Body Language – The #2 Diversity Killer

Their backgrounds cause diverse interviewees to act differently but not matching expectations may cost them a job!

Today’s Diversity Killers Are Stealthy

Fortunately, there are few overt “diversity killing” practices left in hiring.  However, a handful of stealthy assessment practices limit diversity because they occur in nearly every interview. The #1 most damaging of these “stealth diversity killers” is fit assessment (which I have previously written about). Using circular logic, because of candidates’ diverse backgrounds, they bring different perspectives because they are somewhat different from the current team.

The #2 diversity killing practice covered in today’s article is assessing body language (BL) during interviews. This practice tries to avoid being fooled by the candidate’s carefully scripted verbal answers.  Interviewers track small body language actions during the interview that (supposedly) expose “the candidate’s real” emotions and attitude elements.

Unfortunately, many of the body actions (i.e., a genuine smile, the contact, and sitting postures) specified to be observed are highly impacted by the candidate’s culture, national origin, gender, age, sexual orientation, and disabilities. Therefore, when you assess these BL actions, it can hurt diversity hiring. For example, a female candidate can lose body language points when their expected body action (like a genuine smile) doesn’t occur. The female candidate’s culture/religion may have taught this woman not to smile in front of those with power. 

A Quick Illustrative Example Of How Body Language Discriminates

It seems innocent enough; you don’t have time to motivate your new hires. So you must only have final candidates that are extremely interested in your job. And fortunately, body language (BL) practitioners tell us that a lack of steady eye contact reveals a lack of interest in the job. So, the interviewer would naturally reject those candidates that openly show their disinterest by not maintaining eye contact, looking down, or frequently glancing around the room.

Of course, nothing will be documented on how a decision was made to label these candidates as disinterested. The hiring manager will never know that their reliance on body language will, unfortunately, mean that they have unknowingly screened out many Muslim and Japanese women applicants. Some of these women were taught by their culture that even though they are very interested in a job, it’s never okay to make eye contact with a male interviewer. This assessment practice may also mean that the hiring manager will downgrade or reject many veterans with PTSD. Who, because of their combat experience, have indelibly learned to be constantly scanning and looking around.

The Message That A Company Sends Is Clear

I can’t think of a better way for a company to unambiguously show that “we want diverse people, but only if they act according to our white European male interview behavior standards!” By using a body language screening, you are probably also telling these candidates that once they are hired, they will likely still have to “hide” their diversity and their diverse perspective every day on the job.

A Quick Definition

If you’re not familiar with the term. Body Language assessment is the self-taught art of identifying unconscious nonverbal signals such as gestures, facial expressions, and eye gazes that “match” the behaviors of the predetermined ideal interviewee. Based on the assumption that these nonverbal behaviors during interviews accurately (more accurate than verbal information) reveal both the candidate’s current emotions and future work skills and attitude components.

How Body Language Assessment Discriminates Against Members Of Protected Groups

Of course, body language assessment isn’t designed to discriminate against diverse candidates openly. However, if you look at the body language factors commonly assessed (i.e., walking in, shaking hands, how/where you sit, body posture, hand and arm movements, leg crossing, eye contact, personal spacing, and your clothing). It should become clear that many of these interview actions are heavily influenced by one’s national origin, race, gender, age, religion, and disability. Below are some examples of how the different protected groups in the US can have their chance of getting hired severely impacted by body language assessment during their interviews. 

  • Candidates from different countries, cultures, and races are facing discrimination. Long-held cultural, racial, and national origin traditions significantly affect how a candidate walks in, greets, sits, gestures, and maintains the appropriate personal space during interviews. A candidate’s current peer group will also influence how they dress for the interview (even though you are willing to change your dress on the job). Unfortunately, if the way that your culture taught you to act doesn’t mesh with the “European white male body language model,” your chances of getting hired will be significantly reduced.
  • Women are often hurt by BL assessment.  A candidate’s gender may impact their level of openness, aggressiveness, and posture. Women candidates may have specifically been taught to maintain their distance, avoid eye contact with men, and be subservient to those in power. The expectations of a woman’s family may also limit the aggressiveness of some women during their interviews. Pregnancy and childbirth may have also resulted in a change in their posture. Many women will also cross their legs /ankles differently than men. And they also may use fewer hand gestures, depending on their culture and religion. Women that wear head coverings to the interview may lose points because facial assessment will be more difficult.
  • The disabled are hurt by BL assessment.   A disability can impact your walk-in, where and how you sit, and even your response speed. A commonly used body language assessment factor is eye contact. It is used to evaluate candidates based on “the assumption that moderate eye contact communicates confidence and interest. However, when a candidate clearly does not maintain eye contact, there could be many different disabilities behind that action, including anyone who has PTSD or ADHD. Being handicapped, blind, or in a wheelchair can negatively impact the disabled person’s body posture, handshake, and eye contact. It’s also true that when any candidate comes to their interview in a weakened condition, they will likely do poorly on the BL assessment.
  • Members of different religions can face discrimination.  Religion may impact a candidate’s dress, where they sit, their posture, their aggressiveness/subservience, and their degree of eye contact. Some religions don’t allow women to show facial expressions or even to shake hands. You may find that some highly religious women will refuse to shake hands, or their handshake will be unimpressive (because they seldom shake hands). 
  • LGBT+ candidates can be hurt by BL assessment.  Some gay candidates may talk, act and dress differently from the norm of their gender. You can assume that almost all LGBT+ candidates won’t fit the gender profile in each interviewer’s mind. And transgender candidates likely suffer even worse under the unconscious bias aspects of body language assessment.
  • Veterans can face discrimination. Because of their combat experience and many are likely to have PTSD or physical disabilities. Veteran candidates are likely to be constantly looking around for danger. So any constant fidgeting and a loss of eye contact will severely hurt their chances. Their military training may be so embedded that they will act stiff and unemotional during most of their interview. This may hurt them when openness is a desired trait.
  • Older candidates may be negatively impacted by BL assessment. Age will impact the way that candidates walk, sit and the speed at which they respond. Older workers and the very young may both act fidgety in many non-work situations. And that may cause them to lose points on body posture and maintaining eye contact. Interviewers may also mistakenly think that the naturally slower movements of older candidates reflect their lack of enthusiasm, energy, or interest in the job. And even though it may not be job-related, younger workers may be penalized because they have a short attention span or look at their phone more often than the more staid interviewer expects. 

The Many Reasons Why Body Language Assessment Is Truly Evil

Many don’t realize it; most concepts and some actual body language practices have their foundation in animal research. This process reminds me a lot of the time when astrology was used to select candidates. Where the stars observed were real. But that didn’t mean that the predictions under those stars were going to be accurate. There are, in fact, numerous reasons why everyone should be skeptical about this BL practice. So, below I have listed the top 10 reasons why I label body language assessment not just as a bad hiring practice but one that should instead be classified as “evil!” 

  • Most importantly, it doesn’t accurately predict. All assessment processes are supposed to predict a candidate’s future on-the-job performance accurately. Unfortunately, after extensive research, I have not been able to find any credible statistical evidence that the process as applied by hiring managers is valid, reliable, or job-related. And to make matters even worse, no one (including the EEOC) has tracked and publicly revealed the adverse impact that BL assessment is currently having on diverse candidates.
  • It impacts millions of candidates.  It is evil because of its widespread use. It’s encouraged in almost every book or training guide covering the interviewing of candidates. As a result, it literally negatively impacts millions of otherwise qualified candidates each year. 
  • It’s based on an outdated stereotype.  The “ideal interview actions” (i.e., smile, sit up straight, and maintain eye contact) are based on an antiquated stereotype based on a white male European corporate stereotype from the 50s. In today’s international world, managers must realize that now there are many more diverse ways to act and indicate emotions during an interview.
  • It’s a hidden assessment. BL assessment is completely hidden. The candidate will never know when and what they’re being judged on. And because there is no documentation, a candidate can’t challenge it after the process has misjudged them. There are no HR metrics for measuring its effectiveness and adverse impact; therefore, the process isn’t likely to ever improve.
  • A single BL failure can lead to instant rejection.  This practice is evil because failing on the body language assessment phase can by itself result in an instant and permanent rejection. Instant rejection is most likely to occur in a widely used but still invalid assessment area of identifying liars. 
  • The BL assessment is seldom consistent and reliable. There is no universal agreement on what BL factors to assess, their definitions, how to measure each, and which emotions and attitude elements they predict. As a result, during interviews where many are assessing a candidate’s body language. Interviewers have so much slack and so few guardrails. It’s easy for the interviewer’s unconscious biases to rule their judgment. So you can guarantee a wide range of BL assessments that often range from extremely positive to “this candidate should be immediately rejected.” 
  • There’s no proof that the projected emotions and attitude elements are correct. You must also realize that even though the 16 actions to be observed (like maintaining eye contact) are real actions. There is literally no scientific evidence to prove that the emotions and attitude elements that have been widely assigned to that action are in any way accurate (i.e., maintaining eye contact does actually reveal a candidate’s interest and attraction). You can be sure that the assignment of these emotions/attitudes has not been a result of a statistical cause-and-effect research study. In many cases, those attitude elements (being interested or attracted) are not even listed as essential job requirements in the position announcement.
  • Practice and education improve BL scores. It’s a mistake to assume that today’s candidates behave naturally during interviews. Today, most candidates have access to literally dozens of websites that can help them understand common body language errors. Through practice, they can improve their chances of passing any body language assessment. Unfortunately, because diverse candidates don’t always have easy Internet access, this may lead to a lack of preparation among diverse candidates. And this will likely mean that they won’t know how to avoid many of the most damaging negative interview actions consciously.
  • Body language assessment is negatively impacted by interview technology. Body language has been traditionally assessed in person. However, in group interviews or in rooms where the candidate is less visible to all, getting consistent assessments between those with different “views of the candidate” is difficult. And when it comes to telephone interviews and zoom interviews, assessment becomes more problematic because most of the interviewee’s body is simply not visible. Also, many of the common assessment factors like walking in, shaking hands, and where they sit are not possible during the standard electronic call.
  • Those that practice BL assessment are artists, not scientists. Interviewers unconsciously do some form of body language assessment. However, whether the assessment is unconscious or conscious, most interviewers conduct the assessment without a lick of formal training. Body language assessment is clearly not a science. Instead of statistical validity data, “body language experts” cite only anecdotal evidence and their years of experience practicing it to support the practice’s validity and reliability. 

Final Thoughts

There is no doubt that almost every interviewer, even if it’s subconscious, uses some amount of body language assessment during hiring. They use it even though they’ve never been formally trained on avoiding its many negative hiring and diversity impacts. And despite this widespread use of this seemingly innocent practice, in my view, Body Language assessments remain extremely dangerous and damaging. No part of the BL assessment process has been proven valid, reliable, job-related, data-driven, or nondiscriminatory. And as a result, few corporations formally sanction the use of body language during interviews. Finally, realize that body language assessment is so questionable that they are not admitted in court (even when a veteran police officer makes the BL assessment). 

Author’s Note 

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About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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