Current Articles

Don’t Get Seduced by 1st Impressions

To access this article you must be a registered user/member of this site. Click the appropriate link below to continue.

I was just reading this article in Time magazine, What People Assume When They First Meet You, According to Science.

What first struck me is that too many articles have to add “According to Science” in order to be believed.

For 35+ years I’ve interviewed thousands of candidates, debriefed with hundreds of selection teams and tracked the careers of scores of people including those who were not hired. I consider the conclusions drawn from this work as commonsense observations. Maybe collectively it’s science, but whatever you call it, what the article described is true: People make instant judgments about people based on first impressions.

The big findings: If you’re attractive, affable, assertive and articulate you’ll do better in an interview than if you’re nervous, poorly attired, quiet and evasive. Back in 1972 I was told to look for the same positive four “A” characteristics by the VP HR of my company when I was first assigned to the MBA recruiting team.

It took me about 10 years to figure out that these characteristics of a good first impression were terrible predictors of on-the-job performance. The Time magazine article forgot to mention this part.

The problem: If we like someone we assume he or she is competent and we ask questions to validate our emotional or intuitive judgment. If we don’t like someone right away, we ask questions to prove his or her incompetence. This is how perceptions become facts and facts – as flawed as they might be – result in bad hiring decisions.

Given this situation, here are some commonsense ideas to help reduce the number of bad hiring decisions made by overvaluing someone’s first impression.

How Interviewers Can Minimize Hiring Mistakes Due to First Impression Bias

  1. Wait 30 minutes. Use a structured work history review at the start of the interview and go through the same process with every candidate whether you like the person or not. If you can wait at least 30 minutes before even making a hint of a yes or no decision, you’ll reduce your hiring errors by 50%.
  2. Treat candidates as consultants. With consultants we’re more concerned with their ability to handle the project, not how likeable they are. By treating full-time job candidates the same way, competency and performance are naturally assessed before personality and presentation.
  3. Use reverse logic. We naturally ask people we like softball questions and ask tougher ones of those we don’t. By fighting this urge and doing the exact opposite, you’ll neutralize your first impression bias.
  4. Measure first impression at the end of the interview. Wait until the end of the interview to determine if the person’s actual first impression will help or hinder on-the-job performance. If you stay objective, you’ll discover that at least half of the people with a good first impression aren’t as good as you initially thought. Even better, just as many of those you thought had a weak first impression don’t.

How Job Seekers Can Minimize the Harm Caused by a Weak First Impression

  1. Be phone screened first. Use the phone screen to break the ice. During the call ask about the major challenges in the job and describe something you’ve accomplished most comparable. When you’re invited onsite based on your past performance, first impressions are less impactful.
  2. Do your homework. Make sure you’ve read the LinkedIn profiles of everyone you’re meeting. Read the latest news about the company, review the Glassdoor comments, and review the company’s other open job postings to get a sense of where its biggest hiring needs are. If you pepper this info into your questions, the interviewer won’t be focused on your first impression but on your knowledge.
  3. Ask in-depth questions right away. As long as the questions are job related and meaningful the interviewer will respect your insight and assertiveness. But don’t overdo it. Performance-based questions counteract the negative thinking that naturally follows a weaker first impression.
  4. Minimize nervousness by being prepared. Use this PowerPoint deck to get ready for the interview. It describes how to ask the right questions and how to ensure you’re being interviewed on your key strengths. Being prepared will reduce your nervousness and improve your confidence and bearing.

When interviewers don’t know what they’re looking for in terms of performance, they naturally overvalue first impressions, intuition and emotional biases. That’s why I always suggest that hiring managers determine competency and motivation to do the work before determining personality, presentation and “fit.” While they’re all important, the order in which they’re measured represents the difference between a great hire and hiring a nice person who underperforms.