When you walk into the interview room, you’ll make assumptions based on the candidate’s body language before he or she even says a word, whether you’re aware of it or not. It’s very simple – subconscious gestures and movements play a huge part in how we communicate with each other.
In this post, we’ll talk a bit about reading a candidate’s body language, what you may be able to learn from it and how to use that extra knowledge to make the best hiring decision.
Reading Body Language is Not a Secret Key
To begin, it’s very important to remember that body language is not a secret key into the “hidden” mind of an individual. Our purpose is not to psychoanalyze the applicant, but merely to understand everything they are communicating during an interview.
There is also no secret list of nonverbal signs that a candidate is definitely lying, though many managers would love to have one!
The trouble with eye contact, for instance, does not automatically mean the person you’re interviewing is deceptive or untrustworthy. They may simply be nervous or shy.
Ray Birdwhistell, estimates the face is capable of over 250,000 expressions.
Sometimes body language can raise a red flag to follow up on, though you must always be cautious not to jump to conclusions. Nervous body language can be easily misinterpreted as dishonesty, lack of interest, or lack of confidence. That is why it is important to keep body language interpretation as an additional perception.
Introduction to Reading Body Language
So let’s talk about how observing body language can support you in evaluating a candidate’s style, personality, and attitude. Keep in mind that body language can provide hints, but we should avoid jumping to conclusions based on body language alone.
Take it as one data point, but be sure to focus primarily on the actual answers to your interview questions.
#1 The Greeting
Let’s start with one of the first body language signs you will notice – the greeting. It is well known that a firm handshake and strong eye contact communicate confidence.
Greetings Assumption #1:
If the candidate makes the move to shake your hand first or begins taking a seat before being invited, you could say they are likely an assertive person, used to taking initiative and being a leader.
Their body language is telling you they are ready to take control, lead and even show off (especially their expertise). Such information could be very interesting if you are hiring leadership roles.
But, and this is very important, only his or her answers to your interview questions can actually confirm or deny such an assumption.
Greetings Assumption #2:
On the other hand, a weaker handshake and trouble with eye contact can imply a more passive personality. In this situation, you could pay more attention to the team-working or client-dealing interview questions to determine if this candidate is a good fit for your working environment.
At the same time, these body language signs could also mean that the candidate is simply shy or introverted. In that case, he or she would need, maybe, a longer team adaptation period after which he or she would be a valuable team member the same way the others are.
Meeting strangers could be stressful for some candidates which means they could act a bit differently than usual. That is why you should be very careful when reading body language signs.
Britain, along with most of Northern Europe and the Far East, is classed as a “non-contact” culture, in which there is very little physical contact in daily interactions. By comparison, the Middle East, Latin America, and Southern Europe are considered “high contact cultures” where physical touch is a large part of socializing.
(Merrit, Anne. “International Body Language: A Language with No Words.” The Telegraph. May 14, 2013. Accessed March 19, 2014.)
#2 Eye Contact
We know that steady, normal eye contact is an ideal body language sign. A candidate should be able to look you in the eye while talking to you. But, some people have trouble keeping normal eye contact due to nerves, shyness, or distraction. Before you make any assumption simply help them relax a bit.
On the other hand, if someone can’t seem to make much eye contact at all, even after you’ve tried to put them at ease, it might raise some concerns, especially for a position that requires a comfort level with in-person communication.
At the same time, overly intense eye contact can be off-putting. It could indicate issues with professionalism or self-awareness.
The best advice I can give you is – don’t judge a candidate too harshly if their eye contact isn’t perfect. Instead, try helping them relax so you can get the most of their answers to your interview questions. At the end of the day their answers, not their body language, is what you should care the most.
In the Middle East, same-gender eye contact tends to be more intense and sustained than in the West. However, in many Asian, African, and Latin American countries, unbroken eye contact is considered aggressive and confrontational.
Merrit, Anne. “International Body Language: A Language with No Words.” The Telegraph. May 14, 2013. Accessed March 19, 2014.
#3 Facial Expressions
Facial expressions can tell you a lot about a candidate’s attitude and how they are responding to specific information or questions. As a matter of fact, face expression will probably be the most interesting body language sign to follow during the whole interview. Their face reaction to each question could tell you more than you expected.
For example, if you mention that the job requires a lot of client interaction and the candidate immediately smiles and says, “Wonderful!” it’s likely they truly feel that way.
However, if they say “Wonderful!” and then smile more weakly, they are likely less enthused than their words seem to suggest.
Keep in mind that some people have good “poker faces” and others let every feeling show. This is why the whole body language science is so tricky.
There are six universal facial expressions: 1) anger, 2) disgust, 3) fear, 4) happiness, 5) sadness, and 6) surprise. Recently, some scientists have argued that looks of contempt and embarrassment are also universal expressions.
Wainwright, Gordon. Body Language (Teach Yourself). Blacklick, OH: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc, 2009.
We can’t really discuss facial expressions without also mentioning microexpressions. Never heard of them? No worries, we will start from the beginning.
Microexpressions are tiny involuntary expressions that occur in just 1/25th of a second.
You may have heard about the work of Dr. Paul Ekman, who has studied micro-expressions in-depth and written several books about them. Or you may have seen the TV show “Lie To Me,” which was inspired by Dr. Ekman.
Some of these microexpressions are common sense — for example, wrinkling your nose shows disgust and raising your eyebrows indicates surprise.
Others are less intuitive. For example, according to Ekman, if a right-handed person looks to the right when speaking, they are likely lying.
The idea is that looking to the right reveals activity in the right hemisphere—the creative half of their brain. On the other hand, eyes pointed to the left suggest the speaker is telling the truth by calling upon activity in the rational, left hemisphere.
While this is all very interesting, sadly it’s not clear how much of microexpression theory is backed up by science. For example, a recent study disproved the whole looking up to the right when lying idea.
And let’s face it, there are enough other things you have to pay attention to in a job interview. In our opinion, trying to master microexpressions is not the best use of a hiring manager’s time.
It’s better to note more obvious and easily interpreted facial expressions, such as:
- A smile usually indicates pleasure or friendliness
- A smile that doesn’t reach the eyes might be manufactured
- A frown or stern expression could indicate seriousness or displeasure
- A wrinkled nose indicates disgust or displeasure.
These expressions can help you read the candidate’s feelings about specific subjects that come up during the interview.
Don’t overanalyze facial expressions, but just keep in mind they can give you some hints about whether the candidate is REALLY excited about the job or not.
From the body language perspective, a candidate’s posture can say a lot about attitude or general style. Sitting up straight generally conveys confidence and respect. Slouching can indicate timidity, but can also convey casualness.
A candidate who seems too casual and laid-back in an interview might not be overly invested in making a good impression. That could mean a lack of interest or lack of professionalism. On the other hand, an overly rigid posture can mean nervousness or a candidate who is very formal in style.
Crossed arms can indicate defensiveness or negativity about the topic being discussed. A candidate who keeps her arms crossed throughout the interview is definitely not engaged and is probably not someone with an open style of communicating.
Experienced nonverbal observers have noted how people who are lying often will not move their feet in an interview or will interlock their feet to restrict movement. People tend to restrict both arm and leg movement when lying.
Navarro, Joe and Marvin Karlins, PhD. What Every Body Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People. New York, NY: Collins Living, 2008.
There’s nothing wrong with fidgeting in general. It certainly doesn’t automatically mean excessive nervousness or deception. As a matter of fact, some degree of fidgeting is pretty common in an interview situation, especially when the candidate is nervous.
Some people naturally “talk with their hands”, which can come across as fidgeting sometimes.
As with vocal fillers like “ums” and “uhs”, fidgeting is fine up to a point. If it starts to get distracting, however, it’s worth noting. Especially if the fidgeting continues throughout the interview or intensifies during certain answers.
Constant fidgeting could mean excessive nervousness, discomfort with the topic, lack of presentation skills, or even lack of professionalism if taken to an extreme.
Common fidgeting behaviors include repeatedly touching the face or hair, shifting in the chair, playing with an object like a pen, or other nervous hand gestures.
Fingertips planted and spread apart on a surface are a significant territorial display of confidence and authority.
Navarro, Joe and Marvin Karlins, PhD. What Every Body Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People. New York, NY: Collins Living, 2008.
#7 Abrupt Shifts
While you don’t want to over-analyze every move the candidate makes, be aware that abrupt changes in body language can mean some sort of deceptiveness or dishonesty is at play.
For instance, if the applicant is maintaining strong eye contact, but suddenly shifts their gaze when you begin talking about a certain topic, it could mean something.
If it’s a tough question, it may just mean the candidate is taking a moment to think it through. Or if it’s an uncomfortable topic like a weakness or red flag, it’s normal to be a little less relaxed than when discussing strengths or successes.
But, an abrupt change likely indicates discomfort of some kind. You may want to use follow-up questions to make sure the candidate is being up-front with you.
The same goes for an open posture.
If they are sitting tall with their hands in front of them, but suddenly close themselves off by crossing their arms or slouching, it can be an indicator of a subject they’d prefer to keep to themselves.
Remember: It’s important not to jump to the conclusion that a candidate is lying from body language alone. You want to give everyone the opportunity to answer the questions and tell their story. Body language is a great addition to a more complete picture of the person in front of you.
We go into greater depth on how to identify dishonesty and red flags in how candidates answer interview questions on the section Spotting Liars below.
Interviewer Body Language
While your candidate’s body language could tell a lot, your body language as the interviewer could tell a story too.
Keep in mind that some candidates will mirror your body language — some consciously and some unconsciously. Be aware of the messages you may be sending with your body language and gestures.
“Language is a more recent technology. Your body language, your eyes, your energy will come through to your audience before you even start speaking.”
– Peter Guber
Generally, you’ll establish the best rapport with a confident but relaxed posture, steady eye contact, and pleasant, responsive facial expressions. Stay focused on the candidate — not your phone or your computer.
During this short interview interaction, you want to be paying attention and you also want to convey with the body language that you are interested and engaged.
Spotting a Liar during a Job Interview
In a recent survey, 85% of hiring managers said they had caught applicants lying on resumes or applications – an increase from 66% just five years ago. Even more, applicants avoid outright lies but do a bit of exaggerating or puffing up their credentials.
While some of these lies will get caught by the recruiter or HR during the screening process, others are tougher to detect. The interview is your opportunity to fact check, validate the resume, and try to get to know the real candidate.
Lots of hiring managers worry about this. You don’t want to get conned into hiring an unqualified or even downright unethical person.
The thing is, you might think you know how to spot a liar. There has been a lot written about common indicators of deception – including avoiding eye contact, fidgeting, and dodging questions.
But many truthful candidates exhibit these supposedly tell-tale signs because they are nervous, not because they are lying.
Almost every candidate is going to be at least a little bit nervous in a job interview, especially if they’re really excited about the position. And nerves can lead to very similar behaviors to those that have been said to indicate dishonesty.
So it’s important not to jump to conclusions. Don’t assume someone is dishonest when they might just be introverted or unaccustomed to interviewing.
On the other hand, you want to pay attention to certain signals that MIGHT indicate something is amiss.
Most Common Lies During an Interview
We’re going to focus primarily on identifying lies during the interview process. However, keep in mind that you’ll also want to be on the lookout for lies commonly told on resumes.
#1 Resume Lies
Resumes are marketing documents. While it makes sense to present your background in the best way possible, some candidates take this idea too far. Their goal is to get past the gatekeepers – both the applicant tracking systems and human gatekeepers.
Some job seekers try to game the system to get a foot in the door. And then it’s up to the interviewers to call the bluff. Misrepresentations on resumes can include outright lies, artful exaggerations, and strategic omissions.
Some candidates don’t consider it lying to just “fudge” a few details that they deem irrelevant.
Some of the most common things that job applicants misrepresent on resumes include:
- Dates of employment
- Degrees earned
- Scope of job responsibilities
- Key numbers (sales figures, revenue increases, budgets managed, etc.)
- Technical abilities
- Language fluency
- Grade point averages
While it would be nice to take everyone at face value as honest and forthright, you have to be a little bit cynical. If you’ve ever been burned by a dishonest hire, as many managers have, you may be a bit TOO cynical.
Your best bet is to trust but verify.
This is why many companies conduct assessments and background checks. And it is also why companies conduct screening interviews to verify resume details before moving a candidate on to meet with the hiring manager and/or other stakeholders.
#2 Interview Lies
Once key resume facts have been verified and the candidate seems like a great fit on paper, it’s time for the interview. Here’s where you can get into more sensitive and nuanced topics.
During the interview process, applicants are most often less than honest when talking about:
- Reasons for leaving past jobs
- Future goals
- Strengths in key competencies
- Job accomplishments
Now there’s a big difference between lying and not being 100% candid.
Sometimes there’s a good reason a candidate isn’t telling you the full story. This often comes up when discussing the reasons for leaving a previous job.
Smart candidates know that they shouldn’t be negative in a job interview. But often they are looking for a new position due to a negative experience — often something out of their control that is no reflection on their abilities. Sometimes it’s hard to find a diplomatic way to discuss a bad boss or a toxic work environment.
And let’s face it, you don’t want to hear about every little annoyance that led to the candidate leaving her last job.
On the other hand, you do need to know if she was let go for performance issues.
Or if she has unrealistic expectations.
Or if there is a history of conflict or unprofessionalism.
If she says she “left to pursue new challenges” when she was really fired for attitude problems, that goes way beyond “fudging” a detail. This is why careful listening and follow-up are so important.
You need to pay attention to when an answer doesn’t feel truthful. And you need to ask to follow up questions to get enough information to make an intelligent hiring decision.
How to Spot Lies During an Interview
As a hiring manager, your job in the interview is to learn as much as possible about a candidate’s fit for the job – including skills, experience, motivations, and attitude.
When it comes to evaluating someone’s truthfulness, you don’t have time to overanalyze a single body language sign they will show. However, it makes sense to be observant of patterns of behavior that could indicate dishonesty.
At the same time, you must also be careful not to jump to conclusions or rely too much on a “gut” feeling about someone that’s not backed up with facts.
“Body language is a very powerful tool. We had body language before we had speech, and apparently, 80% of what you understand in a conversation is read through the body, not the words.”
It’s important to follow up on suspicions and make sure you’re not defaulting to a biased response based on assumptions or myths about “how to spot a liar.”
For example, you may have heard that breaking eye contact is a sign of dishonesty.
But that’s not true. People from different cultural backgrounds have different body language cues.
While Americans tend to favor bold and confident eye contact, a candidate may have been raised in another culture where extended eye contact is seen as rude or challenging. So it’s important to keep an open mind while also paying attention to red flags and inconsistencies.
Here are some best practices to help you separate dishonest candidates from real deals.
Ask Behavioral Interview Questions
We strongly recommend using behavioral interview questions – those “tell me about a time…” questions that we cover in great depth in our curriculum (coming soon). They simply have a lot of benefits for making the right hiring decision.
One of these benefits is they make it harder to lie convincingly about past experience. How?
Behavioral questions ask for detailed examples from a candidate’s work history.
Often, you can tell from the depth and specificity of the response if it is truthful.
For instance, most candidates could come up with a general answer if asked about leadership style, even those who haven’t had much leadership experience.
But if you’re asked for a specific example of how you had to deal with a non-performing employee, it’s harder to give a good answer without some real experience.
Follow-up questions are key here if the initial response seems weak or generic.
Nervousness or lack of interview experience may lead a truthful candidate to scramble for a good example and sound less than convincing at first. Simply said, ask for more details:
- “Tell me more about what specific actions you took…”
- “How exactly did you approach the issue?”
- “What do you think were some reasons for the problem?”
- “Tell me more about the outcome of the situation…”
Take note if the answers to the follow-up questions seem vague or unconvincing – or if the candidate tries to avoid answering. You may not get definitive proof that the candidate is lying, but you can make note of where answers seem weak and make sure that’s reflected in the interview scorecard.
Keep it Open-Ended
With open-ended questions, you give the candidate room to tell their story their way. On the other hand, closed-ended questions can be leading.
It’s not a secret that many managers find conducting interviews to be awkward. They end up giving away too much information, trying to make it easier for the candidate. This can make it much easier for a candidate to tell you what you want to hear, even if it’s not true.
Follow-Up on Generalities
It’s easier to perpetuate a lie if you stick to the surface. This is part of why behavioral questions are effective. They ask for details. Simply said, if you draw out a detailed example, you can fact check and assess for whether it all fits together.
If an answer feels a bit general to you, use follow-up questions to get some more context and color.
Sometimes an initial answer is general because the candidate is nervous. With a bit of prompting, they can give you more. More about the scope of the project, how they approached it, what obstacles came up, why it was successful, etc.
If a candidate can’t go beyond generalities, that might be a sign that they’re exaggerating, leaving out important information, or even making it up.
On the other hand, sometimes providing TOO MUCH DETAIL can be a sign of dishonesty as well. You see this in suspects who construct elaborate alibis. This is rarer in job interviews.
However, if a candidate spends a lot of time on irrelevant detail, they may be trying to distract you from the real story.
Follow-Up on Inconsistencies
Listen for inconsistencies, discrepancies, and details that just don’t make sense. A common type of inconsistency has to do with the candidate’s behavior and presentation.
For example, if she starts fidgeting and adjusting her blazer when the topic shifts to her last boss.
Or his vocal pitch rises and he crosses his arms.
The key here is to establish normal behavior for the candidate and then note CHANGES.
This isn’t a foolproof methodology, but it can give you some cues regarding where you might want to investigate further.
Sadly there are some really talented liars out there who might not give you many clues to their dishonesty at all.
All you can do is LISTEN and WATCH carefully and be vigilant about following up when you sense that something isn’t ringing true.
The more you use these strategies, the better you’ll get at spotting liars BEFORE they get hired.