Harris HBR research article

Casual First Questions in a Job Interview Are More Important than You Think

First impressions play an important role in the job interview, but what about those first questions? Dr. Brad Harris researched the impact those seemingly innocent questions have on the outcome.  

October 04,  2016

By Elaine Cole

A Harvard Business Review article, “Should You Chat Informally Before an Interview,” focuses on the research of Assistant Professor of Management Brad Harris and his colleagues, who looked at those seemingly innocuous questions asked at the beginning of a job interview: How is your day going? Isn’t this weather crazy? Did you run into traffic on the way here?

Do these brief, casual, rapport-building questions undermine the structured interview? Or is it possible that they provide useful, job-relevant information that enhances the validity of the interview?

“Interviewers like these rapport-building questions because they believe it helps the candidate loosen up before the high-stakes questioning begins. Both interviewers and job candidates seem to prefer them over cold starts,” Harris said. “We wanted to know if these questions actually provide job-relevant signals or push interviewers toward biased opinions.”

Their research confirmed that first impressions have a significant effect on interviewers.

“Most of what is conveyed in first impressions is related to job-relevant attributes rather than simple and possibly harmful bias,” Harris said. “Even the smallest of pre-interview interactions provide interviewers with abbreviated, albeit meaningful, insights into a candidate’s job prospects, despite HR’s best attempts to wash out all non-structured elements of the employee selection process.”

The effect of first impressions is strongest on the first few formal interview questions, but fades over the course of the interview.

“Even though first impressions definitely matter, interviewers will eventually settle in to a more deliberate scoring system,” Harris said.

Five Things Interviewers, Candidates and Organizations Need to Know about First Impressions

  1. Candidates need to be “on” during all interactions with prospective employers, even the initial chit-chat. What you say early can and will be used against you.
  2. Interviewers need to be aware that some early information may be valid for the job, but there is still a significant part that isn’t. It’s best to save your judgments for the actual interview questions.
  3. Since it may be impossible to cut out the opening chit-chat, organizations might consider standardizing the rapport-building questions, formalizing initial impressions ratings as a control mechanism, or both. Or they could drop the scores on the first few questions of the structured interview, a la polygraph techniques.
  4. First impressions will occur no matter what, so interviewers and candidates might as well be intentional about trying to account for them.

Read the entire Harvard Business Review article here: https://hbr.org/2016/09/should-you-chat-informally-before-an-interview.

“Initial Impressions: What They Are, What They Are Not, and How They Influence Structured Interview Outcomes,” B. Swider, M. R. Barrick and T. Brad Harris, Journal of Applied Psychology¸ 2016.