You’re a hiring manager and you’re suspicious. In the pile of job applications you’re sifting through, some stand out because they read like a dream: cover letters that hit all the relevant keywords and resumes with all the required and preferred skills. But are they too perfect? How do you know if a candidate is lying on a resume?

As it turns out, a fair dose of suspicion may be warranted. A North American Robert Half survey found that almost half of workers (46 per cent) polled know people who have misrepresented themselves on their job application.

Lying on a resume is a valid concern for employers — if you make a bad hire, the cost and productivity loss of a do-over can be surprisingly high. Let’s say you hire an administrative assistant, but it later turns out their word-processing skills aren’t “expert” level as they professed in their resume. It’s a drag on your operation to have to replace employees who don’t live up to expectations or who can’t perform the task they said they could.

If people seem too good to be true, they just might be. Read on for signs a candidate is lying on their resume — and what to do about it.

Turn on the lie detector

Here are four red flags to watch for:

  1. Vagueness. Does the candidate use passive verbs instead of active ones? Is the resume riddled with ambiguous phrases — “involved in” or “familiar with,” for example? Imprecise language may indicate a lack of hands-on experience or direct responsibility. You want someone who is straightforwardly capable.
  2. Noise. How about all the superlatives in the cover letter — “best,” “most amazing,” “number-one.” Do you notice an excessive use of buzzwords? Noisy language could indicate a desire to convey credibility or insider knowledge, but it can also be a sign of an unsuccessful attempt to cover up a lack of familiarity with the job or industry.
  3. Inconsistencies. Check the timeline. Do the dates add up? If a candidate’s cover letter says they worked somewhere for three years but the resume indicates only 18 months, the candidate may be trying to exaggerate their work history. Another alarm bell: wild variations in job titles across their application materials.
  4. Gaps. If the candidate’s work history is dotted with brief jags as an “independent consultant,” that in itself isn’t cause for worry. But if there are long stints of unemployment that aren’t explained in the cover letter, you should flag these for later discussion — a pre-screen phone call or an in-person interview, perhaps.

See what to pay candidates in your area by accessing our Salary Guide.

Getting closer to the truth

So, your gut tells you to be cautious. You should definitely listen. But how to know for sure?

Interview questions. The Robert Half survey found that job experience is where most people misrepresent themselves, so start your queries there. Give yourself plenty of time to get the most out of the conversation. Double-check the claims the candidate made in person and in their application materials. Ask specific questions about their strengths, weaknesses and job responsibilities. You might begin an interview with broad questions like “Tell us about yourself,” but then try to get into more specific job-related questions, such as:

  • What types of documents did you create in your last role, and what software did you use?
  • Tell us about a time you had an interpersonal conflict with a coworker in your last job.
  • How did you improve efficiencies in your last position?
  • What do you like best about your job? What do you like least?

The more details a candidate gives, the more likely you are hearing the truth. Take good notes, too, so you can confirm all the answers a candidate gave when it comes time to do background checks.

Body language. Psychologists say fidgeting and avoiding eye contact aren’t good indicators of dishonesty because — more often than not — they indicate a candidate’s nervousness in an interview setting. Better signs of deceit may be touching the face, touching the hands, crossing the arms and leaning away from the interviewer. While these gestures shouldn’t automatically eliminate a candidate, they might prompt closer consideration.

Reference checks. Yes, this is still a must-do. Interviews reveal a lot — but they may leave some stones unturned. Reference checks give you other perspectives. Take the time to speak to their references personally. And don’t forget to verify educational background, too, by calling the schools where the candidate allegedly graduated.

Skills testing. In-person assessments are a great way to determine if a candidate is lying on their resume. You could start with tests for typing speed and MS Office skills. Since administrative professionals need excellent written communication abilities, evaluate them on spelling, grammar and word choice. There are other exams for determining a candidate’s personality and potential workplace fit. Testing is legally a very complex area, so, if you’re not sure, consult with a lawyer before implementing any kind of hiring test.

Go deeper if necessary

What if you like the top candidate but suspect some half-truths? Here are some potential next steps:

  • Be direct. Ask the applicant point-blank, “Is that really true?” or “Are you exaggerating?” Surprisingly, this can sometimes elicit a more honest reply.
  • Check LinkedIn. Before hiring, read the applicant’s professional profile. Does it seem like the job fits with the candidate’s career trajectory? Although LinkedIn profiles can be fudged, some candidates might not remember to align their resume claims with how they represent themselves online.
  • Do a social media sweep. Look up the candidate on FaceBook, Twitter and Instagram. If their account is public, check their profiles. Do they match with who they say they are in the application? Do you have any mutual friends with the candidate you could reach out to for feedback?
  • Hire on a contract basis. A temp-to-full-time approach is a good way to avoid making a bad hire. This allows you to observe the candidate’s on-the-job performance in your particular workplace so you can extend a full-time offer only when you feel fully confident in the applicant’s abilities.

The bottom line is this: Don’t ignore your instincts. With the rise in the prevalence of candidates lying on resumes, employers must be wary. You don’t have to approach a job interview like an FBI agent, but do your best to root out lies now to avoid making a costly hiring decision you’ll soon regret.