Recruitment & Selection

Impression Management Use and Effectiveness in Employment Interviews

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Almost every organization uses an interview for making employment decisions. Hiring managers, and others conducting interviews are well aware of interviewee use of “impression management” – applicants’ attempts to create a favorable impression. Some typical examples of impression management during interviews include verbal self-promotion (“I’m a very hard worker”), adjustment of non-verbal behaviors (smiling, welcoming body posture), and “looking the part” (wearing professional clothing).

Types of Impression Management

The most frequent type of impression management attempts are verbal self-promotions – the statements an applicant makes regarding his/her skills and abilities. These types of statements are considered either assertive (applicant initiated) or defensive (applicant response to interviewer assumptions). Assertive self-promotion is typified by self-focused statements that indicate the applicant possesses necessary skills, abilities, and positive characteristics. Additionally, applicants typically try to get the interviewer to feel good about them (other-focused) by trying to demonstrate that they hold similar beliefs and values, and attempting to build rapport and familiarity with the interviewer. Defensively, applicants try to “repair” their image when an interviewer appears to be dissatisfied or offended by something the applicant has said or done. For example, applicants may try to justify, or explain away, a gap in the employment history on their resume, or rephrase their response (“what I really meant was…”) to a question if they get the feeling their answer was not what the interviewer wanted to hear.

The Influence of Personality

Research on employment interviews indicates that personality is related to the way an applicant will think and act. Depending on the situation, some personality traits may be more pronounced, and influence impression management strategies. For example, very conscientious applicants may take advantage of the opportunity to describe accomplishments and achievements, while those especially agreeable applicants will try to win favor by behaving exceedingly thoughtfully and considerately.

The Strength of the Situation

One potential moderator to this relationship is the strength of the situation – the degree to which the expectations for how to behave are clear. In “strong” situations, people have certain expectations for how to behave (e.g., quiet and subdued at a funeral), and thus most everyone behaves the same way, no matter if they are a very shy or very rambunctious person. In “weak” situations, the expectations for how to behave aren’t as clear, and thus people must decide for themselves what they feel is appropriate. What may be surprising to HR practitioners is that people may be predisposed to engaging in impression managing behaviors. The employment interview tends to be on the “strong” end of the scale –most people have reasonable expectations about what is appropriate behavior during an interview. However, the different circumstances surrounding why applicants are interviewing may over-ride the “strength” of interview expectations and affect their likelihood to engage in impression management. For example, applicants who have been looking for work for months may be more motivated to make a good impression (compared to an applicant who is just starting the job search process), because they desperately need the job.

When Will Impression Management Occur?

Understanding the relationship between these different aspects of the interview process can help HR practitioners understand how employment interviews may be affected by impression management, and how negative effects can be minimized. When personality is measured prior to the interview process,the extent to which people exhibit different personality traits can be determined and taken into account. For example, highly altruistic individuals tend to be less focused on themselves and thus more likely to use impression managing behaviors related to ingratiating themselves with others than they are to use self-promotion or defensive excuses. Similarly, more self-disciplined people are further likely to prepare for interviews and dedicate additional time and effort to how they will respond to likely questions. In this way, they are more likely to use self-promotion – taking responsibility for actions – and thus less likely to need to make excuses.

Two Main Types of Interviews

Most employment interview questions are in one of two formats: behavior description or situational based. In behavior description interviews, applicants are asked to describe their behaviors from past experiences similar to those of the target job (how did you act when…). Conversely, situational interviews use questions regarding hypothetical situations (how would you act if…). As such, the format of the interview may make it more likely for an applicant to engage in impression management – such that describing past behaviors encourages applicants to boast/brag about themselves, as well as defend how they acted in a particular situation if the interviewer seems skeptical. Applicant personality affects the use of impression management behaviors, which inturn affects performance on the interview. Particularly when the motivation for using impression management is lower, and there are unclear expectations for how to behave, the relationship between both personality and interview type with impression management behaviors is high.

Implications for Practice

The most relevant implication for HR practitioners, is that use of behavior description interview questions can result in greater likelihood of self-promoting and defensive impression managing behaviors. With many interviews relying on the use of behavior-based questioning because, according to the old adage, “past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior”, interviewers may be unknowingly allowing themselves to be “played” by applicants. This is not to suggest that situational questions are better than behavioral-based questions – it is strictly a reminder for interviewers to be aware of, and prepared for, applicants likelihood for using these types of behaviors when responding to interview questions. Remember, a well constructed interview will ask questions, of either type, that are relevant and predictive for the position, and criteria, at hand.

Summary

Interviewers would be best served to examine applicant personality profiles through a well-constructed and validated measure beforehand, so as to better prepare themselves to watch for and identify applicants’ use of different types of impression managing behaviors. These issues are particularly relevant for organizations using unconventional selection processes (i.e., a very informal or casual interview environment). As more and more companies come up with novel ways to attract candidates, “messing with” the expected interview experience may be detrimental – in that placing applicants in situations where there aren’t clear expectations for behavior, leads to greater likelihood of impression management.

Interpretation by:

Kathleen Melcher

DeGarmo Group

This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Van Iddekinge, C. H., McFarland, L.A., & Raymark, P.H. (2007). Antecedents of Impression Management Use and Effectiveness in a Structured Interview. Journal of Management, 33 (5), 752-773.

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