The Affinity Bias Conundrum

Introduction

“The right fit” is a phrase I hear repeatedly in the hiring process. It’s a catchall term that covers a multitude of sins related to making sure that potential candidates will slide seamlessly into the prevailing corporate culture. This is supposed to guarantee onboarding success, but it also means that no boats will be rocked. It’s the safe and non-disruptive option.

Affinity bias occurs when hiring managers show a marked preference for candidates to whom they can relate which can play an overarching role in many selection decisions.

Concept

This is a prejudice or favoritism that that reveals itself when hiring occurs based on where someone went to school. This plays out a lot in terms of recruitment! Affinity bias occurs when we see someone we feel we have an affinity with e.g. we attended the same college, we grew up in the same town, or they remind us of someone we know and like.

Thus ‘Affinity Bias’s subconsciously impacts who we select to come in for an interview, how we interview them, who we hire and our reasons for hiring them.

Bias In action

In MBA schools, there is this theory that each year, the top rated IIMs- let’s say, Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Calcutta compete for the marquee Investment Banks to recruit in maximum numbers from their respective campus. However, in the end, if the India head of this particular bank is an alumnus of IIM Calcutta, s/he will go there and make most of the selection from there. There would be only token offers rolled out to IIM A and B.

Let us consider a hiring manager at a leading FMCG in Mumbai. He was born and brought up in Kolkata, and graduated from St Xavier’s College in the year 1994. The moment s/he sees St Xavier’s College written in the resume of a candidate, the affinity bias sets in

When we interview someone we feel we have some affinity with, our micro-affirmations play out a bit more than they usually would with someone we felt we didn’t share an affinity with. So, we may walk the extra mile to make them comfortable if they appear to be nervous, smile a lot, offer words of encouragement and so on. This special treatment would not be extended to someone we shared no affinity with. After the interview, we’d then speak in much higher terms of the first candidate and how much we feel they’d “fit in” over and above the second candidate.

Why controlling our biases is important

With affinity bias being so pervasive and embedded in different ways into corporate culture – how can we successfully achieve diverse and inclusive organizations

Research has indicated that diverse teams outperform groups of the best individuals at solving problems. Yet similarity is easier for our brains to deal with, while difference is harder and therefore more uncomfortable. This explains why we gravitate towards voting for ‘people like us’ and find it easier to make connections with those from similar backgrounds and with similar personalities.

One of the risks this creates is that we continue to vote for people ‘in our own image’, thereby perpetuating a situation in which diversity is limited.

This is not to suggest that hiring ‘people like you’ is a bad thing per se – rather, that it is increasingly getting conscious about its impact on diversity.

If you accept the premise that affinity bias is part of the human condition and is not going to go away, then the question becomes, “What can be done to ensure that we all behave in an inclusive manner and value diversity

Solution

We focus on all the wrong things, like a candidate’s charm, their stellar CV or their credentials before they became our employees. None of this has any bearing on leadership potential.

Thus, there is a clear financial rationale for tackling the issue of unconscious bias head on.

In August 2015, Facebook announced the release of “Managing Unconscious Bias” internal training program, aiming to help employees recognize unconscious prejudices and mitigate their impact. “Managing bias is an essential part of building diverse and high performing organizations,” Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg wrote in a Facebook post announcing the release

Google also has an Unconscious Bias training programme, called “Unconscious Bias at Work”. Last year, Google raised the issue of Unconscious Bias in the public eye through a video looking at how they go about making their employees aware of their own bias

Companies like Deloitte have started implementing “university-blind interviewing” to ensure that whoever is recruiting isn’t unconsciously or consciously favoring a person who attended a certain school.

Further to this, they also implement a screening process called “contextualization,” which uses an algorithm that takes into account both public information and application data to identify applicants who have overcome tough situations. For example, which candidates received high marks in school despite coming from a low-income family or being the first in the family to go to college? Consider implementing a similar screening process or asking questions during the interview that could help reveal this kind of information more quickly.

Sourcing the opinions of ex-colleagues and market contemporaries of a candidate can highlight instances where the recruitment process has been corrupted by unconscious biases in the candidate’s favor

Finally, as a recruiter, focus on getting to know the candidate, their experience, what they’ve overcome and what they can bring to the table before asking school and university backgrounds.

Summing Up

In summary, unconscious biases are a feature of human psychology. From a survival standpoint, bias is a positive and necessary trait. In recruitment, however, bias can be costly. It can cause us to act in a way that is not best for us. If we recognize and understand these biases, we will be more effective in managing them and any possible negative impact.