FACE IT! How to up your recruitment game using facial expression recognition

By Jan Zumhasch in Frankfurt

FACE IT! How to up your recruitment game using facial expression recognition

As a recruiter, a high level of verbal communication skill is essential, and is undoubtedly the secret behind the success of many - The importance of non-verbal communication has therefore expanded, in order to provide recruiters with a vital additional skillset to their toolbox to be even better at what they do. To successfully do this, we must be able to spot so-called ‘micro expressions’.

Because of the work of my father, my interest in non-verbal communication began early on. At school, I could tell how good or bad my grade was solely by the expressions of my teachers when they handed back my paper - I didn’t even have to look at it. 

Always wondering why that was the case, I wanted to explore more about this topic, which led me onto studying communication science at university. During my studies, I learned how the basic communication process works and found out about the science behind non-verbal communication. Facial expressions were only a small part of it. But following from that, I studied a multitude of videos and pictures, analyzing them to find that I was most interested in facial expressions. I proceeded to take the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) test, by Dr. Paul Ekman and passed it successfully.  

As a recruiter, a high level of verbal communication skill is essential, and is undoubtedly the secret behind the success of many - no surprise that I started working in recruitment. Recently over the last few years, the importance of personal face-to-face communication with clients and candidates has grown. This provides recruiters with the ability to make a long-lasting impression, which in turn fosters personal connection, and thus a higher level of commitment and better relationship. 

The importance of non-verbal communication has therefore expanded, in order to provide recruiters with a vital additional skillset to their toolbox to be even better at what they do. 

The studies and information surrounding the science behind non-verbal communication is astounding and somewhat overwhelming. The sub-categories of non-verbal communication: gesture, facial expression, emotion, voice, and more, further adds complexity to understanding non-verbal communicative means. 

Of course, having personal and direct experience and utilising this within the recruitment process is vital, but relying on proven scientific facts is even better. Within the hiring process, I find that - in my opinion - concentrating on the facial expression is the first step. Why? Because it is one of the fields of non-verbal communication that is scientifically proven and researched the most extensively. 

With regards to facial expression and emotion, the work of leading researcher, Dr. Paul Ekman, comes to mind in particular. The findings of him and his colleagues helps us to reliably identify facial muscle movements and detect what an individual is feeling at a certain moment. 

To successfully do this, we must be able to spot so-called ‘micro expressions’ - the facial expressions that last only a couple of milliseconds. The groundwork for that lies in the FACS, which can teach anyone to detect all muscle movements in the face and understand there anatomical structure. 

The FACS lists a number of “action units” (AU), which aim to measure the contractions, relaxation, and movement of both individual and combinations of muscles. With the help of these AU, it is possible to reliably measure which facial muscles were acting and in which combination, to tell us about the emotional state of the person at the time, as well as giving indicators of what the person is thinking. 

For a recruiter to be able to tell what a candidate or client is feeling or thinking in the moment is crucial. Classic examples would be when discussing salary or mobility with candidates - being able to instantly recognize micro expressions of disgust or anger would be a good indicator that there may be issues further down the hiring process. 

The advantage of being able to read micro expressions will provide the opportunity to talk about any issues as soon as possible, thereby preventing a loss of time and difficulties later on. If neglected, this may result in losing a candidate during the process in the worst case scenario. 

The benefit of reading micro expressions for a recruiter is that they cannot be controlled and occur subconsciously, in contrast to our general facial expressions which of course can be altered when desired.

The universal emotions: fear, anger, surprise, disgust, contempt, and happiness, all utilise the same facial muscles for all human beings and are not culturally dependent. Therefore, the micro expressions are a reliable way of telling what a person is really feeling at a given time when presented with a particular scenario or question. 

Once the skill to detect micro expressions has been practiced enough, caution must be taken to not accuse, as the expression does not always correlate with the definite meaning for certain. It is therefore your job to ask the right questions after seeing something to find out the reason behind why they are feeling a particular way. 

Learning about facial and micro expressions was a game changer for me. It provided an additional tool to converse with people in my role as a senior researcher. Being able to ask the right questions after seeing certain expressions resulted in more discussion about personal aspects, further enhancing our relationship between us and the candidates and clients. Furthermore, it has allowed me to know which direction a conversation will go towards, before it happens, and gaining more detailed information that you may not get merely through verbal communication. 

By not utilising the skill of reading micro expressions, you may miss crucial information or opportunities to strengthen a relationship with stakeholders. Keeping in mind that over 55% of our communication is non-verbal, in comparison to only 7% being verbally, this may help us to understand the importance of paying more attention not only to what is being said, but how it is said. 

References: 

Ekman, P. (2003). Emotions revealed. Understanding Faces and Feelings. London: Orion Books Ltd.

Ekman, P., Friesen, W. V. & Hager, J.C. (2002). Facial Action Coding System. Salt Lake City: Research Nexus, a subsidiary of Network Information Research Corporation.

Ekman, P., Friesen, W. V. & Hager, J.C. (2002). Facial Action Coding System. Investigator’s Guide. Salt Lake City: Research Nexus, a subsidiary of Network Information Research Corporation.

Ekman, P. (1992). An argument for basic emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 6, 169-200.

Molcho, S. (2001). alles über körpersprache. sich selbst und andere besser verstehen. München: Wilhelm Goldmann Verlag.

Navarro, J. (2011). Menschen lesen. Ein FBI-Agent erklärt, wie man Körpersprache entschlüsselt. München: mvgverlag.

Navarro, J. (2012). Menschen verstehen und lenken. Ein FBI-Agent erklärt, wie man Körpersprache für den persönlichen Erfolg nutzt. München: mvgverlag.

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About the author

Jan Zumhasch specialises in recruiting at a mid-senior level exclusively across the EMEA area Retail sector focusing solely on Technical Operations hires.

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