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How to Hire Without Getting Fooled by First Impressions

Tanya Menon and Leigh Thompson

Feb 6, 2023

Dr. James is a leading ophthalmologist at a major medical clinic. Passionate about medicine, he wanted to hire someone to run the business operations of his practice. He carefully reviewed over 200 resumes and conducted background checks, finally deciding to hire Mike, a highly credentialed MBA who seemed to check off all the boxes Dr. James was looking for in the new hire.

But within weeks, Dr. James realized that he’d made a big hiring mistake. Despite a stellar performance in the interview, Mike disrupted the office within his first month on the job. He communicated with the staff mostly by email or spreadsheet assignments, and when he attended meetings he seemed absorbed with his smartphone and would roll his eyes when the staff didn’t understand certain accounting or finance terms.

“During the interview, I was wowed by Mike’s credentials and financial knowledge. He was supremely confident and came from a great school,” Dr. James told us after the fact. He then lamented, “I saw only one side of Mike, and completely missed the side we ended up seeing every day at the office.”

It took Dr. James over a year to rid himself of the wrong hire. Worse, it made him question his own judgment. In fact, almost all of the leaders we’ve talked to admit that they too have made a bad hire at some point during their careers. And it has cost them dearly in time, money, and mental anguish.

First impressions can sometimes set dangerous traps that lead you straight to a disastrous hire. How can you get beyond superficial impressions and discover the substance in the 30 minutes or so you have with an interviewee?

Faced with hundreds of resumes and dozens of interviewees, sometimes you have no choice but to scan quickly when narrowing down a pool of candidates. But these gut reactions can often lead us astray because of how we subconsciously picture the new hire. In the case of Dr. James, he was wowed by Mike’s credentials. However, he had lost focus on the more pertinent skills and attributes that his new hire would need every day on the job. He failed to rigorously evaluate Mike on his abilities to motivate and lead the staff.

The key is to distinguish between real and pseudo cues. A good example of a pseudo cue is the halo effect that may surround candidates due to physical attractiveness. People subconsciously feel attraction to a good-looking interviewee, and this pseudo cue positively biases their evaluation of the candidate’s unrelated skills.

So in order to find the best candidates, you have to unsee the pseudo cues that grab your attention but are irrelevant to the job. Fine-tune your vision to pinpoint the real cues that matter for performance. Instead of “going with your gut,” use analytics to hone in on the right type of candidate. Take all your past data on who has succeeded and failed in the role (or similar roles, if this is a new position) and analyze each person’s characteristics in a regression. Which independent variables (GPA, major, extracurriculars, interview answers) predict success or failure? If you let the data speak, you’ll learn the hidden profile of success so you can distinguish the real cues that matter from the pseudo cues that don’t — so you can cull through the pile of resumes and the hours of interviews more efficiently.

In addition to learning from past hires, hire for the future. Our image of who fits often comes from the past, from the types of people who’ve successfully filled the role (or similar roles) before. To avoid this trap, one executive created current and future scenarios that the company was facing and asked candidates how they would handle them. By requesting their answers in writing in advance of the face-to-face interview, she could blind the responses and analyze each candidate’s thought process about these critical challenges anonymously, so it was impossible to tell their gender, race, or age. This helped her choose the right set of people to move on to the next round in the hiring process.

In the interview itself, we also need to avoid the pseudo cues that we hear. The first impressions we hear can mislead us because we overvalue what Professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton describe as “smart talk.” According to Pfeffer and Sutton, while smart talkers are skilled at “sounding confident, articulate, and eloquent, having interesting information and ideas, and possessing a good vocabulary,” their talk often serves as a substitute for action. Smart talkers can also be what psychologist Mark Snyder describes as “high self-monitors,” adaptable chameleons who can carefully edit and change themselves to fit different situations. When we’re seduced by smart talkers, we select people who are glib but not necessarily substantive. Worse, the person who skillfully says what you want to hear in an interview may very well become a two-faced manipulator in the office. To avoid this trap, listen for hidden messages in the interview itself by considering these four tips:

  1. Focus on behaviors instead of traits. The typical resume and cover letter is filled with adjectives like “team player,” “energetic,” “analytic,” and “creative.” They want to present themselves in the best possible light to appear to be the most qualified candidate for the position. But if interviewees describe themselves as “team players,” do they actually credit other people when discussing their work? Ask the candidate, “What are the three things you are most proud of in the past six months?” But don’t just take note of the accomplishments they list; listen to how they describe them. What did they do, and how did they describe it? Do they emphasize personal or team achievement? Listen for what’s unsaid, particularly whether they credit their colleagues, their subordinates, or anyone else. Better yet, do a behavioral interview. If you’re hiring for presentation skills or analytic skills, have them actually prepare a presentation or conduct a relevant analysis. Adjectives may be pithy, but behaviors are more specific, objective, and diagnostic.

  1. Listen for learners. “Tell me about a failure.” Yes, this is a common interview prompt, but it can reveal a lot about the person if you analyze their response in the right way. What was the cause of their failure? Do they chalk the failure up to their lack of fit in the area, bad luck, a hard task, or other excuses? Each of these explanations acknowledges the failure but doesn’t acknowledge learning as part of the process. Listen for the candidate who identifies factors that they could change and control in the future. This is the candidate who’s capable of self-reflection and learning.

  1. Listen for conflict management skills. Organizational psychologist Fred Fiedler and colleagues note the power of another critical question: “Tell me about your least preferred coworker.” If you’re hiring for a job that requires strong interpersonal skills, listen for whether they reduce the person to a one-word label (e.g., “difficult” or “micromanager”) or reveal a more complex view of the situation (e.g., “we disagreed about how to get the job done because we were trained in different ways”). Labels are quick but final, leaving people with few solutions to work with the other person. The more complex interpretation allows people ways to productively negotiate with each other.

  1. Look for nonverbal cues. Finally, look beyond what the candidate is saying: how are they saying it? While Mike exuded confidence, in retrospect Dr. James realized that Mike’s nonverbal cues also leaked feelings of power, egocentrism, and low concern for others. Even though interviewees may be on their best behavior, you might be able to detect certain nonverbal signals that are signaling not confidence but contempt, superiority, and disrespect: eye contact when speaking to another person but not when listening to them, invading another’s space, and sneering disguised as smiling.

The best interviewers avoid the traps from first impressions or gut feelings because they recognize the subconscious factors at play during the interview. You can use the techniques we’ve described to see and hear more deeply, even if you have only a short time to select and interview the candidate. By doing so, you can better assess if the person is right — or wrong — for the position.

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