VA Tech Pro Baseball Study Data Indicates First Impressions Last

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A student meets a recruiter at the Pamplin College of Business fall 2018 Business Horizons career fair. Photo by David Hungate.

First impressions count, as any job seeker knows. New research now shows that such early appraisals can shape your career for years, long after they stop being valid.

Marshall Vance, assistant professor of accounting and information systems in the Pamplin College of Business, co-authored the study, “Do first impressions last? The impact of initial assessments and subsequent performance on promotion decisions,” with Dirk Black, of the University of Nebraska. Their study is forthcoming in the journal Management Science.

“A main takeaway from our research,” Vance said, “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, even when your actual on-the-job performance tells a different story.”

Their study also addresses the phenomenon of “confirmation bias” in promotion decisions, a topic of interest to anyone, he said, “who has gone through the promotion process or has been passed over for promotions.”

The study, Vance said, “uses rich data on professional baseball players’ performance and promotions through the minor leagues to explore whether, and for how long, managers weight initial assessments in their promotion decisions, a topic that would be difficult to examine in more conventional business settings due to data limitations.”

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,” the researchers wrote.

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 — or “primacy bias” — 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.

Vance, who earned a Ph.D. in accounting from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, joined Virginia Tech in 2019. His research focuses on the design and effects of executive and broad-based compensation plans.

In addition to this study, his recent work has examined the role of proxy advisory firms in the design of executive compensation and how employees respond to equity compensation plans.

His research has been published in top accounting and management journals and has been recognized with multiple awards through the American Accounting Association.