Evaluating candidates fairly during initial screenings is incredibly difficult. It can be hard to tell whether a candidate is nervous, inexperienced with interviews, or weaving a few white lies into their story. As a recruiter, it’s not just enough that you’re a Boolean master with infinite talent communities and the ability to read a resume in 3 seconds flat – you also have to be able to assess candidates with the acuity of a trained specialist.

Here’s how you can evaluate candidates like a pro, without years of training (although, that would still help).

Over the phone


Assessing candidates during the phone screening can be difficult, as people from different regions and backgrounds will have different speech patterns, pacing, and inflections (heads up on any hidden personal bias here). Because of this; pitch, tone, and speaking patterns are difficult ways to assess personalities.

The Tell

The candidate uses overly formal language and business jargon to answer even simple questions.

What it could mean

You may be interviewing an English PhD, or your candidate may be crafting a tall tale. Business coach, Carol Kinsey Goman, explained in an Stanford GSB presentation that using very firm wording and abnormally formal verbiage can indicate a lie.

What should you do?

Pay attention to the words and phrases that they used when asked about less tense subjects, did their speech patterns become more colloquial? If so, that could be a sign that they are not being completely forthcoming. Revisit the question that seemed to trigger the formal speech pattern, rephrasing it slightly, and see if they revert to the formal pattern. If not, they may have just been stressed about the interview.

The Tell

When asked about issues in the workplace or how they overcame obstacles, the candidate focuses on the effort that they put into finding a solution instead of focusing on the size, scale and nature of the problem.

What it could mean

This could mean that your candidate is highly driven, explains clinical psychologist, Barry Lubetkin. People who are highly motivated and passionate tend to focus on how they worked to solve a problem rather than the problem itself.

What should you do?

This problem may have been a sore subject for them at their last position or one that left them feeling helpless. Ask about other issues to see if this response was a fluke or if this seems to be how the candidate addresses the majority of their work-related issues.

“Highly motivated” and “passionate” are pretty great qualities to find in your candidate, right? You might be able to determine what candidates have these traits simply by asking them a question.

In person


Former FBI agent LaRae Quy first urges us to establish a baseline for candidates’ behavior when assessing them based on physicality. Determine what quirks they have naturally and which ones seem to arise when they are stressed or asked difficult questions. While you don’t have much time to spend with the candidate to get a good sense of their natural quirks or fidgeting, you may be able to observe them as they wait for their interview.

This isn’t an ideal way of establishing a baseline, as your candidate will likely be a bit nervous as they wait. However, it may help you find some sense of their body language and their natural state.

The Tell

The candidate touches their neck when you ask them if they possess a specific skill set.

What it could mean

Retired FBI Special Agent Joe Navarro says that this behavior is “a very accurate indicator” of distress. In another interview, he warned that touching the hollow part of the neck is a dead ringer for stress and cautions that men will often try to conceal this behavior by adjusting their ties.

What should you do?

Navarro was pretty confident about this gesture indicating discomfort. It may be best to ask additional questions about the skill set, what it entails, or request a skills assessment from the candidate to verify their credentials.

If it’s early in the interview, you may want to simply circle back to the question later. This way, the candidate will have time to settle any lingering nerves.

The Tell

Your candidate is very nervous or fidgety, you hear cracks in their voice, they play with their hands or pieces of clothing and you think, “Hey, I do that when I’m nervous too!”

What it could mean

It could be “mirror neurons.”

What should you do?

If you’re nervous or stressed before walking into an interview, it’s possible that the candidate’s mirror neurons are kicking in and they’re simply mirroring your behavior. Quy suggests assessing yourself in a mirror to identify your own expressions of these emotions and look for them in others during the interview.

The Tell

The candidate’s posture, specifically the direction of their lean.

What it could mean

Judith Orloff, M.D., suggests that the direction an individual leans in can indicate their interests and comfort level. An interested candidate is likely to lean in as you discuss the role, while a candidate who may not love the job’s requirements may lean back or away from the interview panel.

What should you do?

Nerves may be altering their typical posture and body language, ask them to discuss an interest or hobby and see if their posture changes or if they remain a bit rigid, continuing to lean away.

Conclusion


These are just a few tips and suggestions for assessing candidates during the interview phase. Most of the experts cited here warned that you can’t accurately assess someone’s personality based on one detail, and that several of these actions tend to occur when a person is being deceitful or masking nerves. Because interviews are high stress situations, it’s important to be prepared to help candidates to relax, allowing you to gain a better understanding of their personalities and skill sets.

The ability to evaluate candidates may fall out of your usual job description if you’re a sourcing specialist. However, it’s a great skill to develop if you plan on establishing yourself as a sourcing recruiter of distinction or if you plan on changing recruiting or HR roles in your career. If you can quickly identify qualified candidates who fit your client’s (or your company’s) culture, you have a strong differentiating talent that sets you apart from other recruiters (and professionals, for that matter).