The First Impression: What's the Big Deal?

A reader wants to know if job seekers are given too much advice on first impressions.

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Suzanne Lucas
Everyone's always pounding into job candidates' heads that first impressions during a job interview are critical. Are they really? I've interviewed people before and often changed my first impressions of them (either positively or negatively) once they started answering questions. Surely, I'm not the only one who won't let a candidate's wimpy handshake, terrific smile, ugly tie, nervous hiccups, or tailored suit completely cloud my judgment about his/her ability to do the job! Is it possible that most of that first impression advice out there is bogus?

Here's the thing with a first impression: You only get one shot at it. (Sorry—old, lame cliché.) Absolutely, I think a bad first impression can be overcome. It's just that it's easier if you don't have one to overcome in the first place.

I had a candidate show up for an interview in a corporate office in a golf shirt and khaki pants. The only thing that could have saved him is if he had flown in and the airlines had lost his luggage. Seriously. That first impression blew his chances altogether. Why? Because at some point that morning he said to himself, I have a job interview this morning. It's at a large company in their corporate headquarters. I think I'll dress casually. It just screamed: This person does not even know how to dress for an interview. How on earth can I expect him to know how to behave in an office?

Maybe he was a genius. Maybe he would have been a perfect fit for the job. Instead, his first impression ruined his chances. (And for the record, he went through four interviews that day and all of us agreed that the outfit was inappropriate.)

The wimpy handshake, terrific smile, or nervous hiccups are totally different, in my book. Unlike choosing to put on a golf shirt for an interview, you don't wake up and say, "I think I'll hiccup when the interviewer appears. That's a great idea!" Wimpy handshake—well, you could work on it, but that also seems to be something that's not a direct choice. Terrific smiling is good, but as someone whose pictures all look like someone is pointing a gun to my head and saying "Smile!" I understand that some people just smile better than others.

My point is, yes, those can be overcome. A winning smile may work against you since so many of our politicians seem to have them, and no one wants to be compared to a political candidate right about now. What you choose to wear can definitely have an influence. But, as long as you don't choose inappropriate clothes, I think you are good. (An ugly tie can be a matter of opinion, but don't go and seek out an outrageous tie just to prove that you aren't being held down by the man, or something foolish.)

But, is all the advice to make a good first impression bogus? I don't think so. A good first impression can only help—a bad one can only hurt. When you are interviewing, you want all the advantage to be on your side. So, dress appropriately, arrive on time, and check your teeth for spinach. Work on that handshake as well.

Suzanne Lucas has nine years of Human Resources experience, most of which has been in a Fortune 500-company setting. She holds a Professional in Human Resources Certificate from the Society for Human Resource Management. She blogs at Evil HR Lady .