The Pick: Non-verbal communication is key to successful hiring and here is why🪄

Abbie Moraño

Behavioral Scientist and Expert Advisor.

Written by Dr. Abbie Maroño, Behavioral Scientist and Expert Advisor.

Over the last few decades, researchers and practitioners alike have made strides in understanding the crucial role that nonverbal behaviours play in how we judge others, and in turn how others judge us. The implications this understanding has had for workplace relationships and recruitment can hardly be overstated.

For example, it is well recognised that during an employment interview, an applicant’s nonverbal behaviour can affect their perceived confidence, competence, trustworthiness, and employability, thus affecting the job interview outcome. It is less widely understood, however, the crucial role that the recruiter’s nonverbal behaviour plays. Indeed, recruiters’ nonverbal communication skills have been shown to directly impact an applicant’s perception of the company as well as affect how likely they are to accept any subsequent job offer.

Evidently, it is important for organisations and professionals to understand the impact of nonverbal communication throughout the recruitment process to support best practice. Although you might expect this to include only face-to-face interactions, hiring decisions are also affected by pre-interview nonverbals, so let’s start there.

Pre-interview nonverbals

Consider how your current employees were recruited, were any recruited through professional social networking sites, such as LinkedIn or Slack? If so, this means that an applicant’s photograph, usually in the form of a professional headshot, was available prior to any face-to-face interaction.

Why might this be problematic for candidate selection? Research has shown that recruiters judge more attractive candidates as more employable compared to less attractive candidates, based on the facial image available to their online profile, or the headshot attached to their CV. Consequently, more attractive applicants are more likely to be invited for an interview. What's more, even the candidate’s posed facial expression can have an influence on employability judgements. Candidates who are pictured smiling tend to be rated as more competent than candidates pictured with a neutral or ‘thinking’ expression. In my own research I have found that slight adjustments to the emotion displayed on an individual’s headshot can have real-world implications for hiring decisions. Thus, although you may think that your candidate selection is based on logical calculations of their experience and qualifications, we know that this is not always the case.

Of course, this does not mean that you should stop recruiting individuals via social media, rather it reminds us that the candidate selection process is susceptible to the influence of nonverbal factors, even seemingly irrelevant ones. As such, when dismissing or reaching out to a candidate, take a moment to consider all the factors that might be driving your decision.

Now we have covered the pre-interview nonverbals, let's dive into the recruitment interview.

Recruitment Interview
Perceived trustworthiness

Being able to establish trust with a candidate is one of the most important goals for a high-quality recruitment firm, but it is also the most challenging. Trust is particularly important because judgements of trustworthiness are one of the first judgements we make of others, and we make it within less than a second of looking at an individual’s face. These judgements are also resistant to change, even when presented with conflicting information as to an individual’s trustworthiness. Thus, it is crucial that recruiters know how to make their first impression one of trustworthiness.

"How can this be achieved? It starts with a smile."

Recruiters who smile are rated as higher in kindness, likeability, and trustworthiness than recruiters who do not smile. Neurological evidence has shown that this works because when we observe a smile, the neurotransmitter oxytocin is released in the brain, oxytocin in turn works to reduce anxiety by suppressing the stress response (otherwise known as the fight or flight response). This is especially important during the recruitment interview because candidates will inevitably be nervous, and you want them to feel calm and comfortable. If a simple smile can help reduce their anxiety whilst increasing perceived trustworthiness, there is no excuse not to greet them with a smile.

Additionally, much of what we infer about a person’s personality is based on their emotional expressivity. Faces displaying positive emotional expressivity such as smiling and raised eyebrows are related to judgements of trustworthiness, whilst faces displaying negative expressivity, such as furrowed brows or frowns are related to judgements of negative intent and untrustworthiness. It is important to note here, however, that we look for emotions that are consistent with circumstances and call into question the veracity and trustworthiness of others when they are inconsistent. Hence, although in general positive countenance makes people feel comfortable, the emotion should fit the context (i.e. if an applicant is telling you about their tough day, empathy would be more appropriate than a smile).

Likewise, I am often met with leaders who believe that adopting a ‘poker face’ is the best approach to an interview, because it stops them from ‘giving anything away’. This is certainly not the most effective approach. If you’re not already familiar with it, now is a good time to check out the still face experiment and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Faces that are void of emotional expressivity can cause discomfort and reduce perceived trustworthiness, which is highly undesirable. Remember, the goal is to establish trust and rapport, not discomfort.

Rapport building

Possibly one of simplest ways we can increase rapport with an applicant is to show that we are interested and engaged with what they have to say. As such, it is important to show nonverbal cues that indicate interest, such as leaning forward towards them and orientating our body towards them, particularly whilst they are speaking. When we orientate our bodies towards an interaction partner, we are communicating engagement and interest, whilst orientating our bodies away communicates disinterest and disengagement. Thus, it is no great surprise that orientating towards an interviewee increases perceived warmth and competence whilst leaning away and slouching can increase perceived coldness.

It goes without saying that as a recruiter you need to make sure that you are brushing up on your listening skills. Of course, this does not just mean staying silent whilst the applicant is speaking, active listening means that you are conveying interest and engagement by sending appropriate nonverbal cues. For example, maintaining good eye contact, nodding your head to show that you are following the conversation, and refraining from interrupting. If you want to show you are actively listening, these behaviours are not advised, they are essential.

Each of the behaviours I have discussed above have been directly studied in an interview context, demonstrating that applicants have a more positive perception of the recruiter and are more likely to accept the job offer when the recruiter utilises these nonverbal cues. Of course, the reverse is also true, the absence of these cues increases negative perceptions of the recruiter and negative inferences about the organisation. Hence, being mindful of your body orientation and displaying active listening cues will help you build rapport, support applicant success, and ensure that applicants feel validated.  

Nonverbal mimicry

No conversation on nonverbal communication would be complete without the mention of nonverbal mimicry. Nonverbal mimicry can be broadly defined as the tendency to imitate an interaction partner. For example, if person A is standing with their hand on their hip, person B may then adopt this same posture. Although this may sound simple, nonverbal mimicry is a powerful tool that can be strategically used to strengthen social bonds and foster relationships. Several researchers, including myself, have shown a direct link between mimicry and liking, demonstrating that individuals who mimicked their interaction partner were rated more positively, including more trustworthy, than those who did not engage in mimicry.

Additionally, engaging in nonverbal mimicry increases cooperation and information elicitation of an interaction partner. Given that the purpose of an interview is to obtain as much information as possible about a candidate so you can make an informed decision of employability, nonverbal mimicry is a particularly powerful tool for recruiters.

Putting knowledge into action

When it comes to putting this knowledge into action, the goal is to make these behaviours part of our natural behavioural repertoire, rather than consciously engaging in impression management during interviews. This is because human beings are sensitive to authenticity, and we are very good at picking up on behaviours that do not feel natural. It also takes a lot of cognitive energy to thoughtfully control unfavourable expressions whilst instigating purposeful behaviours, causing us to lose focus on what is being said.

But how can we make effective nonverbal communication automatic? Like with any skill, through consistent practice. Mastering any skill requires a great deal of time and effortful practice, the same holds true for nonverbal communication. I advise you to get comfortable with observing yourself practicing in a mirror, analysing recordings of yourself, and practicing with friends and family. There are also many great virtual tools available that will provide you detailed feedback on your nonverbal presence.

To sum up, given the crucial role that nonverbal communication plays throughout the recruitment process, developing nonverbal intelligence and fluency in this skill will help recruiters reach new heights, whilst supporting best practice during candidate selection.

Dr. Abbie Maroño,
PhD, Behaviour analysis and Psychology
Director of Education, Social-Engineer, LLC

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