How HR Can Identify and Overcome Affinity Bias in Hiring and the Workplace

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How HR Can Identify and Overcome Affinity Bias in Hiring and the Workplace

We human beings are quite predictable. Even if each of us has a unique story, we often seek to connect with people who share backgrounds, interests, and beliefs similar to ours. This is known as affinity bias or similarity bias.  

The gravitation to people who are like us is unconscious and, in most cases, harmless. However, when affinity bias creeps into the workplace, it can cause many issues. 

Today’s guide explores affinity bias in the workplace and how HR managers can overcome it. 

What is affinity bias?
How does affinity bias impact your organization?
Examples of affinity bias in hiring and the workplace
What causes affinity bias?
How can HR identify and overcome affinity bias?

What is affinity bias?

Affinity bias is an unconscious tendency of human beings to favor or feel more comfortable around people with similar interests, beliefs, and backgrounds. 

This bias can manifest in the workplace and influence hiring, promotion, and task delegation decisions. Affinity bias also robs an organization of the chance to build an inclusive and diverse workplace.  If not addressed, affinity bias leads to employee resentment, low productivity, and morale. 

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HR decision-makers must understand and address affinity bias before it takes root in processes. 

What does affinity bias look like in hiring?

Many recruiters and hiring managers believe they recruit and hire talent objectively all the time. However, bias is a significant part of how hiring decisions are made. 

Unfortunately, affinity bias can be difficult to pinpoint. It’s even harder to admit that you have let biases influence your decision. The truth is that you’ll warm up more to some candidates compared to others. 

At first, this might be unexplainable. But if you dig deeper, you’ll discover the unconscious reason behind this bias. 

For example, the candidate might have attended the same school as you. Unconsciously, you believe that since you went to the same school, you’ll share beliefs, culture, and interests too. But this is not always the case. 

In 2017, SomeoneWho released a research report exploring biases in recruitment. Almost half, 48%, of HR managers admitted that bias impacted their choice of candidates. Additionally,  one in ten HR managers said they couldn’t hire a female for a male-dominated role. 

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When not addressed, affinity bias can cost you top talent. It influences you to show more leniency toward a candidate, overlook a lack of experience, and make a hiring decision that’s not objective. 

Affinity bias in the workplace

Affinity bias doesn’t stop at the hiring stage. It can still progress and manifest in the workplace and cause even bigger problems. For example, decision-makers might favor people with whom they share interests, beliefs, and backgrounds at the expense of other employees.

Affinity bias in the workplace might look like a manager promoting an employee because they share the same hobbies. 

Managers who operate under affinity bias spend more time building certain employees than others. They also offer perks and pay raises to employees they feel most connected to, even when the employee is not the most deserving in the workforce. 

How Affinity Bias Impacts the Organization

How does affinity bias impact your organization?

Unaddressed affinity bias is dangerous to any organization. Specifically, it presents the following issues: 

1. Reduces diversity and inclusion

The biggest negative of affinity bias is decreased diversity and inclusion. If managers favor only people they feel connected to, it will result in a diversity gap. 

For example, gender bias often means fewer women working in leadership positions. Conversely, racial bias results in fewer employees from (traditionally) underrepresented groups in the workplace.

2. Limits innovation and creativity

If there’s affinity bias in hiring and promotion, it limits talent diversity and, eventually, creativity. In turn, a company experiences fewer innovative ideas. 

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After all, there’s not much uniqueness if the employees up for promotion and recognition share the same experiences, interests, and backgrounds. 

3. Negatively impacts company culture

Even if affinity bias is unconscious, the impact is very much visible. For example, racial, age, and gender bias can result in discrimination. In turn, this causes a lot of tension and resentment among workers. 

If managers only promote and recognize people who are “like them,” the deserving ones will feel undervalued. These employees will subsequently experience reduced morale, and their productivity will plummet. The result will be disengaged employees and lost team camaraderie. None of the above is beneficial for your company culture. 

Affinity bias in itself is not discrimination, but it could progress to discrimination. When this happens, the organization’s reputation is jeopardized, and you risk legal action against the company. 

For example, when employees are denied promotions, pay raises, and recognition because of affinity bias, they’ll most likely interpret it as discrimination. The employee might decide to leave or tell the world about it on review sites like Glassdoor. 

If employees feel they are being discriminated against, they might file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The repercussions of an EEOC claim are significant and expensive for your organization. 

Examples of affinity bias in hiring and the workplace

Even if affinity bias happens in the unconscious, it’s pretty easy to spot it once you know what to look for. Below are affinity bias examples in the workplace to know about.

1. Racial bias

Racial bias happens when a decision-maker decides to hire a candidate because of their race or ethnicity. This bias is particularly difficult as it can introduce discrimination and ruin your company’s reputation. 

When racial bias happens, it results in the hiring of fewer (traditionally) underrepresented groups, even if many of them are qualified. 

Racial bias could also look like offering most promotions to employees of a particular race.  

2. Education bias

This bias happens when a hiring manager favors a candidate who attended the same school. Education bias leads hiring managers to believe that attending the same school signifies similar beliefs, interests, and experiences. 

3. Social class bias

This bias manifests as a hiring manager preferring someone from a similar social-economic background, believing the candidate will fit better into the company culture. 

4. Age bias

The hiring manager may choose candidates within their age range, believing they likely have the same work styles and life perspectives. These employees may also receive promotions or ‘cool’ projects since they are closer to managers in age and, most likely, life experience.

5. Beauty bias

This bias leads a hiring manager to decide based on the candidate’s physical appearance. For instance, a 2017 survey of 500 hiring professionals showed that only 15.6% of surveyed hiring managers would hire the heaviest-looking candidate. 21% of managers who wouldn’t hire the candidate believed the candidate was ‘lazy’ or ‘unprofessional.’ 

Moreover, only 18% of hiring managers believed the candidate had leadership potential. 

In another example, putting only attractive employees in customer-facing roles is also a form of beauty bias. 

6. Gender bias

Gender bias happens when a decision-maker favors employees of a similar gender. Results of the State of the Gender Pay Gap Report indicated that women earn 82 cents for every dollar men earn.

Another gender bias manifests as certain behaviors being seen as favorable to one gender and not the other. For instance, assertiveness in men is seen as a management or leadership quality. Conversely, assertiveness in women paints them as difficult.

7. Cultural fit bias

Another culprit fueling affinity bias is the search for a “culturally fit” candidate. Companies often encourage recruiters to hire candidates more likely to assimilate or adapt well to the company’s culture. In fact, 95% of employers consider cultural fit important in determining whether to hire a candidate.  

Unfortunately, the adamant search for a “culturally-fit candidate” only exacerbates affinity bias. 

Instead, companies should look further than a candidate’s “cultural fitness” and consider other important things like experience. In any case, an employee who doesn’t particularly fit the mold can bring tons of value and innovative ideas. 

What causes affinity bias?

Human beings are exposed to 11 billion information bits at a given time. However, we can only process 40 to 50 bits (out of 11 billion) of information at a time. 

So, to help us make quicker decisions, we take cognitive shortcuts, or more specifically, fall back on assumptions and stereotypes we already hold when dealing with other people. 

Take recruiters, for example. As a recruiter, you often work to a deadline and have to quickly find a suitable candidate to fill a position. But in most cases, you may not have the time to dig deep into each candidate to understand their interest, beliefs, and backgrounds. 

Instead, a recruiter would unconsciously look for mental shortcuts, for example, attending the same college, living in the same neighborhood, or being of the same age, to ascertain a candidate’s interests, background, and beliefs. 

The more similarity the candidate and recruiter share, the more a recruiter is likely to warm up to a candidate. 

These other biases can also help demonstrate why affinity bias happens:

Confirmation bias

In confirmation bias, you seek out information that validates your current opinion. For example, a hiring manager might increasingly focus on the qualities and aspects of a candidate that overlap with the manager’s opinion. 

Familiarity bias

This bias happens when a hiring manager chooses to overvalue aspects of a candidate they’re already familiar with. For example, “candidates aged 30+ are more mature”. Or “men are more assertive and better leaders,” even when it’s not always factual. 

Halo effect

When you have a favorable first impression of someone, changing your mind will take a lot. For example, if a candidate went to a prestigious university, you might assume they will also excel at a role because “a prestigious university equals world-class skills”. 

How can HR identify and overcome affinity bias?

Removing unconscious biases in hiring and the workplace can drive profitability and increase diversity. In fact, McKinsey research shows that companies in the top quartile for racial or ethnicity and gender diversity see financial returns higher than the national industry median. 

Here’s how to go about overcoming affinity bias. 

In hiring:

  1. Redefine the interview and recruitment process. Ensure that the interview process and assessments are inclusive. For instance, avoid discriminatory terms in job descriptions and interview questions.
  2. Implement objective hiring criteria. Specifically, emphasize the experience and skills a candidate brings over cultural fit.
  3. Create diverse hiring teams. Ensure the hiring panel is representative of a diverse workforce to encourage variety in perspectives and approaches.
  4. Implement blind hiring practices. Such practices end the impact of biases based on race, gender, or age. Blind hiring also forces hiring managers and recruiters to focus on the most important aspects, such as skills and experience.
  5. Provide training and hold hiring managers accountable for addressing and overcoming affinity bias. Let hiring managers know your organization’s diversity goals and their part in achieving them.

In the workplace:

  1. Implement DEIB training for employees. Managers can’t discard unconscious biases without recognizing and understanding the bias. However, you can change this by offering them DEIB training to pinpoint and avoid affinity bias.
  2. Take a walkthrough of all your organization’s processes and practices. Can these two be described as fair and inclusive? If not, what changes should you make?
  3. Foster a culture of feedback and accountability. You can only eliminate affinity bias by talking about it. Provide employees and managers with a platform to share their workplace bias experiences. Ask them to provide specific examples, so you know what exactly you need to change.
  4. Foster a culture of inclusivity and respect. Purpose to promote a workplace where everyone is treated fairly regardless of age, race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. If discrimination happens, nip it by the root and demonstrate the consequences.

Key takeaways

  • Affinity bias is the tendency of human beings to gravitate toward people they share interests, backgrounds, and beliefs with.
  • This bias is harmless in normal circumstances but detrimental in the workplace. 
  • Some cons of affinity bias include; decreased diversity, creating a hostile workplace culture, and limiting innovation. 
  • HR managers can address affinity bias through training and increased DEIB efforts. 
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