Service of Patching Up a Bad First Impression

October 2nd, 2017

Categories: First Impressions, Forgiveness, Words, Work


I once thought I had an infallible instinct where first impressions are concerned but I’ve been wrong too many times in both directions—thinking that someone’s great or creepy when they’re not. Regardless, first impressions are a fact of life.

Some can’t be salvaged. There was the college freshman dressed for the beach at an interview for a scholarship where the judges and all other candidates wore business attire. Her mother tried to rescue the faux pas by claiming the wardrobe choice had been hers. It didn’t work: Competition for the generous scholarships was too keen.

In this regard, Sue Shellenbarger, who wrote “The Next Step After a Bad First Impression at Work,” in The Wall Street Journal, shared an opposite situation from which there was also no return. A job candidate wore a tailored black suit and heels to a job interview at a fashion house where all the employees dressed in casual hippie-style attire. [My opinion: She was vying for a job requiring digital skills and should have taken 10 seconds to look at the company’s website before the interview which might have given her a tip.]

Nevertheless, wrote Shellenbarger, “It’s possible to recover from a bad first impression. But it takes time, effort and some nuanced skills.”

According to the reporter, quoting the author of “No One Understands You and What To Do About it,” Heidi Grant Halvorson, there’s a “tendency for the first few things people notice about someone to influence how they interpret information later.” Grant Halvorson also mentioned confirmation bias that “causes people to notice only details that confirm what they already believe. ‘People see what they expect to see,’ she says.”

If you learn that someone who has a bad impression of you is to be your new boss Grant Halvorson suggests you try to “build familiarity with a casual greeting or wave” at the gym or cafeteria—be seen frequently, but don’t stalk.

Other suggestions from experts Shellenbarger quoted follow. I don’t agree with them all:

  • Be early for meetings for a long time if you were late to one
  • Subtly inform a senior executive of your experience, if their impression is that you have little, by emailing the person via LinkedIn and weaving in examples that prove otherwise the next time you speak with them
  • Root for the same sports team to “dispel bias”
  • Make fun of your blunder to ease tension
  • Follow up a job interview where coverage of your accomplishments was weak, by sending strong work samples to dispel the notion
  • A job applicant who admitted to prison time for dealing meth came to the interview with a list of “self-improvement efforts” illustrating that he was no longer a criminal and the names of solid references, “prepared to answer the tough questions.” He was hired and became one of the best employees.

Have you salvaged a bad first impression or helped a colleague or friend do so? Do you think it’s an impossible, useless task and you’d best lick your wounds and move on? Do any of the tips translate to personal relationships?


12 Responses to “Service of Patching Up a Bad First Impression”

  1. EAM Said:

    I’d like to follow up with a quote from Maya Angelou, ” I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I don’t remember the specifics but I did go up to someone once and said, “I think we got off on the wrong foot.” It seemed to resolve it. Taking responsibility for a bad first impression is key.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I like that quote.

    You hit the point that wasn’t spelled out by the experts–take responsibility. For example, in addition to showing up early for a year’s worth of meetings after being late to one, next time that employee sees the meeting leader they should tell them that being early from now on is the plan and again apologize for their disruption and offer to help set up or whatever needs to be done. Admitting a wrong is so out of fashion these days. It’s a shame. It’s almost as though everyone is afraid of being sued!

  3. Martha Takayama Said:

    It is important to put first impressions in their proper perspective and allow that they might be snap judgments, made too quickly or reflecting your own mood of the moment as well as your own particular prejudices. Given the little bit of pause or reflection might confirm or mitigate first impressions although, they still are difficult to modify, but shouldn’t be irreparable.

    Sometimes the person who realizes that they made a negative first impression can try some of the methods cited although the efforts should appear earnest and natural not forced. If possible or appropriate a gentle apology can perhaps smooth things over. So much depends on the personal chemistry between the people involved that it is very difficult to specify guidelines. Being polite, considerate and moderate can only help, but it is hard not to wince at some of the faux pas described.

    Lastly, I cannot help, but wonder, when we are bombarded every day with first, 2nd, and 50th bad and worse impressions made by people holding important positions of power without suffering logical consequences, what constitutes an impression beyond repair.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Personal chemistry is essential. Some people are oil and water–they disagree on every aspect from the way to speak–gently or gruffly–to the way to dress, to their approach to solving challenges–quickly or slowly–and then there’s jealousy, envy and competitiveness to spice things up some more.

    And the tone and atmosphere we hear from the top, to smack down and belittle anyone who criticizes or questions, is not a model for getting along in the business or personal world. Apologies fall off no tongues. They are last year’s news.

  5. Debby Brown Said:

    When I was in the magazine business and I had the responsibility/opportunity to interview young persons for a position in my department, one of the first questions I asked was what they thought of the magazine. Fair question. When they revealed they knew nothing about the title and /or had never read the magazine I quickly ended the interview. That spoke volumes about the preparedness, respect and diligence of the “hopeful “interviewee. I’m afraid there was never going to be a second chance to correct that first bad impression.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Excellent example of “no second chance.” A memorable scholarship applicant had remarkable recommendations, top grades, a brilliant telephone interview and she aced her in person interview. She was applying to grad school.

    Why didn’t she get a scholarship? She fell down on one question–similar to the one you asked: “What can you tell us about the organization?” We don’t expect much, but if the high school seniors heading for college can answer so could this young woman. How long does it take to click on the website and if nothing more, read–and remember–some of the headings?

  7. Lucrezia Said:

    Rogers was right, so best thing to do is swallow hard and move on. Attempts to analyze what went wrong is a great help. While a gaffe may cause loss of a prospective job, making suitable adjustments may secure the next one.

  8. David Reich Said:

    It’s hard to overcome a bad first impression, but it often can be done with consistently good behavior. But that behavior must be genuine or it may be found out, adding to your negatives “liar” and “phony.”

  9. Jeanne Byington Said:


    So true. For some reason it takes forever to forget goofs but minutes to forget real praise so as you suggest, do something positive from the ashes of a faux pas: Figure out why you did it and don’t do it again!

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:


    As I’ve written before in this space regarding an earlier post, when I’ve reacted negatively to a frivolous superficial first impression that may hit my buttons, I’ve gotten over it by getting to know the person. The opposite, as you note, should apply.

    Genuine is critical. For me to talk sports with anyone would be a disaster….the Olympics is the only sports coverage I enjoy, especially the diving, ice skating and gymnastics. For me to banter about last night’s football game would be an embarrassment and set me way back in anyone’s book.

  11. HB Said:

    I’m not sure I buy much of this. Except to the extent that bosses are infected with faulty preconceived notions (“Blacks are good at basketball.” or “Women are good for raising children.” for example.), I don’t think you can do much about the first impression you made, except work intelligently and hard and be politely honest in all you do and say.

    If you like the place and the people you are working for, chances are that they’ll eventually come around to liking you also. If you don’t, get a new job.

  12. Jeanne Byington Said:


    It has taken me months and months to fit in some companies I’ve worked for. It was hard as I’m gregarious but I took the same tack I do when meeting children and pets: I let them come to me. In addition, I do a tremendous job and go about my business. If nothing else I earn respect.

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