First impression bias is the primary cause of most hiring mistakes. Why? Because when we feel good about someone right away, we tend to ask easier questions. And when we feel negative right away, we ask more difficult questions. In other words, we look (often subconsciously) to confirm our first impression.

This is the primitive friend vs. foe reaction taking place every day in the interviewing room. As a result of focusing on the candidate’s presentation over their performance, we often hire people who underperform and avoid hiring people with weaker presentation skills who are top performers. This double negative impact is summarized in the grid below.

The negative impact of overvaluing presentation skills

So, how do you fix this? Start by switching the decision process from presentation to performance. In this case, the red arrow is horizontal rather than pointing down. You’ll be amazed at how simple it is to make this change and how important. Here’s how you do it:

1. Conduct a phone interview first

Bias is reduced dramatically by avoiding the visual impact of first impressions. A phone screen naturally shifts the focus toward work history and major accomplishments. As part of the phone screen, find out why the person changed jobs and if the change was successful, and dig into the projects and the teams the person was assigned to and if these teams or projects are growing in scope and importance. If the above is positive and you invite the person for an onsite interview, you’ll be less impacted by your first impression of them.

2. Script the opening of the interview to increase objectivity

When starting an interview, don’t make a yes or no hiring decision for at least 30 minutes. This overcomes the tendency to ask people we like questions to falsely confirm their ability and people we don’t like questions to falsely prove their incompetence. The appendix to The Essential Guide for Hiring and Getting Hired has a complete set of sample scripts that cover the first 30 to 60 minutes of the interview.

3. Use reverse logic to reprogram yourself during the interview

Our natural biology kicks in when meeting anyone for the first time. The friend vs. foe response causes us to be more relaxed and open-minded with those we like and uptight and close-minded when meeting those we don’t. Counteracting this first impression bias starts by recognizing that it’s occurring and then doing the exact opposite of what comes naturally. In this case, we should give the benefit of the doubt and be more open-minded with people we tend not to initially like and be more skeptical with those we do. This way everyone is evaluated objectively.

4. Shift your point of view 180 degrees

Assessing team skills before individual strengths is another way to minimize the impact of first impression bias. You can do this by first conducting a work history review and asking this team-related question followed by the fact-finding questions shown below:

Can you please describe a major recent team accomplishment?

  • Who was on the team and what roles did they each play?
  • When did the project occur and what was your assigned role? How did this role change during the project?
  • How did you get on the team and did you select any of the team members?
  • What were the objectives of the team and were they met?
  • What was your biggest contribution to the team? How were you recognized formally for this?
  • Who did you influence the most? Did you coach anyone? Did anyone coach you?
  • Did you receive any formal recognition, such as an award, promotion, or being assigned to a more important team, for being on this team?

On its own, this type of question and fact-finding reveals a lot about the team skills of the person being interviewed. If you ask a similar question for a few other major team accomplishments over different timeframes, you’ll be able to observe the growth rates of the candidate’s team projects.

This trend provides tremendous insight about the candidate. Growth in the size, scope, scale, and importance of the team indicates they’re respected and trusted by senior people in the company. How and why the person got selected confirms work quality, reliability, culture add, and ability to deal with customers, vendors, and executives and provides insight into whether the person has developed a cross-functional and strategic perspective.

5. Measure first impressions at the end of the interview

Whether the impact of first impressions is important for on-the-job success or not, it’s important to assess it when you’re not being seduced by it. At the end of the interview, ask yourself objectively whether the candidate’s first impression will help or hinder on-the-job performance. If you can wait that long, you’ll discover that in many cases your negative reaction to a candidate is due to the person’s temporary nervousness or something equally unimportant. In other cases, you’ll discover that the candidate who left such a strong first impression faded when put to closer scrutiny.

Delaying the yes/no decision for 30 to 60 minutes and asking everyone the same questions will help increase objectivity and reduce hiring mistakes. And by assessing team skills first you’ll quickly understand if the candidate is a top performer or not and why. This is how you confidently avoid hiring people you shouldn’t and hiring those you should.