Affinity bias; what is it and what can you do about it?
“They could do the job, but they just weren’t the right fit for the team.”
Feedback I’ve heard countless times throughout my career and I’ve understood it. I’ve been there myself.
It’s human nature to seek out commonalities. It’s how we’re all wired.
But when it applies to hiring, it’s an unconscious bias that we need to discuss and bring attention to: affinity bias.
We all experience affinity bias and it’s not intentional.
If you find yourself in a social environment where you don’t know anyone, your subconscious will seek signs of familiarity. A common interest, a similar age/gender profile, or just a shared view overheard in conversation. It’s a shortcut to forming friendships and easing social anxieties with strangers.
In the workplace however, if affinity bias goes unchecked it can lead to the building of homogenous teams; lacking diversity, innovation and creativity. Both at the point of hiring and for promotion opportunities when managers may be prone to promote those they ‘click’ with better.
So what can be done about it?
Firstly, the conversations around this need to be about bringing awareness, not criticism, shame or judgement. After all, it’s effectively a ‘native app’ we all have in our brains operating system. Being aware and curious helps elevate it above the subconscious.
Decisions makers and interviewers need to be familiar with what affinity bias is - how it manifests, the problems and missed opportunities it can create.
Reminders to remain self-aware at the start of every hiring process shouldn’t be considered patronising.
Gut instincts need to be explored. Was it familiarity that made a favoured candidate stand out? Did they evidence greater abilities and more relevant experience than others, or were they given an easier pass because they mentioned a shared acquaintance or grew up in the same town?
Firm “culture” needs to be understood as tangible values - not the office ‘vibe’.
Each step of the hiring process and decision-making needs assessing to reduce the impact of unconscious bias. Can data or scorecards be utilised? Are diverse opinions deliberately being sought-out amongst the interview panel and listened to?
All of the above will help your firm to promote greater inclusivity and to harness the potential that a truly diverse workforce will bring.
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