Study: First Impressions Have Long-Term Impact on Career Success

BLACKSBURG, Va. – A study by an accounting professor at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business shows that first impressions can have a long-term impact on career success.

In an article to be published in Management Science, professor Marshall Vance found that first impressions can weight future decisions regarding promotion decisions, even if on-the-job performance “tells a different story.”

“A main takeaway from our research,” Vance said in a statement, “is that your manager’s first impressions — how he or she first assessed your ability based on the school you graduated from, your initial interview, a letter of recommendation — can influence your career outcomes for a long time.”

Vance co-authored the study with Dirk Black of the University of Nebraska. 

The study used data from professional baseball players and their promotions through the minor league system. The research shows that the order in which players are first drafted into professional baseball, which the authors use to represent teams’ initial assessments, or “first impressions,” about ability continues to be associated with promotion decisions for at least six years after the assessments were made. 

“We find that initial assessments have large implications for workers’ career outcomes and are significantly associated with promotion decisions even after a worker has accumulated several years of on-the-job experience, with corresponding objective performance data,” Vance and Black wrote in their study.

The study shows that draft position is useful for predicting future performance, but only in the early stages of a player’s career. Even when managers reduced the relative weight of initial assessments in promotion decisions over time, the study finds that this element is still too large compared to its “informativeness,” or usefulness for predicting future performance.

The researchers noted that other studies on employer learning generally assume that managers’ beliefs about employee performance and ability are “rationally updated through a process that weights performance signals based on such informativeness.”

Their own results suggest otherwise: managers not only over-rely on initial assessments but revise their initially held beliefs only gradually. The slow pace may be consistent with common forms of cognitive bias, such as confirmation bias — the tendency to misinterpret ambiguous evidence as supporting a current belief — and primacy bias, or putting too much weight on signals observed early on.

Vance and Black based their research on data for more than 12,000 players over a 26-year period, from 1987 to 2013. Their paper joins a growing collection of research in elite academic journals that uses sports settings to answer important questions in business and economics. 

Professional baseball has several features that make it a useful research setting, the paper notes, such as the availability of data that researchers can’t observe in more traditional settings, including easily identifiable promotion paths and performance. 

The paper also acknowledges that the professional sports setting has some unique aspects — including the “relative youth and short careers of employees and the collectively bargained employment contracts that reduce mobility across organizations” — and suggests caution in generalizing their results to other work settings.

Nevertheless, the authors argue that the core question of their inquiry — promotion decisions made by supervisors — concerns “a fundamental process central to the success of organizations across a breadth of sectors and industries.”

By shedding light on supervisors’ use of initial assessments versus objective performance measures for promotion decisions, long after such assessments are informative about worker ability, Vance said, this study makes important contributions to research streams in labor economics and accounting that relate to careers in organizations, employer learning, and the inputs to promotion decisions.

Source: Virginia Tech Daily

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.