How to approach interview body language

Last updated:
July 22, 2021
December 23, 2021
min read
Bev Campling
Table of contents

As a busy recruiter, I’ve interviewed thousands of candidates over the years. And interview body language is a hot topic of discussion. People who aren’t familiar with the candidate experience during the interview process often over or under emphasize body language during interviews.

Hiring managers have different personalities and many aren’t intuitive or inspiring by nature. That doesn’t mean that they’re uncaring. It just means that they might not have the personality type to make strangers feel at ease and bring out the best in them in an hour. Different roles require different personalities and people are attracted to positions in which they feel comfortable.

For example, jobs that require a high degree of accuracy and precision aren’t likely to be filled by extrovert personalities that are easily distracted. On the other hand, jobs that involve extensive interaction with multiple clients are unlikely to be filled by perfectionists.

Body language fascinates people, but it’s become a bit like following your daily horoscope. There’s all kinds of information online so that people can read their partners, friends, strangers… but none of it has any real (scientific) credibility.

Recruiters must lead the hiring team

If you’ve chosen recruitment as a career path, you should be approachable, have excellent communication, and listening skills, and be patient; i.e. you innately care about other people’s feeling and wellbeing. Not everyone on the hiring team has or needs these traits in the working environment, so this is why it’s your responsibility to take the lead.

Recruiters are the first point of contact for candidates and must manage the candidate experience. It’s essential that you pick up unspoken cues from the onset. Things like being softly spoken, culture, and history all have a story to tell that can be expressed as body language in an interview…and be misread.

Say a candidate’s CV has a break in employment and they tell you they had spinal surgery in that time. Ask them if sitting for a long time can be uncomfortable. Explain that you’re asking so that you can ensure that they have a comfortable chair and make sure that they are comfortable during interviews without making any fuss. Tell the hiring team, as well so that no one pops us with “why was he sitting like that?” after the interview.

As a recruiter, you should always be the person to meet the candidate when they arrive for their interview. Brief them on how the meeting will proceed, how many people are on the panel, and how long it will take. See if they have any special needs and observe them to pick up any cues that could be misconstrued in the interview. Recruiters are responsible for making candidates feel at ease and for briefing hiring teams beforehand.

Remember that interviews are an unnatural social situation

During an interview, even confident candidates feel exposed, judged, and vulnerable. Almost all of the power is in the hands of the hiring team no matter how welcome the candidate is made to feel. Also, the hiring team is a group of people who are aligned in their own space, whereas the candidate is a stranger in an unfamiliar environment. This can be very intimidating!

This means that body language during interviews can be very misleading. We all have different personalities and no one can guess how someone else is feeling. You can find candidates expressing nonverbal clues of their nervousness in various interview body language actions that aren’t a reflection of them at all. It’s just a brief reflection of how they feel in the moment.

We often misread body language resulting from temporary situations, as an indication of personality.

Recruiters need to prep the hiring team on their own body language and interview style. If there’s a team member who’s inclined to interrogate rather than question, remind them that this is an interview, not a court of law.

On the other hand, there could be a team member who’s very laid back. Remind them to present a professional front in the interview. That’s why it’s vital that recruiters build a good rapport with line and hiring managers. If they trust you, they’ll value the reminder.

Interview body language isn’t a predictor of personality traits

People naturally scan each other for nonverbal clues in all social environments, but it doesn’t mean that our perceptions are right. Placing too much emphasis on interview body language can lead to bias and discrimination. If your company gets a reputation for biased and discriminatory interview processes, your employer branding will go up in smoke, and in some countries, you could face legal action.

Let’s take eye contact for an example. There’s a common perception that people who make good eye contact are honest and upfront, people who stare are aggressive, and people who avoid eye contact are dishonest.

Not true! I’ve met many candidates who made great eye contact while lying through their teeth. Past employment references proved everything they said in the interview to be lies. Some people stare because they’re nervous and don’t want to come across as insincere. Also, in many Asian and African cultures, it’s considered disrespectful to look at someone who is deemed more important than you in the eyes. Who are the “more important” people in an interview?

Or what about the “firm handshake equates to a strong personality” myth? How about the candidate is nervous and has sweaty palms, so they’re not too keen on the clammy handshake?

Tips for reading interview body language

The most critical interview body language tip is to observe, take note, but don’t judge or jump to conclusions. There are, however, some interview body language cues that do need attention. Here are some of them:

The candidate is very distracted

Mild distraction at the start or end of an interview is normal. At the beginning of the interview, it could be tension and the candidate will become focused after a few minutes. At the end of the interview, it could be that the candidate has lost interest in the role or that they’ve been sitting for too long.

Signs of distraction could be anything from folding and unfolding arms, crossing and uncrossing legs, tapping, rocking, continually looking around, or fidgeting. None of these interview body language signals are necessarily telling of anything in isolation.

If a candidate remains very distracted throughout the interview though, it could be a red flag, but also a natural reaction to something that’s not immediately obvious. I’ve found there to be two main reasons.

  • They could be insincere about the job application. It’s a reality that many people apply for jobs to get an offer that they can take to their current employer in the hope of getting a salary increase. If that’s the case, your close observation as a recruiter should start shouting warnings early on in the process.
  • The other reason a candidate can remain distracted in an interview is emotional distress caused by either the interview itself or some other issue in their personal life. In this case, it might be better to pause the interview and ask them if they're OK to continue. Make sure to be accommodating and ask the candidate if they want to reveal the reason they are distracted, take a break to gather their thoughts, or perhaps reschedule.

The candidate is too friendly

Unnatural and profuse friendliness and extroversion is a red flag. It’s not normal candidate behavior! If it fades during the interview, it could just be a misguided attempt to come across as confident and it can be ignored. If it continues throughout the interview, it’s often an attempt to cover something up and convince the hiring team to take them at their word. Cons are often overly friendly and complimentary to win your trust.

The candidate suddenly closes down

If a candidate suddenly displays signs of physical tension during the interview, it’s usually a sign that they’ve been offended or that they’ve lost interest for some reason.

Nonverbal cues include:

  • A frown replacing a smile shows annoyance
  • Loss of concentration often indicates a loss of interest
  • Stretching can be a message that this interview is over
  • Suddenly folding arms as a sign of distancing themselves
  • Rolling of the eyes is an indication of discontent or feeling slighted

How to handle nonverbal cues

Despite years of research, body language is still not an exact science. That’s because you’re dealing with human behavior that’s unique to each person. Reading body language has a place in psychology in the hands of professionals. But you can’t judge someone’s actions over the hour or so of an interview. It’s unfair!

Although some signals can be picked up in interview body language, it’s not something that should feature strongly in hiring decisions. Any perceptions or suspicions of the hiring team should be thoroughly probed before they’re used as the basis for a decision.

Candidates put more into interviews than the hiring team

Remember that for most candidates, an interview is a bigger deal than what it is for the hiring team. For recruiters, interviews are just another part of their day. And that’s why it’s up to you to make the call on the value of interview body language. Bias is more common in companies that haven’t shifted to using an ATS and using HR metrics to make better hiring decisions.

Candidates get upfront advice from friends and family. They get interview tips off the internet. And they can go to great lengths to prepare. Sometimes the advice isn’t the best and their prep a bit misguided. Keep that in mind with a smile and lots of empathy!

Putting our best foot forward often results in us projecting a mask rather than who we really are. That can make us feel uncomfortable, and that discomfort can manifest in nonverbal signals.

If the hiring team focuses on interview body language, use psychometric tests. Use these in conjunction with notes on the candidate’s body language during interviews. Results of these tests can confirm or debunk nonverbal signals, eliminate bias and lead to fair and transparent hiring.

Relevant: How to read candidate body language in a virtual job interview

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