Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
A reader writes:
Any tips for interviewing someone who's really, visibly nervous and isn't able to relax as the interview progresses? I conducted an interview like this today, and I did everything I could think of to help this person relax and be herself. I was friendly, talked about myself a little to give her a few minutes to relax, made sure my body language was as relaxed as possible while still being professional (i.e., not leaning forward aggressively or anything like that), made sure there was give-and-take in the conversation rather than peppering her with rapid-fire questions, etc.
Aside from her nervousness, this person was a strong candidate and I really wanted to find out if, once she got over her jitters, she might be the person we were looking for. Sadly, I couldn't tell--she was no more relaxed at the end of the interview than at the beginning. A colleague who interviewed this person separately had the same experience. This position involves presenting company ideas to clients, so we need someone who can project confidence. What would you do in an interview like this?
Alison Green responds:
You really did everything you could do. The only other thing you could have tried--and it might have helped but it also might have made the situation worse--would have been to just name the issue, in a kind way. For example, you could have said in an empathetic tone, "You seem nervous! I know how that can be, but don't worry. There's no need to be nervous." If you say that in a very kind way, sometimes the nervous person will relax. (I've done this with a couple of junior-level candidates who seemed like they were about to have heart attacks from anxiety, and it helped--but I'm sure it wouldn't help with everyone, and at higher levels could seem condescending or simply embarrass the person.)
But the reality is, sometimes someone is just going to be nervous. I hear you on wondering whether, once the interview jitters passed, she might have been your person--but there's only so much you can do to find that out. And in a role that requires someone to be able to project confidence in somewhat stressful situations, you've got to go on what you're seeing in the interview, no matter how sympathetic you are to the person's nerves.
For what it's worth, it's good practice in general to do all the things you tried with this candidate even when a candidate doesn't seem nervous. Putting people at ease--even when they're not showing an obvious need for it--is useful in interviewing because if you can take people out of their "interview mode," you'll often learn much more about what they're really like to work with day to day (good and bad).
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