The Halo Effect: The Tall People Are Coming for You and Your Gut Feeling

“Well, Beth, I just don’t know. I just didn’t get that gut feeling about the candidate,” the hiring manager said. I teach behavioral interviewing skills to my hiring managers, on a consistent basis. This manager has yet to attend one of my classes. It was Friday afternoon, and all I could think of was myself on the stand, defending this hiring manager’s gut. “Wow, you know what, Mr. Hiring Manager?” I thought. “It’s an interview, not a date. Your gut is irrelevant.” That’s when it hit me. Let’s call it what it is. An interview is a first date. It’s a courtship to determine whether both parties would consider making a commitment to each other. The sizing up, the smiling, the nodding, the personal questions, the best foot forward ó essentially, both parties present their best, in hopes that the other party will be enticed. It’s biology at its finest. We’re working against millions of years of hard-wiring here, folks. We are equipped with cognitive boxes that guide our impressions, making people appear much more consistent than they are. Female birds choose the most brightly colored male they can find when it’s time “to interview.” (Coincidently, so do sales managers, but I digress)? It’s biology, as Dr. Wendell Williams eludes to in an ERE article from March 2001, when he says its “in our genes.” The trouble with introducing biology into the interviewing process (i.e., “gut feelings”) is that gut feelings enter the gut via the cerebrum. And the EEOC doesn’t care about your brain or your gut. While candidates are on their best behavior, hiring managers are busy looking for ways to justify their 30-second opinion of the candidate. Nemesis and antithesis of effective interviewing, thy name is Halo! The Halo Effect “Halo,” by loose definition, is a complete positive impression formed quickly about a person (first date or first interview, it doesn’t matter which) based on initial positive characteristics. It involves jumping to conclusions: beautiful = good, tall = competent. You get the idea. Immortalized in article after article, the halo effect is associated with rater bias ó thus it’s the application to interviewing. In the 1920s, Edward Thorndike asked army officers to rate their subordinates in intelligence, physique, leadership and character, without the benefit of conversation with any of them. What do you know, the taller, the more culturally attractive, etc., were rated as the “superior soldiers” and the more “intelligent of the bunch.” There is some argument to the self-fulfilling prophecy of this scenario (Aronson, 1990), but its beyond the scope of this article. In 1946, Solomon Asch detailed “impression formation.” Briefly, the product of a person’s perception is a unified impression. In other words, impressions go beyond the information given. We readily build an elaborate personality, assigning traits and work ethic, from little more than a 30-second meeting. But even knowing this, we can’t stop it. Think I’m kidding? It’s extremely profitable. The nature of marketing is halo. It’s at the heart of all brand imaging. Mr. Brilliant Basketball Player and all-around nice guy drinks Brand X soda. Brand X soda must be good. You buy Brand X soda. It works to the tune of millions of dollars paid to athletes, movie stars, singers, and others. And we justify this all in less than 30 seconds. As it turns out, questions surface concerning Mr. Brilliant Basketball Player’s nice guy image. Suddenly, no one wants Brand X soda associated with Mr. Brilliant Basketball Player’s image, and he’s out a couple million. Halo, my friends. The only anecdote to human nature is knowledge. Knowledge is transferred in the corporate environment (we hope) by training. Numerous studies have shown training can reduce rater error in interviewing situations (Latham, Eexley and Purcell, 1975). Given the costs associated with poor hiring decisions and turnover (roughly, double the salary plus benefits) we owe it to our bottom lines to make as good a hiring decision as possible. The appropriate training to aid us in the defense of our nature already exists. It’s behavioral interviewing. Behavioral Interviewing Don’t roll your eyes! If you are an ERE reader on a regular basis, you know it’s a common mantra. Forty percent of Fortune 500 companies use behavior-based interviewing. (Bell, 02). They do this because it reduces rater bias, plain and simple. As with most things in human nature, halo can be used for good or evil. While we are fighting diligently against our nature, the tall candidates on the other side of the table are working to indulge it. IM (impression management) is a business (Journal of Management, Jan 02). IM is defined as an “attempt to portray a particular (positive) image of oneself to a target person” (Schlenker, 1980). Candidates who lull us into making a positive decision on their behalf use these tactics. Social exchange (or extraversion and agreeableness), the appearance of candidate similarity to the interviewer (“oh, you play golf, too?”) and nonverbal cues, such as nodding and smiling, are used to win the job. An ACAP counselor suggests practicing your body language in front of a full-length mirror. A college website details “tools” to win the position, including mirroring the behaviors and movements of the recruiter. Speaking at the same rate of speed and moving in a manner similar to the recruiter are suggested. (By the way, if you’ve ever been in an interview like this, I have one word for you: creepy.) There’s even a book, “The Halo Effect: How Volunteering Can Lead to a More Fulfilling Life and a Better Career.” In it, the author (who is, by the way, a recruiter) suggests how volunteering can advance your career by demonstrating how charitable you are. If you show similar interests as the interviewing manager, more the better (this must be why people keep telling me about their scouting troop). Even cross culturally this phenomenon is discussed. The Hindu, India’s largest newspaper, ran an article recently telling interviewing readers how to dress, shake hands, and sit. “When your visual message is positive,” the article stated, “the person you’ve just met will tend to assume that all other aspects or you are equally positive.” News flash: Candidates lie. Candidates are Machiavellian (morality is irrelevant, in obtaining power or the desired objective), especially in this economy. And the higher up the food chain you go, the more belligerent it becomes. Behavioral interviewing will reduce your applicant’s faking. Its tough to lie in a behavioral interview. If you don’t believe me, give me a call and we’ll conduct one. As Lou Adler has mentioned on a variety of occasions, it’s not perfect, but it’s the best solution we have. Don’t introduce more error, or succumb to the well-thought-out dance of a candidate. Remember, you’re dealing with biology here. Hiring managers and candidates will manipulate you, if they can. Making yourself aware of this by involving yourself in behavioral interviewing will prepare you for this interaction. (Plus, you can use it on a date, but that’s another article.) I realize you’re emotionally attached to interviewing, even though it’s the worst possible method to choose new hires. But ignore your gut and ask candidates about a specific situation, for the love of Pete! “Most people hire people they like, rather than the most competent person. Research shows that most decision-makers make their hiring decisions in the first five minutes of an interview and spend the rest of the interview rationalizing their choice.” ó Orv Owens, Psychologist, NYT.

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Beth Minter is the Director of Talent Acqusition at Emdeon, formerly WebMD, in Nashville. Previously, she has held corporate recruiter positions at Dell and Sprint. She holds a M.S. from Emporia State University.

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4 Comments on “The Halo Effect: The Tall People Are Coming for You and Your Gut Feeling

  1. Keep hammering home the point…but the reason is more insidious than halo effects. As noted in other posts on this topic, read anything by Paul Meehl, especially his 1954 book on the Clinical/Statistical Problem.

    The biggest problems with purely cognitive interviewing (or as Martin Snyder writes, ‘selection monomania’) revolve around knowledge and belief systems: Thinking that one knows more about a topic than they do (ever challenge a technology recruiter who was never a scientist or an engineer about their ability to ‘know’ a great scientist or engineer when they see one?) and their belief that intuition works (sometimes I think we’re working with a deeply seated oedipal-like complex here – rather than being in love with Mom, being in love with her intuitive ESP-like abilities).

    Here’s a newsflash – behavioral interviewing alone is ‘dangerous’ in the hands of a novice (there’s a reason 8 year olds aren’t issued drivers licenses.) So what should one do?

    Recognize the problem – let your Mom go (not literally). Recruiters are human but their impact is very financial (try and compute, as Stephen Dowdell has, the cost of bad hires…or the cost of a bad date). Learn more about the real science behind selection and assessment rather than waving it off with your gut (no one is impugning your gut). Then figure out ways to augment behavioral approaches with cognitive techniques that are good for hiring the best.

    Just as it may take some time for commercial planes hosting hundreds of people to fly without pilots (yes, the technology is proven but humans still love the warm fuzzies of knowing that when they hear ‘This is your Captain speaking’ it really is their Captain flying the plane), it may take some time for recruiters to try new things.

    But convergent validity, as Martha might say, is a good thing. And you’ll never be indicted for it.

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  2. Nice work, Beth. Halo is one of the genetic biases that haunt all human beings. Our brain teaches us how to shortcut desision-making without processing all that ‘pesky’ data. Halo is especially alive and well among the ‘I-know-em-when-I-see-em’ crowd.

    However, I would not want readers to assume that knowing professional questioning techniques is the be-all-and-end-all of interviewing. It does make interviewers sound much more professional than asking, ‘If you were not a bird, what kind of turtle would you be and why?’

    But, we have to remember that interviews are just another form of test question –it makes no difference if you ask, ‘Tell me about your most difficult problem. What was it? What did you do? What was the result?’ than if you wrote the same words on a sheet of paper. It’s a test!

    About a year after people learn BE, the good ones start asking. ‘I gather complete BE’s, but I don’t know how to evaluate them’. This is the first sign of enlightenment (contrary to seeing a long tunnel with a bright light at the end, as some folks claim).

    The solution, Young Padua, is interviewers must first know what to look for (this comes from legitimate job analyses). Then, they have to know whether the answer meets job requirements (this comes from line managers). Unfortunatlly, this is where most BE interviewers crash and burn –they master questioning techniques, but not job domain or the target answers! (I guess one of of three is better than zero)

    I even worked for one large company that taught a very good BE program –their own HR people had the same problem! Hah!

    BTW: Simulations help reduce the evaluation problem somewhat. They control the situation, give the interviewer an opportunity to watch the behavior in real time and have a standardized evaluation form. The tighter control makes it more accurate (but less flexible). Incidentally, ‘tell me how you would do XYZ’ is NOT a simulation. A simulation requires demonstrating skills in real time.

    Keep up the good work! Our profession needs all the help it can get.

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  3. Love your style of writing! Good informative article. I have a very small company and have committed this sin more times than I can count! It always led to the most stressful periods of my life because I then had to ‘undo’ what I did and my mistake (and lack of skill) was going to cause someone else serious stress and pain. Thanks for the tips.

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