The Many Perils of Interview Handshakes — and Why They Cause You to Lose Top Candidates

You’ve probably had it happen to you at the start of an interview. You extend your hand and in return you get a wimpy handshake, a “fist-bump” substitute, or a wet clammy handshake that is an intermediate turnoff. Although weak hiring handshakes are quite common, to most they may seem like an insignificant part of interviewing. But everyone involved in the hiring process needs to take notice and be aware of the high negative business impact of handshake bias

Assessing a candidate based on their handshake is a major problem because we know that many interviewers make an initial decision on a candidate within the first two to three minutes, and we know that the handshake and their appearance are the two most powerful elements that contribute to that powerful first impression. The fact that assessing handshakes is a major hiring decision factor is not just conjecture; research from Greg Stewart of the University of Iowa demonstrated that those with the best handshake scores “were considered to be the most hireable by the interviewers.” Handshakes also proved to be more impactful than “dress or physical appearance.”

Handshakes become a high-impact problem because handshakes occur in every interview, and a single bad handshake can immediately eliminate a top candidate, especially in entry-level jobs. You should also be aware that handshakes with women candidates leave a bigger impression and have their own unique set of biases. No one has ever been sued over handshake bias but the loss of top candidates as a result of it is real.

Interviewers Must Understand Possible Handshake Biases

Handshakes should not be normally given a high level of importance, because most jobs simply don’t require frequent handshaking with customers, and even then, handshaking techniques can be easily taught. Interviewers need to be aware of the many non-job related biases that can occur by assessing a simple handshake. If you are a professional recruiter or a manager who hires frequently, understand how many different types of “handshake created bias” can harm your hiring results. The nine categories of bias are:

A reflection of interpersonal skills – unfortunately, many interviewers equate an inappropriate or bad handshake with a lack of interpersonal skills, even though the weak handshake may be strictly a result of interview nervousness or uncertainty. People with a lot of experience in shaking hands (like salespeople) tend to be good at it, but it is a mistake to assume that an interview handshake reflects on a candidate’s interpersonal skills. There is simply no hard evidence to support this connection. Unless you frequently interact with strangers, you are unlikely to have a perfect handshake. That means that many researchers, scientists, back-office people, and IT and Internet professionals will score poorly on any handshake assessment.

It may cause personality assumptions — unfortunately an interviewer will frequently judge a person’s personality based on their handshake. A weak handshake may be taken as an indication that you are an introvert, lack aggressiveness, or have weak interpersonal skills, and a too-strong handshake may be taken to mean over aggressiveness (especially in women). There is no evidence to show a link between actual personality and interview handshakes.

It may create a bias against women — if you have difficulty hiring women, you should realize that the different way that women shake hands can cause them to be downgraded almost immediately. Obviously there are many variations, but women candidates, because they may be less strong or weigh less, may more frequently offer what may be perceived as a limp handshake (research shows that women with strong handshakes actually have an advantage over men). And because in some cultures women shake hands less frequently than men (or they may be forbidden to touch men), it may show during the handshake event.

Health issues impact handshakes – either the interviewee or the interviewer may have a fear of germs or actual health issues, which may impact their willingness to shake hands and how they shake hands. This handshake avoidance behavior may inaccurately be seen as a lack of interest in the job.

Cultures influence handshakes — some societies and geographic regions have a custom of vigorously shaking hands, while others have alternative ways of both greeting and shaking hands. Obviously their customs and practices may hurt a candidate if the interviewer is from a different culture. Failing to make eye contact while shaking hands will also almost always hurt a candidate, even though avoiding direct eye contact might be an element of their culture. The acceptable physical distance between the two parties when shaking hands may also be cultural, so either violating the interviewer’s space or being too distant may unnecessarily cause the candidate to lose points.

Generations impact handshakes — interviewers might not realize that the generation that the candidate is part of may also cause their handshake behavior to differ significantly. If the interviewer is from a different generation, mistaken judgments may occur.

A grooming bias — when shaking hands, the interviewer may notice and make an impression based on what may be undone related factors like poorly manicured nails, the watch that they wear, or even visible tattoos or jewelry. Too many or too few calluses noticed during a handshake have also unnecessarily influenced interviewers.

Disability issues — disabilities can obviously impact a candidate’s ability to shake hands. Parkinson’s, missing limbs from military veterans, and even sitting lower in a wheelchair can affect handshakes and perhaps bias the hiring decision.

Remote interview bias – because these days many interviews are done over the telephone or live on the Internet, the interviewer may simply not get the chance to physically shake hands. This lack of physical contact may help some but hurt others. Be aware that major problems occur when remote candidates are compared with interviewees who met in person and provided a physical handshake.

Action Steps for Recruiters and Hiring Managers

It may seem to some that I am making a big deal out of nothing, but that would be a mistake. Everyone with experience in recruiting clearly remembers and can quickly recite their own really bad handshake experience (as a result of sharing stories with recruiters, I have a list of a dozen handshake errors that have negatively influenced hiring decisions). If you are a recruiting leader and you need to train your recruiters or if you are an individual recruiter who wants to take action to ensure that a handshake doesn’t unnecessarily cause you to lose great candidates, here are six action steps to consider:

Learn the biases and their impacts — understanding the long list of possible handshake biases can by itself make a big difference. Also realize that any first impression or early decision during the interview process can cause you to unnecessarily reject top candidates before you learn about the actual capabilities.

Train yourself to discount them – once you’ve learned the many inaccurate conclusions that can occur from a handshake, you can often train yourself to quickly disregard handshake impressions when they occur and then to quickly focus on job-related issues.

Hold your handshakes until the end – since most of the bias results from a first impression, you can save your handshake until the end where it won’t have the same impact.

Track your impressions – take notes during some of your interviews and record the time points (minutes after the interviewee entered the room) where you have made a significant positive or negative impression. If you find that you make initial go-or-no-go hiring decision early in the interview process, you need to be more aware of handshake bias than if you don’t make any conclusions or decisions toward the end of the interview.

Realize that you can train the handshake – if the job actually requires handshaking skills, remember that those skills can be quickly developed after they are hired.

Avoid handshakes until the end – obviously it is awkward to initially refuse to shake hands, but you can certainly minimize your chances of having to shake hands by the way you design the interview space. First, you can design the interview space and make the way that the interviewee enters the room and where they sit less conducive to initial handshaking. You can also learn to quickly tell the candidate as they enter the room to have a seat. You can also use the phrase “if you don’t mind, it is our practice to postpone shaking hands until the end of the interview.” And, as mentioned previously, if you use telephone and live Internet videos for your initial interviews, you can at least postpone the handshake until you have already formed your first impressions on the candidate, based on job-related information.

Advice to Job Candidates

Every job candidate should realize the importance of handshakes. However, if you are a candidate who experiences very short interviews or if you are frequently dropped after one initial interview, you should also be aware that how you shake hands may be a primary reason for it. Every candidate should learn about each of the dozen or so handshake errors that they can make (fortunately, a majority of them can be overcome through practice and criticism). In addition, they should learn and practice the characteristics of a great handshake. Closely watch the eyes, the facial expression, and the body language of the interviewer immediately after a handshake. Because through this observation, you may be able to catch the fact that you made a major “handshake error,” so that you can then quickly work to overcome it.

Final Thoughts

Most recruiting professionals and hiring managers give no thought to interview handshakes, even though I estimate that a negative handshake alone may make up as much as 50 percent of the factors that contribute to a first-impression hiring decision. This means that without being consciously aware of it, your recruiters or hiring managers may be rejecting top candidates because of a non-job related factor. To make matters worse, you’re probably losing a disproportionate number of women, diverse candidates and international candidates without consciously knowing why.

The most common response from recruiters when the problem is brought up is for them to blow off the issue completely and to just assume (usually incorrectly) that it’s not a problem with them. Unfortunately, because recruiters won’t admit to it and handshake bias is never recorded, this bias may be causing you to lose dozens of top quality candidates and there is no way that your firm will ever know, even though it is happening every day.

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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