Affinity bias describes our tendencies towards the people who are the most like us. It’s an example of an implicit bias, or a bias that is learned and happens unconsciously. In the workplace, affinity bias can take a number of forms, including in the hiring and recruitment process. When a company has the goal of increasing diversity, they must consider how affinity bias impacts who they choose for the job–or even who gets to the interview point at all.
Often couched in the language of “culture fit,” companies stick to traditional ideologies of hiring–using existing relationships, networks, and means of advertising to find hires that will “fit” in with the company status quo. But for a company for which the status quo is maintained by people who hold identities of privilege and access, “culture fit” becomes a euphemism for a lack of diversity and unwillingness to grow.
Instead, reframe the hiring process towards “culture add”, or seeking diverse candidates who can bring new and exciting ideas and experiences to the workplace. Doing this means challenging affinity bias at all levels.
Let’s consider the recruitment funnel of the typical hiring process, which looks something like this:
Each of these stages is a point where you can intervene with strategies for challenging affinity bias.
Awareness. Who even knows that this job is available? Take a broad and accessible approach to announcing new jobs. Instead of relying on word of mouth, internal networks, and traditional job boards, expand the audience. Post about jobs on your social media and website with easy and accessible application processes. Specifically target diversity job boards and career fairs. Dedicate resources to growing your networks.
Attraction. How will you appeal to the diverse applicants that you hope to hire? Make applying a feasible and enticing option for diverse applicants. People want to see that you’re committed to diversity and accessibility. Include diverse stories, voices, and images in your marketing materials. Share genuine stories of success from diverse employees in high level organizational positions. Be transparent about salary range. Give ways for candidates to share their qualifications even if they are not necessarily the “traditional” measurements of “competence”/fit. Offer fellowships and scholarships, shared prominently on social media.
Interview. Who gets the coveted interview spots? And what does the interview process look like? Think about your final pool of applicants. How diverse is it, regardless of how diverse the starting group was? By what standards are you cutting potential hires? Consider altering the interview itself, including by making sure there is a diverse hiring panel or interview feedback structures that can build accountability into the process. Perhaps add a peer interview into the process and focus on competency-based questions.
Hire. Think about what you want from a new hire. It’s easy to fall into the culture fit trap, focusing on those candidates that just meld into the norm. But, as a 2020 report says, “no more gut feeling.” Don’t look for uniformity. Instead of culture fit, look for culture add. Seek out the qualities and values that this applicant brings that can add to the goals of the organization, propelling it beyond the present and into the future.
The Business Case Against Affinity Bias
From a business perspective, you may be asking yourself how diversity and a focus on value add helps you grow and succeed—perhaps if it does at all. It’s a question that researchers have also investigated in the workplace, and what they’ve found is only more testament to the significance of a diverse team.
When we only work with people like us, we tend to assume that everyone (more or less) operates the same way as we do—carries around the same information, thinks the same way, has a similar background, solves problems like us. On one level, this is true—it’s the reason that “culture fit” is so popular. But it’s also limiting, for you and for your workplace. You get more positive workplace outcomes when you acknowledge how both informational diversity (what we each know) and social diversity (our backgrounds, demographics, and experiences) contribute to problem solving and teamwork. It’s there where potential exists.
Take this 2006 study by Neale and Phillips, for example. Two groups of undergraduates, one all white and one racially diverse, had to work together to solve a murder mystery puzzle. All the group members shared a common set of information, but each also had clues only they knew. Solving the puzzle relied on knowing everything. The results were clear: racially diverse groups significantly outperformed their White-only counterparts. Neale and Phillips argue that the homogenous groups were stunted from processing all the information they had because they already assumed they held a common set of facts. Essentially, they lost touch with creativity and innovation.
Diverse groups, on the other hand, require members to anticipate a difference of opinion and perspective and encourage harder work and more deliberation about outcomes. Antonio et al. found that a Black person making a dissenting opinion among a group of White peers was perceived as more novel and led to more complex discussions than when a White person gave the same opinion. The very nature of difference, and its acknowledgement, opens our minds to more possibilities.
Other studies show similar outcomes of diversity: creativity and innovation get higher as workplaces get more diverse. People with more intercultural relationships at work are more creative and entrepreneurial. Scientific papers written by ethnically diverse co-author teams are cited more frequently and published in higher impact publications. Organizations rated highly on measures of Diversity and Inclusion have 57% better team collaboration than less diverse competitors. These effects of diverse environments not only help you innovate, but can also result in significant financial growth.
For instance, Richard et al. found that banks with more racially diverse executives had higher financial performance. A global study of several thousand companies determined that companies with one or more women on the Board had more average growth and returns on equity. According to a 2020 McKinsey report, racially and ethnically diverse companies are 36% more likely to outperform their competitors.
When you pause to think about it, these positive innovation and performance effects make a lot of intuitive sense. More diversity means more experiences to draw on, more incentive to dig deeper, an expectation of harder work, and overall increased output. The key part of every effect comes down to one word: difference. Yet, when you’re sitting among unaddressed affinity bias, difference and its benefits cannot happen. Instead, culture fit becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of stagnation. That’s the last thing any future-thinking organization wants. Culture add, and the principles of debiasing that go into it, on the other hand, is future-thinking by nature. It is the principle by which your organization can tackle affinity bias head-on while recruiting an increasingly diverse and high-performing team.
Antonio, A. L. , Chang, M. J. , Hakuta, K. , Kenny, D. A. , Levin, S. , & Milem, J. F. (2004). Effects of racial diversity on complex thinking in college students. Psychological Science, 15, 507—510. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1111/j.0956-7976.2004.00710.x
Dixon-Fyle, S., Hunt, V., Dolan, K., & Prince, S. McKinsey (2020, May). Diversity wins: How inclusion matters. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/diversity-wins-how-inclusion-matters
Freeman, R. B., & Huang, W. (2014, February). Collaborating with people like me: Ethnic co-authorship in the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research (Working Paper 19905). https://www.nber.org/papers/w19905
Harver (2020). The state of diversity in 2020 and beyond. White Paper. https://harver.com/resources/white-paper/diversity-recruiting-2020/
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Lu, J. G., Hafenbrack, A. C., Eastwick, P. W., Wang, D. J., Maddux, W. W., & Galinsky, A. D. (2017). “Going out” of the box: Close intercultural friendships and romantic relationships spark creativity, workplace innovation, and entrepreneurship. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(7), 1091. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2017-14072-001
Phillips, K. W. (2014, September 16). How diversity makes us smarter. Scientific American. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-diversity-makes-us-smarter/
Phillips, K. W., Northcraft, G. B., & Neale, M. A. (2006). Surface-level diversity and decision-making in groups: When does deep-level similarity help? Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 9(4), 467–482. https://doi.org/10.1177/1368430206067557
Richard, O., McMillan, A., Chadwick, K., & Dwyer, S. (2003). Employing an innovation strategy in racially diverse workforces: Effects on firm performance. Group & Organization Management, 28(1), 107—126. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1059601102250022