Strategies for Assessing Exaggeration and Deception by Job Candidates

“It takes more work to tell a lie than it does to tell the truth. You have to not only make up something, but also watch me to make sure I’m believing you.” – Maureen O’Sullivan, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, University of San Francisco

Job candidates predictably distort the way they present their competencies and credentials out of concern for making a favourable impression and wanting to be liked by hiring professionals. These distortions, called social desirability biases, can be unconscious behaviours or they can reflect deliberate deceit. Behavioural clues to assess lying are too generalized to be effectively applied by most people. Rather, we outline a three-part strategy for due diligence on candidates that reduces bad hires resulting from erroneous information. Each component of the three-part strategy can be useful separately, but the components are especially powerful when used in tandem as a system of checks and balances.

Love or hate his more controversial ideas, but the illustrious psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud had a keen understanding of people and their motivations. One of his heuristics is hard to improve upon even today – the principle that people gravitate towards what makes them feel good and move away from what makes them feel bad. Experienced behavioural interviewers tend to know this principle well. Candidates typically, though often unwittingly, tell interviewers what is thought those interviewers want to hear. In the process, candidates can hype up characteristics that are thought to make a favourable impression and ignore or outright lie about characteristics that seemingly make an unfavourable one. Actually, we all do this to some degree; a classic principle in social psychology is that people behave in ways that they believe are socially acceptable and desirable when they know others are watching. This is generally known as “social desirability biases.”

According to Paulhus, individuals modify their behaviour in two primary ways. First, people can give honest but inflated self-descriptions reflecting a lack of insight and an unconscious bias toward favourable self-portrayal (self-deception). This is a variation of social desirability bias. While it is important to have an accurate assessment of candidates’ traits and abilities, professionals need to understand that virtually everyone exhibits social desirability biases to some extent. Candidates are simply acting naturally out of a healthy self-image and are expressing a need to be liked and accepted. The second and more serious form of social desirability is what Paulhus refers to as impression management. This term applies when people consciously use inflated self- descriptions, faking, or lying due to a hypersensitivity to situational self-presentation demands.

Self-deception and impression management behaviours lead to tainted candidate evaluations. This makes it crucial for hiring professionals to be prepared to address these confounds. This article aims to arm you with such knowledge.

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