What is the halo and horn effect and how does it influence hiring?

Joe Caccavale






min read


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Chances are, you’ve probably heard of either the halo effect or the horn effect at some point in your career. Almost all of us are guilty of making snap judgements, particularly in the workplace. Hopefully, over time you will gain a more accurate, well-rounded opinion of your peers. But if these judgements remain unaddressed, they can be a detriment to workplace culture and productivity, as well as leading to biased hiring decisions.

What is the halo effect? 

The term “the halo effect” was coined in the early 1920s by an American psychologist called Edward Thorndike. He astutely noted that 'conventionally-attractive' people tend to be perceived as being competent and successful. Essentially, one redeeming aspect of a person leads us to cast their whole character in an inherently positive light. As a result, any negative characteristics are therefore overshadowed, such poor punctuality and communication skills, or frequently missing deadlines.

What is the horn effect? 

The horn effect is essentially the complete opposite of the halo effect. The horn effect is a cognitive process in which we immediately ascribe negative attitudes or behaviours to someone based on one aspect of their appearance or character. A common example of this is overweight people, who unfortunately are often stereotyped as being lazy, slovenly or irresponsible. Whether it’s how someone looks, speaks or even their body language, hiring managers may quickly have a ‘bad feeling’ about them. 

How does the halo effect affect hiring decisions? 

The halo and horn effect in recruitment is all about first impressions, whether they’re made on paper or when meeting face-to-face in an interview setting. As many of you know, first impressions can be incredibly deceiving and can hinder your objectivity when evaluating a candidate.

An instance that can be used as an example of the halo effect includes how a well-groomed, tall and outwardly confident candidate is more likely to be perceived as intelligent and trustworthy. This elevates that candidate in the mind of the interviewer over the likes of someone who may appear introverted with a less commanding presence, but ultimately is a better fit for the position. 

The consequences of bad hiring decisions work both ways. If someone who assumes a position under the halo, so to speak, isn’t as qualified and proficient as first presumed by an employer, then they can quickly fall out of their depth. Ultimately, hiring someone for a position they are unsuitable for does a disservice to both employers and staff alike. 

What is the halo effect in regards to performance management? 

When managers have a somewhat overly positive view of an employee, it can affect the objectivity of performance evaluations. Some managers may look upon an employee so favourably that they are blind to criticism from colleagues or customers. They will unconsciously overlook bad practice and make excuses for why the favoured candidate is falling behind. It’s important to distinguish the halo effect from concepts such as nepotism and favouritism, which are common examples of conscious bias.  

The halo effect can lead to unfair special treatment in performance appraisals. On the other side of the coin, an overly critical boss who micromanages the ill-favoured employee, will fail to put them forward for advancement or new career development opportunities. 

The halo and horn effect as an example of unconscious bias 

The halo effect is a by-product of unconscious bias. This means hiring managers may wrongfully assume that because a certain individual possesses particular traits they value, they must have many more desirable qualities. A primary example is the ‘similar-to-me effect’, where managers immediately favour an applicant because of shared characteristics, such as a similar educational background. 

The horn effect leads a hiring manager to place a great deal of emphasis on even just one negatively interpreted characteristic, comment, or action. Once this has been identified, there’s very little that the so-called offending candidate can do to reverse the effect. Those in charge of hiring decisions are therefore likely to be harsher in their scrutiny of skills, experience, and overall ability. 

To summarise, whereas the halo effect gives certain candidates an unfair advantage, the horn effect undermines an impartial assessment of a candidate’s skills, merits, and ability.

While unconscious bias comes in many forms, ultimately it’s a pervasive force that once identified in an organisation, is near impossible to consciously rectify. That’s why we decided to create an anonymous recruitment platform

At Applied, we believe that blind hiring is a surefire way to ensure all hiring decisions are made fairly. In our current climate, companies cannot afford to make the wrong hiring decision. That’s why many use blind hiring to help create innovative, passionate and hard-working teams. Get started today by requesting a free trial of the Applied platform.