The Hidden Cost of Similarity: How Affinity Bias Undermines Diversity and Innovation

Bias plays a significant role in shaping our decisions, often without our awareness. In the context of hiring, bias frequently leads us to favour candidates who resemble us, whether in terms of appearance, background, interests, or values. While this might create a sense of comfort and ease during the hiring process, it hinders diversity and stifles innovation within teams.

Affinity Bias

The tendency to gravitate toward individuals who look, act, or think as we do is known as Affinity Bias. It’s a natural human inclination to feel more comfortable and connected with people who share our characteristics and experiences. TurningPoint Founder and CEO Ken Schmitt discussed Affinity Bias and other biases in hiring in his latest Recruiter Rant podcast, Friends Without Benefits.

“In my research on the pros and cons of hiring friends, I found hundreds and hundreds of articles talking about the downside of this type of hire, but very, very few extolling the virtues of hiring your ‘bestie.’ The ratio of positive to negative research was easily 10:1. There are just too many blindspots when we hire someone for any reason other than their ability to do the job.”

While hiring people we know can create an immediate sense of rapport and makes sense when choosing friends, it is a terrible idea when hiring because it limits the variety of perspectives and skills within a team.

Here’s how Affinity Bias (and other types of bias) negatively impact hiring…

1. Limits Diversity

Homogeneous Workforce

When hiring managers consistently choose candidates similar to themselves, it leads to a homogeneous workforce. This means that the team will likely have similar backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints, reducing the range of ideas and approaches available.

Underrepresentation of Marginalized Groups

This bias can result in the systematic exclusion of candidates from diverse or underrepresented backgrounds. For example, if a predominantly male team continues to hire men or if a team from a particular socioeconomic background favours similar candidates, it perpetuates existing inequalities and limits opportunities for marginalized groups.

2. Stifles Innovation

Limited Perspectives

Diversity is a key driver of innovation. Teams with varied experiences and viewpoints are better equipped to approach problems creatively and develop innovative solutions. A homogeneous team is more likely to suffer from groupthink, where members conform to a single way of thinking, reducing the likelihood of groundbreaking ideas.

Reduced Problem-Solving Abilities

Diverse teams bring multiple approaches to problem-solving, which enhances the ability to tackle complex issues. A lack of diversity means fewer strategies and solutions are considered, potentially leading to suboptimal outcomes.

3. Creates a Stagnant Culture

Echo Chamber Effect

Hiring similar individuals creates an echo chamber where existing ideas and practices are reinforced rather than challenged. This can lead to complacency and resistance to change, making the organization less adaptable and competitive in a rapidly evolving market.

Stifled Growth and Learning

Exposure to diverse perspectives encourages learning and personal growth. Teams that lack diversity miss out on opportunities to learn from different cultural, professional, and personal experiences, limiting their development and adaptability.

Strategies to Mitigate Affinity Bias

Awareness and Training

Educate hiring managers and team members about unconscious bias and its impact on hiring decisions. Regular training can help individuals recognize and counteract their biases.

Standardized Interviews

Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino recommends implementing standardized interviews. “In a standardized interview, each candidate is asked the same questions in the same order. This type of interview process helps to reduce bias by “focusing on the factors that have a direct impact on performance.”

Diverse Hiring Panels

Include diverse members in the hiring process to provide multiple perspectives and reduce the influence of individual biases.

Blind Recruitment

Remove identifying information from resumes and applications to focus solely on candidates’ qualifications and experiences.

Promote an Inclusive Culture

Foster a workplace culture that values and respects diversity. Encourage team members to appreciate different viewpoints and create an environment where everyone feels comfortable sharing their ideas.

Set Boundaries for Leaders

In a recent article from FastCompany, Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic says it best, “Contrary to popular belief, the ideal boss isn’t your best friend. Rather, it is someone who can help you add value to a team and organization, enabling you to perform beyond your expectations, develop your talents, and unlock your potential.”

Affinity bias, which leads to hiring individuals who resemble ourselves, is a significant barrier to diversity and innovation. By favouring similarity, organizations miss out on the myriad benefits that a diverse workforce brings. To build dynamic, innovative, and high-performing teams, it’s essential to recognize and address these biases. Implementing fair and objective hiring practices not only enhances diversity but also drives the organization toward greater creativity, resilience, and success.

Check out Ken’s latest Recruiter Rant: Friends Without Benefits

Hiring/Executive Recruiting