If You Think a Candidate is Exaggerating During the Interview, Try This Technique

January 30, 2017

You may be up-to-date with the latest hiring techniques (take this quiz to find out) but no matter how experienced you are, it can be hard to tell if a candidate is exaggerating…or isn’t telling you everything you need to know during the interview.

And when you an experience where you think a candidate might be fibbing, the question is….what do you say or do to find out. The answer? Nothing. No really - the most effective thing you can do is nothing at all. Silence, one of the most challenging things for interviewers to master, is also one of the most important skills an interviewer can have.

How silence can work for you in the interview

For example, say strong teamwork is a key attitude that defines your organization’s success. So you ask your candidate “Could you tell me about a time you faced a challenge working as part of a team?” And now let’s say your candidate responds by saying, “Well, at my last job there was this incredibly successful task force of critical thinkers and it went really well.  There were all kinds of huge challenges, and everyone was super smart. It was a great team effort, very successful, and you couldn’t help but feel proud to be part of those great solutions.” 

What do you think…is this person telling the truth? Here’s how I’d assess this response. First, I’d compare it to my answer guidelines, the answer key I’ve created that spotlights how high and low performers in my organization respond to my interview questions. My answer key tells me that my high performers have lots of details to share about the role they play in their successes while low performers don’t.

The sample response above uses a lot of words…but how many details do we really hear? I don’t hear anything that even allows me to feel certain that this person was an actual member of this task force, let alone a participant in resolving the challenges the team faced.  I don’t even know what kinds of challenges were present; and I have to wonder if this candidate does either.

There isn’t even one first person pronoun used here to claim ownership, and just look at all those adverbs and absolutes (“incredibly successful”, “really well”, “super smart”, “great solutions”) that serve as filler language. My answer guidelines clearly indicate that my high performers aren’t shy about saying “I” to take ownership for their good accomplishments. It’s my low performers who rely on second person pronouns, and my low performers who rely on fluffy language to make things sound better than they really were. My high performers have plenty of real-life experiences to share; they don’t need to augment the truth.

OK, so there are a number of reasons to suspect I may not be hearing the whole truth here.  I’m going to need to do something to probe for more information, but what I do next is not what’s commonly done in this situation, because what I do next is...nothing at all. I don’t jump in and rephrase the question or nudge the candidate for more details. I see interviewers making these kinds of mistakes all the time.

Instead, I simply let this person’s last statement sit. So after the candidate says “It was always a great experience to be part of that team” and then stops speaking, I slowly and silently count to three: one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand. And if the candidate doesn’t speak by the time I get to three, I’ll count to three all over again. And while I’m counting, I’m just calmly sitting there, with a neutral expression on my face.

Stretching out the silence for 3 seconds, or even 6 seconds, may not sound like a lot of time, but it’s going to feel like an eternity to your candidate who is in the hot seat. It actually takes some practice to slowly count to three; you’re going to feel a pretty strong urge to speak, but don’t do it, just guide yourself through that slow count of three. The silence will make the candidate feel so uncomfortable that they will start to talk again. And that’s the key here, to get more and more information so you can make informed hiring decisions. 

If you allow your candidates to fill in the blanks, they will fill in the blanks, and if they aren’t telling the truth, in most cases it’s going to reveal itself. But the candidates won’t fill in the blanks if you let them off the hook by bypassing the silence. That’s when they are going to say to themselves “Whew, I didn’t have to keep talking so I don’t have to give that next layer of information that might reveal im not telling the whole truth.” Using silence to spur the candidate to keep talking is a simple technique that really works.

Mark Murphy is the founder of Leadership IQ, a NY Times bestselling author, and a sought-after speaker on leadership. Check out Mark’s latest Leadership Styles Quiz to see what kind of leader you are.

*Image from The Flow Market

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