Thursday, 3 March 2016

Why interviewers rate anxious candidates harshly, and what you can do about it

As if interviews weren't nerve-wracking enough as it is, prior research has shown that interviewers tend to rate anxious candidates harshly. This happens even when the anxious candidates are well-qualified to do the job, and even though their interview anxiety really ought to be irrelevant to the recruitment decision.

Of course, learning that your anxiety is going to count against you will only add to the woes of the many people who find interviews terrifying. Thankfully a new study in the Journal of Business Psychology brings some useful and potentially comforting news. The research – the first to investigate the behavioural signs of interview anxiety – finds that interviewers are largely oblivious to nervous tics, such as shaky hands or nervous laughter. Rather, interviewers' negative performance judgments are based on their perception that nervous candidates are less assertive and less warm. Knowing this, anxious people should be able to practice and prepare in a way that counters such prejudices.

The findings are based on mock interviews involving 119 undergrad students who were preparing to go on job placements during their studies. Each student was interviewed by one of 18 interviewers who work for the Canadian Co-op and Career Services that runs job placements for students, and the students and interviewers were instructed to treat the experience as if it were a real interview for one of the candidates' hoped-for placement positions.

The interviews took about 10 minutes each. Afterwards the students rated how anxious they had felt, and the interviewers rated how anxious they perceived the students to be, and how well they felt they had performed. Meanwhile, the interviews were filmed and teams of raters coded the students' body language, speech rate, laughter and rated their personalities on a number of different traits.

Of the many body language and speech cues that the researchers looked at, only a few were related weakly to the students' self-reported feelings of anxiety – making fewer hand gestures, nodding less, pausing longer before answering and speaking more slowly. The paucity and modest relevance of the behavioural cues is likely because anxiety can manifest in very different ways in different people – one person might compensate by being quiet, still and hesitant while another person might be fidgety and talk fast and loose.

Three behavioural cues were weakly related to the interviewers' perceptions of the students' anxiety – licking or biting of the lips, body shifts and slower speech rate. This means the only nervous tic that interviewers accurately interpreted as a sign of anxiety was slower speech. Extensive preparation of answers should be a simple way for candidates to combat this issue.

In contrast, the character vibes given off by the students (as rated by the judges coding the videos) were more strongly and consistently related to the students' feelings of anxiety and to the interviewers' perceptions of their anxiety. Essentially, those students who came over as less warm and less assertive tended to be perceived as more anxious, and vice versa. Moreover, these two key traits of warmth and assertiveness seemed to explain why the interviewers tended to give poorer performance scores to those students they perceived to be anxious.

The researchers said this result has "great implications" for job candidates. "Often interviewees are worried that they are engaging in nervous tics that are revealing of their anxiety," they explained, "when in fact the impression that they convey of themselves as assertive (or not) appears to be more indicative of their anxiety." In other words, anxious interviewees needn't worry too much about any little nervous tics they might have, and should focus instead on the larger impression they make – by learning to come over as assertive and friendly, it is likely they will conceal their anxiety and receive a fairer appraisal from the interviewers.


Feiler, A., & Powell, D. (2016). Behavioral Expression of Job Interview Anxiety Journal of Business and Psychology, 31 (1), 155-171 DOI: 10.1007/s10869-015-9403-z

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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