Put Substance Before Style During Hiring Interviews
Author: Laura Gassner Otting (Reprinted with permission from Society for Human Resource Management.)
Posted: December 15, 2007
Words of Wisdom
"What great managers do:
  • When selecting someone, they select for talent…not simply experience, intelligence, or determination.
  • When setting expectations, they define the right outcomes…not the right steps.
  • When motivating someone, they focus on strengths…not on weaknesses.
  • When developing someone, they help him/her find the right fit…not simply the next rung on the ladder."

From the book, "First, Break All the Rules," The Gallup Organization, 1999.


Are you letting your first impressions get the best of you when you're interviewing job applicants? Most likely. As many as four out of five hiring decisions are made within the first 10 minutes of an interview, according to some studies. Those decisions are based on little more than the applicant's clothing or hairstyle, a subconscious stereotype or a preconceived notion about a particular candidate or type of candidate.

Indeed, the first impressions of hiring managers in initial interviews may drive the entire hiring process because managers expect-and perceive-better answers from candidates who make a favorable first impression. Similarly, responses from candidates whose first impressions are disappointing can be received much less favorably if they were expected to have made a better impression.

"Once an impression is formed and the potential candidate has been accepted or rejected, additional information that goes against the impression carries less weight in evaluating a candidate's ability to do the job," says Lois Lindauer, president of Lois L. Lindauer Searches in Boston. That leads managers to make hiring decisions based on style over substance-and pass over highly qualified candidates.

Managers particularly need to be aware of how body language, posture, facial expressions and eye contact drive more than half of first impressions, according to psychological studies. Such cues send us signals about a candidate's preparation, confidence and even grooming habits. Moreover, studies show that attractive people are implicitly seen by interviewers as having better personalities, higher intelligence, more poise and greater honesty, just as neat people are presumed to be efficient, punctual and detail-oriented.

That's why it is so important for hiring managers to avoid presumptions. For example, the presumption that a candidate who arrives late has a tardiness problem is fundamentally flawed. Forming negative impressions about candidates who may have been caught in situations out of their control-or positive impressions about candidates because they're attractive-can be self-serving.

Although it's important to note personal traits-such as honesty, integrity, determination and humor-to determine whether a candidate would succeed at the job in question, an interview should focus on the candidate's professional experience-his or her track record of on-the-job performance.

One way to do that? Suspend judgments, says Gale Batchelder, vice president of the Boston-based executive search firm Auerbach Associates. "Sometimes something about a person really turns me off-their looks, their clothes, whatever," she says. "Or I feel really attracted to someone's intellect or humor or looks and then view them favorably right away. I have to remind myself constantly to suspend immediate judgments until I learn more."

Another idea is to put first impressions in their place-one piece of the puzzle, says Susan Egmont, founder of Egmont Associates, an executive search firm in Boston. "It's perfectly legitimate to see what first impression is presented, and to eliminate or select candidates because generally they show you the best foot they have to put forward," she says. "However, the first impression just can't be the only criteria. If a person is late or doesn't present well but has potential, then obviously a second interview is in order, or at least a conversation about what you suspect didn't come out sufficiently can be a good test. Then good reference checking can bear out or deny the candidate's own assertions."

Another factor to consider is your own decision-making style. Do you react instinctively, or do you take time to deliberate? The odds are that your interviewing style mirrors your decision-making style. "One way to guard against this is to be aware of it," says Batchelder.

By developing an awareness of what kind of people you are drawn to, and why, you can evaluate whether that has worked for you in the past, she explains. Ask yourself:

  • What were my first impressions of other people I hired?
  • When did that work for me and when did it lead me astray?
"In many instances, our intuitions are right, and we should heed them," says Batchelder. "But we all have blind spots that cause us to react negatively or positively that then lead us to certain expectations."

By understanding one's own behavior and the demands of the open job, a hiring manager can interview more objectively, says Lindauer. "Taking an immediate liking to a person should trigger tougher questions by you. Conversely, you should work harder to engage more with those who don't initially impress you." An interviewer who has a negative impression of a candidate often does the opposite, spending most of the interview disengaged or tearing the candidate apart through overly tough questions or a combative attitude. To keep the interview fair, remember that it takes at least 10 minutes for a candidate to get past his or her own nervousness and for the hiring manager or interviewing committee to establish a flow of conversation. Suspending judgment at least until a rapport is established is the most effective way to begin to see candidates for what they truly bring to the table.

Past performance is the most important indicator of a candidate's possible success in his or her next position, so questions based on past performance are often the best way to determine suitability for a position. Good interview questions start with a good job description, one that outlines what the successful candidate is expected to accomplish on the job. Using the job description, you should create a list of question areas based not on the candidate's resume but on the qualifications and track record a candidate must bring to the job to succeed in the position.

Although candidates differ from one another in experience and personality, the job description does not change. Questions may be tailored slightly to accommodate individual candidates and their experience, but it's important to have a predetermined list of topics to ensure that candidates are being evaluated against the same benchmarks.

David Haley, of the Boston-based search firm Isaacson, Miller, advises hiring managers and search committees to think of themselves as juries. First, they should take all of the evidence into consideration before reaching a verdict, and, second, they need to act as if the applicant is a good candidate until he or she proves otherwise. "Never fall in love with a candidate," cautions Haley. "It's OK to have strong feelings about a candidate; most hiring managers do. It is not OK to allow these feelings to get in the way of the decision-making process until they are weighed against all of the evidence." The evidence, Haley explains, should include formal and informal opinions and many reference checks.

Second opinions help, too. Egmont says, "Having a hiring committee rather than a single person can guard against one person's energy level flagging if the first impression isn't strong for them. If the whole committee isn't interested after the first impression, follow the wisdom of the group and make the interview respectful but shorter than planned."

Finally, know your own biases, and commit to work actively to change or challenge them. Some tools can be helpful. For example, conducting interviews by telephone can minimize the effect of first impressions, allowing the interviewer to be influenced more by substance than by style. Like references, checklists and committee interviews, telephone interviews help an interviewer to avoid jumping to an immediate conclusion about a candidate's value and force that interviewer to hear more about what a candidate has to say than how he or she might say it.

Use the following tips to help you avoid being unduly influenced by distracting and potentially incorrect first impressions and learn more about the candidate's track record:

  • Examine your decision-making style. Do you react instinctively, or do you ponder before making up your mind? Are you diplomatic or adversarial in your approach? Where has your style served you or failed you in the past?
  • Let your fingers do the walking. Screen all candidates with a telephone interview before setting up an in-person interview. Delay the effects of any visual first impressions by ascertaining vital information in a less loaded environment.
  • Treat everyone equally. Go into the interview with a list of questions or topics based on the performance indicators in the job description. You may depart from the list as a candidate's skills or experience demand, but ask the same qualifications-centered questions of all candidates.
  • Create a warm-up period. Put everyone at ease by chatting casually at the start of the interview, offering a beverage and allowing the candidate to, say, remove a suit jacket if he or she wishes.
  • Remember that past is prologue. Ask the candidate for stories about successes or failures specifically relevant to the goals set forth in the job in question. Avoid questions that start with "What would you do if … ."
  • Test your fallibility. Throw some hardball questions at likeable candidates and softer ones at the candidates you don't like. Remember that their interview performance may be based on what they perceive you doing.
  • Set up a self-check. Note the halfway point of your scheduled time; re-evaluate your impressions.
  • Get a second opinion. Interview as a committee to reduce personal dynamics, or bring in potential supervisors or staff members to balance your personal biases.
  • Listen more than you talk. The candidate should do more talking than you do.

Laura Gassner Otting is founder and president of the Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group, a niche consulting firm in Boston that specializes in helping nonprofit organizations with their hiring processes.