What the Science of First Impressions Can Tell Us About Recruiting

November 28, 2016 at 12:00 PM by William Clarke


This is the first in a series of ten posts on hiring candidates for characteristics linked to high performance. Each post focuses on a key candidate trait, why it matters and how recruiters can develop processes to correctly and fairly evaluate for it.

So, over the course of the next few months, we’ll publish a post on each trait from that post, beginning with first impressions. (If you want to see the other nine traits, check out the original post here.)

First impressions play a dominant role in society. Every day, impressions impact numerous interactions, influence how we feel about those interactions, drive many of our opinions, and in general, influence how we engage with the world.

Recruiting is no exception. Given how much of recruiting comes down to striving to understand and evaluate people in a limited amount of time, you could argue that much of recruiter’s job comes down to how well she has mastered the art of the accurate first impression.

What is a first impression?

First impressions are a person’s assessment of how valuable another person is to them on a social level. Our impressions of other people are defined as much by what we value and care about, as they are by their actions and statements.

One common misconception is that first impressions are conscious evaluations, but the truth is that first impressions occur all the time, and not just when you’re thinking about something or someone in particular. Our brains are constantly taking in information and assigning values to objects, people, and situations. Some academics call this phenomenon, “thin slicing.” It’s the ability of people to subconsciously identify patterns and draw conclusions based on tiny slivers of experience.

These subconscious evaluations can take place in incredibly short periods of time. For instance, most people decide whether another person is trustworthy within a split second. And it only takes three seconds for people to know whether or not they want to do business with someone else. After a few moments, most people will know whether or not they want to be your friend.

Sounds ridiculous, right? Well, numerous studies have shown that these quick observations are often quite accurate. How do you decide which line to join at the grocery store or in which lane to drive on the highway? At those very moments, you’re looking around, taking stock of the situation and choosing the optimal path for your purposes.

The inherent risk in first impressions

Even though we use them every day, that doesn’t mean first impressions are infallible. The accuracy of thin slice observations is strongly task-dependent, which means they vary based on what the activity is. Accurate judgements are also highly contingent on our experience and expertise. LeBron James may be able to decide within a split second to thread a pinpoint cross court bounce pass, but the average human being would struggle with the opportunity, let alone complete it. Training and experience matter. 

First impressions are especially liable to confirmation bias, when we subconsciously favor certain information because it confirms opinions and feelings we already have. Does wearing glasses actually make someone more intelligent? If someone speaks loudly and with confidence, does that make them a strong leader? In either of these cases, not necessarily.

Making hiring decisions based on assumptions and unconscious bias leads to bad hires. This is why it’s essential to create safeguards throughout the hiring process that ensure decisions are made based on verifiable information, not subjective criteria. Your first impressions matter, but they should be balanced out by a standardized system that gives everyone the same hiring experience and utilizes objective, confirmable data.

Remember, a friendly, funny and well-dressed person who likes the same sports team as you might be a great person to hang out with, but if they can’t write a complete sentence or use a computer they aren’t going to get much work done in a modern office.

How to leverage first impressions

First impressions are natural and inevitable. The best way to leverage the value of first impressions is to train your hiring teams to use them effectively without allowing them to dominate your process. Effective training, feedback and preparation are the ways to make first impressions work for you, instead of against you. 

Make sure interviewers jot down their first impressions, but also ensure that each interview is standardized so that each candidate (depending on their role) is always asked the same set of questions, no matter who is interviewing them. This reduces the impact of a positive (or negative) first impressions coloring the whole rest of the interview without losing the valuable data of a first impression.

After all, if someone does or says something wonderful or terrible, it’s important that it’s written down and notated even if it was separate from their ability to answer job-related questions.

On the other hand, knowing that someone seemed nervous and then struggled to answer questions despite their clear qualifications can help you decide whether or not they deserve a second shot.  

The takeaways

First impressions are an essential part of effectively evaluating other people, which makes them a crucial part of every recruiter’s arsenal. Yet, given how liable we are all to bias, it’s important for our hiring processes to be organized in a way that utilizes first impressions without letting them dominate our decision making. At the end of the day, understanding the value and risk of first impressions will allow your hiring team to more effectively judge talent and make better hires in the process.

Recommended reads:
Why Googling Your Candidates Can Backfire
How to Identify and Manage Interview Chameleons
Why You Should Be Hiring For Culture Add, Not Culture Fit 

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