Inability to verify employment at a listed previous employer. Even employers that do not give references (as a matter of policy) should still be able to confirm employment.

Remember, just because you spot one or more of these items does not guarantee that the applicant isn’t telling the truth—there are star players out there, after all. And there are plenty of unique circumstances. But if you see one or more of these, it usually means that there should be additional follow-up.

Here are some things you can do to assess whether something on a résumé is true:

  • Ask for details. When you’re interviewing someone whose accomplishments seem too good to be true (or too vague), get a lot more information as a way to verify. If the accomplishments seem lofty, for example, ask the applicant to give you details like figures, how he or she accomplished those things, and who else was involved. Sometimes, the truth isn’t that the applicant lied—it’s just that he or she was one person on a team who accomplished those goals and that aspect wasn’t highlighted. Alternatively, it may be quite easy to uncover someone who is lying simply by asking for specifics.
  • Call all references and past employers. Sometimes even if a reference or previous employers cannot verify specifics, you’ll still be able to get a gut feeling from their responses—or lack thereof.
  • Independently verify contact information when possible. For example, when you call past employers, look up their phone numbers independently rather than relying on the number provided by the applicant. This reduces the chances you’ll be calling someone who has agreed to lie for the candidate.
  • Do your homework. It’s quite common for any individual to have an extensive online history, which often includes job history. See if his or her public profiles seem to be in alignment with what was presented to the employer.
  • Consider proficiency tests. If there are required skills for the job, consider having all applicants pass proficiency tests as part of the hiring process. This can help to weed out anyone who may have exaggerated about his or her proficiency in a specific area.
  • Consider asking for work samples, if appropriate for the role. This can allow you to see real-life examples of the candidate’s abilities. Or, consider whether requiring a project to be completed (or outlined) should be part of your screening process.

Although it may be true that a large number of people tend to exaggerate on their résumé, most people are just trying to put their best foot forward. With the exception of egregious issues, like making up an entire degree, it may pay to give applicants the benefit of the doubt at first and then use some of the tips above to try to assess the details of the situation and get the full picture before making any final judgments.

While naturally, you do not want to hire applicants who have misrepresented themselves, if an individual is clearly qualified for the job and has simply been a little too zealous with his or her descriptions, that’s a different story. Where you draw the line can be a tough call!