How to Overcome (and Recognize) First Impression Bias When Hiring
Posted on May 9, 2023
Diversity is ideal for innovation. In fact, diverse companies are almost 3x more likely to innovate successfully. They’re also 1.6 times more likely to satisfy and retain their customers and more likely to outperform their peers financially.
To get all the benefits diversity can offer at your company, you’ll need to overcome a threat that we all face: first impression bias.
Whether or not you know it, first impression bias can influence your hiring decisions, sometimes even before your first face-to-face.
In this article, we’ll show you how to overcome first impression bias in your hiring process so you can find the right candidates for your business and offer a fairer hiring experience.
Table of contents
- What is first impression bias?
- A few biases to look out for when hiring
- How to overcome cognitive biases in the hiring process
- Mitigate your first impression bias with Polymer
What is first impression bias?
First impression bias causes people to form a quick and incomplete impression of someone based on what they see and hear in the first few seconds of meeting.
Imagine you’re interviewing a job candidate for a remote position. You spot from their resume that they’re from your hometown across the country, attended the same university as you, and wear glasses.
In that initial meeting (albeit on paper), you’ve formed a snap opinion without realizing it. When it comes time for the interview, you may inadvertently set a friendly and familiar tone that wouldn't have been present without this information.
Your positive first impression has unfairly influenced the job interview.
From the candidate’s point of view, they’ve unknowingly made a good first impression that isn’t at all based on their skills.
Here’s what could happen next:
- You may unintentionally ask easier questions
- You could perceive their answers in a different light
- You could inadvertently assume they are intelligent
- You might respond differently to their answers
- You could rate their trustworthiness higher
After the interview, you might think this candidate is right for the job. Is this just because you have something in common and got along well the first time you met? Or are they actually the right person for the job?
Ultimately, first impression bias can influence how you behave in the hiring process. It can alter your decision-making process, and you could end up hiring the wrong person.
Is first impression bias a bad thing?
Everyone creates first impressions. It’s our brains’ clever way of using shortcuts to make quick judgments. But they’re not always right.
Because we form these opinions based on incomplete information, we can leap too far toward a poor judgment using only the details we’ve gleaned in the first seconds or minutes of interactions.
Moreover, unchecked first impression biases can snowball into other biases (and even discrimination).
Let’s return to our example about hiring someone from your hometown. What’s happening here is the influence of affinity bias, where we tend to favor candidates like ourselves.
The positive first impression you’ve made about the candidate based on commonalities may cause you to overlook that they haven’t been in the role as long as other candidates or that they lack some credentials. It may even have caused you to give this person an interview over another more-qualified jobseeker.
Researchers in the UK ran a field experiment sending resumes from hypothetical minority applicants who were trained in the UK and born in or naturalized in the UK. Each resume was polished, and all had perfect spelling, so the only variable was the ethnicity component.
The study found the minority group had to send 60% more applications to receive as many callbacks as the majority group based solely on their resume.
Let’s look at another example. Say your company has recently hired a 21-year-old graphic designer. An employee in their 50s develops a snap negative first impression that makes them feel this person is too young for the role and couldn’t possibly have the experience it takes to be qualified.
They start to apply this thinking to any tasks the 21-year-old does, ignoring the excellent work and focusing intensely on any mistakes the new hire makes. Over time, resentment starts to fester.
This resentment results from confirmation bias, where we tend to focus on activities that support our beliefs and ignore those that don’t.
First impression biases themselves are not inherently bad. They’re simply a limitation in our brains’ way of forming patterns (human information processing).
The danger happens when we’re unaware of where these first impressions can go wrong.
Self-awareness is the first step to overcoming the judgments you don’t even realize you’re making. It involves educating yourself on what biases you might have and how to overcome them.
We’ll cover ways to beat cognitive biases when hiring in a moment. But first, we’ll take you through three ways first impression biases can negatively affect the hiring process.
A few biases to look out for when hiring
As we’ve mentioned, our first impression bias can be a catalyst for other biases that lead to poor hiring decisions. Below, we’ll cover three mental shortcuts to watch out for when forming first impressions of new candidates.
The halo effect
Have you ever admired the way a public figure dresses? Maybe you also like their taste in cars, the charity they advocate for, and the book they’ve just released.
If so, you might be under the influence of the halo effect.
The halo effect is our tendency to attribute our positive feelings about one area to other areas. If we like something about a person, a brand, or a product, we’re likely to judge other things they do or products they come out with using the same positive lens.
In other words, the “halo” of glorification extends over other areas.
In recruitment specifically, the halo effect can cause us to over-attribute one positive element to other aspects of a candidate’s experience.
Let’s say you’re hiring a copywriter. A candidate gives you a portfolio of expertly-written blog articles for a publication you enjoy reading, but they have no experience in search engine optimization (SEO) or writing landing page copy (your current need).
With the halo effect in action, you overlook these details and hire them based on their experience writing for Motorcycle Magazine.
Fortunately, there are ways to overcome the halo effect in your hiring process. Here are two tactics you can apply to mitigate the halo effect:
- Notice if you’re awarding top scores across the board, then stop to think if the person is truly worthy of those marks. Look at the candidate with respect to other candidates and determine if you’re treating each fairly.
- Try to form more than one opinion of people when you first meet them (in an interview or on paper). If you spot some information that makes you think they may be good at a similar role, jot that down in your mental model as a potential situation but hold back on setting that impression in stone.
In 1951, Solomon Asch conducted a series of experiments on the individual’s tendency to conform to the group’s opinion. Researchers asked a panel simple, obvious questions, such as judging matching line length.
However, only one person on the panel was the research subject, and the rest were actors told to collectively give the wrong answer.
In the image above, you can see that the matching line is line A. Imagine that everyone else on the panel said C.
Study subjects were visibly agitated but conformed to the group’s clearly incorrect answer almost every time. Even though the footage is now vintage, the findings are still relevant today.
Groupthink happens when the group’s social dynamics lead to a less than favorable outcome. In a business setting, this is often due to loud, confident speakers declaring a position and the rest of the group falling in line.
For example, let’s say that you have a team of five people on the hiring committee. One extroverted committee member overtly clarifies which candidate he thinks is best for the position. He makes a very basic case for it and lobbies excitedly around the group until each member goes along with his choice.
This very common situation is ripe for a number of problems, including discrimination and hiring the wrong person.
To combat groupthink when hiring, try these techniques:
- Gauge whether anyone in the group is dominating the conversation and whether the group has followed their lead
- Encourage everyone in the group to voice their opinion, starting with less obvious committee members
- Hold a silent vote, asking each member to write down their preference and why they support their choice
The framing effect
If your candidate brings a light show and pyrotechnics to the interview, expect the framing effect to be in play.
This effect describes our tendency to be influenced by presentation. It declares that a solitary chicken nugget would taste better if presented by Gordon Ramsay than it would out of a child’s Happy Meal box.
In reality, it’s the same cold nugget.
The framing effect is one to be aware of because you may neglect to pay attention to the details in an interview that’s full of confidence and pizzazz.
Here are some tips on how to overcome the framing effect:
- Pay attention to the message (what is the candidate saying) over how they’re saying it
- Be aware of subtle cues as much as loud ones (e.g., candidates making eye contact only with the decision-maker)
- Don’t be fooled by gifts or compliments from candidates
Overcoming hiring biases is down to education on the impact of first impressions and self-awareness. When you recognize the signs of self-held biases, you can prevent them from impacting your recruitment.
How to overcome cognitive biases in the hiring process
We’ve covered just a few potential pitfalls stemming from or influencing our first impressions. Here are some more methods to reduce the first impression bias (and more) in your recruitment process.
Use cognitive debiasing
Cognitive debiasing forces you out of autopilot pattern formation and helps you think more rationally. You do it by purposefully identifying your biases so that you know when they’re influencing your decisions.
Continue learning about cognitive biases and how they might affect your hiring team (reading this article is a good starting point). Look out for the warning signs and take time to reflect before jumping to decisions.
Knowing what could happen and preparing yourself and your team for it will help everyone process the situation better.
Include more people in the hiring process
First impression bias is more likely to influence your hiring process with fewer people managing selections and interviews.
Increasing the number of reviewers per candidate gives you more perspectives, reducing the chance for one person’s bias to take control.
You can also apply the brainwriting technique to your hiring process (an inclusive opinion-sharing format).
Here’s how it would work:
- Start by writing the name of each potential candidate on a “pros” and “cons” brainwriting sheet (or sticky notes)
- Everyone writes down their thoughts about each candidate on a note and puts it on the board
- The hiring manager leads a review and everyone discusses the feedback
The process encourages everyone to be honest, preventing them from falling into the groupthink mentality and calling out any halo or framing effects.
Virtual teams can even participate in real time using interactive whiteboard brainwriting templates.
While you want to expand the hiring team to more than one or two people, it’s still important to include only those relevant to the role. For example, if you’re hiring a marketing executive, you might include the following people in the interview process:
- Another marketing executive
- Marketing manager
- Head of marketing
- HR executive
- HR manager
Use a hiring platform
A hiring platform, like Polymer, helps companies track and manage the entire recruitment process. From posting the job to offering the role, you can manage every step within the platform.
On some platforms, AI-powered technology will help you filter your candidates.
Take a look at Polymer as an example. With our hiring platform, you can filter candidates based on certain criteria in their application form, like their experience or skill set.
The technology ignores demographic information that humans may unintentionally discriminate against, such as race, gender, and age. Automatic filtering helps you avoid results like those we saw in the UK minority applicant study.
With Polymer, you can also use blind-skills assessments and challenges to test your candidate’s skills before meeting them. There’s little room for first impression bias because the software acts as the evaluator before the first interaction.
Carefully craft your job descriptions
Sometimes companies struggle to diversify their hiring because they aren’t receiving a diverse range of applicants. If this is the case, it could be down to your job descriptions.
Subtle word choices can greatly impact whether a jobseeker chooses to apply.
For example, job descriptions that use “he/him” pronouns might discourage other genders from applying. Likewise, suppose you’re offering a fully remote position but describe a company social club meeting every Friday in a specific location. In that case, you’re likely to discourage talent who is further afield.
To ensure your job ads are inclusive, get feedback from a diverse group of people at your company. Have them read through it to make sure the ad is inclusive.
Using a hiring platform can also help you streamline this process. With Polymer, for example, you can easily collaborate with your team to review job descriptions before they go live.
Standardizing your interviews creates a level playing field for your candidates. All of your interviews will follow the same format, leaving less room for bias to influence the process.
Here’s what you can do to standardize your interviews:
- Ask the same base questions. Prepare your interview questions in advance and keep them the same for every candidate, whether interviewing in person, virtually, or by phone interview. Keep this with you during the interview so you stick roughly to the script.
- Ask them in the same order. Keep the process the same for every candidate by asking questions in the same order. Changing them around could influence the answers they give and how you perceive them.
- Use an interview scorecard. An interview scorecard includes predetermined criteria you use to evaluate candidates. You’ll agree on a score with the rest of the hiring team, fill in the scorecard after every candidate, and organize it within your applicant tracking system.
Here’s an example to give you an idea of how they work:
Mitigate your first impression bias with Polymer
First impression bias creates an uneven playing field for potential recruits. It can influence how you perceive candidates, your decisions, and how you handle the hiring process.
If you’re thinking about hiring more fairly, give Polymer a try. You can screen candidates based on application details, collaborate on job descriptions, organize candidates as they move through the hiring stages, and more. Sign up for free today.