Body Language: The Most Underappreciated Tool in the Hiring Process

by Anastasia C. Valentine on October 31, 2016



For 22 years, I have interviewed many professionals and like most, there have been times that I have made a bad hire. As I succeeded and failed throughout the years, I realized there was a common denominator regardless of my understanding at the time. What I have come to understand is that there is a great deal of nonverbal communication to consider when truly assessing human capital.  So, why are we not watching more closely?

Since I have been more tuned in to reading body language, I have been fortunate to recruit a team of employees who have worked with me for 10-18 years, and our newest members are hopefully here for the long run, too. Combining my own experiences with some of the most recent research data, I have come to a deeper understanding of how body language tells a bigger story than words alone, particularly in the hiring process.

Why Does Body Language Make Such an Impact?

Recent research reveals that many of us have known subconsciously that communication goes much deeper than the words that come out of our mouths. For example, a recent study from the University of Glasgow, Scotland, presents strong evidence that we judge a person’s character and personality traits from the mere sound of their voice within the very first word they speak.

But the acoustics and tone of your voice are only the beginning. Even more importantly, according to studies conducted by MIT researchers, is the finding that body language makes a significant impact on our decision-making processes. According to these researchers, nonverbal signals likely predate the evolution of human language itself, so most people are not even aware of the gestures, actions, and expressions they present when communicating with others. This is especially true if they are nervous or excited, such as in the scenario of a job interview.

The fact that such an overlooked component of communication plays an integral role in our interactions is eye-opening. Research from Harvard Business School psychologist Amy Cuddy reports that the first thing we look for when meeting a person is an evaluation of their trustworthiness. Thus, we intuitively search for signals of honesty and integrity in a person’s eye contact, facial expressions, gestures and posture. But if our control of these nonverbal actions are subconscious, how can we be sure we are making the best impression, particularly in the workplace or in a job interview?

Translating Body Language: A Real Life Example

I was interviewing a girl whose background looked absolutely great on paper and who seemed very excited about the job opportunity at hand. With equal enthusiasm, I started to explain that we were looking for a long term commitment.

At this point, I noticed some unusual body language that appeared inconsistent with her verbal responses. Wanting to avoid my next hiring mistake, I purposely asked some very pointed questions. I asked, “Are you sure this is the direction you want to take your career?”  She had an excellent answer that was well rehearsed. It would have passed the test. But again, I noticed that she would not make eye contact, and in fact kept looking out the window.

Her body language was totally noncommittal, so the next arsenal of questions had to clarify this once and for all. Caught in the lie, she nervously laughed and came clean. She was planning to pursue a Master’s degree in the fall as a full-time student and become a teacher.  She needed a job until that point, but it clearly was not going to be this one.

It has been experiences like this one that have repeatedly proved to me just how valuable body language is as a tool in the hiring process.

Elements of Body Language

Writing for Forbes Magazine, body language expert and business coach Dr. Carol Kinsey Goman recently published a rundown of common nonverbal signals to be aware of. She claims there are three main types of hand gestures:

  • Emblematic: showing an agreed upon meaning, such as a thumbs up
  • Pacifying: self-touching gestures that soothe anxiety or stress, such as playing with jewelry or wringing hands
  • Illustrative: conscious or unconscious emphasis of verbal intent, such as pointing

When reading body language in an interview, illustrative gestures are the most revealing and will tell you a lot about a candidate. Look for the following:

  • Open palms held at an angle display openness and truth-telling
  • Vertical palms imply a need to demonstrate preciseness or emphasis
  • Steepled palms show confidence in the subject matter
  • Clenched palms communicate anger or frustration in most contexts
  • Hidden hands signal a lack of trustworthiness

Of course, this is just a fraction of all the gestures, facial expressions, and unconscious movements in a single person’s repertoire of body language. Ultimately, being conscious of your own body language or attempting to translate someone else’s nonverbal communication takes practice. Your gestures and facial expressions should feel natural, or else you risk appearing disingenuous. But armed with this wealth of information, you can more confidently navigate the world of body language in the workplace.

At Resource 1 we are highly tuned into how body language impacts the hiring process. We are conducting interviews on a daily basis, and our knowledge of nonverbal communication has helped us make hiring decisions many times. If you are seeking talented IT professionals, let us help you hire the best. Contact us today.