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HR Magazine, January 2004 - Don't Rush to Judgment

By Laura Gassner Otting  1/1/2004
HR Magazine, 
January 2004 Vol. 49, No. 1

Management Tools: Relying on first impression when assessing a job applicant can lead to a poor hiring decision

Genetically speaking, we’re alive and able to read this article thanks to our DNA spending millions of years refining survival impulses into basic instincts. But during all that time our DNA didn’t do much for the evolution of our interviewing techniques. As a result, we are sometimes fooled into trusting first impressions that would be proven incorrect if we made our judgments on the full body of evidence.

As many as four out of five hiring decisions are made within the first 10 minutes of an interview, according to some studies. Those decisions can be based on little more than the applicant’s clothing or hairstyle, a subconscious stereotype or a preconceived notion about a particular candidate or type of candidate.

Indeed, the whole hiring process can be driven by a hiring manager’s first impressions of a candidate in the initial interview. A candidate who makes a favorable impression on first glance is expected to give better answers and is usually perceived as doing so. Similarly, answers from a candidate who disappoints on entry can be received much less favorably than if the candidate had been expected to make a better impression.

Lois Lindauer, president of Lois L. Lindauer Searches in Boston, says, “Once an impression is formed and the potential candidate has been accepted or rejected, additional information that goes against the impression carries less weight in evaluating a candidate’s ability to do the job.” Because of this, she says, “making a hiring decision based on first impressions can cause managers to pass over a highly qualified candidate or hire someone who has more style than substance.”

Take the Longer View

More than half of all first impressions are driven by body language, posture, facial expressions and eye contact, according to psychological studies. Such cues send us signals about a candidate’s preparation, confidence and even grooming habits. Moreover, studies show that attractive people are implicitly imbued by interviewers as having better personalities, higher intelligence, more poise and greater honesty, just as neat people are presumed to be efficient, punctual and detail-oriented.

But it’s important for interviewers to avoid creating their own false realities. For example, presuming that a candidate who arrives late for an interview is always late is fundamentally flawed. Forming negative impressions about candidates who may have been caught in situations out of their control—or positive impressions about candidates because they’re attractive—can be self-serving.

Of course, some job candidates squander the opportunity to make a strong impression in an interview—to look and act better than they typically would when arriving for work at 8:30 Monday morning. Candidates show up for interviews wearing rumpled clothing and excessive cologne or makeup; they may even have smoke or alcohol on their breath. Some forget to bring copies of their resumes or writing samples.

Although personal traits are important to note, none is central to determining whether a candidate would succeed at the job in question. An interview should be about the candidate’s professional experience—his or her track record of on-the-job performance—as well as personal characteristics such as honesty, integrity, determination, humor and general likeability.

We all are fallible in making hiring decisions, says Gale Batchelder, vice president of the Boston-based executive search firm Auerbach Associates. “Sometimes something about a person really turns me off—their looks, their clothes, whatever,” she says. “Or I feel really attracted to someone's intellect or humor or looks and then view them favorably right away. I have to remind myself constantly to suspend immediate judgments until I learn more.”

Know How You Make Decisions

It’s normal to have a reaction to a job candidate in an interview. To ask a hiring manager to suspend all judgment until all the facts are presented is asking the impossible. But remember that first impressions are merely pieces of the puzzle.

Susan Egmont, founder of Egmont Associates, an executive search firm in Boston, says: “Many president or executive director searches result in the new face of an organization, and the first impression formed by the funder or audience will determine how much support the organization gets. It's perfectly legitimate to see what first impression is presented, and to eliminate or select candidates because generally they show you the best foot they have to put forward.

“However,” she continues, “the first impression just can't be the only criteria. If a person is late or doesn't present well but has potential, then obviously a second interview is in order, or at least a conversation about what you suspect didn't come out sufficiently can be a good test. Then good reference checking can bear out or deny the candidate's own assertions.”

Consider how you make decisions. Do you react instinctively? Or do you take time to deliberate? The odds are that your interviewing style mirrors your decision-making style.

“One way to guard against this is to be aware of it,” says Batchelder. “Develop an awareness of what kind of people you are drawn to, and why, and then evaluate whether that has worked for you in the past. What were your first impressions of other people you have hired? When has that worked for you, and when has it led you astray?

“In many instances, our intuitions are right, and we should heed them. But we all have blind spots that cause us to react negatively or positively that then lead us to certain expectations.” The more emotional you are in making decisions, the harder you will have to work to control your impulse to react to first impression triggers.

Lindauer warns that by understanding one’s own behavior and the demands of the open job, a hiring manager can interview more objectively. “Taking an immediate liking to a person,” she cautions, “should trigger tougher questions by you. Conversely, you should work harder to engage more with those who don’t initially impress you.”

Keep the Process Fair

Interviewers who allow first impressions to guide their questions can fall into a pattern that shifts the balance of the conversation only in ways that confirm the first impression, regardless of whether it is correct.

For example, an interviewer who is immediately impressed with a candidate starts chatting amiably, asks easy questions and allows the candidate to pontificate on what they would or should or could do in some future world when hired. The hiring manager or interview committee spends more time talking than listening; most of that talking is done in an effort to sell the candidate on the job, not screen his or her qualifications. The hiring manager or interviewing panel is left with a warm, fuzzy feeling about the candidate and high hopes for the future but with no real understanding of the skills and knowledge that the candidate would bring to the job, and no impressions to confirm or deny in the all-important reference-checking stage.

Worse yet, an interviewer who has a negative impression of a candidate often does the opposite, spending most of the interview disengaged or tearing the candidate apart through overly tough questions or a combative attitude.

To keep the interview fair, remember that it takes at least 10 minutes for a candidate to get past his or her own nervousness and for the hiring manager or interviewing committee to establish a flow of conversation. Suspending judgment at least until a rapport is established is the most effective way to begin to see candidates for what they truly bring to the table.

Stick to the Basics

Past performance is the most important indicator of a candidate’s possible success in his or her next position, so questions based on past performance are often the best way to determine suitability for a position.

Good interview questions start with a good job description, one that outlines what the successful candidate is expected to accomplish on the job. Using the job description, you should create a list of question areas based not on the candidate’s resume but on the qualifications and track record a candidate must bring to the job to succeed in the position.

Although candidates differ from one another in experience and personality, the job description does not change. Questions may be tailored slightly to accommodate individual candidates and their experience, but it’s important to have a predetermined list of topics to ensure that candidates are being evaluated against the same benchmarks.

“Although I never recommend a checklist of interview questions, it can be helpful to make sure you ask each candidate questions in the same general categories—management skills, technical skills, external relations, etc.,” says Batchelder. “And I like to have a couple of probing questions that I ask everyone—something like, ‘Tell me about a situation where your idea or strategy failed, and what you would do differently,’ or ‘Tell me about a boss with whom you did not work well.’ ”

David Haley of the Boston-based search firm Isaacson, Miller asks hiring managers and search committees to think of themselves as juries. First, they should take all of the evidence into consideration before reaching a verdict, and, second, they need to act as if the applicant is a good candidate until he or she proves otherwise.

“Never fall in love with a candidate,” cautions Haley. “It’s OK to have strong feelings about a candidate; most hiring managers do. It is not OK to allow these feelings to get in the way of the decision-making process until they are weighed against all of the evidence.” The evidence, Haley explains, should include formal and informal opinions and many reference checks.

Second opinions help, too. Egmont says: “Having a hiring committee rather than a single person can guard against one person's energy level flagging if the first impression isn't strong for them. If the whole committee isn't interested after the first impression, follow the wisdom of the group and make the interview respectful but shorter than planned.”

Finally, know your own biases, and commit to work actively to change or challenge them. Some tools can be helpful. For example, conducting interviews by telephone can minimize the effect of first impressions, allowing the interviewer to be influenced more by substance than by style. Like references, checklists and committee interviews, telephone interviews help an interviewer to avoid jumping to an immediate conclusion about a candidate’s value and force that interviewer to hear more about what a candidate has to say than how he or she might say it.

Keep Certain Points in Mind

Following are some tips that can help you avoid being unduly influenced by distracting and potentially incorrect first impressions and can enable you to learn more about the candidate’s track record:

Examine your decision-making style. Do you react instinctively, or do you ponder before making up your mind? Are you diplomatic or adversarial in your approach? Where has your style served you or failed you in the past?

Let your fingers do the walking. Screen all candidates with a telephone interview before setting up an in-person interview. Delay the effects of any visual first impressions by ascertaining vital information in a less loaded environment.

Listen to others first. Take time to do one or two preliminary reference checks before meeting a candidate. Push yourself to see the candidate through the eyes of his or her references, of the person’s next manager, and your own.

Treat everyone equally. Go into the interview with a list of questions or topics based on the performance indicators in the job description. You may depart from the list as a candidate’s skills or experience demand, but ask the same qualifications-centered questions of all candidates.

Create a warm-up period. Put everyone at ease by chatting casually at the start of the interview, offering a beverage and allowing the candidate to, say, remove a suit jacket if he or she wishes.

Remember that past is prologue. Ask the candidate for stories about successes or failures specifically relevant to the goals set forth in the job in question. Avoid questions that start with “What would you do if … .”

Test your fallibility. Throw some hardball questions at likeable candidates and softer ones at the candidates you don’t like; remember that their interview performance may be based on what they perceive as yours.

Set up a self-check. Note the halfway point of your scheduled time; re-evaluate your impressions.

Get a second opinion. Interview as a committee to reduce personal dynamics, or bring in potential supervisors or staff members to balance your personal biases.

Listen more than you talk. The candidate should do more talking than you do.

Laura Gassner Otting is founder and president of the Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group, a niche consulting firm in Boston that specializes in helping nonprofit organizations with their hiring processes. She can be reached via her web site at www.NonprofitProfessionals.com. 

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