Before you schedule that employment interview, consider this: research suggests that there are many subtle cues in an interview that indicate whether the job seeker will be successful—both in landing the position, and in doing the work. Understanding what those cues are is important, no matter which side of the desk you sit on.

Murray Barrick

Murray Barrick, management department head and Paul M. and Rosalie Robertson Chair in Business, has been studying elements of the interview process for years and has advice to offer job seekers and hiring managers.

The Job Seeker: Confidence is Key

Your dream job is available, but first you’ve got to prove you’re the best candidate for the job. This nerve-jangling process is reminiscent of a first date—both parties reveal certain information while evaluating the other, examining the potential of an alliance—and as much as you’d like to think it’s all about personality and experience, you know that appearance matters.

You’ve polished your résumé and your shoes, practiced your answers and your winning smile. You’re ready for…

The interview

There are three important sections of an interview, which determine your success. Controlling for different factors, Barrick has examined the impact of each of these areas and his research suggests that those who perform the highest in them receive employment offers.

1. The information

You have to actually know what you’re talking about. This is a no-brainer. You must have satisfactory answers to the job-related questions you’ll be asked.

Self-promotion is okay in a job interview. “If you don’t self-promote, people will assume that you are socially incompetent,” says Barrick.

However, if you’re lacking in the specific skills and experience necessary for the job, you can make up for it by emphasizing conscientiousness and emotional stability. Conscientiousness includes being dependable, hard working, and achievement-oriented. Emotional stability involves how able you are to manage stress, and is also related to confidence. Those that are low in self-confidence tend to also be less emotionally stable—and this is a predictor of poor performance and turnover.

2. Image management

You’ve got to look good, and that goes beyond the chic haircut and power suit. An important element of your professional image is confidence, self-promotion, or “what we typically call bragging,” says Barrick. It’s a fine line, though. You don’t want to come off as conceited, but you do want to talk yourself up. If you don’t, no one else in the interview will.

“It’s socially expected in this setting. If you don’t self-promote, people will assume that you are socially incompetent.”

You may have heard the saying “Nobody likes a suck up.” Well, that’s not entirely true. Barrick suggests that an appropriate amount of ingratiation is also a cue to hiring managers that you are socially competent—that you understand the expectations of the context, and can “play the game” of professional interaction well.

3. Body language

What you’re saying without words is as important as your answers to all those probing questions. Through body language, you must convey two things: confidence and enthusiasm. Leaning forward slightly is a subtle cue that you are interested in the position and may make a more enthusiastic employee. Good eye contact does the same. And the gold standard…

The handshake

Barrick and colleagues rated five elements of the handshake of candidates in mock interviews. They found that if a candidate’s handshake rated higher on grip, vigor, duration, temperature, and eye contact during the transaction, he or she was also more likely to be rated highly in other areas of the interview.

First impressions are vital, as your information, image, and body language is quickly assessed and those judgments color the rest of the interview. How quickly? Barrick says the success of the interview is often decided in the first three to four minutes. If that seems unfair, note that the manager’s first impressions of the candidate may reasonably be linked to performance, as it may indicate how that person will interact with colleagues and customers. If the hiring manager finds the candidate likeable, others may, too.

The bottom line? The interview is a conversation between two strangers. The interviewer is relying on you to provide the information they need to make a decision about your hire. So if you are the best candidate, make sure you demonstrate that to the interviewer clearly and confidently.

The Hiring Manager: Hire smarts

Want to hire the best candidate? Then don’t worry so much about their skills and experience, pay attention to their general intelligence and personality (emotional stability, openness, dependability). These traits are vital in most any position, and they tend to be fixed—there is little you can do to train an employee to be smarter or easier to get along with.

When it comes right down to it, an interview isn’t the best method of gauging those essential elements, says Barrick, who recommends a formal survey to test for these, such as the Personal Characteristics Inventory®. Co-created by Barrick, this survey links the big five personality traits to job performance in many categories. Personality traits can be identified with a high degree of accuracy, as they do predict job performance, it makes sense to test for them.

Testing for intelligence, however, can be complicated, as certain populations tend to score higher on IQ tests. Employers may fear being branded as discriminatory if they are perceived to be using these tests to exclude minorities. There is a moderate relationship with interview success and intelligence, says Barrick, which suggests that interviewers are already pretty good at picking out the candidates with smarts (or that smarter folks perform better in interviews). Even if you’re not formally assessing it, being aware of the importance of intelligence in a candidate will help you detect it.

Barrick reports that as many as 20 percent of American companies (such as McDonald’s) are using personality surveys to screen applicants. The survey is usually sandwiched between a prescreening interview and a final interview. Often its function is identifying which individuals will be most conscientious and emotionally stable—two key indicators of overall performance.

While there are better selection tools available to assess many of the things we measure in an interview, the process is not going away in the American marketplace. “It’s a cultural expectation that before I hire you I’m going to meet you and talk to you, look you in the eyes and see what I think of you as a person, draw some conclusions about your character as a whole,” says Barrick.

“You can’t change somebody’s personality. That’s what therapy is about. You can’t increase intelligence without a lot of effort. That’s what a four-year degree is for.”
—Murray Barrick, Paul M. and Rosalie Robertson Chair in Business

Often managers try to do too much in a 30-minute interview. In your next interview, focus on the essentials and measure those explicitly: intelligence, personality, and job skills. Managers typically rate these areas subconsciously, but making the rating explicit will clarify the process and make the interview more predictive of success.

Interviews are most useful for determining one thing: fit—that intangible, hard-to-define element that suggests an employee will be successful in the framework of the company culture. Most people can’t tell you exactly what fit is, says Barrick, but when you ask practitioners, they all agree that it is important.

How to measure whether or not a person is right for your company? There’s no questionnaire for that one. You’ll have to go with your gut.

Works cited

Information for this article came from research in a variety of Barrick’s papers. You can find links to many of these articles and other research from Barrick on his personal website at

  • Barrick, M. R., Shaffer, J. A., & DeGrassi, S. W. (2009). What You See May Not Be What You Get: A Meta-Analysis of the Relationship between Self-Presentation Tactics and Ratings of Interview and Job Performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 1394-1411
  • Stewart, G. L., Darnold, T., Barrick, M. R., & Dustin, S. D. (2008). Exploring the Handshake in Employment Interviews. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 1139-1146.
  • Barrick, M. R., & Zimmerman, R. D. (2005). Reducing Voluntary, Avoidable Turnover through Selection. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90, 159-166.
  • Kristof-Brown, A., Barrick, M. R., Stevens, C. K. (2005). When Opposites Attract: A Multi-Sample Demonstration of Complementary Person-Team Fit on Extraversion. Journal of Personality, 73, 935-957.
  • Kristof-Brown, A. Barrick, M. R., & Franke, M. (2002). Applicant Impression Management: Dispositional Influences and Consequences for Recruiter Perceptions of Fit and Similarity. Journal of Management, 28, 27-46.
  • Witt, L. A., Burke, L. A., Barrick, M. R., & Mount, M. K. (2002). The Interactive Effects of Conscientiousness and Agreeableness on Job Performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 164-169.
  • Barrick, M. R., Patton, G. K. & Haugland, S. N. (2000). Accuracy of Interviewer Judgments of Job Applicant Personality Traits. Personnel Psychology, 53, 925-954.
  • Judge, T. J., Higgins, C. A., Thoresen, C. J.,& Barrick, M. R (1999). The Big Five personality traits, general mental ability, and career success across the life span. Personnel Psychology, 52, 621-652.
  • Dunn, W., Mount, M. K., Barrick, M. R., & Ones, D. S. (1995). The Big Five personality dimensions, general mental ability and perceptions of employment suitability. Journal of Applied Psychology, 80, 500-509.