Copy the Marines? Halos and Horns

A large number of readers recently rushed in to confirm that military hires were “slam-dunk” employees. Almost every story was backed with a personal anecdote and criticism was branded downright unpatriotic.

I spent a few years in the military and have the highest respect for those who put their lives on the line. I encourage every employer, if given a choice between two equally qualified candidates, to hire the vet.

However, assuming a person is job-qualified because he or she was in the military can seriously affect recruiting decisions. This is a human judgment error.


Human beings make sweeping conclusions every day based on virtually no data. In lay terms, this is called either the “halo” (when an entire assumption is based on one positive trait) or the “horns” effect (when an entire assumption is based on one negative trait). Advertising companies throughout the world are masters at using halos and horns.

Halos occur every time a company puts a celebrity in front of a camera. For example, Catherine Zeta-Jones tells us her cell phones are great while Sam Waterstone recommends investment advisors. I have no idea if Catherine Zeta-Jones even knows how to open a flip-phone or if Sam Waterstone can do basic math. Nevertheless, because Catherine is beautiful and Sam is incredibly credible, halos encourage us to assume they are also phone and financial experts.

Recruiters and hiring managers are influenced by halos as soon as they form a subjective opinion about an applicant. Think about the first-impression rule. The interviewer assumes that because the applicant looks good, sounds good, or is tall, he or she is job-skilled (cue Ethel Merman’s rendition of “Everything is Coming Up Roses”). The halo force is so strong that we forget there’s no substantial evidence to support our opinion. But that doesn’t make any difference. Right or wrong, never in doubt!


“Horns” is over-focusing on the negative. It happens when we see one typo on a resume and conclude the candidate must be illiterate.

Horns are popular tools among political spin doctors as well, but the important thing to know about horns is a little bit of negative information can be just as misleading as a little bit of positive.

On the Job

If you’re a recruiter who only sources candidates and is totally unconcerned with skill qualifications, then the effect of halos and horns on your decisions is unimportant.

However, if you make recommendations about whether a candidate has job skills, and expect to be paid for your professional expertise, then you cannot afford to make sweeping generalizations based on halos and horns. Doing so means unqualified people will be hired and qualified applicants will be turned away.

Let’s examine “halo” in a military context.

To listen to some people, military people are characterized by discipline, character, and leadership. These are all admirable qualities. But the military job I had was also characterized by rigorous physical demands; high turnover; critical and often life-threatening tasks; a massive influx of inexperienced people; following orders; sacrificing anything to complete the mission; a set of standard operating procedures for everything; and severe penalties for disobedience.

It’s a good idea to remember the predictive accuracy of past performance is highest when it resembles future performance. That is, the greater the difference, the more opportunity to make a mistake. Past experience in the military is a highly accurate predictor for future performance?in the military. If an honorable discharge was all one needed for job success, every veteran would be a captain of industry.

Does military experience ensure job success? Nope. Job skills do.

Be careful. Past experience is a sand-trap of halos and horns. It only becomes trustworthy when the hiring manager or recruiter can translate “skills used in the ABC job” into “skills needed for the XYZ job.”

Other Halo and Horns Assumptions

Making wrong-headed halo assumptions extends beyond the military.

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Consider athletics. Hire me an athlete! I want everyone to have a winning attitude around here. And, by the way, hire a few cheerleaders, too. We need some pep! Halo suggests an enthusiastic athlete would also make a good employee. It’s a good thing to wake up and smell the testosterone!


Top athletes are select people with extraordinary physical coordination and competitive drive to win at any cost. They are not so much “team” players as they are individuals who play on a team (that old “halo” thing again).

As almost any professional athlete knows, competition for slots on any serious team is cutthroat. Would you enjoy working in a company where every associate was hired for their cutthroat competitive drive?

But don’t let the horns encourage you to turn away athletes, either. Athletic ability does not ensure job success. Job skills do.

Silly Assumptions

Halos and horns come in all shapes and sizes. I once knew a boss who would only hire people with favorable astrological charts; one who would not hire anyone who drove a VW bug to the interview; one who would not hire an applicant who parked his service truck between the white lines; and a sales manager who would not hire an applicant unless he or she asked for the job during the interview. The list goes on.

Does astrology, auto preferences, parking preferences, or interview behavior ensure job success? Nope. Job skills do.

What to Do? What to Do?

Recruiters and hiring managers are hired for their ability to make good hiring decisions. That is, hiring decisions that are correct most of the time. And they use tests all the time. People are considered (or not) based on resumes, application forms, and interviews. The problem with each of these tools is they have a hearty portion of subjective opinion, and subjective opinion is affected by halos and horns.

Professional musicians often audition behind curtains. Sound weird? This practice helps the conductor focus on the music, not the person. For all they know, the violinist behind the curtain could have one big eye in the middle of their forehead (no offense to members of the Cyclops family) or look like Jessica Alba. It’s the music that is important.

“Behind the curtain” recruiting and hiring manager tools include converting job requirements into lists of measurable competencies, using behavioral interview technology, and validated tests designed to predict job performance such as simulations, cognitive ability tests, technical knowledge tests, and so forth. Oh, yes, and be sure to follow the MTMM method.

That’s nuts! It’s too hard!

Think of it this way: you only have to follow them if you care about making an accurate hiring decision. You can always fall back on halos and horns.


6 Comments on “Copy the Marines? Halos and Horns

  1. Dr. Williams,
    Kudos for this article. Hopefully you will not get much fallout from this especially during this turbulent time.

    The military is made of folks of all kinds, good, bad, brave, not so brave, weak and strong.. Having spent over 10 years as a military dependent I met people I would trust with my life, and there were some, I would not want to meet in a dark alley, under any circumstances.

    Great Post!
    ‘There is something that is much more scarce, something rarer than ability. It is the ability to recognize ability.?
    Robert Half

  2. Showing my military expereince (10 years USMC) on my resume landed me in IT Placement and Contract Services. I never had a minute of experience in this field before my hire. Granted, my boss has a tender heart for Marines, and we feel certain that is what prompted her to contact me. After 2 years in my position, we look at my resume, and at the job description and chuckle. She declares she doesn’t know why she called me to begin with, but is so glad she did. I’ll just put it down to the Marines, and maybe a halo.

  3. Great article Dr. Williams. You certainly made some excellent points. There is some research that suggests that many hiring decisions are made within 5 minutes of an interview, mostly based on the halos and horns argument. Not to say that an offer is made, but the remainder of the process is just a ratioanlization of the expected outcome.

    I do have one comment though. The best indicator of Job Success is Job Match, not just skills. Job match, determined by thinking styles, behaviors, and interests. I have all the skills needed to be a dishwasher, but I sure wouldn’t be successful at it.

    Thanks for the great article.

    Michael Stone

  4. While I appreciate Dr. Williams finer point of caution against a poor decision making process I must make a counterpoint to the ‘Horn’.

    As a Marine and a recruiter who has made a living placing transitioning military technicians and officers for the past 7 years in addition to a successful track record of engineering retained search I have experience to speak from. I have seen the military veteran fail with equally shocking disappointment as when my star retained search candidate, a Mechanical Engineer from MIT with a Harvard MBA, was fired. Failure happens.

    First one should never make a decision to hire based simply upon the school attended or the branch of service a candidate was in or even the fraternity they joined in school. I agree with that yet we have all seen it happen.

    One should make note of the fact that during training in the U.S. Military our young college graduates are pushed to the point of utter failure in order to learn extremely valuable leadership lessons. They are thrust into impossible situations in order to develop the kind of cool headed mentality that is required when the world is falling apart around them. Not entirely unlike a firefighter who runs in to the burning building when everyone else is running out.

    These alone are not qualifications for any job other than the one they have been doing. The qualifications come from the actual management of operational assets and resources in these haried environments. The education comes from well respected schools like West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy. The enlisted technicians receive top notch training in Nuclear Power Production, Electronics and Computer Systems troubleshooting and a whole host of other mechanical, operational, and logistics issues which are faced on a daily basis with a level of criticality far beyond the value of the ledger.

    It is important to recognize that the current level of technology in todays U.S. Military rivals that of the most technologicly advanced office in Corporate America. The skills and experience to keep the machine running are directly transferable and in addition you get the intangible traits of a cool headed and focused leader who has been successful at navigating one of the toughest training environments there has ever been.

    Don’t hire them just because they’ve been in the U.S. Military. Interview them; hire them if they are qualified.

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