How Important is Body Language on a Job Interview?

As a species, we learned to read body language signals before we invented spoken communication. We master the spoken word later in life, and, in so doing, we forget the importance of nonverbal cues—but the signals are still sent and received, usually at a subconscious level.

In fact, studies done at the University of Chicago found that more than 50 percent of all effective communication relies on body language. Even when a candidate isn’t speaking, she is nevertheless talking to you all the same through body language.

Find the best candidates and ensure they succeed
Find the best candidates and ensure they succeed

When you conduct job interviews, you will notice a candidate’s bodily responses to questions. Developing awareness of these somatic “tells” is an invaluable tool for judging candidates, and it’s not limited to the negative. You can use these unconscious signals not just to rule out job seekers who are withholding, feel guilty, lack confidence or signal aggression, but also to assess the social graces (necessary in many fields from the mid-level up) so important in jobs where client and vendor interaction is part of the job.

Body language is the first means of communication we develop
Among the first body signals you can assess is the handshake. You will probably initiate the handshake, but how does the candidate respond? Does he look you in the eye with a smile, or does he pull back, hesitate, or give you a limp, clammy hand? Does he leave appropriate bodily space, or is he a “close talker”? Is his grip firm? Too loose, and you may have a shy, passive job seeker who may lack self-confidence—it’s not a guarantee, but noticing gives you a heads-up on something to look into. Too firm, and your applicant may be an aggressive know-it-all who plans to run the place her first day on the job.

You discover once the candidate sits down. A chair is an opportunity for all sorts of fearful, passive, or nervous behaviors. A job hunter who slouches in his chair and crosses his arms will remind you of a petulant teen, and the resemblance may not be accidental. On the other hand, a candidate who stretches her legs out and clasps her hands behind her head may be a little bit too comfortable or displaying arrogance. Sitting upright with a slight forward tilt of the body shows interest and engagement.

When the applicant speaks, does he hold his palms open, inviting you to engage with what he’s saying? Does he steeple his fingers thoughtfully when giving serious consideration to a difficult question? Or does he impatiently tap a pen or fingernail, indicating that he’s tired of your description of the job’s deliverables and impatient to get to how wonderful he is?

There are many more bodily tells you can look for (luncheon interviews are a goldmine and we’ll discuss these later), and they all tie into the communication skills that are so vital in many jobs. Begin to develop a conscious awareness of these details (your subconscious is already picking up on them) and you will be that much speedier at separating the gold from the dross. For example, if a candidate leaves you uncomfortable in some undefined way, think back to the his body language for clues.

For more about body language click here.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Martin. These cues and clues tell a great story if we as hiring managers take the time to listen. All the best, John Mooney