Every day, first impressions shape how people interact with each other and how they feel about those interactions. They influence how people engage with all aspects of the world around them–including recruiting. Given how much of recruiting comes down to understanding and evaluating people in a limited amount of time, one could argue that much of a recruiter’s job depends on how well he or she has mastered the ability to get an accurate first impression.

What Is a First Impression?

A first impression is an assessment of another person’s social value. Impressions of other people are defined as much by beliefs and interests as they are by actions and statements. One common misconception is that first impressions are conscious evaluations, but they actually occur all the time–not just when someone is actively thinking about something or someone in particular.

Because human brains are constantly taking in information and assigning values to objects, people, and situations, people have the ability to subconsciously identify patterns and draw conclusions based on tiny slivers of experience (a phenomenon psychologists call “thin slicing”). These subconscious evaluations can take place in incredibly short periods of time. For instance, within one-tenth of a second after meeting someone for the first time, most people decide whether he or she is trustworthy. It takes only three seconds for people to know whether they want to do business with another person and only a few moments to know whether they want to be someone’s friend.

Inherent Risks

Even though people use them every day, first impressions aren’t infallible. The accuracy of thin-slice observations is strongly task-dependent, which means they vary based on what the activity is. Accurate judgements are also highly contingent on experience and expertise. For example, a professional basketball player who receives a pass knows instantly what to do with it, whereas a little kid just starting out in a local community league might accidentally hand the ball over to an opponent.

First impressions are especially susceptible to confirmation bias, in which people subconsciously favor certain information because it confirms their existing opinions and feelings. This is one reason why it can be difficult to persuade someone who holds an opposing political viewpoint, obtaining his or her news only from certain media outlets. Confirmation bias also contributes to the perpetuation of stereotypes. For example, a manager might think that people who speak loudly and with confidence are most likely strong leaders–and could therefore completely overlook the leadership potential in more soft-spoken employees.

Because making hiring decisions based on assumptions and unconscious bias leads to bad hires, it’s essential to create safeguards throughout the hiring process that ensure that those decisions are based on objective information and not on subjective criteria. First impressions matter, but they should be balanced by a standardized system that gives everyone the same hiring experience and utilizes objective, confirmable data. Remember, a friendly, funny, and well-dressed candidate who likes the same sports team as the hiring manager might make a great first impression, but a candidate who doesn’t have the skills required for the position isn’t going to get much work done.

How to Leverage First Impressions

Use training, feedback, and preparation to turn first impressions into assets (instead of liabilities) by teaching hiring teams to use them effectively without allowing them to dominate the hiring process. Make sure that interviewers jot down their first impressions, which can yield valuable data. But to reduce the chance that positive (or negative) first impressions will color the rest of the interview, standardize the process by ensuring that all candidates for a particular role are always asked the same set of questions, no matter who is interviewing them.

Use Them Wisely

Because first impressions play an essential role in helping people evaluate others, they are a crucial tool in every recruiter’s arsenal. Yet given how susceptible everyone is to bias, it’s important to create hiring processes that utilize first impressions without letting them dominate decision making. At the end of the day, understanding the value and risk of first impressions will allow hiring teams to judge talent more effectively–and therefore make better hires.

Masters at First Impressions

With 100 years of combined experience, Kinsa’s specialized food and beverage industry recruiters are masters at reading first impressions. Contact us to help you acquire the leaders, innovators and experts your organization needs – faster, simpler and more cost-effectively.

The content of this blog originally appeared in the March, 2017 edition of ABR Employment Services e-newsletter,  HR Insights. It was written by William Clarke.

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