How to decode a job candidate’s body language

By November 4, 2013Hiring & Recruiting
Hiring & Recruiting

Research suggests that body language and para-linguistic cues (like intonation, body posture, and facial expressions) influence up to 93 per cent of human communication, while only seven per cent is shaped by the words we use. Imagine the profound impact that non-verbal communication can have on the hiring and interviewing process.

I interview more than a thousand candidates each year, both over the phone and in person. Every time, I instinctively take notice of people’s voice fluctuations, eye movements, how often they blink, and whether their facial expressions match what they are saying. But what do these things actually mean?

There is an entire field dedicated to researching such “silent cues,” so I approached some of the industry’s most prominent thought-leaders to get some tips on how to decode a job candidate’s body language.

Pay attention to your first impression

Eliot Hoppe, a highly respected authority on body language, says that while hiring managers may not be conscious of it, they already begin to “size up” a candidate for the position, at first glance. And it’s literally a first glance.

“In the first four seconds of meeting someone, you will have already answered four questions: Do I like you? Do I trust you? Are you safe? And who do you remind me of?” said Hoppe. “Consider too, that even in a short 20-minute meeting, a person can transmit up to seven hundred non-verbal signals, and that’s beyond the verbal communication already taking place.”

Plan ahead to assess fit

To assess a candidate’s fit with company culture, high-performance trainer Mark Bowden advises setting up an “in-environment” interview, to best see how a person will assimilate to the organization’s culture.

“Are they sitting closer or farther away compared to how your colleagues sit amongst each other at the office?” said Bowden. “Look at the speed of your communications culture too – how fast do people in your organization speak, compared to the pace of your candidate?”

Bowden does suggest being cautious when comparing a candidate’s non-verbal cues to your current staff’s body language. They are, after all, in very different situations. “Use your gut feeling to read the signals you are getting, and then make an intelligent judgment through comparative contexts.”

Take eye contact into account (but note the person’s background)

Hoppe points out that it is very important to pay attention to people’s culture, as this can greatly influence our body language stereotypes. Consider eye contact.

Many of us have been taught to look people in the eye. We’re told when people don’t look you in the eye, they must be lying. This, however, may be a cultural thing.

“In cultures like the Japanese, it’s considered rude to ‘stare’ for prolonged periods of time. They have what’s called a low gaze rate, somewhere around 45-50 per cent,” explained Hoppe. “It would be a mistake to assume such a candidate is lying. On the other end, Scandinavians have a high gaze rate of 90% when speaking, which doesn’t mean that they are staring you down or trying to be intimidating at all.”

In the same way, Hoppe explains, we might signal to a candidate with our forefinger to “come this way,” but in Singapore that would be considered extremely rude since that is how you would beckon a dog!

Nicholas Boothman, a leading expert in face-to-face communications says many companies’ best performers have what he calls the “five human super powers.”

“When you are reading a candidate’s body language, you want to look for: enthusiasm, curiosity, the ability to process feedback (do they respond?), empathy and imagination,” explained Boothman. “Zero in your questioning to see if all five of these super powers are working in the interview, if you do not see a glimpse of those five things, say: next!”
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Julie Labrie is the Vice President of BlueSky Personnel Solutions. After 14 years of recruiting top talent, she is a veteran in her field. Fluent in both English and French, Julie also provides bilingual placement and expertise. She works closely with both business/HR executives and job candidates, and can offer insights into the strategies, nuances and psychology of the hiring process.

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