The interview is well and truly underway. Although what the candidate is saying is very important, there are other signals that he is she is giving off. What is their body language telling you? Are you listening attentively to what they are saying? Observation of both spoken and silent communication is vital during the interview.
Body language can tell you a great deal about a candidate, and can tell the candidate a great deal about you. Let’s start with the signals you subconsciously give to the candidate.
As a general rule, if you fold your arms and lean back you come across as ‘closed’. It implies that you are not really listening, or interested, in what the candidate is saying to you.
If you tilt your head away from a candidate when listening to them it implies distrust. If you do not look the candidate in the eye, the distrust is even more pronounced.
It is said that crossing your legs implies defensiveness.
Clock watching and yawning
It goes without saying, but never yawn in front of a candidate. You may need to check the progress of an interview periodically, but avoid looking at your watch every few minutes.
You might want to give your candidate the impression you are thinking about what they are saying. But you might inadvertently give them the idea that you are not focused on the interview and that you are thinking about something else entirely.
As a good interviewer, you will sit up straight in your chair, lean forwards to show attentiveness, and make eye contact with your candidate as often as possible. You may use hand gestures positively to illustrate what you are saying. You will certainly keep your hands and legs unfolded throughout the interview. You may or may not feel the need to smile and reassure, but you will certainly appear to be listening and attentive at all times. Don’t forget that to get the best out of a candidate you need to build rapport with them as early in the interview as possible.
The same rules about body language also apply to the candidate sitting in front of you. What signals are his posture and body language giving out? Is she relaxed? Does he seem tense or stressed? Is she sitting still, or constantly fidgeting in her chair? In addition to their posture, there are one or two important cases to look out for:
- Nail biting. If the candidate is biting his nails whenever he is not speaking, he is probably someone of a nervous disposition. Make sure you probe this further, and ask questions that might establish their ability to handle pressure.
- Relaxed. If the candidate is leaning right back in his chair, with his arms behind his neck, you might conclude that he is confident and relaxed. However, is this body language appropriate during an interview for a job? You might equally conclude that this posture is inappropriate, or even indicative of an arrogant candidate.
- Looking away. If your candidate looks away before answering a question, it usually means that they are considering quickly the answer they think you want to hear. They may also be fiddling with their hands, or subconsciously doing something distracting like brushing fluff from their jacket or trousers. If you spot this behaviour, you need to ask further questions to ensure that you are hearing what the candidate believes, rather than what they think you want to hear.
Good listening skills are probably the most essential attributes of an interviewer. If a candidate recognises that you are listening to what they are saying, they are far more likely to open up and keep talking. The poor interviewer will spend as much time asking questions, and telling the candidate about the organisation, as they do listening to what the candidate has to say.
Here are some classic examples of poor listening that you should avoid:
- You realise that you are talking as much, or even more, than the interviewee.
- You start to listen to an answer that your candidate gives. After a while, you realise that your mind has wandered, and that you have ‘turned off’. There is no chance to follow up what the candidate has said with another question because you do not know what they have said.
- You interrupt a candidate because you have suddenly remembered a question that you meant to ask earlier. You’d better ask it now or else you will forget it again.
- You find yourself repeating a question, albeit phrased in a different way, because you can’t remember the answer they gave initially.
There are a number of proven methods for improving your listening skills:
1. Summarise what a candidate says to demonstrate that you are listening. Say something like:
‘I see. So what you are saying is that you want to find a job where you will be working more within a team. Is that right?’
2. Jot down any questions that occur to you during the interview. Find a convenient point to ask them, rather than interrupt what they are saying.
3. Sit up straight and adopt an attentive posture. Nod and make other gestures at key points.
4. Smile or show concern where appropriate. You facial expressions will indicate the degree to which you are listening.
5. Just listen!
Controlling an Interview
No matter how well prepared you are, you will often come up against one of a number of ‘problem’ candidates that will throw you off course. Here are some of the more common ones, together with suggestions about how to handle them.
This is the candidate who appears to know everything about the job and your organisation already. They even seem to know what they want to say before you have even asked the question. There is nothing they really need to know, so the only questions they are likely to ask are about why you are appointing for this particular role. They may have one or two alternatives to suggest to you. Know-alls tend to be ‘big picture’, rather than ‘detail’ people. In other words they are better when discussing general principles rather than facts. So the best way to handle the know-all is to ask a number of specific, probing questions. Request detail. Challenge generalities.
Leaving the tracks
This is the candidate who is unable to stay on course. You ask a question. They begin their answer. Yet within a minute they have somehow managed to change the subject to the football match on television the previous evening. Did you see it? Wasn’t it fantastic? As the interviewer, you must retake control. The first time this happens, you might gently say something like:
‘We appear to be drifting off course. Can we return to your customer service experience? How many staff did you supervise?’.
If the candidate digresses repeatedly then it is legitimate to interrupt the candidate every time it happens. Start asking a series of closed questions that make changing the subject harder.
It doesn’t happen very often, but once in a while you will be faced with an interviewee who is determined to cause trouble. They might argue with you, or challenge what you ask or say. They might accuse you of bias or discrimination. The most important rule is that you must not rise to the bait. Your role is to remain cool and composed throughout the interview. Apart from anything else, the aggressive candidate will want you to argue back, and you will remain in control of the interview if you decline to do so. Close the interview as soon as you can, thank the candidate for expressing their views, and send a polite rejection letter after a couple of days.
The Interview Psychologist
This is the candidate who tries to find a hidden meaning in every question that you ask. Even a simple question might evoke a sly, understanding grin from the candidate, suggesting that he has spotted the hidden depth of what you are asking. You can often spot this character trait because the candidate may try to answer even the simplest question in an unnecessarily complicated way. Bring this to their attention, and ask the question again. If the symptoms reappear periodically, it is probably best to bring the interview to a close, and move on to the next candidate.
Who’s Interviewing Who?
This is the candidate who answers any question that you ask with another question. For example:
Tell me about your experience managing a team?
Why? Surely you aren’t looking for a team leader for this role?
It can be very hard to handle a candidate of this sort, and fortunately they are extremely rare. If you are unfortunate enough to interview such a candidate, you should politely remind them that you are controlling the interview, and that there will be plenty of opportunity to ask questions later. If this fails to address the problem, it is best just to draw the interview to a polite conclusion and move on to the next candidate.
Recording an Interview
If you are interviewing a number of candidates, it is vital that you have a system for recording or noting what is said, and what facts emerge during the course of the interview. Do not rely on your memory to remember what answers each candidate gives to particular questions.
If you are able to listen while writing notes, then do so. Keep a clean sheet of paper next to the candidate’s application or CV, and jot down pertinent facts and answers as the interview progresses. If you need to concentrate on what the candidate is saying, then at least spend the first five minutes after each interview summarising what was discussed. If you are conducting interviews with a colleague, or as part of a panel, then perhaps one of you should take on the role of note taker? This will free up the rest of the interviewing panel to ask questions and to listen to the answers given.
If the candidate does not object, you might want to consider making a tape recording of the interview. This ensures that you concentrate on listening, rather than making notes. There are two guidelines that you should observe, however:
- The candidate’s permission must be sought
- Once a candidate has been rejected, the tape recording must be destroyed
Your main role must be to listen and observe, so give thought to how best to record what is discussed.
Closing an Interview
It may be tempting to rush through an interview if you are certain that you will not be employing the candidate in front of you. However, you should aim to bring any interview to a polite and unhurried conclusion. Remember that every candidate has gone to considerable effort to submit their application, and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
You need to make sure that you allow time for candidates to ask their own questions. If the candidate has prepared carefully, they should have at least a couple of questions to ask. Inevitably you may feel disappointed if there appears to be nothing that the candidate wants to find out, but bear in mind that you may have answered the question that they might have asked during the course of the interview. If the candidate appears unwilling to ask a question, you can try to encourage them:
Is there anything I can tell you about the way the company pension scheme operates?
Is there anything about the job that you are not clear about?
If you believe that the candidates is not asking questions because they are not interested in the vacancy, then now is the time to ask:
Are you still interested in the position now that you have heard more about it?
There are several items that you may want to cover at the end of the interview:
- You may wish to tell the candidate how many people you intend to interview, and how many you have interviewed so far.
- Perhaps you should let the candidate know when you plan to conduct second interviews.
- What notice period must the candidate give to their current employer?
When you are certain that you have covered all the necessary details, it is time to thank the candidate for their time, shake their hand, and escort them from the building.
It may be tempting to make a spontaneous offer of employment to an excellent interviewee. After all, you have established that they have several interviews with other companies, and if you don’t snap them up then someone else will.
In most cases you should hold back. You need time to review the interview, and to make certain that they meet all of your requirements. Just because they interviewed well, it doesn’t mean that they are perfect for the job, does it? Sometimes, however, you should follow your instinct. You should not risk losing an excellent candidate, and so making a provisional offer would be the right thing to do. A provisional offer can be retracted if new information comes to light, but might nevertheless encourage the candidate to decline other offers of employment.
In many organisations there are measures in place that prevent a spontaneous offer of employment. If you work for a smaller organisation where no such measures are in place, you should not rule out such a possibility.
- Is your posture appropriate?
- Are you listening attentively?
- What is your interviewee’s body language telling you?
- How would you cope with a candidate who appears to ‘know it all’?
- How would you keep a digresser on track?
- Could you handle an aggressive candidate?
- What steps have you taken to record the interview or make notes?
- Have you left time for questions?
- Would you know how to bring an interview to a conclusion?
- Should you make a spontaneous offer?