10 min read

How To Stop the Halo and Horns Effect in Hiring and Reduce Unconscious Bias

No one wants to admit it, but when you really think about it, we make a lot of hiring decisions based on general feeling. Whether we’re swayed by physically attractive people, someone’s social perception, or repulsed by one factor about a candidate’s personality, it’s alarmingly easy to make hiring decisions completely removed from whether or not someone will perform well on the job. 

If you’ve ever been swayed towards or against hiring a candidate based on one trait, you may have fallen victim to the halo or horn effect, an unconscious bias type that confuses our accurate perceptions of people, and sees us get fixated on a single positive or negative trait. 

In this article, we’ll deep-dive into the halo and horns effect in hiring, and ways to avoid letting it derail your hiring decisions. 

What is the halo and horn effect?

The halo and horn effect is a type of cognitive bias that influences our judgments of other people based on a first impression. A single trait, such as how good or bad we perceive someone’s style to be, can lead to unfounded assumptions about how good or bad they are as a person.  

The halo and horn effect is fairly pervasive in our personal lives. For example, the halo effect means you might assume one person will be a good friend because you like their outfit, or that you could fall in love with another because you find them physically attractive.

The very first thing you notice about someone can lead you to fabricate entire personalities. But it’s not logical or accurate to assign halos and horns to people based on snap judgments and first impressions. It inhibits our ability to think objectively and treat people fairly and with kindness.

The halo and horn effect in hiring

The halo and horn effect shows up regularly during the recruitment process. When we’re under time pressure to narrow in on good candidates for open positions, we can sometimes rely on the negative impression an applicant makes, or other positive traits to try and speed up our decision-making. 

What is the halo effect in hiring?

The term halo effect was coined in 1920 by American psychologist Edward Thorndike. He observed how leaders in the military readily assumed that “conventionally attractive” people would also be competent and successful.

During the recruitment process, the halo effect leads recruiters or hiring managers to form a positive impression of a candidate based on a singular, often physical, characteristic.

For example, you might assume that a good-looking person is kind and compassionate, a well-groomed person is clever, or a tall person is authoritative. The halo effect often comes hand-in-hand with similarity bias, whereby an applicant is favored due to sharing certain characteristics or experiences with their interviewer. 

What is the horn effect in hiring?

The term horn effect sometimes referred to as the reverse halo effect or the negative halo effect, is the opposite of the halo effect. 

During the recruitment process, the horns effect leads recruiters or hiring managers to form a bad impression of a candidate based on a singular, often physical, characteristic.

The perception of what makes a negative trait, often driven by harmful stereotypes and social conditioning, might lead someone to assume that a scruffy person is careless, an overweight person is lazy, or someone with a particular accent is unintelligent.

These biases around perceived negative aspects can have a huge impact on an organization’s recruitment process. While the halo effect compels recruiters and hiring managers to treat some candidates more favorably, the horn effect means others are treated extremely unfairly based on one “negative trait”.

What causes the halo and horn effect?

Finding, attracting, and recruiting top talent is tough. When it comes to shortlisting candidates, hiring organizations rarely have the time or resources to properly get to know applicants, gather and analyze all of the relevant information and make reasoned or objective decisions.

Instead, recruiters and hiring managers often fall back on cognitive biases, including the halo and horn effect, to make quick decisions about who, and who not, to hire.

This can happen during any stage of the recruitment process, whether it’s a first-round interview via video conference or an in-person assessment day. Despite knowing that first impressions are often extremely deceiving, it’s very difficult to recognize when an unfair assumption about a candidate’s perceived negative traits has contributed to hiring decisions. As such, the extent to which the halo and horn effect is influencing an organizations’ recruitment processes is hard to measure.

Examples of the halo and horn effect in the workplace

Most commonly, it is a person’s physical appearance that triggers this type of unconscious bias during the recruitment process

This can be highly subjective, based on what an individual recruiter or hiring manager deems to be attractive or appealing in a person. But what we consider to be positive or negative characteristics are often rooted in stigmatizing people’s traits based on outdated stereotypes. 

For example, the halo effect might lead to assumptions that men are better leaders and smartly-dressed people are harder-working. Meanwhile, the horn effect reinforces assumptions like older people being out of touch and blonde women being ignorant.

The halo effect is most likely to benefit applicants from privileged backgrounds, while candidates from marginalized communities, who might face discrimination based on factors including ethnicity, race, sexuality, gender identity, or religion, are particularly vulnerable to the horn effect. 

One 1979 study, for example, found that the job performance of overweight people was graded more negatively and that overweight job candidates were less preferred by recruiters and hiring managers.

Meanwhile, one of the main drivers of the bamboo ceiling, which describes the factors impeding career progression and opportunities for people of Asian descent in the workplace, is the continued narrow-minded perception of Asian workers. Stereotypes prevail that Asian employees are meek, mild-mannered, or quiet — presumably lacking the necessary skills required to be successful leaders.

The halo and horn effect can also show up during the resume-screening process. The halo effect might see a recruiter or hiring manager unfairly attributing value to a candidate because they went to a certain school or pursue specific hobbies. On the other hand, a candidate who grew up in a particular area might be dismissed as having less potential or prowess.

Consequences of the halo and horn effect

Cognitive biases, like the halo and horn effect, have significant implications on the recruitment process and beyond.

How the halo and horn effect impacts recruitment 

Once the halo effect results in a decision-maker forming a positive first impression of someone, they will be on the lookout for other factors that confirm their initial analysis. This describes another type of cognitive behavior known as confirmation bias. 

Recruiters and hiring managers may treat an applicant they like in the first instance with more kindness — asking easier interview questions or engaging in a friendlier manner.

In addition, the halo effect means that a candidate’s perceived good qualities will overshadow any subsequent red flags, such as them lacking the relevant qualifications or work experience to perform the role to a high standard.

How the halo and horn effect impacts the workplace 

Preferential treatment caused by the halo effect can continue once a candidate is hired. They might be given additional learning and development opportunities, be promoted quickly, or given non-objective performance reviews. Their manager might be more lenient, overlooking mistakes or poor performance and even ignoring or brushing off negative feedback from other colleagues.

When the halo and horn effect results in organizations making bad hires, workplace culture, employee productivity, mental health, and retention rates can suffer. Not to mention that, because the horn effect disproportionately impacts those from marginalized communities, workplace diversity will also take a hit.

How to avoid halo and horn effects in hiring and promotions

Here are a few ways to overcome the halo and horn effect during the recruitment process:

How to avoid the halo and horns effects in hiring and promotions
Top ways to avoid the halo and horns effects in hiring and promotions

1. Anonymized applications

Because the halo and horn effect can first show up during the resume screening process, it’s a good idea to anonymize applications.

Remove any irrelevant information including name, date of birth, education history, and personal interests. This will ensure that the most qualified and suitable candidates make it through the first round of your recruitment process and eliminate instances of discrimination that impact candidates from marginalized communities. 

2. Crowd wisdom

The more people (of diverse backgrounds) you involve in the recruitment decision-making process, the more likely you are to eliminate unconscious bias. Consider leveraging what is known as crowd wisdom to process candidates and ultimately make a collective judgment about who to hire. This means forming interview panels of at least three people to ensure their individual preconceptions and biases balance each other out.

3. Consistent scoring criteria

Consistency across the interview and assessment process is crucial to ensure all applicants are treated fairly and given the chance to demonstrate their worth. For each role your organization is recruiting for, produce an interview script that can be used for all applicants. Make sure the questions analyze specific skills, rather than interrogate people about their personal lives and backgrounds, and create a scoring system to help you rank candidates quickly and fairly. 

Candidates should be rated highly for factors including their work experience and skill set, and not their perceived positive qualities. 

4. Collect and collate recruitment data

Implementing a robust recruitment data strategy can be incredibly revealing as to the extent unconscious biases are impacting your hiring processes. 

For example, you might identify a particular stage in the recruitment funnel at which certain marginalized groups are being rejected disproportionately. Once you know where your weak points are, you can take strategic action to address them.

5. Provide cognitive bias training

Cognitive bias training can make managers and recruiters more aware of the questions they are asking and the way they treat candidates. 

It might be as simple as learning what questions not to ask, such as details about a candidate’s social background, or interrogating why they warm to one candidate over another. What are some of the “positive traits” leading them to favor one candidate over the rest? 

6. Skills assessments

With so many resumes to process for each job opening, recruiters and hiring managers are often very short of time. As a result, leaning into unconscious biases, including the halo and horn effect, often comes hand-in-hand with making quick and ill-informed hiring decisions.

Skills assessments are designed to determine whether candidates have the right skills for a role. These tests promise to save time, remove instances of unconscious bias during the recruitment process, and enable better hiring decisions.  

At Vervoe, our AI-powered skills assessments are around 83% accurate in predicting top performers across all job types, and can help organizations shortlist a more diverse pool of applicants. By incorporating a skills testing platform like Vervoe, organizations can avoid positive first impression bias, attractiveness bias, and focusing too much on a single negative trait or positive trait to recruit top talent based on their individual merits.

Vervoe helps you predict top performers across all job types
Vervoe helps organizatinos identify top performers, reducing bias by by focusing on skills rather than background

Conclusion

As humans, we have a marked tendency to be overly influenced by characteristics and behaviors that create a general feeling we use to judge people. It’s one thing to let this influence who we interact with in our personal lives, but a more serious error to let it influence our hiring decisions. 

Being overly focused on one aspect of a person’s broader skill set, experience, and fit for a job is unfair to candidates, and, frankly, lazy. Focusing on an applicant’s ability will allow you to look past any personality or behavioral traits that generate a halo or horns effect in your mind, and make fairer hiring decisions that are better for business. 

Laura Ross

Laura Ross

Equally at home with content creation and curation, Laura has several years of experience in writing, editing, and publishing a variety of content. Her top interests include recruitment, HR, and diversity and inclusion. Laura is currently based in London, UK.

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