Bias Eraser#2: Affinity Bias

“And we are both Georgia Bulldogs!” my friend exclaimed when celebrating her most recent interview. After a relatively short search for an Accounting Manager, I was impressed that she had struck the talent jackpot so soon. I wanted to be excited for her because hiring great talent can be a tough business and she desperately needed support. But I couldn’t help but feel like something was off. Was attending the same college just the cherry on the top of the sundae, or was that sneaky thing known as unconscious bias really at play?

As an I/O Psychologist and someone who has waded around in the science of hiring for 20 years, I decided to ask a few more questions about her potential new hire. On top of going to the same college, I found out that they both had similarly aged children, shared a love for yoga, and studied at the same study-abroad program. Her candidate was like her mirror image! But when I asked more detailed questions about skills, experience, and work style… the answers were much less impressive. It was at this point I had to deliver tough love and introduce my friend to the affinity bias.

The affinity bias can be a powerful and destructive force in the workplace. There are many resources on the internet that define it, but this HBR article describes it nicely in the hiring context: “Affinity bias — having a more favorable opinion of someone like us — is one of the most common. In hiring this often means referring or selecting a candidate who shares our same race or gender, or who went to the same school, speaks the same language, or reminds us of our younger selves.”

What this means in practice is that we tend to hire and promote people who are similar to us and this has two serious consequences. First, when we are favoring people due to their similarity, we aren’t evaluating them on their talent potential. Sure you might have similar backgrounds, but does this person have the right personality for the role, good decision-making skills, or mastery of any of the requisite skills? If you aren’t careful, you will hire a team of Georgia Bulldog fans that you enjoy right up until the point where you realize how poorly they are performing. Second, when we make talent decisions based on similarity, we are absolutely killing any chance to build a more diverse workforce. This excellent video highlights the problem, not just for hiring but many other talent management activities. In short, we tend to trust those who are more like us and after we hire them, we continue to turn to them for stretch opportunities, promotions, and more. It is a vicious cycle that has led many US-based companies into the low diversity situation they are trying to fix.

So what can you do to Erase the Bias?

  1. Place much less emphasis on the resume. That’s because you guessed it, recruiters and hiring managers can find those affinity bias triggering similarities, right there in that document. Instead, avoid the urge to build your first impression off of that document and instead move the resume review to a point where you are screening in final candidates vs. just getting to know them.
  2. Use objective assessments early. Recruiters and hiring managers will feel uncomfortable without that resume in hand, but there are much better ways to predict job performance. Build a scientifically-based hiring process, just like PerceptionPredict provides, which is based on local-validation to define an unbiased method for identifying who is most likely to be successful in a job. When we design a Performance Fingerprint, it is based on the client’s data, so when someone looks like a high-quality candidate, it is because their psychographic DNA is highly correlated with job performance, not because they attended the same college.
  3. Use structured interviews. Interview questions should always be job-related. If they aren’t it opens up the opportunity for irrelevant information to contaminate our judgment. The best way to interview is to develop a strong structured interview process that asks all candidates the same job-relevant questions and provides a clear rating scheme for judging the quality of responses. This level of focus and uniformity in the interview process will help to find those who are likely to be more successful and root out some of the more common causes of bias.

It’s easy for us to fall prey to the affinity bias because after all, we want to like who we work with. Don’t let similarity cloud your judgment. There are better ways to hire great talent in an unbiased way. Reach out to me anytime if you want to get started.

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