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Candidate characteristics driving initial impressions during rapport building: implications for employment interview validity

American research, June 2012

The Power of For most organisations, it is common practice to administer structured interviews when seeking to hire new employees. Yet unconscious bias can still arise within the decision making process of the potential employer due to unstructured components of the interview, such as rapport building. The ability of a candidate to make a good initial impression on the interviewer could have a lasting impact throughout the interview. As such, the ratings a candidate receives during the structured interview may not be reflective of just their responses to the specific questions, but also of the more immeasurable quality of being able to generate good rapport. Rapport building then, can be a powerful source of bias in the interview stage of the recruitment process.

The researchers (Professor Murray R. Barrick, Assistant Professor Susan L. Dustin, Assistant Professor Tamara L. Giluk, Professor Greg L. Stewart, Assistant Professor Jonathan A. Shaffer and Research Assistant Brian W. Swider) found that candidates who express certain characteristics during the rapport building stage of the interview can positively influence their performance ratings, regardless of whether such characteristics are relevant to the job or not.

Aim

The aim of this research was threefold: firstly, to determine the relationship between initial impressions of the candidate and the interviewer’s hiring decision during a structured interview; secondly, to scrutinise the content of the unstructured initial exchange between candidate and interviewer (i.e. rapport); and thirdly, to pinpoint the characteristics of a candidate which drive more favourable initial impressions.

Method

A job interview environment was simulated using a structured interview encompassing behavioural questions and rating scales, with the intent of testing for nine key competencies: work ethic, drive for results, planning and organising, analysis and judgment, communication, interpersonal skills, teamwork, adaptability and motivational fit. The initial rapport building section of the interview was verbally established, with interviewers being instructed to introduce themselves and inquire about the candidate’s background.

The interviewers comprised 62 business professionals, and the candidates were 135 undergraduate students (n=130, five candidates had incomplete data) participating in practice interviews. Each interview was 30 to 45 minutes in duration, and each candidate was interviewed by two different interviewers.

The authors proposed several key hypotheses, including:

  1. Interviewer initial impression ratings obtained during rapport building are positively related to interviewer evaluations provided during the structured portion of the interview
  2. Extraverted candidates receive higher interviewer initial-impression ratings during rapport building
  3. Candidates who have greater verbal skill receive higher ratings from the interviewer during rapport building
  4. Relationships between candidate characteristics and interviewer evaluations during the structured portion of the interview are mediated by initial impressions formed during rapport building.

Findings

The key findings confirmed that:

  1. Initial impressions made during rapport building influence the interviewer’s evaluations during the structured interview
  2. Extraversion and verbal skill are significantly correlated with initial impressions
  3. Interviewer evaluations of the structured component of the interview were impacted by the initial impressions formed during rapport building.

By showing that interactions in the unstructured portion of the interview have an impact on the interviewer’s ratings, the authors demonstrated that not only do non-assessed interview components such as rapport building play a part in the recruitment process, but also that interviewers can make quick, intuitive assessments during the first moments of an interview that have a lasting impact on their judgment of candidates.

The analysis of the characteristics which contribute to initial impressions revealed extraversion to be the most significant factor, which is in keeping with expectations since extraverted candidates tend to have stronger interpersonal skills.

Implications

For jobs where extraversion and verbal skill are not directly relevant, initial impressions may introduce unconscious bias into the decision making process, because these characteristics influence the interviewer’s judgments of job relevant skills, which is how a positive first impression could stand as a proxy for the hiring decision. Rapport is instrumental in creating this unconscious bias, which is why the unstructured portion of the interview should be a focal point in improving the robustness of the recruitment process.

The authors recommended bypassing the unstructured portion of the interview, which removes the opportunity for candidates to build rapport. However, they acknowledge the likelihood of this being effective is debatable as initial impressions can be made almost instantly, even during a structured interview.

A more direct way of reducing such bias could be to formally evaluate the job related characteristics of a candidate immediately following rapport building, to prevent initial impressions from influencing the structured portion of the interview. The authors note, however, that the predicative validity of ‘speed interviewing’ has yet to be determined.

Finally, the most effective solution could also be the most basic: interviewers should be informed about the potential for initial impressions to impact their structured interview ratings, and how they can best account for that when making their hiring decisions. While this may not eliminate the bias, being aware of the potential bias and the characteristics (such as extraversion) most likely to create a bias allows the interviewer to better manage their reactions. Strategies for mediating the potential bias may differ from person to person, for example some may prefer to reduce the rapport building time frame, while others may prefer to factor it in by scaling their ratings of the competencies throughout the interview.

To read the full article, see Barrick M.R., Dustin S.L., Giluk T.L., Stewart G.L., Shaffer J.A., Swider B.W. (2012) “Candidate characteristics driving initial impressions during rapport building: implications for employment interview validity”, Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, Vol. 85, No. 2 (2012), pp. 330-352.

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