Tracy Smith

Nov 05, 2019

It’s 10 a.m. sharp. Your company’s hiring a product developer, and today you’ll be interviewing candidates. You step out of your office, greet the day’s first applicant—and to your dismay she stares at the carpet and offers a feeble handshake.

Off the list she goes, right?

Not so fast! Remember, this is a job interview. The candidate may be nervous she won’t get the job and likely believes you’re the one with most of the authority. You know how it feels to be interviewed. She’s probably as white-knuckled as you were when you were going through interviews to land your current job.

Before you dismiss her as too diffident, realize her demeanour likely stems from the situation and says little about her relevant capabilities.

As you apply your interview techniques, you’ll unconsciously notice whether her nonverbal communication—or body language—matches the words she uses to answer and ask questions. When you like what she says and her nonverbal messages align, you’ll build rapport, clarity and trust. But if her body language seems mismatched, you may walk away feeling tense, confused and suspicious.

Body Language Depends on Context

We make snap judgments all the time based on people’s eye contact, facial expressions, body movement, posture, tone of voice and other nonverbal indicators. But beware.

Crossed arms mean your candidate is defensive, right? It could also mean the room temperature is chilly or she’s digesting a meal.

Or poor eye contact means a candidate is dishonest. But it could also mean he is shy or comes from a culture where steady eye contact is taboo.

When you’re reading your candidate during an interview, always consider the context, including the interview’s inherent intimidating power imbalance. And instead of focusing on this body-language cue or that one—does he sit upright? does she nod with enthusiasm?—synthesize your candidate’s nonverbal communication as a whole.

Worried about selecting the best candidate? Know these general guidelines about positive and negative body language.

Positive Body Language

  • Direct and frequent eye contact:Can signal interest, focus, confidence and honesty
  • Genuine smiles:Can indicate happiness or optimism
  • Open posture with relaxed, uncrossed limbs:Can mean friendliness, openness and willingness

  • Sitting up straight with moments of leaning forward:Can signal interest, focus and eagerness

  • Strong handshake:Can indicate confidence—especially when the handshake comes with a smile
  • The candidate mirroring your own body language:When body-language mimicking is natural and unconscious (as opposed to artificial and manipulative), you and your candidate may be building rapport

Negative Body Language

  • Averting eyes: Can signal distraction, discomfort or an attempt to hide feelings; on the other hand, looking away can signify shyness or being deep in thought
  • Intense or prolonged eye contact: Can mean the candidate is rude, or is lying and therefore trying deliberately to hold eye contact
  • Fake smiles: When the smile doesn’t show in the eyes, the candidate may be uncomfortable
  • Closed, hunched posture with tightened, crossed limbs:Can mean hostility, unfriendliness, defensiveness or anxiety; can also signal boredom or indifference
  • Overly stiff posture:Can indicate uncertainty or lying
  • Leaning back:Can mean the candidate is overconfident or not taking the interview seriously—or if the candidate leans back suddenly, it can signify defensiveness
  • Weak handshake: Can indicate shyness or nervousness
  • Overly strong handshake:Can signal aggressiveness
  • Rubbing the nose, eyes or back of the neck, or playing with hair:Can indicate discomfort and, in some cases, lying
  • Nervous movements:Expect these during an interview—but if you’re recruiting for a sales role, a leadership position or another job involving heavy people contact, beware of candidates who appear overly anxious

So, your candidate smiles warmly and leans forward for much of the interview, but you can’t help noticing he incessantly strokes his moustache. Maybe he’s a liar … or perhaps he’s just proud of his handsome new look.

The point is that focusing on any one nonverbal cue can mislead you. Here are some body-language interviewing techniques to help you weigh the evidence:

  1. Notice extreme behaviours.If your candidate stares you down cold and crushes your hand when shaking it, your colleagues may see him as a threat.
  2. Watch for behavioural changes. Observe your candidate’s body language when you know she’s telling the truth, and compare it with times you suspect she’s lying.
  3. Assess behaviours in combination.If you don’t, you risk misjudging.
  4. Trust your instincts.If you’re left with a funny feeling, remember that sometimes your gut knows best.
  5. Share your observations with colleagues. We all have implicit biases. Comparing notes will help you affirm or reframe your own findings.

Finally, keep in mind that you’ll come across people whose emotions and body language are misaligned. Unless you get to know them well, you will almost certainly misinterpret some of their nonverbal messages. When in doubt, always share your thoughts with others on the hiring team before you turn down the next Bill Gates. 

Job Minister’s applicant tracking system allows you to hire as a team, while capturing candidate feedback confidentially without bias. You can see your peers’ feedback about a candidate only after you share yours. Whether your opinions are strong or subtle, you’ll be surprised when you find your colleagues uncover things in an interview that escaped your attention. Create a free employer account today and start hiring as a team!