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What is the horn effect, and how does it appear in the workplace?

Last updated

17 April 2024


Dovetail Editorial Team

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Most managers and workplace leaders want to make fair and honest decisions. Unfortunately, subconscious beliefs may influence their decisions more than they realize. 

Psychologists call these beliefs cognitive biases. The horn effect is one example, causing people to judge others negatively based on one aspect of a first impression. 

In the workplace, this bias can lead to interviewers passing on applicants because of a seemingly undesirable trait, even if they’re the best fit. 

Understanding bias and intentionally reducing its impact are essential to creating a fair workplace with equal opportunity. 

Let’s examine the most important aspects of the horn effect and discuss how leaders can reduce the impact of this bias. 

What is horn effect bias? 

The horn effect is a cognitive bias that creates a completely negative view of someone based on an observation. 

If someone has a bad experience with someone with a certain characteristic, they may generalize everyone with that trait. People may also have general assumptions and listen to stereotypes. 

Employers may be more likely to discriminate against, harass, or be harder on those with specific characteristics, even if their actions do not merit harsher treatment. 

Horn effect example

John is going for a managerial role as he has a lot of experience and a great track record. He’s also overweight. While this should be irrelevant, studies show that people who are overweight experience more discrimination. 

He’s interviewing with HR director Sam. Unfortunately, Sam has experienced lazy employees. The last person he fired because of sloppy work was overweight, so he now subconsciously links weight and productivity. 

As the horn effect affects Sam, he doesn’t give John a fair shot and judges him harshly. John misses out on the role, even though he’s exactly what the company needs. 

What is the halo effect?

The halo effect is the opposite of the horn effect. It’s where you immediately see someone as generally good because of one desirable trait, such as being attractive, educated, or charismatic.

In the workplace, this can look like an employer forming an overwhelmingly positive impression of a prospective employee based on a characteristic they view as beneficial. 

While the halo effect doesn’t seem as damaging on the surface, employers still need to recognize it. False positive impressions can lead to poor hiring decisions and harm current and prospective team members. 

A potential team member's exceptional strength in one area doesn’t necessarily translate to other areas. An interviewer who gives one positive trait too much weight may find that a new employee doesn’t meet expectations.

Halo effect example

Let’s go back to Sam, our interviewer from earlier. He’s interviewing Saliha, a beautiful, confident woman who attended the same college as him. 

They bond over their education, and Sam finds Saliha very charismatic and attractive. 

Because of the halo effect, he misses crucial details about her management experience. She’s only managed two people for a few months. This role requires at least five years of experience managing large teams. 

Her lack of experience makes her a poorer fit for the role than John. Sam’s bias clouds his judgment, and he hires her anyway. 

Differences between the horn effect and the halo effect 

The horn and halo effects assume things about characteristics or situations to create positive or negative bias. Both can cause friction in the workplace. 

While the horn effect is a negative bias, the halo effect is a positive bias. 

Biases are rarely accurate. So, allowing them to play a significant role in decision-making is unlikely to produce positive results in the workplace.

Why is horn effect bias dangerous for managers? 

Ethical managers make every effort to fully consider each prospective employee when hiring. They also assess positive and negative aspects of current employees to create a fair, transparent workplace. 

However, the horn effect and other cognitive biases can make it difficult for managers to make the right decisions. 

The horn effect is particularly dangerous because it often results in mistreating a specific applicant or employee. Managers unfairly targeting team members can quickly create a toxic, hostile work environment. 

Workplace horn effect examples 

We talked about the impact of the horn effect on interviewer Sam earlier. 

Some other examples of the horn bias during recruitment or in the workplace include: 

  • Assuming an applicant will be an unmotivated worker because they are overweight

  • Assuming an applicant won’t succeed in a role because of a health condition 

  • Assuming an applicant dressing unfashionably means they don’t care about their image

  • Assuming an applicant is less intelligent or hardworking because of their race 

  • Assuming an applicant who arrives late because of something they couldn’t control doesn’t care about being punctual and has issues with lateness

How to prevent halo and horn effects during recruitment 

Generally, preventing the horn effect bias is impossible. Everyone has subconscious opinions on people’s characteristics. 

Identifying and naming bias can be a much more effective way to reduce its impact than unsuccessfully attempting to eliminate it. 

Intentionally keeping your application process as anonymous as possible can reduce how much bias influences your decisions. 

Many traits that spur this bias are irrelevant early in the recruitment process, so including them on your applications isn’t likely to benefit anyone. 

Focus applications and interviews on your applicants' skills rather than less important characteristics. This can give you a clearer picture of how each applicant's actual qualifications might help them succeed. 

Generally, first impressions can tell you a lot about a prospective employee, but they may not always be accurate. Give future interactions a chance to reveal different perspectives. 


How do I address concerns about horn effect bias with colleagues? 

Frequently reminding your team members to consider the impact of their opinions is an essential step in helping them be more intentional about making fair and unbiased decisions. 

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