how to interview a really nervous job candidate

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 professional I could think of to help this person relax and be themselves. I was friendly, talked about myself a little to give them a couple 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 them with rapid-fire questions, etc.

Aside from their nervousness, this person was a strong candidate and I really wanted to find out if, once they got over their jitters, they might be the person we were looking for. Sadly, I couldn’t tell — the person 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?

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 say in a sympathetic 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 intern 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 do hear you on wondering if once the interview jitters passed, they might have been your person — but there’s only so much you can do to find that out. And in a role that requires that they be able to project confidence in somewhat stressful situations, you’ve got to go on what you’re seeing in the interview, sympathetic as you may be.

As a side note, while we’re on the topic, it’s good practice in general to do all the things you tried with this candidate when trying to get her to relax — 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 them out of their “interview mode,” you’ll often learn much more about them (good and bad).

And for job seekers out there, doing whatever you can to be your normal self — not your “interview self,” that more stiff and formal creature who doesn’t exist the rest of the time — will help ensure that you end up in a job that’s the right fit. You’ll also generally have better interviews if the interviewer feels like they’re talking to a colleague rather than to a nervous job candidate who’s focused on impressing. (And my free guide to how to prepare for an interview has a fairly extensive section on dealing with nerves, including realizing that there’s no such thing as a perfect candidate, remembering that you have power here too and should be interviewing them right back, thinking of yourself as a consultant going into a business meeting — because, really, you are — and more.)

{ 37 comments… read them below }

  1. Julie

    With regards to your last paragraph, I think one way of projecting a more “normal self” at an interview is to remember that interviews truly are a two-way street. Yes, they’re interviewing you to see if you’re a good fit at the company, but you’re also interviewing them to see if this is a company you want to work for. Remembering that — hard as it is sometimes to do — lets you regain some of your power and not feel quite so much like an underdog, which helps in overcoming the nervousness.

  2. K-Anon

    You weren’t specific about why you felt the job candidate was nervous. I’ve had a candidate who I assumed was nervous turn out to have some kind of condition that made their hands shake. Not a serious condition, but noticeable as he gestured a fair amount. It was internal, so when I commented on it his current manager told me about the condition, he got the job. I later had an employee who’s hands shook in a similar way, I’m not sure if that was a similar condition or just coffee. While my hands don’t shake, I do constantly need to be doing something with them, I find myself fidgeting with my pen a lot, I’ve had to buy specific pens that don’t have parts for me to take about and make a conscious effort to control it…. It’s not nerves, I do it all the time.

  3. EnnVeeEl

    I felt tense reading this. Oh man. I feel bad for both of them!

    Somehow, over time, I’ve gotten over feeling terribly nervous in job interviews. Maybe it’s practice and time and age – but honestly, I think some of it has to do with, we are both having a conversation and that’s all this is. It helped me a lot framing interviews in this way. I hope the job seeker comes away from this and tries to learn some tips to help them calm down. They are going to miss out on a lot of opportunities this way.

    1. dejavu2

      This – thinking of it as a conversation – has taken me from a super nervous interviewer to a very confident interviewer. I also went through a really tough period of un/under-employment, during which I became so used to rejection that there was nothing left to be nervous about. I was so sure I wasn’t going to get it, that there was no reason to be nervous since the worst case scenario was inevitable. That sounds really dismal, but it really took all of the pressure off, and I started acing interviews and ended up with multiple offers.

  4. Just a Reader

    If poise is a key part of the job, I think the nervousness is a clear indicator that it won’t be a good fit.

    So a developer–this could be overlooked. A salesperson or someone who will be presenting–red light.

    1. Jessa

      This. if you had another position that was less customer facing maybe, but if they’re that nervous, presenting in front of strangers, not such a good fit.

      1. Jazzy Red

        At my former company, one of our national account managers was a nail biter. His nails were bitten down below the quick, and his fingers looked awful. He made a terrible impression when dealing with clients. They would take one look at his nails and know that he was nervous/insecure, and they would drive a very hard bargain, with him on the losing end.

        It didn’t really help our company.

  5. Claire

    It sounds like you did a good job – I know a conversational interview is what most helps me relax & be myself instead of losing myself to heavy breathing and nervous babbling. Personally, being told I didn’t have to be nervous would make me way MORE nervous because omg they noticed I was nervous this is the worst!11! #panic

  6. The Windy City Blows

    First, I would like to thank you Alison for your site. It has provided me with invaluable information during my job search and I read it religiously. Much obliged.

    I can so relate to the nervous job candidate. I am always nervous before an interview – no matter how much I prepare beforehand. I think it’s excellent advice to acknowledge the interviewee’s nervousness and ask them to relax. It validates their feelings and makes the interviewer seem compassionate to the anxiety that interviews can produce. I usually take my cues from the interviewer; if they seem relaxed yet professional then that puts me more at ease. If they seem extremely tight and rigid that just increases my anxiety.

    I recently had an interview where my anxiety was through.the.roof. My interviewers did not help the situation as they were extremely stiff, hardly smiled or acknowledged my answers (i.e. head nods, mm hmms, okay’s etc.) and provided me with a myriad of information and then proceeded to ask 3 or so questions within a question related to that information. All of this just made me uncomfortable.

    Conversely, I had another interview where the interviewer’s were more relaxed, didn’t ask 3 questions within a question, and were personable yet professional. This allowed me to relax and present my “normal self”. I am positive that I did so much better in this interview and I’m more confident that I was able to demonstrate my fit with the position. Interviewing style matters.

    Some people, like the person in the OP’s situation, just can’t relax no matter what. I empathize as interviewing can be quite stressful.

  7. Rob Bird

    This is a good reason for 2nd interviews. I tell people if you’re not nervous, it’s not important. However, nerves have many different ways of showing up!

    I would do a second interview if you think they are a strong candidate. Meet them one-on-one for a while, then take them on a tour of the office to see how they are. Could be it was just a one time thing or it could be they are channeling their inner chihauhau.

  8. Realistic

    I wonder if asking “You seem really nervous right now. This job entails going into a lot of stressful situations and presenting information with confidence — not unlike this job interview. Is there something different about today than what you would do in this role?” would elicit some new information. It could be that the candidate had a near-car accident on the way there and it was an adrealine delay. Maybe she hit traffic and really has to use the bathroom and it looks like nerves. Or it could be that she hasn’t had a job interview in so long that it’s a new experience, but is cool as a cucumber presenting to clients because she did that a lot in her last job. Even seeing how someone responds to a statement like that might help assess what’s going on, and how she might respond to gentle-but-direct confrontation.

    1. Tasha

      This is one reason why setting up an experimental task, such as presenting, is often helpful. The candidate might express him/herself more clearly (or less clearly!) in a mock client situation. I’ve gotten less tense in interviews with practice, but I’m at my best when talking about a technical topic that I know well.

    2. LJL

      Exactly. I once interviewed a candidate at the end of the interview day. (Yes, higher ed.) He appeared so nervous and was sweating, shaking, and apologizing, no matter what I did to try to put him at ease. He didn’t get the job, mostly because his skills weren’t exactly what we were needing. I ran into him later, when I learned that he was afraid he’d get tired around the middle of the day, so he drank a mega-energy drink and had a bad reaction to it, which led to his reaction. So, two points here: 1) be aware that something other than nerves can cause those reactions, and 2) when interviewing, don’t try anything new for energy or to relax.

  9. Laura

    If you decide to go with another candidate, take the time to provide some feedback so that he or she will know that the nervousness issue is impacting their interviews.

    1. HR Abnormal

      I was hiring a junior accountant last year, had one candidate who immigrated from Russian in his teens and had finished up his degree a couple of years ago. He was a terrible interview and kept declaring how terrible he was. I did my best to put him at ease, gave him opportunities to pause and restate his replies, etc.
      Inwardly, I was rooting for him, really hoping he’d reach some comfort level and could complete an answer w/o fluster.

      We didn’t hire but I did send an email offering to meet and provide input, unfortunately didn’t hear back.

  10. Ask a Manager Post author

    For a reason that I cannot determine, this post is sending all comments on it through moderation (where I’m releasing them quickly). So don’t be alarmed if you see your comment was held — I’ll release it as soon as I spot it.

    I’ve never seen WordPress do this before; it’s odd.

  11. AB

    “And in a role that requires that they be able to project confidence in somewhat stressful situations, you’ve got to go on what you’re seeing in the interview, sympathetic as you may be.”

    I totally agree with AAM. I like to keep an open mind and, like the OP described, do my best to help the candidate relax, but there’s not much you can do if the person continues to show nervousness throughout the interview.

    There is no way I’d hire someone who would have to present company ideas to clients under these circumstances. No matter how talented he seemed to be, I’d need proof that the candidate would be able to handle, for example, an angry or arrogant customer well. This sort of behavior during an interview demonstrates quite the opposite!

    1. AB

      I also agree with Rob Bird with giving the person a second chance by bringing him/her in for a second interview if they seemed to be one of the top candidates.

      But if the same thing happened the second time, then I’d be very comfortable with taking the person off my list of finalists, regardless of how good the person was in other aspects of the job.

    2. Zed

      I think that’s a bit harsh–we don’t even know what “this sort of behavior” was!

  12. WorkingMom

    While conducting an interview once, the candidate seemed nervous and actually said, “I am a little nervous.” I loved that the candidate was honest, and I replied with, “Don’t worry, I am not going to throw any crazy questions at you. I just want to get to know you a little better.” That really seemed to work – the knowledge that I wasn’t about to ask those “crazy” interview questions (like, “sell me this pencil” type stuff). Of course that only works if you really aren’t asking those questions!

  13. NervousNelly

    I have to admit that I don’t understand why it is such a problem to be nervous. I was nervous in my last job interview, probably visibly so. I was nervous because I was currently underemployed, because I really needed this job, and because I also really *wanted* it–because I knew the people I was interviewing for, and I knew the workplace, and I knew how amazing an opportunity would be. And because I was worried.

    Jobs are such a big deal. When you are on the cusp of having or not having a livelihood, that’s huge and that’s frightening. An employer has so much power over you and your life, and sometimes it seems like interviews are fickle gods. I don’t blame this candidate, or any candidate, for being nervous.

    1. Elle

      Because some jobs require the ability to look cool under pressure. It’s an extreme example but if you are hiring a hostage negotiator, they will be dealing in life or death situations and that “power” shouldn’t unnerve them in the moment.

      Also, I think that the notion that the employer has all this power is at odds with how employers think of “great” candidates. It’s like dating. You want to seem like you have good options and other people value you. Not like you’ll take any old thing because you are desperate.

      1. Jazzy Red

        If you’ve ever really been desperate, you would understand.

        The people with the money *do* have all the power (or most of it).

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Right, but it’s still not useful to come across as desperate; it weakens your candidacy and also prevents you from asking good questions, etc.

          1. JM in England

            I have a similar analogy from real life. Was once applying for a bank loan and I got the impression that to be approved, I had to more-or-less prove that I didn’t need it in the first place. Have gone intojob interviews with a similar outlook.

            1. JM in England

              Also agree with Jazzy that to understand desperation, you have to have been through it yourself……..walk a mile in another person’s shoes ring any bells people?

              1. fposte

                I think you can understand desperation and also understand why the person whose performance is impacted by it may not be as strong as another candidate for a job that involves similar skills. If a candidate is visibly impaired by stress when something important is on the line and when presenting, for instance, that’s something that has to be considered if they’re being considered for a job that involves crucial dealmaking or lots of presentation. (And the person who gets the job instead may be just as desperate or even more so–not everybody displays nerves the same way.)

    2. HR Abnormal

      Nervous is okay, inability to ask or answer questions, explain clearly etc is where it gets tough. I honestly give big credit for those that do struggle and can hold it together.

    3. EngineerGirl

      Slightly nervous is OK, but not really nervous. I know that several board members disagreed with me before, but nervousness keeps you from bonding with your potential new employer, and that makes you less hirable. This post is an example of it.

      And I’m also tired of the “employer holds all the power” phrase. That is only true if you give it to them. You have the power to say no when it isn’t a good fit, just like you have the power to say no to a potential date.

      If you can’t learn to say “no” nicely you are going to be in for one rough ride in your life. One way of doing that is to put things into perspective. It is a job. That is all. If you don’t get it you will deal with it and move on to the next. Really. There is no one job that will launch you into the career of your lifetime. There are a lot of good fits, and your career could take a left turn where you don’t expect it – maybe for the better.

      1. EnnVeeEl

        EngineerGirl is right. We recently interviewed some vendors for a project we are doing here at work. We are a nice bunch and we don’t ask trick or aggressive questions. This woman came in, saw us and her nervousness completely shut her down. Everyone saw it and softened the questions, smiled, tried to put her at ease. It only got worse. I was aching for it to be over, for her sake and ours. It was SO uncomfortable. I know these things can be nerve-wracking, but please, do your best, whatever it is, to get it under control.

  14. Carrie

    I’ve learned that interviews are really not a great way to determine who the best candidate is and learned, sadly, that the person who looks best on paper (and I can verify the accuracy of their resume claims) is usually the best pick. I’ve hired “fun,” “personable” people that had good, but not great, resumes who were absolute disasters. I hired a very shy guy with a stellar resume who just came alive when he was presenting to our funders – I took a big risk on him, but it paid off. Hiring him resulted in me getting a huge bonus after we landed the support of very important people through his skillful speaking. Usually the more conscientious people get very, very nervous during interviews and I’m afraid they’ll never, ever be able to shake the interview jitters.

  15. Yako

    I once did an interview where I was rambling and stumbling over words because I was so nervous. Me and one of the interviewers was waiting for the other interviewer to show up and at one point he just said to me “You seem nervous. Just stop. Take a few deep breaths.” and he reminded me that all he wants to do is get to know me a bit better to see if I’ll be a good fit for the job.

    By the time the second interviewer showed up I had mellowed out a bit and was ten times more articulate. I didn’t get the job, but I’m still extremely grateful to that interviewer for giving me a reality check.

  16. smee

    I get extremely nervous during interviews and often go blank when questioned, despite researching the job and company beforehand and having notes and my CV infront of me. Unfortunately, this has cost me a lot of job offers. This is not how I am outside of interviews and I always apologise for my nervousness before the interview starts, but it makes no difference. I have good work experience and have lost jobs to candidates with far less impressive CVs, due to my interview performance. I really have no idea what I can do to help myself – I have seemingly tried everything. I have spoken to people who don’t suffer from nervousness and they are uncomprehending of the condition and therefore have little understanding or sympathy. I suspect this is the opinion of a lot of the people I have been interviewed by.

    I have also been on the other side and have interviewed someone equally as nervous as myself and it is hard when they are unable to elaborate on answers to your questions. I had to decide between the nervous person and a much more confident candidate and sadly, the confident candidate won. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a mistake, as the confident candidate was all talk and was very work-shy. We ended up hiring the nervous candidate a year later and they proved to be an excellent choice.

  17. A Frame

    For managers/hr, there isn’t anything to do on your end but be professional, be yourself and be honest about the job/environment. Never sugarcoat it just to put someone at ease.
    Many folks have issues speaking about themselves, being one on one, dealing with higher ups, being under microscope, whatever. Or sometimes it’s just nerves for no reason. Some of our greatest actors, singers, public speakers, etc are violently ill before a performance. Just how they are wired. But… How do you know if this is just interview nerves or something that may be a hinderance to particular job duties?
    Unless you have listed that being interviewed will be a daily part of the job, don’t worry about their nerves. Fughetta bout it.
    But… If it is so bad that it’s a concern/red flag, good heavens don’t mention you’ve noticed it! Lol.. Would you talk about the big hairy mole on the end of their nose too? Lol.. Yeah, it’s the elephant in the room… But have a heart and don’t point it out.
    So what to do? The best way to sniff it out is look at their resume (you did read it, right?), find a task/duty they had that would be relative to something you’d be having them do (but are concerned their nerves would be a hinderance), and ask more about how they handled it. Set the tone by complimenting them on how they effectively dealt with it and then hit them with the differences between that and what you want them to do (the thing where you feel their nerves would get in the way) . You could also make up random scenarios and ask them how they would handle it or why they think they would be suited for it. Or even ask why they think they would LIKE it. If they look like a deer in the headlights when you ask about LIKING something… Abort mission. Folks perk up to some degree when they speak about something they like doing or love doing or can see themselves doing. If you don’t see any signs of life at this point, best to move on.

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