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First Impressions

Impressive Interview

What advice to give to a job candidate?

Recently, a student asked one of us for advice on job interviews.

She will be graduating from college soon and is actively seeking a position in her area of expertise (finance). She’s applying for jobs and a few firms have already called her for interviews.

One of the bigger companies told her that she would now move onto the next stage and meet one of the department heads who would be managing her if she was hired. Understandably, she was excited and anxious. She would like to land this position.

This is precisely why she asked our advice. She wanted to better assess how the hiring decision would be made and what details she should consider before the meeting.

We shared our perspective with her. Among other things, we advised that she should

- Do some research on the sector, company and the department, trying to understand its strengths and possible issues.

- Think proactively about how she would benefit the company and the department. What would be her contributions to their processes and working environment?

- Come up with questions that are important to her. For example, how does a day or a week of an employee like her look like? Can she talk to some other people who have been in the position before?

We thought that these issues would be valued by a department head in a big company. and thus she would create a positive impression by showing her skills and passion in research, analysis and long-term innovative thinking.

We were wrong.

After the meeting, and by sheer coincidence, we met the department head who interviewed her, at an unrelated event. This was a great opportunity for us to get some feedback on our advice. Luckily, he told us that he was positively impressed. He had decided to hire her.

Good news!

But, what had really prompted him to that decision? We were secretly hoping that our tactics had played a key role. Yet, surprisingly, he hadn’t paid much attention to any of the issues we deemed relevant. Instead, he told us he went almost completely with his gut feelings, which were primarily based on his immediate impressions of her.

Her appearance and behavior during the interview had a much bigger impact than we thought. Was she speaking fluently? Was she nervous, distracted, funny, talkative, polite? How did she shake his hand and did she maintain eye contact?

He ended up generalizing extensively from his short experience with her.

Ultimately, we think that he made the right choice (hiring her), but for the wrong reasons. His gut automatically focused on aspects that don’t necessarily signal a good match between the job and the candidate. He should actually have discounted his immediate experience on how she looked, behaved or shook his hand. He should instead have evaluated more her research, ideas and tangible efforts while making his assessments for a long-term position.

Of course, one could argue that all is well. She was eventually hired. It was a good match and a desirable outcome for all. It doesn’t matter why that decision was made.

Not really…

The department head will now assume that his first impressions are a great guide for his hiring decisions. Moreover, his positive observations on her future performance will reinforce that belief. Overall, his experience will thus teach him that next time he should focus even more on how candidates shake his hand, not less.

More from Emre Soyer, Ph.D., and Robin M. Hogarth, Ph.D.
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