How reliable is body language when hiring?
Job interviews are not a modern invention; they date back to the early 1900s. In fact, it is said that one of the most popular (and perhaps peculiar) job interviews in the early days, was conducted by the lightbulb inventor, Thomas Edison.
Whenever Edison was looking to add someone new to his team, he would get hundreds of interested applicants – but not all possessed the wit he was looking for.
To weed those applicants out, he would call them in and ask them to answer a series of general knowledge questions and even make them drink soup to observe if the applicants would add pepper or salt to the soup even before tasting it. This was a means to gauge if applicants made assumptions in general, and thus those who did add the condiments before tasting it were immediately rejected.
Fast forward to today, job interviews have now become a standard procedure for most if not all organizations. However, instead of getting candidates to drink soup, employers often look out for the kind of body language that the candidate emits. This is due to the notion that body language gives away information about a candidate’s ability on the job, and that should be considered as part of the job application process.
The importance of examining body language, also known as non-verbal cues, is possibly the reason for the prevailing preference for face-to-face interactions today. Even among virtual communication tools, those that enable video and/or audio transmissions seem to be more effective than those that offer pure text.
Reading non-verbal cues
But what can non-verbal cues predict in a potential candidate?
- A friendly twinkle in the eyes – May indicate friendliness and warmth.
- A smile without wrinkles at the outer corner of the eyes – Could indicate a fake smile.
- A person whose head is hung down low – May be less confident than another whose head and eyes are kept straight.
- Straightened shoulders – Could suggest determination and pride.
- Fidgeting hands – May signal anxiety or boredom.
- Crossed arms – May signal anger or arrogance.
- Shifting legs – Could be a result of restlessness.
It is widely believed that communication is made up of 7% actual words spoken, 38% tone of voice and 55% body language.
This means people generally feel that communication is mostly non-verbal. It is typically assumed that non-verbal cues are unconscious and reflective of “inner feelings”, unlike verbal speech. Hence, people sometimes put greater emphasis on non-verbal communication than verbal communication, especially if the two are incongruent.
Imagine this: a candidate says that he is a very confident individual but his hands are shaking throughout the entire interview. This incongruence between the nervous body language of the candidate and the speech could make the candidate speech seem less credible.
When body language may fail
However, caution should be practised when interpreting and relying purely on non-verbal cues due to its subjective nature.
Here are some things to consider:
- A person with crossed arms – Could the candidate be arrogant? Or is the person just feeling cold or unwell?
- A smile without wrinkles at the outer corner of the eyes – Could the candidate be faking a smile? Or is this person just very nervous?
- A little sag in the shoulders – Could that signal a general lack of determination? Or could it be a result of tiredness that day?
The validity and usefulness of non-verbal cues should also depend on the context. Most non-verbal cues are a result of emotions, which are fleeting in nature, which means they are not generalisable over the long-run across various situations and contexts.
So, a person who displays signs of anxiety like fidgeting during a job interview may not necessarily be an anxious person in general. Another person who has that little sag on the shoulders that signal tiredness on a particular work day may not have that body posture on all work days.
If someone is faking a smile at that particular moment, that does not imply that he/she tends to fake smiles all the time. In other words, non-verbal cues are helpful for predicting people’s feelings and attitudes at a particular point in time, but not in general.
This also suggests that non-verbal cues are not ideal for predicting people’s personality, which is enduring and does not change easily.
How to better assess candidates
Even if there is some value to examining a candidate’s non-verbal cues, these should not be the only element surrounding the decision to hire. To understand a person in general, it is important to gather multiple pieces of information about the person.
Apart from looking at the candidate’s skills and qualifications on the CV, it is important to also know what kind of personality strengths the candidate has, what kind of interests the candidate has in different types of work activities (for example, preference to work with tools or with people) and what kind of culture the candidate would prefer to work in..
All these data points about a particular candidate can be obtained from multiple sources, including CVs, video interviews and personality assessments that have been scientifically validated in the field of organizational psychology for decades.
Using predictive technology in hiring
The good news is that collecting all this information can be done quickly and accurately using modern technology.
AI and data science can piece various pieces of information about a candidate together and make sense of them simultaneously.
More importantly, with such a multi-dimensional view of candidates, AI enables the prediction of their work attitudes and outcomes. Does this person work well with a team? Is he/she proactive in solving difficult problems? These traits are generally difficult to infer from either the resume or job interview.
AI can gather information about candidates’ hard skills and soft traits to predict these outcomes. Information about candidates are obtained from multiple sources, including CVs, personality assessments and video interviews, and these predict a person’s suitability to the job.
About the Author
Dr Yvonne Tan is the lead Organizational and Research Psychologist at Pulsifi and holds a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Industrial/Organizational Psychology. She has close to 9 years of experience across both corporate and academic fields in the area of assessment and analysis of psychological traits and how they apply in work settings.