How to read candidate body language in an interview
Often, interviewers think candidates who slouch are bored or arrogant and decide to turn them down. But, how much should we trust our impressions of candidates’ body language during interviews?
We’re all naturally able to pick up on nonverbal cues. Though often useful, non verbal cues can be misleading. People behave and express themselves as a response to specific situations, especially stressful ones like job interviews. They don’t necessarily act the same way all the time.
Understanding body language isn’t an exact science. Here are some common interview body language signals that you can learn to read (with a pinch of salt):
What is body language?
It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Our posture, gestures, movements or facial expressions can shape our reputations. Body language matters, especially in interviews.
In a 2012 TED speech, the social psychologist Amy Cuddy, underlined body language’s importance in shaping how we feel, too. Adopting a dominant pose makes people feel more powerful. Body language is indeed a useful tool. When you want to make a point, arm gestures help you paint a picture and get people to listen. And when you want to dominate a discussion, an open posture can be a strong ally.
But, when interpreting other people’s body language, things get complicated. No one can read minds. If a job candidate blinks often, we can assume they’re overly nervous. But how do we know that their contact lenses aren’t getting dry? The key is to avoid jumping to conclusions. Learning to read interview body language is about understanding candidates’ motives.
Slouching is a red flag. It shows a lack of self confidence and respect for interviewers. You’ll definitely want candidates who care enough to sit up straight during their interview.
Sitting on a chair’s edge and leaning forward is usually positive body language. It shows that candidates are eager and interested in what’s being said. But, if a candidate intrudes in your personal space by coming too close, it’s not a good sign. Leaning back is usually negative. If you see a candidate leaning back suddenly, they may be getting defensive.
Shoulder movements help people communicate their emotions. If a candidate describes an experience with flamboyant words but remains stiff as a board or moves only one shoulder, they may be uncertain or lying.
People often use hand and arm gestures for emphasis. It helps us express ourselves. Of course, there’s a thin line between being expressive and being dramatic. So, unless you’re hiring an actor, be wary of candidates who overdo this type of body language during an interview. Candidates who use chopping movements or lots of finger pointing can be seen as authoritative, which could make you doubt whether they could work well with a team.
When a candidate touches their face or plays with their hair, they can appear deceptive or uncomfortable. When people rub their necks, they’re often trying to comfort themselves or relieve frustration. It might be a symptom of lying, too.
Crossing arms can mean many things. But, usually, candidates who cross their arms in front of their chest during an interview probably feel insecure and defensive. Most people around the world dislike seeing others crossing their arms because it’s distancing. But it’s a natural reaction when meeting a stranger and it’s a good sign when candidates unfold their arms later during their interview.
Most of us are guilty of fidgeting occasionally. Candidates are expected to be nervous during an interview. Paying too much attention to nervous tics can lead us astray. If candidates play with their pen during an interview it doesn’t mean they’re neurotic or unsure of themselves in general. But, rude tics are harder to excuse.
However, when hiring salespeople, promoters or leaders, nervous movements during an interview be a big deal. You can excuse a degree of anxiety but being relaxed when interacting with people is important for certain roles.
Eyes are the windows to the soul. Sort of. Eye contact is often seen as a sign of honesty and confidence. It’d be very difficult to trust someone who averts their eyes when you’re talking to them or always seems to focus on a mysterious object above your shoulder. But, assessing eye contact can be tricky.
Candidates who look into your eyes intensively may be rude or trying to stare you down. Shy people often don’t make direct eye contact. It’s also natural for people to look away for a moment when trying to think or remember something. Plus, contrary to popular belief, when people lie they tend to make more eye contact.
A handshake is a well-known body language sign. Stronger handshakes signify confidence. And shy (or nervous) people sometimes have weak handshakes. If a candidate walks in and their handshake is too strong, it may be a sign of aggressiveness. Interestingly, handshakes vary among cultures. Of course, it’s always a good thing if a handshake comes with a genuine smile.
When talking to someone we often unconsciously mirror their movements and mannerisms, making them trust us more easily. For example, we’re likely to smile or cross our arms when we see others doing so. But, there’s a catch: you don’t know whether a candidate is mirroring naturally or on purpose. If they’re doing it on purpose, they may be trying to manipulate you. But, if it’s involuntary, it means they’re interested in building rapport.
Various personality attributes can result in negative body language. A person who doesn’t make eye contact may be shy, not dishonest. People may change their body language in group settings. Is being shy likely to hurt their job performance? If not, don’t mind it.
Body language is also dependent on culture. The renowned psychologist Paul Ekman has studied facial expressions that link to “universal emotions”; things we all feel and express in the same way regardless of culture. But, that’s not true for all signs. Some vary according to cultural background. Eye contact may be important in Western cultures. But, in Japan it’s sometimes viewed negatively.
Guidelines for reading body language
- Observe extreme behavior. A candidate’s harmless tic doesn’t mean they won’t fit in well at your company. But be cautious about extreme behaviors, like a person constantly checking their phone.
- Spot the difference. You can read people’s body language by spotting changes in their movements or posture. Imagine, for example, that a candidate suddenly starts tapping their foot. Maybe they feel the interview is taking too long. Or perhaps they’re facing an uncomfortable question.
- Connect the dots. You can’t always tell what a specific gesture means on its own. For example, people may cross their arms when they’re cold. But, when you see a candidate crossing their arms, crossing their legs and balling their fists at the same time, brace yourself for an aggressive answer.
- Ask away. If you pick up on nonverbal cues that mean a candidate is withholding information, ask follow up questions.
Download our free structured interviews guide to learn how to evaluate candidates more effectively.
Body language is a two-way street
Candidates are in the spotlight during an interview. It’s their moment to shine and they’re expected to prepare. Does that mean an interviewer’s body language doesn’t count?
Probably not. Candidate experience greatly depends on an interviewer’s body language. Positive body language can make candidates relax and open up. Negative body language can spark defensive and reserved reactions. Try not to slouch or give in to nervous tics. Be aware of conscious or unconscious mistakes during interviews to preserve a strong employer brand and positive candidate experience.
Frequently asked questions
What is the best body language for an interview?
Body language can make or break a first impression, and eye contact is key to creating the best possible effect. When you look someone in their eyes, it shows them that they're interesting enough for further discussion on whatever subject matter may come up during the interview.
Why is body language most important during an interview?
The way you carry yourself in an interview can give away important information about your personality. Body language reveals whether or not the candidate has confidence and is focused on their goals.
Dos and don'ts of body language during an interview?
When you're sitting in a job interview, keep your back against the chair and make sure to maintain whatever position is most comfortable for it. If possible, try not to be too stiff or rigid with posture because this can appear uninterested on top of already appearing aggressive.