Recruiting and Hiring

5 Things Every Recruiter Needs to Know About First Impressions

We all know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. And we all do it anyway.
For you, the impulse to make snap judgments may kick in the moment you lay your eyes on a new candidate. Within seconds, you’ve already made a series of lightning-fast judgments, both conscious and subconscious. She looks confident. He looks tired. She seems frazzled. He seems sharp. You immediately have a strong sense of how the interview will go.
The real question is: should you trust that first impression? Fortunately, there’s now a boatload of psychological research on first impressions — or “thin-slicing” as it’s known in psych circles. And it suggests that your first impressions are very likely to match your lasting impressions (as well as the impressions of others). But it also suggests that we temper those judgments, which are often expressions of our unconscious bias, to make decisions that are fairer and more productive.
There’s mountains of academic studies on the subject but who really wants to sift through all of it?
Me. I do. You don’t have to. I’ve already done it. You’re welcome. Keep reading. You’ve got questions, science has answers, so let’s get going.

1. First impressions can be freakishly similar to lasting impressions

Turns out that aphorism was wrong. By and large, first impressions are often accurate. End of blog post.
Just kidding. Let’s dive a little deeper into the science.
“Research has found that first impressions are surprisingly valid,” according to Nobel laureate and superstar psychologist Daniel Kahneman. “You can predict very quickly whether you like a person and if others will.”
One study found that after watching just the first 15 seconds of a job interview, an observer could accurately predict whether the candidate would get an offer. Another study confirmed that, yes, “a short excerpt of a job interview can be predictive of hireability.” Still another study demonstrated that “after viewing 12 seconds of silent interviewee behavior” interviewers made hiring decisions that were largely in line with decisions made after the entire interview.
What kind of first impressions convinced recruiters? Not so surprisingly, applicants who appeared attentive (rather than anxious), competent, confident, dominant, optimistic, and professional “were more likely to receive positive hiring recommendations.”
Another study — this time focusing on professors — found that students who watched 30 seconds of silent instruction and rated the teachers on 15 criteria came up with results shockingly similar to those of students who took a class with that teacher for an entire semester.
So your first impression in most cases will line up with your lasting impression. But, as we’ll see, that’s not always good.  

2. First impressions can be shaped by bias

In the examples above, we see that first impressions are good predictors of how we’ll feel about someone in the future. But let’s be clear: whether we like someone is different from whether they’ll be good at their job. Yes, in certain roles like sales, likability is important. But the candidate who strikes you as ditzy might also be the best software developer on the planet.
This is where bias can creep in. How someone looks can seriously alter your first impression, often unfairly. One dispiriting study found that moderately obese applicants — especially female applicants — were far less likely to be hired, even when taking qualifications into account.
Another study found recruiters think highly of taller candidates: every additional inch equates to about $800 extra in annual salary, such that someone standing 5’5” will earn $166,000 less than someone 6 feet tall over a 30-year career. A whole bunch of studies show that attractive people are more likely to be hired and offered higher starting salaries — even though they’re not any more capable than their less attractive peers.
By recognizing your implicit biases, you may be able to scoop up some amazing undervalued candidates, Moneyball style.

3. Bad first impressions can trigger a negative feedback loop

As we’ve seen, you might have a bad first impression for an unfair reason. What’s worse, starting off on the wrong foot can cause you to tumble into a vicious cycle.
A study at Cornell University found that first impressions are often self-fulfilling prophecies: if you start with a positive impression, you’re likely to smile more and give off warmer nonverbal cues. The candidate will pick up on that and respond in kind. More dangerously, negative feelings also reinforce themselves. If you start with a bad impression, you’re more likely to act aloof, awkward, and uninterested, causing the candidate to do likewise.
So if you feel yourself forming a bad first impression, try your best not to show it. Give the candidate the benefit of the doubt, and try to act as if they’re actually making a good impression — your positive behavior can bring out the best in the candidate and may allow them to alter your initial impression.

4. Giving into first impressions can hurt your performance as a recruiter

Positive first impressions pose a danger, too — not to the candidate, but to you. When an applicant makes a good impression, you’re actually less likely to do your job well. Similar to the self-fulfilling prophecy mentioned in the study above, recruiters act differently when they like the candidate. According to one study, interviewers “followed up positive first impressions … by showing positive regard toward the applicant, ‘selling’ the company and giving job information, and gathering less information.”
Dazzled by the light, recruiters transform into sales reps, talking up the company more and asking questions less. Sure, as a recruiter, you’re both an investigator and a cheerleader — selling the company won’t hurt your performance, but getting less information will. Prioritizing sales over interrogation might be forgivable if first impressions perfectly predicted performance, but we know they don’t.
Don’t get dazzled. If you think the candidate is great, pick your jaw up off the floor, ask more questions, and evaluate them with a critical mind. Take a step back and make a more objective, less impassioned assessment.

5. The first impression you make matters a lot, too

You know the candidate is concerned about making a good impression — but first impressions are a two-way street, and the one you make might matter more. According to a recent study, 80% of candidates would take one job over another based on the personal connections formed during the interview process.
So what’s the last word on first impressions? Trust, but verify.
Your immediate impression is a good predictor for how you’ll feel about a person over time, but don’t let your (possibly biased) feelings cloud your professional judgment. Know your limitations, work to overcome them, and don’t forget to make a good first impression yourself.