Before I make some claim that I’ve discovered something new in the world of hiring, some background is in order. First, I’m an engineer, financial person and manufacturing type who got into recruiting 30+ years ago because I didn’t like my boss. Seriously.

Since that time, I must have debriefed over 2,000 managers after they interviewed one of my candidates. I personally knew many of these people. What surprised me most of all was that 75% of the managers could confidently predict the performance of all of these people after a 45-60 minute interview. For the people I knew, they were dead wrong more than 50-60% of the time. So I suspected they were equally wrong on those candidates I didn’t know.

This made no sense to me, so I decided to sit in on some first round interviews to determine what was happening. The problem became apparent very quickly: people who made a good first impression were interviewed differently than those who made a weak or neutral first impression.

Those who made a good first impression were instantly assumed to be competent and the interviewer used the balance of the interview to seek out evidence to support the initial reaction. If the candidate made a weak first impression, the interviewer would assume the person was incompetent and proactively went out to prove it. Questions that could quickly prove them wrong were unconsciously avoided.

This is not news. But last night, I was reading an enlightening book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. I thought the book was about the politics of the left and right, but it’s more about how we make any type of important life decisions. From a hiring perspective, the big “aha” moment for me was that people are programmed to make instantaneous intuitive judgments for just about everything and then look for evidence to justify them. According to Haidt and his years of research, it’s at the core of our evolutionary human nature. Given the fact that intuition drives reasoning, I offer the following techniques for preventing bad hiring decisions due to the impact of first impressions.

(Note: what's fascinating is that the "Haidt Bias" is clearly evident in every comment below: intuition driving reasoning.)

9 Simple Ideas for Minimizing the Impact of First Impressions

  1. Wait 30 minutes. It takes about 30 minutes for the impact of first impressions to dissipate. During this time, interviewers need to conduct a comprehensivework-history review and ask the most important interview question of all time.
  2. Conduct a preliminary phone screen before meeting any candidate in person. You’ll save a lot of time by using a phone screen to determine if the candidate is a reasonable fit, possesses the achiever pattern and has a track record of strong past performance. Even better, the onsite interview will start off as an objective evaluation, not an exercise in emotional control.
  3. Treat candidates as consultants. People always treat those who are assumed to be subject matter experts with respect. When candidates are assumed to be competent and treated the same way at the beginning of the interview, the assessment is naturally more objective.
  4. Use reverse logic to reprogram your brain. When first meeting a candidate, note whether you like the person or not. Then, do the opposite of what you’d normally do. For those you like, force them to prove their competency. Give the benefit of the doubt to everyone else. You’ll discover this mental trick results in asking everyone the same questions.
  5. Act as a juror, not a judge. Stop making assessments during the interview. Instead collect all of the evidence before making a verdict. The Performance-based Interview has been designed to ask all candidates similar objective questions that don’t seem rehearsed or artificial.
  6. Conduct more panel interviews. The one-on-one effect of first impressions is minimized in a well-organized panel interview. A disorganized panel interview is a waste of time for other reasons.
  7. Measure first impressions at the end of the interview. Whether good first impressions are important for job success is debatable. What’s not debatable are their seductive power to influence the interviewer’s hiring decision. At the end of the interview, objectively determine if the person’s first impression will help or hinder their job performance.
  8. Eliminate gladiator-style voting. Yes versus no or up/down voting is a waste of time. In this case, the biggest thumb wins.
  9. Add a simple process control technique to the evaluation. On our talent scorecard we use a 1-5 ranking system. Whenever the variance among all of the interviewers on any factor is more than plus or minus half a point, we know the assessment process is emotionally biased. When the variance is tight, we know the assessment is accurate.

Overriding the evolutionary imprint of the friend versus foe response is no simple task. It starts by recognizing – as Haidt points out – that people go out of their way to collect confirming, false or cherry-picked information to justify their intuitive and instantaneous decisions. These nine ideas help overcome human nature by bringing the problem to the conscious level and then controlling it using a business-like process.