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A $6 Billion First Impression

Newsletter • volume 7 • number 2

When Google initially went public they wowed investors with an opening stock price of $135 a share. This jaw-dropping IPO turned co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin into overnight billionaires. Yet Google would have never been a reality if Page and Brin had put much stock in their first impressions of each other.

That's because when they first met as Stanford grad students, Page and Brin didn't exactly hit it off—in fact, each thought the other was obnoxious. And had they gone their separate ways after that initial encounter, each would now be out about $6 billion…and counting.

The point is, Google's founders weren't deterred by negative first impressions, thereby proving the surprising resiliency of that tired old adage, “You can't judge a book by its cover.” Unfortunately, not everyone is as forgiving of a bad first impression as Page and Brin were, and nowhere is that more true than in an interview. It's a real challenge not to fall back on snap judgments when you're forced to make a hiring decision after a 30- to 45-minute exchange. Meeting that challenge begins with understanding the problems and pitfalls of first impressions and then learning how to overcome them.

Recognizing the Fallibility of First Impressions

A number of factors interact in complex ways to shape our initial impressions, including:

Resemblances. How many times have you met someone who seemed strikingly familiar? You might be reminded of an ex-spouse, co-worker, or sister-in-law. Finding resemblances and relationships is one of the ways our minds order vast amounts of information. Unfortunately, we stop rationally analyzing when we make such connections. The fact is that whether it's Martha Stewart or Mother Theresa, look-alikes rarely have the same qualities as their counterparts.

Biases and stereotypes. It goes without saying that some of our most egregious errors in judgment stem from deep-seated stereotypes and biases. We fall prey to these judgments even as we try to break free of them, a point Malcolm Gladwell makes convincingly in his recent book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Gladwell focuses on the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which researchers devised to gauge our immediate impressions and to document religious, racial, and gender stereotypes. Thousands of people have taken the IAT tests, and the results are disturbing, if not startling. They reveal, for one thing, that when it comes to gender, most Americans associate women with careers in the liberal arts and men with scientific pursuits. It doesn't help that Harvard President Lawrence Summers recently remarked that women have less “innate ability” in math and science than do men. His comments, which ignited a storm of controversy, and which he later retracted, show just how pervasive stereotypical thinking is.

Cultural filters. A more subtle type of stereotyping, cultural filters allow each of us to view the world in ways unique to our environment and upbringing. The result is that any two people may interpret the same practice or action in very different ways. Eye contact is a prime example. Caucasians, for the most part, think direct eye contact signals honesty and straightforwardness, whereas in many Asian, Hispanic, and Native American communities, it's a sign of disrespect.

The Dangers of First Impressions in an Interview

As Page and Brin prove, first impressions aren't always definitive, because we're often given a second and third chance to get to know someone. But that's not the case in an interview setting, where an interviewer's first impression can seal a candidate's fate before she even answers the first question.

Untrained interviewers are especially prone to snap judgments, deciding in the first few minutes whether a particular candidate is a poor fit or a sure winner. But based on what? Certainly not evidence. Instead, it's more likely the interviewer relied on a gut feeling, and that's risky, considering how often such feelings are tainted by stereotypes and cultural biases. It shouldn't come as a surprise that these gambles usually end up costing the company dearly when the “gut” hire doesn't pan out.

Overcoming First Impressions

Fortunately, there are objective approaches that skilled interviewers can use to avoid the pitfalls of rash judgments. For example, we teach interviewers to expand their cultural comfort zone by describing their initial reaction to the candidate’s behavior, in positive or neutral terms, rather than in negative ones. A simple “That's interesting” keeps you more objective than saying to yourself, “That's weird.”

You can also maintain your objectivity by focusing on three questions. For simplicity's sake, let's use eye contact as an example in each.

1. Is a certain behavior essential to the job?
In some professional roles, especially those that involve customer contact, looking others squarely in the eye is imperative. On the other hand, a hearty handshake and piercing gaze probably aren't important for a techie who writes code all day.

2. Is it unique to the situation?
Many people exhibit some nervous tics when they're under the microscope in an interview, and one of the most common of these is lack of eye contact. But you can help prevent this by building proper rapport with a candidate and avoiding a stress interview, both of which help put candidates at ease.

3. Is it a teachable quality?
If eye contact is an essential part of a job, most people can learn to make it part of their professional, if not their private, behavior.

Sometimes our assessments are exactly right, but all too often, they're based on erroneous first impressions. We help interviewers learn how to assess candidates fully—how, in effect, to read the whole book, not just the title page. And that extra reading might just prevent a googol-sized mistake.