Affinity Bias in the Workplace: What It Is and How to Address It

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Praisidio Inc
Affinity Bias in the Workplace: What It Is and How to Address It

Humans have all sorts of in-built biases, and the ones that impact business productivity and workplace culture are tricky to deal with. We could write an entire book about bias in the workplace, but today we’re talking about one in particular — affinity bias.

Like all biases, affinity bias is by nature difficult to recognize. This makes it challenging to address the impacts on your workforce and business. 

However, affinity bias in the workplace can be addressed. The key is to first understand what affinity bias is, how to recognize it, and what techniques work best to mitigate its impact. 

In this article, we define affinity bias, give examples of how affinity bias affects the workplace, and talk about how you can use people intelligence tools like Praisidio to recognize and mitigate its effects.

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What is affinity bias?

Affinity bias is the tendency of people to favor or gravitate toward others who seem similar to them. People often rely on observable markers to determine who they believe is similar to them, but affinity bias also extends to less apparent traits, such as engineers gravitating toward other engineers.

In the workplace, affinity bias can impact hiring and career advancement. If left unchecked, affinity bias can even lead to an overarching culture where certain people’s ideas are unconsciously dismissed or devalued.

If affinity bias causes people to struggle in their work because of demographic characteristics, this is clearly a huge issue. However, affinity bias can also cause collaboration issues if people won’t listen to ideas or feedback from people in other roles because they favor people in their own field of expertise.

Is affinity bias the same as unconscious bias or implicit bias?

At a very technical level, affinity bias is a subcategory of unconscious or implicit bias. However, most people use affinity bias to refer to a preference for people who seem similar to oneself. Unconscious and implicit bias usually refer to bias against people who seem dissimilar to oneself.

In terms of impact, there’s overlap between affinity bias, unconscious bias, and implicit bias. A bias against people who are different from you can easily have a negative impact which is similar to the impact of affinity bias, and both can have an outsized impact on marginalized groups.

However, the signs of affinity bias and the steps taken to mitigate it are a bit different. 

Affinity bias examples in the workplace

These affinity bias examples will help you understand some ways affinity bias crops up in the workplace.

However, as you’ll see, even with several examples in your quiver, it’s difficult to pinpoint affinity bias. That’s why the mitigation measures we’ll outline in the next section do not rely on being able to directly identify specific instances of affinity bias.

The hiring process

Affinity bias can impact the hiring process before a hiring manager or recruiter even talks to a job candidate. People on the hiring team may feel a candidate is a good fit for the job if they are from the same area, have a similar professional background, or went to the same college as the person reviewing candidate resumes.

If that same hiring professional also interviews candidates, the interviewer may favor a candidate they were already biased in favor of, feeling that the interview confirmed their established bias. 

Likewise, affinity bias can develop during the interview itself. During a job interview, affinity bias extends further to include physical traits and characteristics. 

Regardless of where affinity bias shows up during the hiring process, it makes it difficult to build diverse teams or consistently hire candidates who are truly the most qualified for the position.

Initial impressions

When people first meet, they often make snap judgements about how well they will connect based on appearance, gender, educational background, or other information which can be quickly gathered. These initial judgements can impact how much effort people put into getting along or collaborating with each other.

This can make it challenging for new employees to fit in with their teams, and, in very severe cases, might even cause employee attrition among new team members.

Career advancement opportunities

Considering employees for advancements is a bit like the hiring process, because you’re evaluating current employees as candidates for a higher position within the company. In this way, hiring and career advancement opportunities share some of the same affinity bias pitfalls.

However, affinity bias can be even more severe in career advancement assessments.

The people making career advancement selections know even more about career advancement candidates, so there are even more opportunities for affinity bias to pop up. 

Similar recreational interests, having worked together on a past project, or even just having workstations that are close together might impact career advancement selections, even though they aren’t relevant to a candidate’s ability to take on the new role.

How to mitigate affinity bias

Since it’s difficult to identify in the moment, mitigating affinity bias relies on strategies that address opportunities for bias to enter the equation in advance. 

With these strategies in your toolkit, you can take one of two approaches (or in many cases, both approaches simultaneously). You can work to minimize the potential effects of affinity bias or you can proactively correct biased outcomes before they begin to draw negative impacts in the first place. Either of these strategies can make a big difference as you strive for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace.

As you work to mitigate affinity bias, consider the following strategies.

1. Reflect on how you respond to new people

Although it’s tricky to spot specific instances of affinity bias, you can get a sense of how it might be present in your organization by observing your own feelings and reactions to new people. Take time to consider what prompted your initial feelings and judgements.

We meet new people all the time — on public transit, at coffee shops, out after work — so there are plenty of opportunities to do this exercise outside of the office. 

This bit of careful introspection can reveal how your biases affected your first impressions, and you can begin to get a picture of how these biases would manifest within your company. A high level of personal awareness around affinity bias makes it easier to take steps to recognize and mitigate its impact at your organization.

2. Consider similarities among the people in your organization

Once you’ve reflected on your own initial impressions, you can take the skill to work. Evaluate the similarities between yourself and the people you interact with at work. Be aware of how you may behave favorably toward people with whom you have more in common and how that might affect your relationships with people who are less similar.

Performing these internal observations within the context of your work really helps solidify your understanding of where affinity bias is most likely to impact your workplace.

3. Hire and promote based on diversity and competence

One of the most effective ways to mitigate affinity bias is to minimize how much information people have when they evaluate candidate portfolios for hiring and promotion.

It’s relatively easy to present resumes and work histories to decision makers which have been scrubbed of personal information. That way, the decision makers can focus on key indicators of competence. This helps them make less biased hiring and promotion decisions or go into interviews with a cleaner slate.

Additionally, you can ensure that you have a diverse pool of candidates before you even move to the decision phase of the hiring or promotion process. When combined with more focused candidate profiles, this strategy ensures that people who may have been negatively impacted by affinity bias get a fair chance at a position.

Learn more: Why Employee Leveling Matters and How to Do It Right

4. Use data and people analysis

One of the best ways to mitigate affinity bias is to take an inherently unbiased, data-driven approach wherever possible. A people analytics platform like Praisidio uses talent intelligence to turn your HR data into key metrics which help reveal where bias impacts your organization.

HR metrics such as headcount by demographic, time-in-role, and internal compa ratio give you insight into where affinity bias is impacting your hiring, promotion, and even compensation decisions. With this information in hand, you can proactively address issues before they turn into employee attrition or degraded performance.

A talent intelligence platform also shows you where to target your diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, so you can mitigate the impact of bias on your future talent management decisions.

Analyze bias with people intelligence

You’re most likely already collecting the data you need to reveal and mitigate affinity bias in your organization. However, this data is just numbers without proper analysis.

Praisidio uses talent intelligence to turn your HR data into insights. With Praisidio, you’ll see where the problems lie and gain actionable insights to tackle these problems so you can build a more equitable organization and retain more employees.

It’s common for Praisidio clients to reduce employee attrition costs by as much as $10 million per 2,000 employees.

Book a demo to see how Praisidio can help you mitigate affinity bias across your entire organization and build a more diverse workforce.

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