The truth about lies; and how to spot them in an interview.

Your personal brand and reputation is considered one of the most important things you can hold. It’s built on years of trust and integrity but can be torn to shreds and lit on fire in a matter of minutes through the discovery of a lie.

So with so much at stake, why do people lie?

To get the bottom of this, poach recently spoke with Elly Johnson, communication and behavioural expert and authority on truth and lies. Elly has built a career from understanding human behaviour on a deeper level, spanning from her early days as Victorian Police officer, to her more recent endeavours in delivering programs designed to help people conducting interviews, uncover useful and truthful information and make better and more informed decisions. Put simply, Elly is a human lie detector machine!

poach: I like to think I can spot a lie during an interview, but admittedly I’m also sure I’ve been duped a few times. Why is it that we can’t more easily spot the lie at the time?

Elly: We like to think we are better at lie spotting than we are, but research shows on average we get it right about 52% of the time. Which means we may as well have a guess or toss a coin. Training and awareness can improve your ability to spot harmful deception, early, but too often we miss the signs that may be right there in front of us. We have an in built truth-bias which means we generally want to believe that people are being truthful.

The other thing is there’s no one sign or behaviour that accurately indicates a lie, so it’s not as easy as looking for an eye shift or an eyebrow twitch as some body language books would have us believe, it’s more complex than that.171005_EllyJ High Res_04

poach: In general terms, why do people lie? Are there some common motivators that steer the decision to lie?

Elly: Dr Paul Ekman who is known as a leader in the field of truth, lies and reading emotions identified 11 different motivators for lying. Put simply the core motivations align with why we do most things in life, to make a gain or avoid a pain, but you can break them down further.

One of the interesting things is that people lie more than they realise. We are very good at minimising or justifying lies and dishonesty and often the ‘little lies’ or the ‘white lies’ are not logged as important, so we quickly forget we even chose them. When it comes to honesty we all have an acceptable ‘fudge factor’. That is the level of dishonesty we can display and still stand tall and call ourselves honest.

In a recruitment interaction the motivations are clear from both sides. A candidate wants to show themselves as the best person for the job and the interviewer wants to represent the company in the best light. On both sides of the fence there is usually some hidden or twisted truth as each party seeks to achieve their own goal.

discounted seek advertising - basicpoach: Are there some lies that are easier to spot than others? What should interviewers focus on?

Elly: If you have factual information and the interviewee is telling you something other than that then they are either mistaken or they are lying. Much of the time you are relying on them providing true accounts of their life, their attitude and their experience, so mostly it’s a bit of a fishing expedition for useful information. If there is nothing to verify their information, you are relying on what you are being told.

If someone is telling a lie confidently and without stress, often you may not notice signs of deception. But if there is stress or guilt or shame or fear associated with telling the lie, there are often behavioural signs that leak through the words or body that indicate emotional and cognitive stress associated with the lie.

In a nutshell, what you might notice is a sudden shift of behaviour in response to a question or topic. Be careful not to jump to conclusions however if someone looks away or scratches their nose, because you may well be reading the situation incorrectly.

poach: You developed a model called the 5 Truth Circles. What are they all about and how can they help people understand more about truth and lies?

Elly: The Truth Circles model simply approaches the topic of truth through 5 different lenses. The model serves as a way to explore areas in your life where truth matters and get people thinking what they may need to do to….

In a nutshell the 5 circles are:

  1. SPOT – This includes observation of multi-channel behaviour for active signs of deception
  2. SEEK – This circles is more focussed on creating a truth telling environment from the start
  3. SPEAK – Building confidence and courage to speak truth when it is challenging
  4. SHOW – All about how you show up in life and exploring authenticity
  5. SELF – We tell some of the biggest and most limiting lies to ourselves. Building awareness around this can make a big difference to our personal and professional success.

poach: As an employer in an interview environment, how do you create a truth safe environment?

Elly: Ok, this is a big question and an important one too. As I mentioned it can be pretty difficult to spot deception and you don’t want to make that your focus in an interview. I believe the focus should be on creating a setting where truth and honesty is maximised. I call this creating a truth telling environment.

The first question that interviewers should ask themselves is: Do I make it safe for the truth? Someone who is on the fence, not sure how open and honest they will be with you, usually weighs things up from the start and determines along the way how much truth they will share – particularly if some of that truth is potentially against their own self interest.

As someone recruiting, you also need to be sure that you are giving truth to get truth. You can’t expect someone to be 100% truthful with you if you are hiding important information about the company or the role.

There’s more to creating a truth telling environment and in fact I have identified over 40 different influencing tools and methods that can contribute, in a variety of situations, to attracting or encouraging more truth from people. We cover off some of those tools in the Perceptive Interviewing Masterclass.

poach: Can unconscious bias affect your ability to accept / believe truths?

Elly: Absolutely. I trained a group of motivated recruitment professionals recently and we discussed biases. The good part with that group is they were talking openly about the factors that might contribute to them thinking a certain way or making a decision about a candidate. But, they were more the conscious biases, the ones they were aware of.  We are prone to unconscious and cognitive biases every single time we meet someone and every single time we need to make a decision – there’s almost 200 of them that have been labeled, so if you think you don’t have them, think again.

A common bias is the halo effect. We connect quickly with someone or are interviewing someone that we feel is a really great person, or perhaps they are just like you. Unconsciously we carry across all that ‘goodness’ and at times it can blind us from a red flag that is just below the surface.

poach: Social media is often used to screen applicants by employers before hiring. How much truth can be associated with what someone feeds into their social media persona?

Elly: We all know that most people post all the stuff that makes us look fun and funny and clever or sexy. For sure you can gain some insight into a person’s world via their activity on social media, but be careful your own filters and biases don’t kick in as you decide that someone is not suitable purely for reasons relating to your personal conditioning about what is right or wrong. What I mean is that two different people could do similar research on a candidate, with one saying ‘they look like fun and I’m sure they’ll fit in with the group’ and someone else saying ‘can you believe they were at that music festival, I know most people there were drunk or drugged all weekend, that’s not who we want on the team’.

That example highlights that if you have a team of recruiters or mangers involved in recruitment that you need to spend time internally discussing how you measure suitability and competency for a position. You need to have some measures and some consistency and not assume that everyone is on the same page.

For more information on Elly Johnson including her coaching, training and workshops, please visit


Cover image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

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