Don’t fall for the illusion of a good first impression

Elena Shalneva
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A receptionist at his desk
You'd be stupid not to be polite to the receptionist (Source: Getty)

"If you want us to invest, don’t upset the receptionist”. Passion Capital founder Eileen Burbidge sets great store by how those seeking investment from her treat the most junior of her employees.

Walt Bettinger, chief executive of Charles Schwab, reportedly takes this even further. He invites prospective hires to breakfast, tips the waiter to provoke them and watches how they “deal with adversity”.

Understanding your potential employees’ personality is as important a part of the interviewing process as verifying their technical skills, they reason, and by observing how people treat waiters and receptionists, you get an indispensable insight into their character.

Except that you don’t. I do not know how stupid one has to be to insult a waiter in front of one’s future boss or, in general, not to pretend to be anything less than a courteous, collegiate, good-humoured individual, the kind of person the boss would happily go for a drink with on Thursday night. People put on a mask to create a good first impression, and we do not even need strong acting skills to pretend to be better than we actually are, as the thrill of landing a new job gives us that extra smoothness.

Eileen Burbidge at Tech Crunch conference
Leading VC Eileen Burbidge thinks manners maketh the man (Source: Getty)

Many years ago, I successfully faked unwavering enthusiasm for a job in fund management, and was hired because my employers were seduced by my apparent admiration for their profession. I had fun pretending during the interviews, even answering daft questions from HR (“how much do you want this job on a scale of one to 10?”) with wide-eyed eagerness, when my natural reaction would have been a sarcastic put-down.

In reality, I thought that fund management was lazy and repetitive, but desperately needed a job. I kept up this cheerful front until the day my probation period was over. I then became moody and uninterested, doing just enough work to get by. HR, which must have been congratulating themselves on their fine character-detecting skills up to that point, were very unhappy indeed.

Read more: How to speak normally in a world of cliches

On a number of occasions, I was on the receiving end of the game, as I fooled myself into thinking that I could tell someone’s personality after a few interviews. This led to disastrous hiring decisions and some of the lowest moments in my career.

I once hired a young woman with no prior experience because she appeared to be someone who would be loyal, cool and keen, the kind of employee you can call on Saturday night out of the blue and she would be in the office in an hour smiling and ready to work.

That’s the part this woman played during the interview process, and she deserved an Oscar. In reality, she turned out to be an inept back stabber, spending her days in the boss’s office snitching. After this experience, I never claimed to know a colleague’s personality until after many years and joint projects together.

Most of us pretend to be better than we are during job interviews, and if exaggerating your CV can have serious consequences (see Andrea Leadsom), there are no known rules against putting on a different persona. And until a crisis happens that puts our personal skills to the test, no one really knows what personality we would display in a job – including, quite possibly, ourselves.

Decent behaviour during the interview process could be a true reflection of someone’s character – or it could be an act, and there is no way of knowing which it is without observing someone in a variety of situations over a long period of time. So hiring staff based on their apparent personality traits is a gamble. Sticking to skills and track record is a far more reliable option.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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