AS AN EXPERT ON BODY LANGUAGE and nonverbal communications, former FBI special agent Joseph Navarro travels throughout the country teaching business executives about the importance of honing good observational skills. According to Navarro, once business men and women have mastered these skills, they can prevent many problems that arise in the workplace—before they happen.
Navarro was recruited by the FBI when he was in his early twenties, working as a special agent and supervisor in the area of counterintelligence and behavioral assessment. Over the course of his 25-year career, he served as a SWAT Team Commander and Bureau Pilot. He is also a founding member of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Program.
In this exclusive interview with COMMERCE, Navarro discusses the expertise detailed in his book, What Every BODY is Saying—An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People, including what signs to look out for when assessing a problem employee, how his experience with the FBI translates to a business environment and what strategies to employ when screening for worrisome workplace behavior.
COMMERCE: What are some of the body language nuances, traits or tells you look for when spotting potential problem employees?
JOSEPH NAVARRO: One of the things to look for is behaviors that stand out—the kinds of behaviors that can cause problems both for the individual and other employees. I am mostly talking about the importance of nonverbal communications, but we cannot discount what people say. One of the things that we have to do in management is look at how a person presents.
Is this a person who follows social convention? How does he or she dress? How is his or her grooming, hygiene, and so forth? When we examine how people communicate, we ask certain key questions. Are they respectful? Do they say things that are inappropriate? Communication is not a picture, it’s a movie. We have to look at the totality of everything.
Patterns of behavior can tell a lot about people—employees, visitors and unexpected guests?
I’ve dealt with hundreds of HR professionals who attend my conferences who say that right from the beginning, there was something odd from the way a “problem” person spoke. It’s all about decoding the messages that the person is transmitting. Oftentimes with interviews, people are anxious. That is normal, and we should expect it. What we should look for, however, is when questions create psychological discomfort, which can manifest itself in behaviors such as biting the lip, pulling on a collar, hesitating a long time before answering or literally pinching their own cheeks. This kind of behavior presents an opportunity for the person doing the interview to ask follow-up questions.
In your experience, what are the best ways to screen current and potential workers for worrisome behaviors?
The problems in HR are not only criminal. You may have an employee who talks too loudly or violates the space of other people, the so-called irritant. Many times, there are things that employees do that are just irritating for other employees. Then you get into other areas that begin to border on workplace instability, or even workplace violence. This is where individuals display behaviors that show that they are emotionally unstable. I wrote a book called Dangerous Personalities. One of the things I did was go back over the last 30 years and look at workplace violence.
What did you learn about workplace violence prevention and the warning signs of trouble?
When you go back and talk to employees, they would say that a certain individual had emotional outbursts that were disproportionate to an event. One of the things I tell HR is to look for individuals whose reactions are disproportionate, even if it was something very minor. For instance, someone gets promoted and the colleague sulks for not just a day, but for weeks. Or someone was critiqued and then goes out and kicks a garbage can or punches a wall. A lot of times, people will dismiss these kinds of behaviors. But you cannot dismiss these. They have to be immediately noted. As an employer, you have a responsibility to all of the employees to identify and address an emotionally unstable person in your ranks and remove them and get them help. If you keep that person around, you are going to be held liable for the damages.
Can you provide an example of how body language was key in catching a criminal during your days in the FBI?
There was a man who was wanted as a fugitive out of New Jersey. His mother lived in Arizona. New Jersey police suspected that he may have gone to live with her. I went out to see her with another agent. She’s standing at the door, and my partner explained to her that we were looking for her son. She said she has had problems with him in the past and has not seen him. Then it was my turn to ask a question. I asked her if it was possible that while she was at work, he was hiding in her home. She immediately covered the small of her neck with her hands.
My partner had a few more questions for her. I then came back and explained to her that her son may have a spare key and is sleeping on the floor or making up the bed. She may not be realizing he is even there. After I explained this, she once again covered her neck. My partner was busy writing and missed that. I then asked her if she minded if my partner and I came in and looked around. She did this hard swallow and then let us in. Well, hiding in the closet was the fugitive. I would have never picked up on that until I saw that behavior from her. She actually looked pretty honest, but when I saw that covering of the neck, I knew that something was wrong.
Do all behaviors have meaning?
Yes. You can learn so much by observing the entire body, and not just watching for facial expressions.
To what degree are HR professionals prepared for spotting problems?
A lot of companies hire HR professionals based on where they have worked. It should really be based on whether they are good observers and interviewers. I am astounded how many times employers won’t ask them that question. That HR person should be able to walk through a lobby and determine which people are having a bad day.
How can these skills—recognizing a problem—be integrated into the human resources function at a company or business?
The first thing you have to realize is that humans communicate more effectively and more authentically nonverbally. HR professionals need to recognize the importance of nonverbals and increase their observational skills. If nobody teaches you that compressing the lips is an indicator of distress, you would not know to look out for it. Another sign of distress is someone being asked a question and shifting his or her jaw all the way to the left or right. If you were not taught that, you would most likely think that it’s just a quirky behavior. Well, that’s not the case.
How has software assisted in evaluating body language?
I have yet to see any software that is at all useful. Most of the time, the emphasis is on the face and ignores the body. If you come to my seminars, you’ll find that I start with the feet, not the face. This is because the feet are more honest than the face. Most people do not know this. By social convention, if you smile at me, I will smile back. But your feet, they have no responsibility to others, just to you.
How can you learn about a person by observing their feet?
Feet are far more accurate in telling me whether you are in a good or bad mood. I can tell you with 90-plus percent accuracy that if a person is having a conversation and the toes are pointed upwards, that individual is having a confident conversation. There is no way you would defy gravity and lift the toes up if you are having a really bad conversation.
What questions would you ask someone to get a response that you could use to read or evaluate them?
It depends on what issues there are. The first thing that I do when I assess people is shake hands with them, take a step slightly back and to the side, and see how they react to that. I am assessing their spatial needs. Then I look for displays of discomfort during the conversation. For instance, if they are constantly touching or massaging their neck or covering their eyes, then I know there is an issue.
What lessons from your FBI work translate to a business environment?
When you are an FBI agent, you are a paid observer. You’re observing criminal behavior and people being interviewed. You are observing people in the best of times and in the worst of times. It’s no different in business. You have the same behaviors. The difference is that in the FBI, we knew how to turn that information and immediately put it to use.
What advice can you offer to companies regarding worrisome workplace behaviors?
Executives need to get out of their offices and walk around. If you do that, you will see problems before they show up at your door. Train yourself to be more observant in validating these things and you will be way ahead of problems. Companies need to be more situationally aware. Employees have to remember that part of being in a business is being empathetic. The only way you can be empathetic is by being able to effectively observe needs, wants and desires. You then must act on them appropriately.
What is the most common mistake companies make with problem employees?
I find it surprising how long companies take to act when a workplace behavior issue arises. This is dangerous. If you suspect there is an issue with an employee, get the help you need right away.