Affinity bias and cultural fit
Hiring for cultural fit is affinity bias at work.
“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 safe and not disruptive. Affinity bias occurs when hiring managers show a marked preference for candidates to whom they can relate and plays the over arching role in the selection decision. It is a safe choice.
Philippe is a French investment banker who joined a London-based outfit in 2015. Within 12 months the team had taken on a number of new hires all of whom were French-speaking, as either a first or second language. They were French, Belgian, Moroccan, and Québécois. All without exception had attended a “Grandes Ecoles,” the French equivalent of a top Ivy League school. Although Philippe seemed open to interviewing and considering candidates with more diverse backgrounds, in the end the more familiar and dependable candidates prevailed. It was all about his perception of “fit.”
The role of chemistry
The reality is we all have a preference to being around people we click with either on a personal or professional basis. You will frequently hear the phrase “the chemistry wasn’t right” as a reason for debriefing candidates. So if we all prefer working or having relationships with individuals who make us feel secure and feel we can trust, then the converse also applies. We don’t enjoy being around people who make us feel insecure, ill at ease and as if we are not in reliable and trustworthy hands.
So in a personal setting it can make sense, even if it might be a little limiting. Affinity bias works. Why would we spend time with people we are not relaxed around and we feel are untrustworthy? Aren’t we repeatedly told that people do business with those they like and trust? But in a professional sense it means we are restricting our hires or network contact to PLU (People Like Us) or Mini-Mes based on affinity bias.
All dominant cultural groups have a tendency towards affinity bias. This bias can be based on race, age, religion, schools attended, or any other distinguishing demographic feature. But even within primary cultures there can be sub-groups. A German electronics company reported a logistics function where the team was comprised of hires from the Indian sub-continent because the EVP was Indian. So one of the major deciding components is the influence and power of senior stakeholders on hiring decisions.
Impact on diversity and inclusion
With affinity bias being so pervasive and embedded in different ways in corporate culture – how can we successfully achieve diverse and inclusive organisations?
The answer is to proceed with intention. We have to have inbuilt systemic checks and balances to ensure that the diversity message prevails. This is not an easy process as changing human behaviour long-term has only a 20% success rate. What we need is to create is a culture which is open to receiving feedback which allows us to question any potential affinity bias influencing a key decision-making process.
Most organisations are confused about what diversity and inclusion really means let alone making it happen. But any benefits gained in shifting to a truly diverse hiring culture fail very quickly if employees feel uncomfortable challenging the prevailing views.
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