What is affinity bias and how does it affect the workplace?

Joe Caccavale





min read


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Have you ever thought an interview candidate just wasn’t quite the right fit? Perhaps it wasn’t an issue of compatibility. Your decision may have been subconsciously driven by affinity bias.

It’s argued that opposites attract in the dating world, but when it comes to the workplace, the same rarely applies. Studies in neuropsychology indicate that we subconsciously gravitate towards people who share our interests, beliefs, and background. This behaviour is called affinity bias and has the potential to cause numerous problems in the workplace.

Unconscious bias and affinity bias 

Our brains can capture 11 million bits of information in one single moment, but we actually can only process 40 at a time. Therefore, we take often unconscious shortcuts to reach a quicker conclusion. When meeting new people, these rapid-fire judgements happen before we’re even aware of it, assessing them on factors such as gender, ethnicity, sexuality and class. This is referred to as unconscious bias, with affinity bias being one of the common types of bias.

How someone looks, speaks and presents themselves will cause us to make a snap judgement as to the type of person we believe they are. In the workplace, these biases will cause us to make assumptions about a person’s skills, abilities and overall conduct. So what are some specific ways in which affinity bias can manifest itself in the workplace?

Examples of affinity bias in the workplace 

It’s not uncommon for employers to go by their ‘gut instinct’ when making decisions, from hiring new employees to deciding who to promote. However, this inclination is very often driven by affinity bias. Here are some examples of how affinity bias can rear its head in the workplace.

Bad hiring decisions

Affinity bias means that you are not making hiring decisions based on skills. Instead, you could be overlooking someone who is a better fit for the job. While many managers are familiar with the consequences of bad hiring decisions (e.g. decreased productivity and high turnover), they may not know the true cost of bias. When leaders hire the wrong people, they incur a range of direct and indirect costs. Research from PeopleKeep found that hiring the wrong salesperson can cost a company between 50-75% of their annual salary.

Affinity bias can also lead to people regularly being passed over for promotion. When leaders see themselves in their employees, they often want to nurture their potential. While this in itself is positive, it could be to the detriment of other members of a team who are just as talented and eager to climb up the ladder.

According to a 2019 study of “Women in the Workplace”, for every 100 men promoted to a managerial position, only 72 women were given the same opportunity to advance. This is likely due to men being the ones primarily making these decisions. Therefore, if affinity bias is not tackled the same patterns of inequality, it could continue to keep women from advancing.

New ideas being dismissed

Managers need to trust their team to help them decide on a particular course of action. However, everyone’s opinion must be held in the same high regard. Instead, leaders may rely on the familiarity of those who hold similar views and ideas to them.

Affinity bias could cause managers to implicitly value the opinion of certain team members over those they feel they cannot relate to personally. This will deprive them of new learning opportunities and fresh perspectives. Companies will find it much easier to come up with innovative new ideas when everyone can offer their own unique insights.

Employees feeling undervalued

95% of employees say that on-the-job recognition helps to create a positive company culture. However, if leaders praise those who exhibit traits that they admire in themselves, other employees who don’t fit the same mould could once again be overlooked.

A study from Stanford University focuses on what they call a ‘gendered praise divide.’ Researchers found that while women are more likely to receive more generic and lukewarm compliments such as “you’ve had a great year”, men will be called “innovative” or “visionary.” As well as this, men are more frequently lauded for specific achievements. This means that whereas women will be called “a real asset to the team”, men will be praised for exceeding a sales quota by a certain percentage. 

When certain members of the team are held in high esteem (perhaps unfairly) for specific accomplishments, while others receive the same cookie-cutter compliments, this can cause friction amongst employees and have a long-term negative effect on morale and workplace culture.

At Applied, our goal is to design unconscious bias out of the hiring process. Rather than falling prey to affinity bias, leaders can use blind recruitment software to ensure hiring decisions are based purely on skills and merit. Request a demo today to see how the Applied platform can help you get hiring decisions right - first time.