Screening, Assessment, Interviewing

When a Candidate Is Nervous

If you’ve been interviewing job candidates for a while, you’ve probably come across a nervous candidate. A case of the interview jitters runs the gamut, from the person who can barely speak to the person who can’t stop talking. Other signs of nervousness include fidgeting, sweating, the shakes, and clumsy behavior.

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How do you address – and assess – a nervous candidate?

Before you dismiss this as “not your problem,” you might want to consider that it is your problem. The person struggling to get through the interview is a candidate for the job because his or her skills, experience, and credentials appear to be a fit for the position—the position you are trying to fill.

With this in mind, it’s worth the time and effort to try and make the candidate feel at ease so you can determine if there is a fit. Although you may be inclined to think “this person can’t handle the interview, how will he handle the job,” cut the candidate some slack. You have no idea what else he may be dealing with, or what may have happened moments before meeting with you.

Neutralizing Nervousness

Here are some things you can do to help improve the situation.

Fake a break. Indicate that you have to make a quick phone call before you start your conversation (refer to it as a conversation, as opposed to the interview), say that it will take about 10 minutes, and let the candidate know where the restrooms are. This way, he or she will have time to freshen up and regroup.

Aim for less power. If you’re sitting behind a desk, come around to the front of the desk and sit next to the candidate. In other words, remove the barrier. This will create a less formal and less intimidating environment.

Start small. This is always a good idea, if only because it makes you seem like a human being as opposed to a recruiting robot (those days will be here soon enough). When a candidate is nervous, it’s especially important.

Begin with the personal. Find something on the candidate’s resume you can talk about that isn’t directly related to the job. For example, “I see you used to live in Seattle. It’s a city I’ve always wanted to visit. How did you like living there?” Or, “It looks like we both worked in New York in the mid ‘90s. I worked in Midtown and lived on the Lower East Side. It was a crazy time, but I loved it. Where was your office located?” Needless to say, your conversation starter should be truthful.

Talk about the company. Before discussing the position or the candidate’s qualifications for it, provide some background on the company. Add a personal element, if possible. For example, “As you may or may not know, ABC Company was founded by the current CEO’s grandfather, in a one-room office above a grocery store. I often think about that as I ride the elevator to this incredible office space.”

For an overly nervous candidate, you may have to employ several of these tactics. Nevertheless, it may turn out to be worth the effort—especially if, when the person relaxes, you discover you’ve found the perfect person for the job.

What if you still have reservations, because of the initial nervousness?

Weigh the behavior in the context of the job. Is the candidate interviewing for a sales position? If so, you may want to have him or her interview with someone else in the company and see if the reaction is the same. If, on the other hand, the candidate is applying for a job as an accounting manager, and you are impressed by everything else about the interview, don’t count the person out.

Paula Paula Santonocito, Contributing Editor for Recruiting Daily Advisor, is a business journalist specializing in employment issues. She is the author of more than 1,000 articles on a wide range of human resource and career topics, with an emphasis on recruiting and hiring. Her articles have been featured in many global and domestic publications and information outlets, referenced in academic and legal publications as well as books, and translated into several languages.