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Context: We're talking about interviews for knowledge workers, like computer programmers, bankers, managers and so on. Highly paid intellectual jobs.

Body language is very important for both the interviewer and the interviewee: it greatly influences the first impression, so it's indicated for both to be a bit careful about that.

For me, it's a crucial component (it tells me a lot about what kind of person you are and your soft skills). But how can I, as an interviewer, correctly establish the candidate's body language baseline? Most candidates are nervous (it's natural/normal) and it's very hard to establish their normal body language and tics.

Maybe this person normally sits with their legs crossed 90% of the time; maybe they do empty swallows every 30 seconds; maybe they simply have a habit of constantly biting their lips when they're relaxed.

As an interviewer, I need to know these things, otherwise I'll draw the wrong conclusion about them.

Yes, the world is a Bell curve and most body language habits fall into the standard deviation i.e. most people have the same nervous tics and pacifiers. But I think it's irresponsible to not consider exceptions, otherwise you might be passing up a great candidate for the position simply because you find him/her way too nervous when in fact they're actually not (for example, if you were hiring for a position where they would have to deal with clients a lot). I know conclusions should be drawn from a cluster of signals, not just one, but I want to catch the single ones too.


So, what I thought was a good strategy is to have a VERY stress-free atmosphere at the beginning of the interview to make the candidate relax as much as possible. That way, you may get very close to the baseline. But, there are some problems with this:

  • for most people, it takes about 10-15 minutes to fully relax, which can be quite a long time. You would have to find a sufficiently long list of subjects to fill this "small talk" portion of the interview
  • since most interviews happen with the people sitting at opposite sides of the table, you can't see the bottom half of their body. And there's A LOT going on there, from a body-language perspective (actually I think this applies to all portions of the interview)
  • a lot of people won't relax properly, even at this stage because they'll remember every 20 seconds "Oh my god, I'm at an interview!"

So, in combination of the above solution (10-15 minutes relaxing) maybe try always interviewing people in pairs? I mean 2 interviewers, 1 candidate. One of the interviewers should sit further away and not say anything, but simply evaluate the candidate's behaviour and demenour.

This achieves 3 things:

  • having the other interviewer focus solely on body language will be more accurate since the "main" interviewer will be able to focus on the actual conversation and its details
  • sitting further away (10-15 feet) gives them a good angle to see the candidate's legs and feet, which is key here. This is because the candidate will tend to loosen the control over them because the "main" interviewer can't see them (sitting at a table, remember?).
  • by being at a safe distance and not saying anything, the candidate might just forget about the second interviewer and just consider them "part of the decoration".

Another possible way would be to interview people at a restaurant or the company's own lunch room at lunch time, again with a very friendly, informal and relaxing conversation. This tends to maximize relaxations (I know it works for me :D), but it's very impractical and also very poor in details since you normally wouldn't talk about job details when people around you are within earshot.

A third solution would be to ask the candidate to hang out after the interview, explicitly saying that the interview and evaluation is over. I could then compare their body language before and after the interview.

This has 2 problems:

  • even though the interview is over, most people will still remain in the same "zone" because they don't want to say something stupid and blow the interviewer's impression about them
  • doing the comparison backwards tends to be less effective and less accurate because it doesn't come naturally

I like the first solution the most (2nd interviewer at a safe distance) but I want to hear what you guys/girls think. Is there a better way?

Thank you in advance.

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    Note: you claim that body language tells you 100x more than the words they use, but you have no way of getting a baseline. Therefore your method of evaluation is less accurate than putting all the resumes on the wall and throwing a dart at them. – mhoran_psprep Apr 18 '14 at 10:12
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    My body language is hocus pocus to me. I rarely, if ever, get nervous at interviews. I do get stressed from tough tech questions. But nervous, almost never. That's because I don't care - the outcome is in the prospective employer's prerogative to decide and it's out of my hands. I do the best I can - and doing my best is within my purview, but the rest is out of my hands. And I don't worry about stuff that's out of my hands. If I came up short by omission or commission during an interview, I do something about it after an interview so I don't have a repeat experience at some other interview. – Vietnhi Phuvan Apr 18 '14 at 10:39
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    If body language tells you "100 times more than what [...] words ever can" when you're interviewing for a programming or similar role, then you are asking the wrong questions. – aroth Apr 18 '14 at 10:45
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    Any candidate capable of maintaining a good poker face will render your efforts to get into his head useless. – Blrfl Apr 18 '14 at 12:24
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    This really sounds like more of a psychology question than a workplace one. – Dukeling Apr 18 '14 at 18:49
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The second solution has the right basic idea (trying to relax the candidate), but for reasons that have little to do with body language. Some may be overly stressed during interviews and may find recalling information, thinking logically and/or communicating well difficult. You aim to minimize that so you get a more accurate reading of their ability.

The problem with the third solution ("hanging out" afterwards), beyond the fact that it's unlikely to work, is that you don't want to establish their "normal" baseline, you want to establish their "interview" baseline. This is a typical cause of false positives in lie detection tests [citation needed] - you establish your baseline at the start, then the interrogation turns a lot more stressful, leading to a heart rate permanently higher than the baseline and there are many false positives.

The first solution (a separate interviewer) might work, although, if you want him far enough away to see the interviewers lower body, I can't really picture a setup that doesn't just look weird and suspicious.


As mentioned in another answer, you typically want to start with some easy, informal questions. I wouldn't limit this to just yes/no questions, as you can quickly run out of those which can sound natural to be asked in an interview situation (then the candidate might get suspicious and stress isn't far behind). You could ask them some simple questions about their previous work experience or studying, for example. Note that things like "what was the biggest mistake you made?" should not be considered an easy question, and you definitely shouldn't ask anything that you expect they have a prepared answer for.

However, I believe there are indicators (for lying, for example) which have absolutely nothing to do with a baseline and thus you don't necessarily need to establish a baseline if you're able to read these.


But you should absolutely keep in mind that reading body language (on a conscious level) accurately is difficult. The body language involved with "This is a difficult question", "I'm lying" and "Is this a good answer?" and similarly with "I'm lying" and "I'm remembering incorrectly" is probably not something the average person can differentiate between (assuming the person is a half-decent liar). The subconscious is typically better at reading body language, although you may end up with a general sense that the person is dishonest rather than being able to pick up on individual lies. So, unless you have an expert in this domain, I don't think having a separate person just for that would be that useful.

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You can try to make people relax but eventually you won't ever be sure they are "themselves", as after all, "Oh my god, I'm at an interview !" :)

Proposal one - a technical test on their own

If you can afford it, an interesting approach might be to have the candidates make some kind of task that requires a certain amount of time - say, 30 minutes, 1 hour - that evaluate their technical skills on their own.

After that coming over to talk with them about the exercise will probably have as a result a better atmosphere, as the candidates would feel more comfortable once they had the chance to show their real talent (Yea, knowledge people enjoy showing off their knowledge, right? Well, I do!)

Now, this solution has two positive outcomes.

  1. You get to know technically about the candidate.
  2. Most of them will get comfortable enough after that period of time to show you "unstressed" body language.

Proposal two - an assisted technical test

Another approach is actually a real case scenario I lived myself.

This approach varies from my previous one in the fact that the technical test is assisted.

The assistance's target is not to correct the candidate when he or she makes mistakes. The idea is to follow how candidate thinks, speak about the exercises and talk about the possible solutions in a friendly way.

It is important that the assistance should avoid putting pressure on the candidate regarding the possible failures. We all make failures. It is how we think and how we deal with our failures that makes us succeed, improve and, in final instance, become a better asset for the company.

This proposal has the issue that a knowledge employee should spend time in such interviews.

However, it has the great benefit of a deep insight in the knowledge employee's mind, a second opinion and, in most cases, a relaxed atmosphere in which you can study the candidate's body language.

  • The task interview is good, but make sure the environment you give them to work in actually functions. Have one of your team "interview" on it, first. I had a task interview once where the baseline project I was to modify wouldn't even compile because the system wasn't built up. I ended up taking the assignment home to work on my own system. Sent it in, but along with that a letter declining the position. Didn't want to work for an outfit that can't even prep a skills test on their own. – Wesley Long Apr 18 '14 at 18:51
  • Given that they just spent an hour ... not stressing as much, they're likely to go into overdrive trying to get into the right mindset, resulting in a lot more stress. At least that's what I think would (often) happen. Ok sure, you might have a decent baseline, but you now have a candidate who likely won't answer questions as well, thus you probably won't get an accurate view of their general personality and perhaps ability to answer remaining technical questions. All-in-all - sounds like a terrible idea. – Dukeling Apr 18 '14 at 18:56
  • @Dukeling Why you say that "you now have a candidate who likely won't answer questions?" I disagree that will result in more stress, and while you based your opinion in what you think, I can tell you by experience (and not only mine) that such experiences are good for a relaxed status. However I am going to add to my answer that a personal experience, maybe it helps to get my point. – Mr Me Apr 18 '14 at 20:29
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    The "as well" is part of that (not meaning "also") - You now have a candidate who likely won't answer questions as well as he/she would've otherwise (given that he/she could end up more stressed). The second approach should create a generally more relaxed atmosphere for the interview as a whole (which is definitely good), though I'm not sure whether this would actually help with reading body language. – Dukeling Apr 18 '14 at 21:54
  • I thought it was agreed that a more relaxed atmosphere helps body language readings :) – Mr Me Apr 18 '14 at 22:42
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I recommend picking up material by "Carol Kinsey Goman". She has done a lot research and books on spotting lying in the work.

The short answer is you establish base lines by asking the interviewee easy questions they would know the answer to (true or false).

When asking these questions you look at the interviewees body language. After this you have a baseline.

Here is a video of part of her training which goes over a little bit on what you are asking.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oywoZQ5_zd8

  • That seems like a nice video, thank you :) . Although lying is obviously a big red flag in an interview, if detected, it's not really the main focus. But really helpful, nevertheless :) . – Radu Murzea Apr 18 '14 at 13:36

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