July 29, 2016

How can HR prevent the halo vs horns effect from creating tension at work?

Heard of the halo horns effect trap? It’s a cognitive bias in which a person’s perception of another person, group of people, company, brand or product determines how they view everything about them – their actions, behaviours, characteristics and beliefs.

It’s pretty self explanatory what the two extremes stand for, but let’s run through them anyway, concentrating on the people aspect, rather than companies, brands or products. The halo effect means you are predisposed to think well of a person, to attribute good qualities to them and view their actions and characteristics in a positive light. The horns effect means quite the reverse – you have a negative impression of them and always assume the worst.

Typically, us humans make snap judgements about people very soon after we meet them. Even before we meet them sometimes. These judgements determine whether a person falls into the halo (angel) or horns (devil) category. As they say, first impressions count.

However, this way of judging and pre-judging people can have profound implications in the workplace.

Think of recruitment. Say an interviewee turns up and they have a tattoo and the interviewer doesn’t like tattoos. That could tip them into the horns effect, without the interviewer even realising it’s happening. Or the interviewee trips up on an early question and that colours how the interviewer views the rest of the conversation, even if the interviewee actually acquitted themselves very well for the rest of the interview.

Pre-judging someone in a positive light is also a risky business as it can cloud judgement. If the interviewee gets off to a good start or they come highly recommended by someone else, it’s very easy for the interviewer to not be sufficiently exacting in their questioning or to make assumptions that turn out to be incorrect.

This halo horns problem isn’t only confined to the recruitment process however. It can affect how we view and treat colleagues, associates, employees, employers – every one in fact – on a daily basis. Cognitive biases mean that some employees can get away with being late on assignments or underperforming just because they have the halo effect around them. While others find that their work is constantly under scrutiny or they don’t get put forward for stretch assignments because the perception is that their work is never up to it.

What can HR do about this? How can it prevent the halo horns effect from creating prejudicial behaviour. With regards to recruitment, there is a lot that can be done to try to minimise the halo horns lens. Those conducting the interviews need to be aware of their own biases, for example, so that they can guard against snap judgements. HR needs to work with line managers, those in charge of junior employees right up to very senior level managers, to look at cognitive biases – where they come from, what they represent and how they can cloud judgement.

Having a structured interview process also helps, one that assesses candidate’s competencies. HR and those involved in the recruitment process must strive to remain as objective as possible.

It’s the same once a candidate is taken on. Give everyone the chance to shine, judge them on their performance and try not to let preconceived ideas determine their every step.