People often spend days, even weeks, preparing for job interviews. Candidates tend to focus on studying the prospective employer, asking themselves the questions they think might come up and, of course, choosing what to wear.
Science has found that, no matter how rigorous the preparation, the key decisions about a candidate are made within the first 15 seconds of an interview. Put quite simply, first impressions in interview situations can make or break a candidate’s chances.
It seems unjust to think that a person with all the necessary skills and personality traits might miss out on an opportunity because of their appearance, but evidence suggests this is common. Interviewers might contest the suggestion that they show bias towards candidates who fit a particular image, but they will often do so without knowing they are doing it.
Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist and the author of ‘Straight Talking’ says: “It takes only seven seconds for us to judge another person when we first meet them.
“It’s not a conscious process, so we don’t even realise we’re doing it,” she told the Daily Mail. “It goes back to our primitive roots, when we couldn’t afford to make wrong decisions.”
Numerous scientific experiments on first impressions have suggested that the judgements people make in the first moments after meeting a new person have a lasting effect on their views of them.
A study into first impressions in job interviews, conducted by Frank Bernieri of the University of Toledo in Ohio, saw two participants act as interviewers, having been trained for six weeks on interview techniques.
The pair interviewed 100 people of various backgrounds and filled out an extensive questionnaire on each candidate. Bernieri then studied the candidate’s mannerisms to see if any particular behaviour coincided with interview success. His results were inconclusive.
However, a student approached Bernieri with the suggestion of asking a new set of participants to rate a 15-second video clip of each candidate entering the interview, shaking hands and being greeted by the interviewer. Bernieri took up the idea and the new participants were asked to rate the applicants on the same criteria that the trained interviewers had used.
“On nine out of the 11 traits that the applicants were being judged on, the observers significantly predicted the outcome of the interview,” Bernieri told The New Yorker. “In fact, the strength of the correlation was extraordinary.”
In those first 15 seconds, much is beyond the control of the candidate. But there are some key considerations that could help to make the difference.
Presentation is perhaps an obvious one. Dressing smartly for the occasion at a job interview is par for the course, along with being well groomed.
What might benefit a candidate is to consider the ‘Contrast Effect’ – how to make oneself stand out to an interviewer who may have seen a number of similar candidates. This could be achieved in any number of ways, from wearing a distinctive (but tasteful) piece of clothing, to simply looking the interview in the eye when shaking hands – something many people nervously avoid.
The handshake is also a key factor in an interviewer’s decision-making process. Contrary to popular belief, the strength of a handshake is not the most telling factor. Tests suggest that the handshakes that give the most positive impression of a person are those in which palms are comfortably fitted together, rather than one person having to limply shake the others fingers. This is something that can even be practiced prior to an interview.
Another approach is to consider the job role on offer and tailor one’s approach to the interview to fit an imagined ideal candidate for that role. For example, it would be fair to assume that an interviewer seeking a sales specialist will be looking for someone outgoing and confident, and that interviewer will be looking for a candidate to enter the room in that manner. On the other hand, should the interview be for a role as a technician or a researcher, a more collected, studious approach may well be what the interviewer is looking for in a candidate.
Whatever the role and whatever the chosen approach, it is crucial to a candidate’s success in an interview that they start on a positive footing. The rest of the interview remains important, but candidates would be wise not to let that first 15 seconds undermine their performance.