3 December 2019

First impressions lie, so why do we keep trusting them?

One tenth of a second.

That’s how long it can take you to completely undermine your entire recruitment process, hire the wrong person for your team, and find yourself right back where you started six months and a huge headache later.



Wait, 1/10th of a second? Can this be right? Unfortunately for all of us, yes. That’s how long it takes for our brains, no matter how well intentioned, to make a snap judgment about the person that’s in front of us.

And is that snap judgment really that bad, you ask? Again, the answer is yes. The effects of our first impressions are multiplied by the so called halo effect, which is an extremely powerful cognitive bias, and is not limited to how we perceive a candidate aesthetically. The halo effect extends to other traits as well. For instance, people who are sociable or kind will also be seen as being more likeable and intelligent. In other words, having a perception of one single quality of a person will lead to wrong and biased judgments of their other qualities. In the workplace, this might mean that the enthusiasm or positive attitude of an employee can very well hide their actual lack of knowledge or skills; this will lead his peers to provide a much more flattering feedback that his actual performance might justify.

This is a real problem when we’re interviewing someone, too. If a recruiter or hiring manager views the applicant as attractive or likeable, they are more likely to also rate the candidate as intelligent, competent, and qualified.


Alright, first impressions are dangerous. Isn’t that why interviews last longer than 1/10th of a second?

The problem with first impressions is that they tend to stick. We need a lot of conscious effort to remove the bias that results from that first, snap judgment. A common, gut-feeling interview will not only not get rid off the initial bias, but it will actually validate our biased judgment, compounding its effect and dire consequences.

Can interviews be really counterproductive? It might seem obvious at this point, but the answer is again “yes”. In a research project, students were asked to interview other students and then predict their G.P.A. for the following semester based on the interview, the interviewee’s course schedule, and past G.P.A. In addition to predicting the G.P.A. of the interviewee in question, the students were also asked to make a prediction also of the performance of a student they didn’t meet, basing this second prediction only on that student’s course schedule and past G.P.A.

In the end, the G.P.A. predictions were significantly more accurate for the students that the interviewers hadn’t met. The interviews had been counterproductive!

If we add to the mix the myth that our gut-feeling gets better with experience, we’re left with a particularly dangerous cocktail of over reliance on our intuition and of strong aversion to undermine our own credibility by using an objective selection tool.


Is there any hope at all, then?

Fortunately, the answer is (shocking, I know) “yes!”. We definitely can get rid of all the dreadful scenarios and biases you’ve been reading for the past couple of minutes, but we need to be very considerate in the steps we take. First of all, we need to redirect our focus towards unearthing those things that really matter in predicting a candidate’s future performance. We need to find out about the so called unconscious behaviour, the type of behaviour we all show every single day at the office, the real behaviour that we can’t fake, the behaviour we show “when no one’s watching”. To do this, we need to rethink the way we interview candidates, but we need to take a step back and start tackling the issue at the pre-selection stage, first.


Avoiding bias at the pre-selection stage

If you’re currently not using any pre-selection tool to assess a candidate’s fit to your company and vacancy, I would certainly recommend you to look into them. There is a vast array of tools that can help you with this, Equalture being one them. Pick the one that feels the most right to you and your way of working. What really matters are the following:

  • The tool needs to be able to assess both job fit and cultural fit in an objective way
  • It needs to reduce as much room for unconscious bias as possible (for instance by hiding all the demographic data of the candidate)
  • It can’t undermine the overall candidate experience

By obtaining this kind of insights from the very first stage of your recruitment process, you will already be able to remove the candidate’s that are an absolute “no-no” and that you might have probably interviewed otherwise (perhaps falling victim of their halo effect). Not only will you bring forward along the recruitment process only the right candidates for the position you’re filling, but you will be able to use the data from this stage also during the interviewing stage as an additional way to steer clear from new biased judgments as they try to show up.

Do you want to learn more about how to predict job fit and cultural fit when hiring your scaleup team? Download our Scaleup Hiring Playbook!


Avoiding bias in interviews

With the objective results of a candidate’s cultural and job fit firmly in your hand, you can now meet them in person. It’s essential, now, to get as far away as you can from the traditional chatting or personal questions of traditional interviews.What you will have to focus on doing here is, first of all, making sure that all candidates receive the same questions, a procedure that has been shown to make interviews more reliable and more predictive of a candidate’s future performance. In addition to this, make the most out of the interview by venturing into so called behavioural interviewing.

Behavioural interviews are a solid way to validate the skills, strengths, and cultural fit already from the pre-selection stage, allowing to dive more deeply into them. You will also find out what a strong weapon this kind of interview is against candidates who are used to manipulating interviews by delivering a nice but prepared story or scripted answer. According to Inc., these are some of the questions you should be asking to truly judge a candidate’s ethical standards:

  • What do you believe compromises the ethical workplace? 
  • Tell me about an instance that challenged you ethically.
  • When was the last time you “broke the rules”? What was the situation, and what did you do?

(If you’re wondering which behavioural questions you should be asking when interviewing for different roles, this could prove quite useful)Can changing the way you interview seem scary? Absolutely. But once you start taking the steps mentioned above you’ll be so mesmerised by the results that you’ll never even dream of going back.

Cheers, Raul