Horn effect: How to overcome a negative bias

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Reylito A.H. Elbo

Reylito A.H. Elbo

TOO many of us are spending money we haven’t earned, buying things we don’t need … only to impress people we don’t like. The same thing can happen when we interview job applicants for some positions in our organization. Too many of us in management spend time doing unnecessary things (like talking too much), talking to people we don’t need… only to impress people we don’t like because we can’t simply control our bias.

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There’s a vast majority of people managers and business owners who think that interviewing people is easy, appearing confident they can make the right hiring decision without being influenced by any unfair bias. As a result, they commit a lot of mistakes. That’s bad news.

There are many serious, deadly sins of conducting bad job interviews. These include not being consistent in asking the “killer” question from one applicant to another, not devoting enough time to the interview, or playing the role of a pseudo armchair psychologist. Aside from this, the greatest sin is focusing on one positive attribute (physical appearance, university where a person graduated, good communication skills, etc.) of a candidate and allowing it to color the overall judgment of the hiring manager. In psychology, this is called the “halo effect.”

Or what if you focused only on one negative perception of a person? For instance, if a job applicant comes in late for the interview or starts off with an undesirable answer to a question, that first impression could be damaging and there could be a good chance you wouldn’t like that person regardless of the presence of other positive attributes. This is aggravated in the job market where supply (hundreds of applicants) is greater than demand (one job opening).

Let me tell you this cute, little story: A little girl was crawling in the grass while her mother was busy working in the family garden. The child found a snail and watched its every move with fascination for quite a long while. She was trying to figure out what kind of animal this was but she hesitated to disturb and ask her busy mother.

And then it happened. The tiny snail raised its feelers. The little girl was now ready to announce her discovery to her mother: “Mommy, come look here! I found a reindeer.”

Many hiring managers are like this little girl who know of the reindeer as a model animal. The same situation describes the “halo” or “horn” bias of a person who is blinded by the snail’s feelers and calls it a reindeer. Then again, we are all human beings who commit mistakes. Therefore, both “halo” and “horn” effects must be avoided at all costs to arrive at an intelligent hiring decision.

Or at the very least, let’s be aware of our tendencies to be dominated by the halo/horn effect and minimize our reliance on it. For lack of space, let’s concentrate on curing the “horn effect.” That, of course requires mastering the art of beating your own negative bias against a certain person, which is more difficult to do than the “halo effect.”

Curing the “horn effect” can be done by asking and rephrasing killer questions designed to help a job applicant redeem himself from your negative impression. Here’s a test case for you: A person is applying for a key position in your organization. There are very few applicants for the job and this applicant shows off his impeccable credentials on his CV.

However, to save time doing the interview, you thought of contacting a friendly unimpeachable insider from the National Bureau of Investigation to tell you about the background of this person. After all, there’s nothing wrong if you put the cart (background checking) before the horse (actual meeting with the applicant).

Bingo! Your NBI friend tells you that the concerned applicant has two bouncing check cases that have been pending before the courts since five years ago. What would you do? Ignore his application right away or proceed giving him the chance to prove his worth by hiring him and ignoring his possible conviction? Before you can even do that, you must check his answer to the question in his application form. What’s his answer to the question – do you have a pending court case or prior conviction?

Here’s another situation. You’re a homophobic. The job applicant, despite his greatest attempt to hide his feminine ways, becomes too obvious for you when you “accidentally” pushed a cup of coffee away from your desk creating a big bang on the floor that elicited a jumpy, vulgar shriek from the “man.”

To prevent the man’s “horn effect” from leading you to a bad judgment, you only have to ask yourself the question: What would prevent this applicant from doing the job? If the answer has no strategic significance, you may want to consider such person if he can prove that he has everything else it takes to counter your bias.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to elbonomics@gmail.com or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random thoughts.

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1 Comment

  1. What i think plays a big part here in hiring someeone is for that person to show subservience. They dont like confidence, you have to know your place. My wife ( a professor of english ) came to england to join me & when applying for a job she couldnt believe the difference in attitude from the interviewer there to here. Here they talk down to you, there they talk to you. Now that is a big difference though here i doubt many will understand it. They expect to be treated as inferior, take politicians when campaigning for office, they throw a few candies ( on the floor ) & all have to fight for those candies. Its a mindset & the philippines needs to change. Like if a foreigner criticises the philippines, their reaction is to stop that person coming to the philippines. & its universally accepted here. When im asked what i think of the philippines & i say its a dirty filthy s*it hole they get upset, but compared to my country thats what it is. Men everywhere will walk outside their houses & wee up the wall then go back inside their house. This is all part of it. Its a mindset that needs to change here.