Don’t Be Misled By First Impressions

We recently interviewed a candidate–let’s call him Parker–who made a great first impression. In fact, he made it through the second round of interviews and was going to be our first choice. But when we called his references, Parker’s story about how he quit his job clashed with his former boss’s story about having to fire Parker for poor attendance. So much for trusting first impressions!

During the interview process, you know that every candidate is out to make a good impression. But as an employer or hiring manager, how important should you allow first impressions to be?

On one hand, Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Blink, asserts that we “think without thinking”–that we see and know at a glance more than our conscious even lets on, that our intuition knows when something is off. On the other hand, we’ve learned from experience that we can’t always trust our gut instincts. Haven’t we all trusted our gut at one time or another, as was the case with Parker, only to be proven wrong when we learned more about the person or situation? But if first impressions aren’t reliable, then how should we manage our first take on a candidate in an interview?

Lou Adler has some great advice to give, based on an interesting premise supported by The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt says that we are all programmed to make instantaneous judgments about people and then look for evidence to justify our judgment. In an interview with a candidate, here’s what these instantaneous judgments could look like:

1) Your first candidate, Alicia, walks in, shakes your hand, and sits down. Right away, you can see that she is dressed appropriately, speaks articulately, and makes good eye contact. Thinking highly of her already, you ask several positive questions to confirm your view of her. You don’t ask any skeptical questions because you can see already that she is a high performer. In fact, you end the interview quickly, intending to make an offer, because you can tell that Alicia is just the type of person you want to fill your open position.

2) Robbie, another candidate, looks squarely at your neck as he walks in with his hands in his pockets and sits stiffly down on the edge of his chair. Sensing his discomfort, you start off asking questions that chip away at his capabilities and expose his inadequacies. His short, timid answers add to your belief that Robbie isn’t very competent, and you end the interview after only a few more questions, with no intent to follow up.

But wait–don’t be misled by first impressions. After all, what if Alicia actually has none of the organizational skills necessary for your position? And what if you missed learning that, according to his last boss, Robbie has a great work ethic and is a real team player? Prejudging by first impressions can steer the interview in an entirely wrong direction and sell the candidate short–not to mention cost your company in the long wrong by making a mis-hire. What can you do to avoid being fooled by first impressions?

According to Adler, first impressions take 30 minutes to dissipate, so use the first half hour to collect data rather than make judgments. Also, “Use reverse logic to reprogram your brain,” Adler advises. “When first meeting a candidate, note whether you like the person or not. Then, do the opposite of what you’d normally do. For those you like, force them to prove their competency. Give the benefit of the doubt to everyone else. You’ll discover this mental trick results in asking everyone the same questions.” He also suggests using a 1-5 ranking system so you evaluate questions objectively. (We completely agree. At Amtec, we advocate and create a customized scorecard with behavioral interview questions specific to each open position for which we source, recruit, and interview.)

Another tool we’ve found to round out our view of a candidate is to conduct thorough reference checks. Hearing about a prospective employee’s behavior from a previous boss or coworker is a great way to offset any misleading first impressions the candidate may have given you. For tips on conducting great reference checks, click here.

As you interview for your next position, don’t be misled by first impressions. Be objective in collecting data, and be consistent by asking the same questions of each candidate. After you and your interview panel have scored all the candidates’ answers and conducted thorough reference checks, then you can factor in your gut instincts!

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