- Halos & Horns In The Workplace

Have you ever heard of the halos/horns effect?

The halo/horns effect is a form of cognitive bias where we allow a single trait, action, event or behaviour, halo (good) or horns (bad), to overshadow all others that follow. The halo effect pre-disposes you to think favourably of a person or company, while the horns effect pre-disposes you to think negatively of them. This bias towards pre-judging is very normal; we see it in everyday life. However, left unchecked in the workplace, it can have significant implications.

To illustrate, let’s look at an example of how each has been used by ‘big brands’ in their current media advertising campaigns and the way in which they tap into our cognitive subconscious.

You may have seen a recent TV commercial for a well-known fast food brand. An individual walks into a fast-food chain for breakfast before a job interview, followed closely by another person on their phone, who appears to be in a rush. Person 1 allows person 2 to go ahead in the queue, only to discover later that person 2 is the interviewer, at which point they make a friendly connection/acknowledgement. This commercial, whose goal was to make the viewer feel warm and cuddly about the brand, focuses on the ‘halo’ effect – implying that the interviewee now stands an excellent chance, based on the positive first impression made on the interviewer and their shared eating preferences.

In another commercial, a popular car insurance brand uses an actor who, although famous for playing many varied movie roles, was well-known for portraying an unsavoury character. In the commercial, he is there to assist the individuals he comes into contact with, but they take his words as threats to their lives, until he explains himself. Although this brand is using the actor’s star power and a conflicting comedic angle to sell their services, the theme represents the ‘horns’ effect – he is known for something unpleasant he did before, so he could only be there to do further harm, not potential good.

So, when it comes to the workplace, what key areas can be affected by the halo/horns effect?


Often in business, especially with the advent of LinkedIn, many job applicants come through a recommendation from a trusted source. This potentially pre-qualifies them, putting them in a positive light, and can speed up the recruitment process. This is the halo effect. However, this approach can tip the scales in favour of an otherwise unsuitable candidate, while overshadowing ‘unknown’ but fully qualified applicants, and cutting short what should be a more thorough recruitment process.

Conversely, a job applicant could attend an interview, and they have a piercing, tattoo or an unusual hairstyle that the interviewer does not care for (maybe because they have had a bad experience with someone with a similar style), and they stand out from the crowd in a less favourable way. This has the potential to ‘colour’ the interviewer’s view of the applicant for the rest of the interview, causing them to overlook the applicant’s qualities and skills, and should the applicant trip up on a question, they may have an unfairly weighty shadow cast upon their entire application. This is the horns effect.

Work Assignments

When an employee performs well in one task, they may be rewarded with another of equal or higher importance. This is how employees develop in their roles. This is also where the halo effect can come into play. Business owners need to be wary of an employee’s suitability before issuing such rewards. An employee may produce an excellent written report based on detailed analysis of complex business data, but that does not mean they should be ‘rewarded’ with the task of giving a formal presentation at a high-profile business conference. These are two very different projects requiring different skills, and brilliant work in one should not automatically imply proficiency in the other.

In contrast, an employee may perform poorly on a single task, leading the business owner or employer to expect the worst of that employee going forward, and as a result, refuse them opportunities to prove themselves, take on new tasks and develop in their role. Effectively, stalling their progress. Thinking the worst of someone can become a self-fulfilling prophecy for that individual too. The horns effect in action.

Performance Reviews

A business owner/manager may have certain employees that they look upon more favourably; for their characteristics, personality traits and past achievements. When it comes to performance reviews for such individuals, the halo effect can lead the business owner/manager to, consciously or unconsciously, steer the review in a more positive direction, glossing over any areas where improvement is needed, and leading to financial compensation or promotions that may not be appropriate.

Conversely, an employer/manager may recall that, earlier that year, an employee lost a significant one-off work contract, influencing the employer to use this one event to guide the focus of the performance review in a more negative direction, even if that employee has since secured multiple contracts with other clients who plan to stay for the long haul. Another example of the horns effect.

4 Simple Questions

As you can see, both the halo effect and horns effect can have significant impact in the workplace, if left unmonitored. However, it is very normal and part of human conditioning to pre-judge and draw conclusions on people, often before even meeting them (thank you, social media!) We can never achieve 100% impartiality. So how can we reduce our biases to an absolute minimum?

At the point of processing job applicants, assigning work tasks to employees and formulating performance reviews, ask yourself the following questions:

1. What do I know for sure about this person?
2. Have I drawn any conclusions about this person, without knowing the full facts?
3. Have I made any assumptions about this person?
4. What observations/information have I used to draw any conclusions or make any assumptions?

Asking yourself these 4 questions can help stop pre-judgements in their tracks. Use them to help structure your recruitment and interview processes and keep them as objective as possible. Once an individual is recruited, use the questions to ensure you regularly provide them with opportunities to prove themselves and develop within your company. Finally, use the questions to help you to judge your employees fairly on their performance.

Don’t allow preconceived ideas about individuals or groups to influence your steps when it comes to decision-making in the workplace, and try your very best not to assume, because you know what happens when you assume, right?