How to Use Nonverbal Communication in Hiring

Businesswomen shaking hands

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Have you ever made up your mind about a job candidate based on the way he sat in your lobby? Did you confirm that opinion when he walked across the room and shook your hand? Awareness of nonverbal communication and the messages job searchers send does influence your evaluation of job candidates – and it should. Aside from protected characteristics such as gender, race, and weight, you can learn a lot about your prospective employee from their nonverbal communication.

You’ll want to watch for nonverbal signals that tell you about the person’s attitude, outlook, interests, and approach. They speak louder than the verbal communication during the interview process. The nonverbal communication helps you confidently assess each candidate’s credentials with regard to the:

  • skills necessary to do the job,
  • behavioral characteristics you have identified as necessary for success in the job, and
  • culture and environment of your organization.

These are examples of nonverbal communication you need to pay attention to and “hear.” You can believe what you see; first impressions matter.

First Impressions

The first few minutes in an interview setting are so important that almost nothing else matters. You take a look at the candidate and note all of the nonverbal messages she is communicating. You form impressions from the candidate’s posture, handshake, outfit and accessories, space usage, attentiveness, eye contact, and facial expressions. And, then you listen to what she has to say in response to your questions.

Posture and Space Usage

Is your candidate sitting comfortably yet upright, but not stiffly, in his chair? Does he walk with self-assured ease? He’s likely confident and comfortable with himself. Slouchy posture speaks loudly about sloppy work and low self-esteem. A posture that enables an individual to take up the appropriate amount of space in the room tells you that the applicant is secure in his abilities. Sloppy posture gives the impression of low energy and carelessness. Pay attention.


Notice whether your candidate has a firm, dry, solid handshake. Again, a confident, comfortable person uses the handshake as a positive nonverbal interaction. The handshake should assure you of the candidate’s desire for a positive first interaction and impression. A limp handshake signals low confidence and low self-esteem. An excessively strong handshake may tell you the person is overly aggressive or trying to steamroll you.

Clothing and Accessories

No matter how informal your work environment, a professional job candidate needs to wear a suit for her first meeting. The selected outfit tells you how well the candidate will interact with and be perceived by customers.

The chosen accessories either telegraph professionalism – or they don’t. A briefcase, a leather portfolio, a nice pen, leather purse, and shined shoes present a solid, professional appearance. They tell you the candidate cared enough to want to make a good first impression.

Makeup, perfume, and jewelry, worn tastefully, can add to your perception of their professionalism. Dirty fingernails or scuffed shoes tell you the person is careless, too hurried, or unaware of the impression they have on others. Not good.

Alternatively, if the candidate attempted to look polished and professional for the interview – and doesn’t – this is likely as good as it gets. Decide what works for your organization, and make your best selection. The candidate’s chosen clothing and accessories are a form of powerful nonverbal communication. Listen when hiring. Attentiveness, eye contact, body language, and facial expressions are nonverbal communications that can tell you much about the candidates you consider hiring.

Attentiveness and Eye Contact

Watch the listening and interactive behavior of your candidate. He should act as if he is engaged by leaning slightly forward in his chair to close some of the distance between himself and the interviewer.

You want to hire a candidate who can comfortably put his portfolio on your desk to take notes, yet not take up too much of your space. You want an employee who can maintain comfortable eye contact without staring or forced attentiveness.

If the candidate spends the interview with his eyes moving all over the room, rarely looking at you, this can signal a lack of confidence – or worse – he doesn’t care. Long, forced eye contact can indicate an overly aggressive person who does not care about your comfort. And, if he doesn’t care about your comfort during the interview, that behavior won’t get better when you hire him.

Listen also to the candidate’s responses to your questions. Did he hear your question? Did he answer succinctly and share stories, or ramble incessantly off topic? The former tells you he prepared for the interview and has success stories to share. The latter signals unprepared, ill-at-ease, or that he didn’t care enough to pay attention.

Facial Expressions and Body Language

”What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson in one of my favorite quotations. And, nothing is as communicative as the facial expressions and body language of your candidates. Whole books have been written interpreting facial expressions and body language. The key to listening to their nonverbal communication is whether their facial expressions and body language match the words spoken.

Facial expressions that fail to match the words spoken can indicate serious discomfort or lying – neither desirable behaviors in a candidate. A candidate that never makes eye contact and talks to a spot over your shoulder is uncomfortable and demonstrating a lack of confidence. You want to hire an employee whose facial expressions are consistent with and punctuate her words.

Body language speaks loudly, too. Is the candidate leaning back in his seat with his legs crossed at the knee? He’s too relaxed for an interview setting. Has he taken over your whole desk with his arms and accessories? He’s overly aggressive.

Does he lean back with his hands crossed behind his head? It is aggressive interview behavior in the extreme. Don’t expect less aggressive behavior if you hire him. If the candidate makes a statement and looks away from you or appears nervous, she’s probably not telling the truth. If she stares into your eyes as she tells her story, she may be fabricating.

If she taps her pen constantly, twists her jewelry at the end of every sentence, strokes her hair every few minutes, she is sending all sorts of messages about her discomfort – with the interview setting or with her skills and abilities in general? It’s hard to tell. Listen to what they are not saying.


Interviewing and hiring people who will be great employees who fit well in your organization is a challenge. Listening to the nonverbal communication of your candidates can tell you as much about the candidates as their spoken words, their references, and their experience. Nonverbal communication matters.