How To Spot a Dishonest Candidate and What To Do About It

Time to Read: 7.8 minutes

Updated: December 19, 2022

If you’re an employer, hiring manager, or recruiter, chances are you’ve either been lied to and not realized it or you have found out and had to make some hard decisions.

In fact, 75 percent of employers have caught candidates lying on their resumes, according to a 2017 CareerBuilder survey. It’s a worrying and unsettling statistic with the most common areas of deception being candidates embellishing skill sets (62 percent) and responsibilities (54 percent).

A study from a couple of years earlier also noted that candidates tend to lie about:

  • Dates of employment: 39 percent
  • Job titles: 31 percent
  • Academic degrees: 28 percent

The lies candidates got caught out with range from the laughable to the surreal. The study revealed an applicant claimed to write computer code that had actually been written by the hiring manager conducting the interview. Another claimed work experience at Microsoft, but they’d never heard of Bill Gates.

Lying is bad for interpersonal relationships — it’s one of the early moral lessons we learn as children — and it’s also bad for candidates’ career prospects.

Plus, there are just too many steps in most hiring processes for lies to survive, job search expert Alison Doyle writes. “Even if you make it through and get hired, you’re not off the hook,” she says, “history is full of examples of high-level executives who lost their positions and their reputations after being caught embellishing their CV.”

Lying Is Bad For Business

Those high-level executives can even include a vice-president, Dawn D. Boyer, Ph.D. told Nicole Lyn Pesce at Moneyish. As an HR manager 20 years ago, she audited employee resumes, finding that 50 people had lied about their education. All of the employees — including a vice-president — were fired, costing the company millions of dollars in contract revenue.

That’s the thing about lying in business. It’s costly. A 2010 Harvard University study found that when levels of trust are higher in the economy, it costs less to run businesses.

Of course, selecting the wrong candidate costs money too, with one survey reporting the average cost of a hiring error at $17,000, while replacing a bad tech hire can “cost up to several hundred percent of that person’s annual salary.”

It’s essential that hiring managers spend the time required and be equipped to spot misstatements and blatant lies. They also need to have a defined policy or working strategy of how to deal with dishonest candidates and employees.

How to Spot a Lie on a Candidate’s Resume

Check the dates with an eye to detail, HR consultant Matthew Burr advises. Make sure start and end dates are compatible. See too if the dates tend to list start and end years without actual months or days; candidates could be making it look like their previous jobs lasted longer than they did.

Burr also says to look for candidates that have climbed too quickly up the career ladder. Jumping employment levels too quickly or within a single role change is cause for investigation.

It’s important to spot the lie before the employment contract is signed, J.T. O’Donnell, CEO at, writes. It often comes down to asking candidates the right questions and being aware enough to spot the holes.

Certain years of experience in a role will suggest a candidate has certain knowledge and examples of this knowledge, such as training or leading a team or letting employees go. Deception will be hard to pull off when faced with an experienced hiring manager.

Background checks should be conducted without fail, detailing candidates’ past work experience, degrees acquired, wages earned, and criminal records. While financial services firms need to be especially thorough in their pre-employment background checks, the last thing any recruiter wants when hiring someone is a surprise, Nick Fishman at Sterling Talent tells eFinancialCareers.

References Are Hard To Verify

The problem with references is they’re not always easy for recruiters or hiring managers to check. This is down, in part, to the savvy tactics of job seekers.

Dishonest candidates have grown smart in how they make it impossible to contact references, Stacey Gibson at Stratus.HR, writes. They might purposely get a reference’s contact information incorrect or offer a friend’s contact number after priming them to act as the previous line manager listed on their resume. If suspicious, Gibson advises, contact that reference through his or her employer’s official phone number.

But it’s not just faked references that make it hard to get an honest appraisal of candidates. The law does not work in hiring managers’ favor.

Riia O’Donnell at Recruiterbox writes that even if employers catch an employee stealing, but choose not to fire them, they might not be able to tell the next employer (depending on state law). For example, if that employee had been acquitted, the employers could be sued for defamation of character if they informed anyone about the theft or said the employee was let go due to theft.

O’Donnell calls for creative or “sneaky” tactics to get to the truth. Ask the candidate’s references questions about the candidate’s previous job — such as: What does that title represent? Does that job include supervisory work, direct contact with clients, and coding?

“Have a list of responsibilities you think could be verified and ask about the job description — not the candidate,”

O’Donnell advises. This way, the actual job description can be checked against what candidates say they did in the role. This is a common area where deception occurs.

What to Do When You Discover a Lie

Despite best efforts, applicants who have lied on their resumes are hired. Hiring managers have to act when they do catch the lie, but should take their time and strategize beforehand, advises Omnia Group, a behavioral assessment and consulting firm.

They need to verify that their suspicions are fact. This may involve background checks, although employers should check the legality of this tactic and obtain the employee’s consent.

Spraggins says once there is evidence of deception, hiring managers should:

  • Respectfully confront the candidate with the facts
  • Ask for an explanation
  • Get legal counsel

Employers Need Policies to Deal With Dishonest Candidates

Helen Burgess, a partner at UK-based law firm Shoosmiths, says recruiters without strategies to assess candidates run the risk of exposing their clients’ businesses to dishonest and under-qualified staff. This can lead to reputational damage but also legal action, particularly if the dishonest candidate that gets through is working in a medical or financially regulated role.

Employers and hiring managers should have a clear policy on how to act after discovering a lying candidate. As a first step, the consequences for dishonesty should be clearly set out on the application form and employment contract.

If the deceit is discovered only after the candidate is hired, Burgess advises employers to be cautious and check their legal rights and those of the employee. A dismissal will need to be reasonable and provable.

Four Options When Catching Out a Dishonest Employee

While Burgess argues for having a policy in place, she also suggests that the nuances involved might require a case-by-case analysis.

There are four clear paths to pursue when discovering a candidate or employee’s lie, Joe Weinlick, chief marketing officer at recruitment media company Nexxt, writes.

  1. Confront the employee/candidate
  2. Consider training an otherwise good employee to upgrade the skills they lied about
  3. Reduce the employee’s compensation or position
  4. Dismiss the employee or reject the candidate

The important consideration, Weinlick says, is the magnitude of the lie and how much it impacts the role the candidate occupies. A dishonest employee given another chance, may reward the employer’s good faith.

Rely On The Law

While employees’ rights can make dismissal a little tricky, the law protects employers too.

“Most employees are employees at will, meaning that barring a statute or case law that precludes termination, they can be terminated for any reason or no reason at all,” Patricia Wilson, professor at Baylor Law School, says. “If those employees are terminated for lying or exaggerating, they have no legal recourse.”

Use Blockchain to Make Lying Near Impossible

Blockchain technology seems to be showing its value in multiple settings, not just cryptocurrencies. EchoLink CEO Steve Chen says blockchain’s immutability and timestamping “make it an ideal solution to the verification problem in recruiting.”

Immutability means no deletions can be made so a job candidate’s claims of former employment at a specific company can be confirmed through a blockchain of their background. Timestamping could be used to mark each event in a person’s employment history. This is particularly valuable when hiring international candidates as verifying foreign jobs and education history can be tricky.

Blockchain can act as a “reliable and efficient solution to deter lying on resumes,” Chen writes. That deterrent can save everyone a lot of valuable time and money.

A disheartening truth is many candidates will embellish or outright lie in their application. Hiring managers need to be aware of this and become adept at spotting falsehoods. Rejecting a dishonest candidate’s application is relatively straightforward.

If their deception is discovered after they have been hired, the remedial action becomes more complicated. No matter what employers decide, they will need to seek legal counsel and be sure of all of the facts before acting.

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Kelly Graham

Kelly Graham is a marketing professional with 20 years of experience in healthcare, recruitment and IT marketing helping businesses create their brand presence and achieve their marketing and business goals.

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