How To Spot First Impression Bias and Raise Your Hiring Success Rate
First impressions are a normal human reaction – quick judgments that get us through the day. But what’s natural in a grocery and funny onscreen can be a disaster in the office.
You’ll find lots of advice for candidates on how to make a good first impression at work. We’ve also all heard about employers whose first impressions aren’t just bad, they're outright offensive. This article discusses first impression bias in hiring, which is unconscious yet can cost you good hires, money, and time.
Fortunately, first impression bias is easy to correct once you’re aware of it. Let’s start with a definition.
What is first impression bias?
In recruitment, first impression bias is one of many unconscious “filters” that can skew your hiring decisions. It occurs when you form an opinion about a candidate seconds after meeting them – then based on that opinion, make other assumptions about unrelated qualities.
It’s first impression bias when an outgoing, “bibo” candidate is rated as more intelligent, competent or qualified – when they’re probably covering up nervousness. Another case is the “coffee cup interview test”, which assumes that polite manners equal teamwork skills.
First impression bias can also make you repeatedly hire people with the same personality, age or social background. A lookalike team is amusing, a workalike team is predictable – but a thinkalike team only has limited solutions to a problem.
The real issue of unconscious bias is when it leads you to hire the wrong person – which costs your business money. How much money? Consider onboarding, salary, and benefits. Add lost time and productivity, team adjustment, and the cost of doing it all again.
First impression bias in pre-selection
A first impression isn't always face to face. For most employers, our first impression is earlier: when scanning resumes to choose whom to interview. At that point, applicants are just pages on our screens or folders – but we form opinions about them anyway.
This is why many resume templates (including our JobStreet profile) no longer include photos, though business-oriented social networks still do. But a CV’s incidental details can create positive or negative impressions – a typo error, an age older (or younger) than you expect. A well-connected surname, or the same one as someone you dislike. A candidate’s previous company or job, school or course.
Again, you may not be conscious of this. If their qualifications fit, you‘ll probably still interview them – but the impression can still color your behavior and tone, like a photo pre-set that you’ve forgotten is even there.
Unconscious bias can surface even earlier, in your job ad. A poorly written or outdated job description can send out unintended signals about the role or your company, so that potentially good hires don’t even bother to apply.
First impression bias at the interview
The classic unstructured interview is a minefield of first impression bias. Not only is the bias not corrected, it can actually become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Imagine a candidate who meets our written requirements -- but is somehow not what we expect. We worry that they’re “not a fit”, that we’ve made the wrong choice in inviting them to interview. This reflects poorly on our judgment. Subconsciously we start to fidget, showing anxiety in our tone of voice, eye contact, and in involuntary movements.
We don’t mean to send these signals. But candidates with strong people skills can read them loud and clear. Subconsciously, they feed our discomfort back to us, or sense that we’re rushing the interview, which in turn makes them awkward and prone to poor answers. In the end, neither side makes a good first impression and a potential qualified hire is lost.
At that point, first impression bias has gone beyond a subjective rating. It leaks into our actual speech or actions, muddying the "objective" data that others base their decisions on. Here’s how you can prevent that.
Tips to counter first impression bias
Anonymize CVs and resumes
Use Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) and other tools to mask details and prioritize keywords, so you can evaluate candidates’ skills in a uniform format. These systems aren’t perfect, but you can see CVs without first impression “magnets” like name, age, gender, etc.
Standardize your interview questions and process.
Free-flowing interviews make it more difficult to set objective benchmarks. Insist that interviews follow standard questions and sequence, to give all candidates the same opportunity.
Focus on their team
First impression bias usually attaches to individuals. Balance that with detailed questions about the size, growth, projects and successes of the team they worked with. This draws focus away from the individual, plus it’s a valid way to assess teamwork skills.
Start with a phone interview. Record it.
Before going straight to face-to-face or video, start with a phone interview. Voices can also create first impression bias, but there’s less influence from appearance and body language. Instead, you connect based on candidates’ communication ability, a valuable transferable skill. Phone interviews are also efficient, allowing you to shortlist candidates to interview face to face.
If you don’t do so already, record the phone interviews. (Always get candidates’ permission.) The recordings help others on the hiring team evaluate for themselves, making a good balance for any individual’s unconscious bias.
Reduce bias with skills assessments. These are online tests similar to workday duties. They provide apples-to-apples scores, one more data point to help you hire objectively.
Second opinions: panel interview
Do face-to-face interviews in a panel. You'll need to remind them to be conscious of first impressions, but you'll balance out each other. Panel interviews make the hire a team decision, boost engagement, and give candidates a glimpse of your working relationship. Spotting first impression bias is a big step to transparent hiring. Now that you’re aware, you’ll find it easier to build the smart, diverse, skilled team you need.