The halo effect refers to the idea that our overall impression of someone will directly impact how we perceive almost everything they do. If that person has an overall positive impression—a halo as it were—then we’re more likely to perceive everything they do more positively.
The halo effect can be the result of any number of things. It could be as simple as the employee performing a particular task very well very early on in his or her career, creating a lasting good impression. It could be a shared hobby or interest that creates a bond with someone in a position of power. It could be the employee’s attitude or professionalism creates a great first impression. It could be that the employee was recommended to be hired by someone in a position of authority, creating an instant good impression before even meeting the individual.
This is a cognitive bias that we all have—both in the workplace and out. We tend to make quick judgments and decisions based on past experience or limited information. This tendency is good in general, because it helps us navigate daily life, but it can lead to biases that can occasionally lead to unfair treatment. This is why it’s important to recognize biases like the halo effect and the impact they may have in the workplace.
This is an HR issue for multiple reasons, such as:
- Training. This is the type of topic that HR teams can promote for training. Managers, supervisors, and others in positions of authority would benefit from training on how to combat internal biases.
- Biases affect outcomes. HR also needs to know that this and other biases may affect outcomes. Performance reviews may be impacted. Disciplinary proceedings may be impacted. Training, as noted above, can help, but it may not eliminate it—and HR needs to be aware of that.
Here are some other examples of how the halo effect impacts the workplace:
- When some employees are always viewed with a more positive light (the “halo”), that almost by default means that there will be others who are not viewed as positively, even if their actions are substantially the same. This can lead to resentment from those who are not afforded the same benefits, projects, assignments or other perks that come with being a favored employee. In short, the halo effect can damage those who are not in it.
- The halo effect can lead to unfair differences in how employees are treated, especially in disciplinary issues.
- The halo effect also may come into play during the hiring process. If one candidate becomes favored because of it, it could result in the hiring process being biased. It may not be bad for one individual hire, but if there’s a particular trait that is prized above other traits it can lead to less diversity in the workplace and can have a negative impact over time. It could also mean perfectly qualified applicants are overlooked.
- The halo effect can mask problems. For example, if an employee is viewed favorably because of one particular aspect of their performance—such as high sales volume—that may make it less likely that they will be held to the same standard on other important things, like proper communication with other employees or completing their work in a timely manner, etc. It makes it easier to overlook problems that would have been addressed otherwise. This is not only a problem in and of itself, but can also lead to resentment from other employees who are in fact held to specific standards on those other items.
These are just a few examples, making it easy to see how this common cognitive bias can have negative consequences. From an HR perspective, we can train team members to recognize this and other common biases to reduce the chance they will have a negative impact on the organization.