Four things employers decide about you in four seconds

First impressions: Four things employers decide about you in four seconds

Peter Harris|

Mere seconds. That’s all the time it takes for employers to decide four critical things about you as soon as you walk through the door. These almost pre-reflective assumptions can set the mood of the rest of your job interview – and they can be hard to turn around.

This is because when we first encounter a new face, our brains decide whether the person is attractive and trustworthy almost instantly.

“The link between facial features and character may be tenuous at best, but that doesn’t stop our minds from sizing other people up at a glance,” says Princeton University psychologist Alex Todorov in a recent study. “We decide very quickly whether a person possesses many of the traits we feel are important, such as likeability and competence, even though we have not exchanged a single word with them. It appears that we are hard-wired to draw these inferences in a fast, unreflective way.”

Eliot Hoppe, a leading expert on body language agrees. Hoppe says that hiring managers, while they may not even be conscious of it, “size up” a candidate for the position, right from the first glance.

And it’s literally a first glance. Says Hoppe, “In the first four seconds of meeting someone, you will have already answered four questions:

    1) Do I like you?
    2) Do I trust you?
    3) Are you safe?
    4) Who do you remind me of?”

“Consider too, that even in a short 20-minute meeting, a person can transmit up to 700 non-verbal signals, and that’s beyond the verbal communication already taking place,” he added.

Your chances of landing the job can be sunk just because you bear a passing resemblance to the bully who used to pick on the hiring manager in high school. That’s how powerful these first impressions and subconscious associations can be.

With that in mind, here are some strategies you can use to give you every chance of acing (or overcoming) that first impression.


    When you first meet your interviewer, smile. Smiling makes a person seem more attractive, sociable and confident, and people who smile more are more likely to get hired and promoted. If the interviewer’s reaction to your face was a negative one, your first defense against that impression is a warm and friendly smile.

    Have a good handshake

    A good handshake is an important part of making a great first impression. A well timed, firm but not aggressive handshake says you are confident, social and professional. A weak, finger-tip or overly-macho handshake can give the impression that you lack confidence or basic social skills.

    Use proper body language

    When it comes to first impressions, your body language goes a long way to demonstrating that you are competent and confident. Sit up straight in your chair with your feet firmly on the floor. Keep your arms at your sides, or use them to make friendly, conversational gestures. Crossing your arms can indicate that you are uncomfortable or possibly hiding something.

    Slouching, fidgeting, and avoiding eye contact can all give the impression that you are uncomfortable, usually from a lack of confidence or of interest in being there.

    Be positive and friendly

    Don’t let the job interview be a one-way interrogation. Turn it into a pleasant dialogue between two interesting people. Likeability matters, hiring managers are going to hire someone whose company they enjoy. Nail the ice breaker. Tell engaging stories. Ask smart questions.

    Show energy and confidence

    Think positive. Thinking and acting confident actually becomes self-fulfilling, making you genuinely more confident in your abilities and in your chances of acing the interview. Since interviewers are looking for someone energetic and enthusiastic about the job, acting like you are, showing them that you are, will help you make the right first impression.

There’s little you can do about those crucial few seconds when the interviewer’s brain makes its subconscious connections, but most job interviews last more than four seconds. That’s your window of time to demonstrate who you really are and what you can do.

“As time passes and you get to know people, you, of course, develop a more rounded conception of them,” said Todorov.


Peter Harris
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Category: Job interviews
  • Leah Sweeney

    Being left-handed is a big disadvantage when I was looking for work as people insist on using the right hand for a handshake. Is there a way around that? I suspect that’s why I had trouble finding work when I was unemployed.

    • Rick Gregory

      concentrate and practice with a friend,don’t let them give you anything until you take with your right hand,do the same with the handshake,practice it with friends,tie your left hand down if you have to.i can relate because I was turned from a lefty to a righty as a kid.i shoot hockey left,golf right and bat left…..

    • Shelley Watkin

      That is the most ridiculous statement I have ever heard! I am left handed and always extend my right arm. There is no such thing as a left handed hand shake. To use that as an excuse in not securing a job is silly

      • Rob lover

        There is when both parties are left-handed.

  • Sandra

    You are missing the color of an applicant’s skin. I find that employers these days like to hire employees who speak without an accent and who are white.

    • Cortalia Ailiosua

      I found the opposite to be true. Since everyone fears the “minority exclusion” coming back to bite them, when given the option between the two typically the person who isn’t Caucasian gets the job. Especially true in sales positions since it makes them more appealing to the “minority” that is hired.

      • Maco

        You must go and tell this to the marines, although you might be right for low level jobs but certainly NOT for high or higher level jobs. How many people of colour do you see in high places in Canada?

        • N_Y_Moss

          Canada is historically a country with a predominantly white/European population; it has become a more “diverse” society relatively recently. It is not the job of current and long time Canadian residents to make room at the top for recent arrivals, and it is certainly no indication of a negative bias that “people of colour” are not seen in “high places”.

          • DH

            I think your definition of “relatively recently” is perhaps different from most others. To ignore the systemic limitations (instituted by white/Europeans in positions of power) is to pretend that the earth is flat. People might have shifted some beliefs, but have they acted to remove the systemic barriers?

    • Maco

      Very good observation, this is Canada afterall…..racist but extremely pretentious about it

    • Matt

      No no no! Black applicants represent a larger saving even than hiring females.

    • Roustam

      Dear Sandra, could you give me at least one name of job provider who would dare to do such DANGEROUS for her or him thing here in America? If you have been refused, believe me it has NOTHING REALLY NOTHING TO DO WITH A COLOUR OF YOUR SKIN. For example: if you are applying for professor at the university and you have only certificate or diploma as your highest achievement, does it mean that they still have to hire you because that would violate your skin colour? Or if you always cause trouble at work, does mean that they still had to promote you to the manager, because of your skin colour? Or is it because you have nothing else in mind to defend yourself? And don’t you forget who is the president of USA now. Just think about. Peace.

      • smscamp

        And the Jessie Jackson/Al Sharpton non-whites are still screeming racism and blaming the White Man for all that goes wrong, when no one would ever want to hire these types because they have a chip on their shoulder, which seems to be the same mentality of those playing the racism card here

    • Vero

      That is very true. I do agree with you.

    • smscamp

      The vast majority of people who have interviewed me are Women and/or non-White.

      We have employment equity hiring quotas in government and large corporations who are required to hire non-whites regardless if they may be the e.g. 25th qualified on the list.

      Worse, they have to keep them if them if things don’t work out for fear that if let go and having to hire another EE non-White, he or she would be qualified even worse, such as 35th qualified.

      Since such interviewers are often 20/30 somethings, english/french speaking (for federal govt/ontario/NB govt jobs) and university educated, applying the “wanting to hire their own kind” mentality is being followed, it is such age, bilingual and educational similarities that will be favours

    • Kathy

      Really…where I am from if you are “white” probably won’t get you in the door. Most folks are looking for their minority quota!!

    • crglstdk

      Stop making excuses for yourself, There are people of all shapes,sizes and color out their getting good jobs, making the assumption that all the “white” people have an immediate bias is towards others of the same, just shows you have some race issues to deal with yourself. If your the right person for the job , you will get it, regardless of how you look.

  • kali

    its concerns just white and Canadian people, not minority, minority destination is in the recycling manufacture, right now i will turn back home

    • kali

      Good riddance lol

  • Jan

    The real problem in this country and North America for that matter is that regardless of the issue, whether it be racism, corruption, waste, the environment, people only speak up and address issues on comment threads, as if somehow anonymously making your point is going to improve things. It’s been years since I’ve seen an engaging conversation on a comment thread. I think they’re a disservice to us all now since they accomplish what they were intended for. They would do everyone a favour by disabling all comment sections. Maybe people will start having real, intelligent conversations about issues.

    • Kathy

      Really…just like the one you are ‘trying’ to have???

  • Gina

    I find today age discrimination is the most common, especially against women over 40/45.
    Yet depending on te person some people at 50 have more energy than the unfit smokers in their 20’s

    • Tony

      “Yet depending on te person some people at 50 have more energy than the unfit smokers in their 20’s”.
      Unless you are applying for a high-school gym coach, I don’t see how you are right. I wish i have the energy and the eager to learn that I had in my 20’s

      • Kate Shaw

        This is especially true if the HR person who interviews you is more than 20 years younger than you are. I was asked to explain to two twenty-somethings why I had majored in Victorian History and Literature. I explained that the Victorians were at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution and that society had made a major sea-change during that time, much as it is doing now. I might as well have been speaking Swahili.

  • TS

    You can also get discriminated when you are gay, trans or lesbian. Even if you dressed the part, are qualified and you impressed them during the interview: if they don’t like you, they won’t hire you.

  • Carlos A

    Really, A war criminal?! I think you have him mixed up with Bush & Chaney!!