A candidate joins a video conference call for their first-round interview. They’re smiling and confident and you warm to them immediately. As you exchange opening pleasantries, you notice a framed Fight Club poster on the wall behind them. This candidate obviously has impeccable taste, you think to yourself.
You tell the candidate that Fight Club’s your all-time favorite film and they are visibly delighted. You spend the next five minutes dissecting the film’s greatest moments and, by the time you begin the formal part of the interview, the two of you have established an excellent rapport.
In fact, you’re pretty sure this person is going to make the perfect hire.
But beware, you could be falling under the spell of first impression bias.
In this article, we’ll unpack what first impression bias is, how it can lead you to overlook a potential top performer, and why addressing it is good for business.
What is first impression bias?
“First impression bias” highlights a limitation in human information processing. The term is used by behavioral scientists to describe the process by which human beings make quick and un-measured observations or assumptions after absorbing a relatively small amount of information.
While opinions vary most studies estimate it takes between a tenth of a second and 30 seconds to make a first impression. However long it takes, what we do know is that first impressions have the potential to lead to instances of other cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias or the halo effect.
These outcomes can have negative implications in numerous scenarios. Some first impression bias examples include a medical professional allowing assumptions about a patient to inform their diagnoses, someone making a snap judgment on a first date, and, of course, making recruitment decisions for a company without properly and fairly assessing applicants.
What is confirmation bias?
Confirmation bias is a person’s inclination to favor information that supports their own belief system, attitude, or preferences.
During the recruitment process, this might look like an interviewer seeking out, or honing in on, details that confirm or support their pre-existing ideals or beliefs and their first impressions of a job candidate.
What is the halo effect?
The halo effect describes the cognitive behavior that can happen in the aftermath of a good first impression. You might, for example, meet someone and instantly like them because of the way they present themselves and their outgoing nature. But this becomes problematic when it leads you to make further assumptions about the person, such as thinking they are more intelligent than they really are.
During the recruitment process, your first impressions of someone might lead you to assume they have the right skills or relevant work experience — simply because they exuded confidence and charm during your earliest interactions.
History of first impression bias
Early research exploring the psychology of first impressions focused largely on the connections between physical traits and personality, since facial features were once deemed indicative of someone’s personality traits.
Swiss pastor Johann Kaspar Lavater conducted one such study, producing several essays that described how certain facial features could be analyzed to reveal, amongst other things, a person’s intelligence or how kind they were.
For some time, this type of methodology was used to determine people’s suitability for certain occupations, before eventually being dismissed as pseudoscience in the 19th century.
More recently, academics have acknowledged the potential for the negative impacts of first impression bias to be exacerbated by other biases, including the halo effect and confirmation bias.
First impression bias examples in hiring
First impression bias is the root cause of most hiring mistakes an organization makes. But because it manifests itself in a couple of different ways, it’s not always easy to spot and prevent.
It could be that a recruiter or hiring manager with decision-making powers makes a snap decision to hire someone based solely on a positive first impression, whether it’s their appearance, presentation skills, having easily identifiable common interests, or sharing the same sense of humor.
Furthermore, positive first impressions can influence interviewers to be more lenient or laid back with their interviewees. This will set one person up for greater success while another person, who made a negative first impression, may be asked more difficult questions. The latter is much trickier to identify because recruiters and hiring managers are typically unintentionally or subconsciously seeking to confirm their immediate assumptions.
Hiring consequences of first impression bias
When hiring decisions are made based on candidates’ surface-level attributes, such as the way they present themselves or how well they get along with an interviewer in the first instance, hiring organizations run the risk of hiring underqualified and ultimately underperforming employees and missing out on top performers.
Perhaps the focus will be on the far less meaningful interactions that happened at the beginning of the interview instead of honing the information that confirms their ability to perform the role to a high standard. Candidates who take a little longer to get into the rhythm of an interview won’t have the opportunity to win over their interviewer or make up for early mistakes.
Confirmation bias means you’re more likely to ask non-essential, irrelevant or easy questions and ignore or overlook red flags for the candidates you like. But you’re also more likely to be tougher on someone who makes a negative first impression, due to something you’re unconsciously judging them for like their appearance, age, or perceived attitude.
Research shows that around 33% of hiring managers admit they know whether or not they will hire someone within the first 90 seconds of meeting them. But the cost of a hiring team making impulsive decisions that result in bad hires can be as much as seven times the person’s annual salary.
Ways to avoid first impression bias during the hiring process
Here are six ways for your recruitment team to reduce instances of first impression bias.
1. Implement anonymous resume screening for the first round of recruitment
Gender, cultural, and educational background biases might influence how certain candidates are discriminated against from the moment they submit their applications.
The risk of this can be easily mitigated by removing irrelevant candidate data from resumes before the screening process begins.
Consider a solution like an ATS that allows you to anonymize applications and a skills testing solution like Vervoe that can anonymize answers to reduce bias.
2. Kickstart the recruitment process with a phone interview
Recruitment teams are perhaps most likely to form an ill-informed opinion about a candidate by simply looking at them. Whether you’re meeting via video conference or face-to-face, a person’s facial expressions, mannerisms, and demeanor can affect how trustworthy, likable, or qualified you deem them to be.
Holding first-round interviews over the phone will make the likelihood of judging people based on these superficial first impressions lower, and allow you to focus on their answers more closely.
3. Ensure parity across every candidate interview
By insisting that recruitment teams adhere to a script and marking criteria, they can no longer ask easier questions to some and more difficult questions to others. This makes it much easier to compare and contrast different candidates and gives everyone an equal shot at success.
A study of 20,000 applicants by the University of Toronto found that a highly structured job interview with pre-determined sets of questions virtually eliminated racial bias in the hiring decision. Significantly lower bias by doing the same at your organization.
4. Establish a panel of interviewers
Forming interview panels comprised of several team members of different seniority levels can reduce the likelihood of succumbing to first impression bias. A characteristic or quality that immediately makes a strong first impression on one interviewer is unlikely to affect the others in the same way, which means more balanced and measured decisions can be reached.
Plus, by ensuring that all team panels are sufficiently diverse, it will be easier to avoid building a team of people who all look, think, and act the same.
5. Record interviews
If time and resources are scarce, recording candidate interviews is another great way to retain a level of objectivity and reduce the impact of first impressions during the recruitment process.
Not only is it much easier to compare applicants when a recruitment team can re-watch their responses to interview questions in quick succession, but it also presents an opportunity to garner second (or third, or fourth) opinions from the entire hiring team.
6. Leverage skills and situational assessments
Fortunately, there are numerous recruitment tools at your disposal, including skills testing and situational assessments, that can eradicate first impression bias during the recruitment process.
Skills assessments are designed to help hiring managers and recruiters identify top performers by testing their abilities rather than making snap decisions based on first impressions or what’s written on their resumes.
At Vervoe, our versatile skills assessments platform features a comprehensive set of question types that simulate on-the-job scenarios. These prompt candidates to demonstrate their knowledge of the field, situational judgment, ability to evaluate and solve problems, and feel good knowing they’ve demonstrated their ability rather than just talking about it.
Our assessments can be customized to suit the needs of all companies and our machine-learning AI grading helps ranks applicants against the criteria you set and is constantly improving to match your idea of a good response.
Instances of first impression bias during the recruitment process will see a recruiter, hiring manager, or group of assessors make snap judgments or assumptions about applicants they’ve only just met.
While a positive first impression can result in a person being unfairly favored, another person who makes a negative first impression may be treated more harshly. As a result, hiring organizations are more likely to make bad hires, more biased decisions, and discriminate against applicants from marginalized groups.
To combat first impression bias during the recruitment process, employers can implement a variety of techniques including anonymous resume screening, scripted interviews, and skills assessments. Reducing the importance of how someone comes across to you the first time you meet them, and increasing the importance of gathering evidence they’ll be successful at actually doing the job.