8 Tips for Interviewing Nervous Candidates

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Shy business men hand gesture hide face stop signIt’s easy to mistake nervous candidates for incompetent, and it is therefore the job of the interviewer to be able to manage candidate’s nerves, which involves pre-empting, preventing, mentoring, allowing for and taking into account nerves throughout the course of an interview. Being nervous is not a candidate crime or a mistake, it is what makes us human; everyone gets nervous from time to time. Employers and interviewers should in some respects be flattered by a nervous candidate as it shows they have deep psychological investment in your firm and are very keen to impress as a result.

Also, an inability to work your way behind the nerves of a great candidate means that your interview process could be biased against introverts/nervousness, which means that you could regularly be overlooking great candidates. This seems nonsensical in these times of severe talent shortages. In fact, three studies from Wharton and UCLA have found that introverts often outperform extroverts in collaborative roles, and one study showed that introverts outperformed extroverts in sales roles. So, if you are interested in building a selection process that is designed to look behind the nerves of neurotic candidates, you might be interested in my eight interview tips on how to do this below.

1. Create a relaxing interview environment. Avoid an oppositional boardroom style layout as this can be intimidating. Consider using a round or at least oval shaped table for interviewing as this is more open. Provide comfortable (even padded chairs) with arm rests so the candidate can sit comfortably and relax while listening. If there is more than one interviewer, consider sitting one interviewer alongside and perhaps one or two opposite to give the candidate a sort of physical “ally,” which can help to ease nerves.

2. Address your own body language. Make sure to start your interview with a warm and welcoming greeting. While firm handshakes are all the rage, don’t crush; take into account the candidate’s grip. Put a great emphasis on eye contact and a warm smile.

3. Meet and greet and introductions. Engage in plenty of small talk from the point you meet the candidate right up to the start of the first formal question. Talk about the person’s journey here, the weather, the latest episode of Game of Thrones or Glee, and ideally focus on his/her hobbies and interests and passions and highlight any common areas of interest. Spend a good five minutes on this. Offer the candidate a drink; if it’s a hot day, it might be a cool drink, but on a winter’s day it might be tea. Always make sure there is water available throughout the interview.

4. Agenda. Before you start the interview, explain the agenda and plan for the day, including the format of the interview and questions. If it’s behavioral questions, then give candidates an example of a question and how you’d like it to be answered. Let them know when they can ask questions, e.g. during or at the end or both.

5. Easy questions to start. Start your interview with easy questions as these quick wins will help to relax nervous candidates and build their confidence and should help them to perform better as you progress to the more complex ones.

6. Smile. Smile regularly and make the occasional joke, (self deprecating jokes are best and avoid making fun of the candidate), to help lighten the mood and keep it light.

7. Questioning. Avoid the interrogative interviewing style. This isn’t CSI. Focus on building rapport and trust with the candidate as a way to getting to the truth. So assist them with answering by not rushing their answers, allowing them time to think, rephrasing the question if they look confused and offering to come back to the question later, and offering reassurance when you can. Always, thank them for each answer as that’s positive reinforcement and praise them if they give a particularly good answer.

8. Body Language. Focus on building rapport and trust during the interview and one way to do this is through positive body language. This includes smiling regularly, perhaps when they are answering or whenever appropriate. Try techniques such as ‘mirroring’ which means adopting a similar posture to them as this is thought to help build rapport. Where possible try and match the speed, tone and volume of their speech as this is also thought to help build a greater rapport.

And finally, try not to form opinions on the candidates based on their level of apparent nerves or confidence as research suggests that a nervous disposition does not necessarily mean they will underperform compared to the outwardly self assured.

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Kazim Ladimeji is a Chartered Member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, and has been a practicing HR professional for 14 years. Kazim is the Director of The Career Cafe: a resource for start-ups, small business and job seekers.