Reading candidate body language in a virtual job interview

Last updated:
July 29, 2021
October 25, 2021
min read
Brendan McConnell
Table of contents

Video interviewing has afforded many benefits to recruitment organizations in recent years, including the ability to interview candidates from anywhere in the world. While video interviews are a powerful tool for finding global candidates, they also introduce some unique challenges for recruiters and hiring managers. One such challenge is the question of how to read body language in a virtual job interview.

This article will tackle that unexpected challenge, and offer tips and tricks for how to effectively read candidate body language during virtual interviews.

Let’s get started!

The importance of body language in a job interview

Before we talk about how to read candidate body language, let’s go over why you should do it in the first place.

Have you ever heard the saying “body language tells the truth?” If you’re a human, and if you’re reading this article then we assume that you are, then you likely intuitively know what that means: that body language communicates more than words, and can offer insights into how a person is feeling, or what they’re thinking.

Insights gained from reading body language can be used to inform and guide recruiters and hiring managers to make the right decision about candidates when all other variables are equal.

For example, through reading interview body language, interviewers can gauge if a candidate is feeling:

  • Confident
  • Focused
  • Bored
  • Disinterested
  • Insecure
  • Nervous

While a candidate’s mind set during an interview does not always indicate how they will perform on the job, being able to note these behaviours will help you round out your overall impression of that person.

To accomplish this, people trained in reading body language will often focus on:

  • Posture
  • Head tilt
  • Hand placement
  • Gestures
  • Eye movement
  • Mouth movement
  • Smiling

This list is a nice starting point to focus on if you’re just starting to pay attention to candidate body language. During in-person interviews, you might also note how the candidate introduces themselves, how they carry themselves while walking, and any other noticeable trait that might indicate their state of mind or personality.

As you can imagine, reading candidate body language is much easier when you’re in the same room as that person. Virtual interviews introduce a range of challenges and disconnection between you and the candidate that make it difficult to gain this extra layer of understanding.

The rest of the article will focus on these challenges, and offer solutions for how to overcome them.

4 challenges posed by virtual job interviews

Humans rely on body language to convey, and read, between 60% and 90% of information about another human (the jury is still out on the exact number). That means that, in the best case scenario, words only deliver about 40% of the information needed to fully understand another person.

Phone calls and virtual interviews eliminate, or greatly reduce, our ability to read the body language of the person we’re talking to. For interviewers and hiring managers who are used to being able to meet people in person, this brings with it a number of challenges that can prevent them from effectively screening candidates.

These challenges include:

  • A reduction in verbal cues. Much of a candidate’s body language is masked during a video interview. As a result, interviewers can glean less insight about what the candidate may be thinking or feeling, and must only rely on what they say.
  • Technical issues getting in the way. Depending on the platform you use, or the internet connection of each person in the interview, there may be issues with poor resolution, audio, lag, or broken speech. This can harm a candidate’s ability to put their best foot forward.
  • Difficulty building rapport. Recruiters and hiring managers need to be able to build rapport with a candidate to evaluate their cultural fit, team suitability, and overall personality. This is much easier to do when you physically meet the candidate. While it’s by no means impossible to build rapport through video interviews, it will take a different strategy than what you’d use for an in-person interview.
  • Perceived disinterest. It takes a lot of effort during a video call to show that you are fully “present”. Typically, that means making sure that you maintain “digital eye contact” with the interviewer throughout the conversation. In reality, candidates can have a wide range of different set ups on their computer that might make it look like they aren’t engaged when in fact they are. This can give the interviewer a false impression of the candidate, based purely on a misreading caused by the interview medium.

All of the above challenges relate back to the fact that video interviews create a barrier to reading body language. They offer glimpses of a candidate in real time, but they do not provide a true picture of how that person is feeling in the moment like you would gain during an in-person conversation.

As a result, interviewers need to find ways to read what body language they can see, while also accounting for the medium through which they’re seeing it. The rest of this article will offer suggestions for how to effectively read candidate body language in virtual job interviews.

How to read body language in a virtual job interview

It’s important to acknowledge - and accept - that you won’t be able to see and evaluate all typical body language behaviors during a video interview. Instead, focus on what you can see, and evaluate the candidate using a combination of audio and visual cues.

During a video interview, here are the body language cues you will likely be able to see:

Posture

While you will likely only see, at best, a candidate's chest to their head, this can give you an idea of what type of posture they have during the interview. Posture is a strong indicator of whether or not the person is interested in the conversation.

If the person is leaning back or slouching, this might indicate that they’re disinterested or dismissive. If they lean toward their screen, this usually indicates that they’re interested and engaged. Likewise, sitting tall in the chair is a good indicator of confidence.

Take note of how the candidate’s posture changes over the course of the interview to gain insight into how they may be feeling about certain subjects or lines of conversation.

Head tilt

Head tilt is one cue that you will have full visibility into. Take note of the candidate’s head position throughout the interview. Tilting the head while you speak is an indicator that the candidate is listening intently, and is actively engaging and thinking about the subject matter.

Hand placement

Hand placement can be a difficult one to see during a video interview, especially if the candidate is sitting close to their webcam.

During in-person interviews, you should note how the candidate holds their hands and arms during the conversation. Open arms with palms facing down may indicate confidence and authority. Crossed arms may indicate that the candidate is uncomfortable.

These hand placements may not be visible during a video interview. If it is, then take note of this cue as well. If it isn’t then try to pay attention to the candidate’s gestures instead.

Gestures

Gestures are usually easier to see than hand placement during a video interview. That’s because the candidate’s hands will likely be brought up to within frame as they talk.

Pay attention to any hand gesture that you can see, as they can be a strong indicator of personality, mood or thought pattern.

For example, frequent finger pointing or chopping motions might indicate that the person has authoritarian tendencies. Rubbing the neck might be a sign that the candidate is frustrated. Playing with the hair or touching the face might indicate that the candidate is uncomfortable.

Eye movement

Eye movement and eye contact are perhaps your best read into a candidate’s feeling during a virtual job interview.

Take note of where a candidate looks during the video call, and how frequently their eyes move around the screen. Making “digital eye contact” for the majority of the conversation is a strong indicator that the candidate is confident, engaged, and paying attention to the conversation.

Frequently looking away, on the other hand, might be an indicator that the candidate is distracted, uncomfortable or disengaged.

While direct “digital eye contact” is important to note, you should also account for the fact that candidates may have one or more screens open at the time of interview that they are using to take notes or read their prepared material. As such, looking between screens may not mean the candidate is distracted, but rather deeply engaged in the content and capturing the information for their own review later.

When watching eye movement during a video interview, rectify it with what a candidate is saying as well. This might help you determine if they are distracted or truly interested.

Mouth movement

Like with eyes, a candidate’s mouth will also be visible for the duration of the video call. This affords you another valuable body language cue: mouth movement.

Take note of what the candidate is doing with their lips and mouths as they listen to you speak. Pursed lips often indicate disapproval or distrust about the person or conversation. Lip biting might be an indicator of stress or nerves. Covering the mouth might indicate that the candidate is trying to conceal an emotion.

Smiling

Lastly, smiling - or not smiling - is an obvious indicator of how a candidate is feeling about the position and conversation. Take note as to whether or not the candidate smiles before, during, and after the interview.

If they do smile frequently, then this could indicate a genuine excitement about the opportunity in front of them. Conversely, if the candidate doesn’t smile, then they may be disinterested or have reservations about the job or company.

This all may sound like a lot to pay attention to when also actively interviewing a candidate. The good news is that if you’re a human, and again we assume that you are, reading these nonverbal cues will come naturally to you, just as they do in casual conversation.

While video interviews do remove many body language cues that we rely on during in-person conversations, you will still be able to see some strong indicators of what the candidate is really thinking.

Tips for conducting virtual job interviews

Many of the interviewing best practices that you likely already know can be adapted and applied to virtual calls.

Here are some general tips for how to conduct virtual interviews that will make it easier to identify and read candidate body language.

  • Make the candidate comfortable during the interview. When people are comfortable, they gain confidence, can more effectively express what they know, and what their “true self” looks like. Engage the candidate in casual conversation, explain what they can expect from the interview, and give them a chance to get into their groove.
  • Once the candidate is comfortable, then pay attention to their body language. Don’t focus too much on body language at the start of the conversation when the candidate is likely to be nervous and tense. The real indicators of engagement and interest are more likely to come once they’ve loosened up a bit.
  • Record the interview. Many video interviewing software allows you to record your interviews and review the tapes later. This gives you the option to focus on the content of the conversation while you’re talking to the candidate, and then focus on body language when you watch the recording. This usually isn’t possible with in-person interviews, so put one in the W column for video calls!
  • Use AI tools to analyze body language. If you want to go full Blade Runner with your body language reading, then there are AI-driven tools on the market that analyze things like facial cues, word choice, body movement, and so on. The benefit of these platforms is that they give you objective insights into things you may have missed during the interview, thus extending your view of the candidate.

Video interviews aren’t going away any time soon. And neither is body language (hopefully). As such, recruiters and hiring managers will need to find ways to adapt and bridge these two requirements. We hope this article has pointed you in the right direction.

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