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Awkward interview moments: 10 behaviors to look for


Sometimes it’s not what candidates say, but what they don’t say that raises a red flag.

Whether it’s an uncomfortable silence, lack of eye contact or a myriad of other nonverbal cues, how should you assess and move past those faux pas?

Here are 10 awkward moments that can reveal truths about your candidates that they’re not telling you.

1. Silence

Have you ever asked a question in an interview only to get a blank stare as a response?

For example, say you posed this scenario: “Tell me about a time when you weren’t able to meet deadlines and/or stay within your budget on a project. What did you do?”

Crickets chirp.

Next time this occurs, try repeating the question again or verifying that your candidates understand what you’re asking. For example, “Maybe I need to say it a different way. Did the question make sense to you?”

Still an awkward lag? Dig deeper. Ask more questions about communication and working as a team until you fully understand their level of experience.

Chances are candidates that react this way don’t have the background you need in this area. Or, it could be an indication of poor communication skills. But try to confirm the facts before you completely dismiss these candidates.

2. Nerves

His voice might shake. Her cadence might become uncomfortably fast. Their words might gradually become quieter as if the interview is draining the life out of your candidates.

Everyone gets nervous on occasion. But how should you react as a hiring manager?

On one hand, showing signs of nervousness can be a good thing. It means your candidates are taking the interview seriously – they really want the job. On the other hand, however, it could mean nerves consistently get the best of them.

If you begin to notice signs of nervousness, try lightening the mood.

For instance, you might say: “Let’s just take a break for a minute. How about this weather today?” Or, “Did you see that Patriots game last night?”

You could even take it one step further: “You seem a little bit nervous, which is totally understandable. Let’s just take a big, deep breath. I’m here to make sure you’re a good fit for this job, but also that this job is a good fit for you. You can relax and be real – I want us to have a candid, honest conversation.”

Upon hearing your concern and thoughtfulness, candidates tend to calm down. But if it’s still not going well, you can recommend a 15-minute break. Your candidates could just be experiencing a case of the jitters – give them one last chance to pull it together.

3. Handshakes

You can tell a lot from a handshake. Whether it’s sweaty, soft and timid, strong or too long, there’s always something to learn.

Here are a few common types of handshakes and how to translate them:

  • Sweaty palms can indicate nervousness. However, remember there are medical conditions that cause palms to sweat, too. This isn’t necessarily a dead giveaway. Nevertheless, you may take this as a sign that you need to make your candidates feel a bit more comfortable.
  • Soft handshakes may mean your candidates are passive. If they’re interviewing for a sales role where they have to have tough conversations, this may be something to watch.
  • Brisk, firm and fast handshakes likely mean your candidates are very driven. They mean business. They might be good in a role where negotiations are necessary.
  • Awkward, long handshakes may mean your candidates are extroverts who crave interaction. If these individuals are interviewing for a position that’s solitary and isolated, it may not be the best fit. They might be better in an interactive role.
  • Others might be reluctant to shake your hand at all. These candidates might be introverts. If they’re interviewing for a team environment that requires high interaction, this might be a bad sign.

While you should never draw attention to sweaty palms or a weak handshake, use these signs to gauge what questions to ask next.

For example, if the job they’re interviewing for requires a lot of confidence and you got a sweaty handshake, ask a specific question related to how they handle their nerves, such as, “How well do you do in front of an audience?”

4. Eye contact

Good eye contact shows that your candidates are listening, honest and engaged.

However, some people naturally look down when they’re speaking. Unfortunately, this can create the appearance that they’re distracted, hiding something or can’t stay focused.

If a candidate won’t look you in the eye, you can say “I noticed that you’re looking down. Is everything all right?”

If it’s someone who does this out of habit, they may just need a reminder to correct it. By addressing it directly, you give the candidate a chance to address this mistake before passing judgment.

5. Rolling eyes

When interviewees’ words are inconsistent with their body language – like rolling their eyes while making an otherwise positive statement, for example – it could be revealing some dishonesty.

Don’t be afraid to address that eye roll directly.

For example: “You told me your hiring manager at your last job would say you were a wonderful employee. When you rolled your eyes that told me you didn’t believe that. So, why did you roll your eyes?”

The last thing you want in an interview is for candidates to tell you what they think you want to hear. Try to keep them as honest as possible.

6. Chewing gum

Chewing gum can give an unprofessional appearance. However, if candidates make this mistake, don’t assume they’re trying to be rude or that they aren’t taking the interview seriously.

This could be a nervous tick. Or, they could be a former smoker trying to avoid smoking. Don’t dismiss someone for this mistake.

Just say, “For this interview, will you spit out your gum please?”

Chances are they got nervous and forgot.

7. Posture

Your candidates should put their best foot forward.

If they’re slouching or leaning back in a chair, it gives the impression that they have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. You want your candidates to appear engaged by sitting up straight, possibly leaning a bit forward and maybe even nodding their head.

But everyone receives information differently. Some might nod their head along while others sit upright and aren’t outwardly responding to what you’re saying. Let these individuals know they can relax a bit.

For instance, you could say: “Feel free to loosen up your tie. You seem a bit uncomfortable.”

Just be careful on how you evaluate candidates. Stiff posture doesn’t necessarily indicate that it was a bad interview.

8. Attire

Imagine a machinist showing up to interview in a 90-degree warehouse dressed in a lined suit. Or, a salesman showing up for an interview in a corporate environment in shorts, a T-shirt and sandals.

Your candidates should be dressed according to the position.

If they can’t take the time to dress accordingly, it may suggest that the job isn’t important to them. Not to mention, this could be an indication that they won’t follow your dress code if hired. So be careful.

9. Tattoos and piercings

Regardless of your opinion of body art, there are plenty of intelligent individuals who have tattoos and piercings. Be mindful of how you assess these candidates.

That said, if the job requires the employee to routinely interact with clients, a clean-cut appearance might be necessary.

If it’s a requirement for the job, let candidates know right away. For example, you could say, “We have a formal dress code policy, and it’s a requirement that all piercings and tattoos be covered or discreet. Could you adhere to this policy?”

10. Laughter

Interviews are always easier when your candidates are engaged and laughing along with you.

But there’s also a point where you have to determine if the laughter is too much. Are they laughing at every question?

Again, they could be nervous, or it could be that they don’t take anything seriously. At some point, you have to make a decision – are they laughing inappropriately or in good humor?

You could say, “I’ve noticed you’re a very happy person. You laugh a lot. Is this a part of your nature?”

They might tell you that they tend to laugh when they’re nervous, or you might get a response that indicates that they just aren’t serious enough to take on the responsibility of the job at hand.

Want more secrets to recruiting?

Download Talent acquisition: 13 secrets to recruiting and retaining top talent to learn more.