When I started in HR, I was sure that the best applicant for a job would be the one who gave the most impressive answers. Oh, how wrong I was!
I can still remember the day when this belief completely changed. It was the first time my boss asked me to screen applicants for an opening. He asked me to narrow down the list to three persons. I did so, and he interviewed each one soon after. I thought he would need some time to think about his final hire.
But he didn’t. He knew right then and there who he wanted for the job. How was he able to make such a quick hiring decision?
How We Get Our First Impressions
We think that a successful job interview means giving the best answers. But that’s not entirely true. Verbal communication is only one aspect. Often overlooked are the nonverbal aspects of communication. Often, it’s the latter that finally decides whether a job seeker gets hired or not.
We often base our first impression of a person on their appearance, speech, and body language. That’s logical. What’s surprising is that most of our first impressions come from body language, not appearance or speech.
Mehrabian’s 7% Rule
Known to many as Mehrabian’s 7% rule, which says that only 7% of communication is verbal. The rest is non-verbal: 55% body language and 38% tone of voice.
While many say this rule is unproven and doesn’t apply to all cases, we can’t deny that there’s some truth to it. Nonverbal cues are often more expressive than verbal cues.
The Importance of Body Language in Interviews
In the world of HR, nonverbal communication begins as soon as a job seeker enters the office. Imagine an applicant walking in, looking prim and proper. Then comes another applicant who’s sweaty and unkempt. Which of the two would you prefer to hire?
Appearances of course shouldn’t mean everything. But when applying for a job, you should look for people who put their best foot forward.
Assessing Interview Body Language
Here’s a list of the most common nonverbal factors to observe. Look out for these cues to better assess someone’s fit for a position:
- Handshake: Being nervous about a job interview is typical. But, nervousness is not an excuse to make a bad first impression. If the interviewee gives a handshake that is too soft or limp, it can mean lack of confidence. If an interviewee gives a bone-crushing handshake, it can mean overconfidence or even arrogance.
A good handshake is short, dry, and firm. Look for an applicant who gives a good handshake. One who does shows confidence and assertiveness.
- Eye contact: Keeping good eye contact is important. If someone can’t look you straight in the eye, it can mean that the interviewee lacks confidence. Or, it can mean that he is lying or making things up. In which case, the interviewee is showing signs that he isn’t trustworthy.
An applicant with good eye contact can look right into your eyes just often enough. You’ll know and feel it because the atmosphere is comfortable but professional.
- Posture: One of the worst times to slouch is during a job interview. If an interviewee slouches, it signals that either he isn’t that excited about the job. In contrast, an interviewee who sits erect indicates enthusiasm and interest.
- Facial expressions: A warm smile is a welcome sight. Especially during your first meeting. Sadly, many applicants get too nervous during an interview. The result? They forget how important it is to smile and project a positive attitude.
That said, smiling throughout the interview is unrealistic. Sometimes, smiling can even be inappropriate. Even so, you’ll find it easier to like an interviewee who smiles a lot.
- Hands: People are naturally inclined to do hand gestures when talking. But, there is such a thing as too much hand gestures. During an interview, it’s distracting. Look for an applicant who has better control over hand gestures. It shows he is confident and deliberate with his actions.
- Body language: Some actions are inappropriate during interviews. Learn how to distinguish which cues are positive and which are negative.
(+) Leaning forward a little = curious and engaged
(-) Hunched too forward = too casual
(+) Palms together, hands on lap = honest and open-minded
(-) Clenched fists, too much hand waving hands, keeping hands hidden, folded arms = nervous, unpredictable, distrustful, defensive
(+) Feet planted on the floor, straight posture = focused and interested
(-) Tapping fingers, shaking legs = bored and impatient
(+) Nodding occasionally = listening intently
(-) Pursing lips = holding something back
Same Gestures, Different Meanings
Many nonverbal cues have a universal meaning. Still, there are some that have a different meaning depending on the race or culture. For example, eye contact shows openness and self-confidence for Western cultures. But for the Japanese, direct eye contact is unpleasant and sometimes considered disrespectful.
If you have a diverse company culture, prefer job seekers who know about your culture. Not only does it show diligence, it will also mean he will be easier for others to work with when he comes onboard.
There’s one nonverbal cue that is truly universal: smiling. And that’s something no one can go wrong with.
Actions Speak Louder
Interviewing is not just listening to rehearsed answers. Nonverbal cues can sometimes be more important than verbal cues.
It’s easy to memorize words, but nonverbal cues can reveal the unspoken truth. Body language is harder to fake. Thus, nonverbal cues tend to show a person’s true attitude and character.
Actions do speak louder than words. A less than satisfying answer to an interview question is forgivable. But a negative nonverbal cue isn’t and could mean the difference between getting hired or not.
Back to my story. My boss explained to me about verbal and nonverbal cues. After that, I knew how he was able to choose right away from among the three finalists. Only one of them knew how to make good eye contact.