Why hiring managers must look beyond first impressions to find the best employees

In his new book, professor Alexander Todorov explores the significance of snap judgments. Here's why taking a deeper look at potential employees can result in a bigger payoff for hiring managers.

Image: Alexander Todorov

In the business world, it's no secret that appearance matters. From posting your best profile photo on LinkedIn to assembling a professional wardrobe for job interviews to donning your sharpest suit for a client meeting, it's widely understood among professionals that first impressions carries weight.

But just how much weight?

According to Alexander Todorov, psychology professor at Princeton University, a quick glance makes us instantly differentiate between "who looks like a good guy and who looks like a bad guy." In his new book, Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions, Todorov argues that we make "too much out of too little information"--and that this carries serious consequences.

Todorov's research shows that people form quick impressions--within milliseconds--about a person's character based on their appearance. Not only that, but we all (mostly) come to the same conclusions. And these conclusions play into how we respond to someone in the workplace.

So, how can business leaders overcome bias in hiring and promotion? TechRepublic spoke to Todorov about some important factors to consider when making decisions about potential employees.

Do your homework

Todorov conducted a series of experiments that showed that impressions of a candidate's face mattered in elections. Political candidates that had facial features that made them appear more trustworthy, in other words, were more likely to be deemed fit for leadership. This finding was not influenced by prior knowledge of a candidate's background. And, in fact, the less people knew about a candidate's history, the more likely they were to rely on quick judgments. "It really works for those who know next to nothing about politics," said Todorov. "These are the guys who are really influenced by appearance."

The takeaway? Learn as much as possible about someone's actual qualifications before making a decision about whether they would be a good fit for a position.

Understand gender and racial bias

Faces alone don't predict our impressions--race and gender are also important factors. And, in many ways, those characteristics can supercede the power of the face.

"The moment you categorize the person as belonging to a specific gender or a specific race," said Todorov, "all kinds of stereotypes come into play that might change the nature of the impression."

Unfortunately, since the sample sizes for female and African-American CEOs are so small, it's difficult to do research in this area. Still, when African-American CEOs were studied, it turned out that "they tend to have more baby-faced appearance," said Todorov. "The story is that this kind of goes against the African-American stereotype. You need to have a particular face as an African-American to succeed at this kind of hierarchy or these sorts of positions."

The good news for women, said Todorov, is that feminine faces are perceived as more trustworthy. The bad news? If you are judging for competence, you look for attractiveness, but also masculinity and dominance--features typically attributed to male faces. "That suggests that when it comes to these impressions, on average, there's a hidden gender bias," he said.

Image: Alexander Todorov

Men, said Todorov, can appear trustworthy and dominant, or untrustworthy and dominant. In other words, the two characteristics are unrelated. But women face a unique obstacle: "For women, dominance and trustworthiness are highly negatively correlated," said Todorov. "If you have a dominant-looking woman, people are going to perceive it as untrustworthy.

"Clearly, this is kind of a bad stereotype, right?"

Have an explicit strategy

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is a good case study of how much appearance really matters when judging performance. When blind auditions were introduced in 1952 to increase participation of women in the male-dominated orchestra, almost 50% of the women made it past the first audition. More recent research from the Harvard Kennedy School shows that "the transition to blind auditions from 1970 to the 1990s accounts for a 30 percent increase in the proportion female among new hires and possibly 25 percent of the increase in the percentage female in the orchestras."

Introduce blind audition, said Todorov, and "that suddenly changes the nature of the game, and you have an influx of women." Still, there was a catch--the women had to remove their shoes to avoid stereotyping. As it turns out, even a slight indication of a woman's heels can be enough reason to downgrade her performance.

SEE: 10 tools to help your company improve diversity

In tech, which is notoriously male-dominated, it's more complicated than blind interviews. "It already starts in middle school, where boys are more likely to go into STEM fields, and then the culture would be different that sort of might be more conducive to kinds of male types of behaviors," said Todorov. "But if you want to remove these biases, the best is to judge based on performance."

If you want to recruit women, he said, create an explicit strategy, including a targeted search. Multiple companies have cropped up in recent years offering solutions such as blind coding tasks and anonymous interview capabilities.

"If you're really serious and you're a good employer, and you want to get the best employees," said Todorov, "you need to look beyond appearance."

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