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How to overcome affinity bias: A step-by-step guide

12 min read
affinity bias

According to Deloitte’s 2019 State of Inclusion survey, 39% of respondents claim to experience bias in the workplace at least once a month. One form of bias that employees might encounter is affinity bias. This occurs when someone unconsciously favors those with shared interests, backgrounds, or experiences. Although most commonly seen in recruitment, this form of bias can impact many aspects of your organization.

So, what is affinity bias and what are the causes and consequences? What strategies can you implement to reduce the risk of affinity bias in your business?

Read on to find out the answers to all these questions and more.

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Affinity bias definition: What does it mean? 

Affinity bias is a form of unconscious or implicit bias. Essentially, it occurs when someone favors and feels more comfortable with those who are seemingly alike in some way. This might as a result of shared interests, backgrounds, cultures, hobbies, or personal experiences. This unconscious shared affinity can affect judgements, decisions, and behaviors. It can also result in unconsciously rejecting those who act or look different.

Because affinity bias, also referred to as similarity bias, works on an unconscious level, we are often not even aware of our biases or how they might affect others. Instead, we believe that the decisions we make relating to the people we gravitate to are logical and objective. We are blind to the fact that we are naturally drawn to those who remind us of ourselves

This can be a big problem in the workplace, especially in terms of hiring and recruitment. Unconscious bias in the workplace can lead to exclusion and seriously impact an organization’s ability to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. It can also cause us to make assumptions about a person’s skills, abilities, and overall conduct and performance.

Difference between affinity bias and confirmation bias 

As we mentioned above, affinity bias is one of many difference types of bias. Another common type is confirmation bias.

So, what’s the difference?

With affinity bias, we favor those who we feel are similar to us. We feel a natural connection as a result of one or many shared affinities. For example, if you meet someone at a party who studied at the same college or grew up in the same town as you, then you will feel instantly connected through your shared experience

Confirmation bias, in contrast, is the tendency to search for, interpret, focus on, and remember information that aligns with our preconceived opinions. If we make a snap judgement about someone, whether based on conscious or unconscious affinity bias, we then look for information that supports and confirms our belief. We want to believe that our initial assessment was correct, so we try hard to find evidence to back it up. 

The danger here is that, by focusing so much on looking for evidence that confirms our affinity bias (or lack of), we ignore signs that might support a conflicting judgement. And this one-sided approach makes it impossible to be objective. That’s why it’s so important to develop an awareness of our unconscious affinity and confirmation biases, both in the workplace and beyond. The more we understand how they influence us, the easier it will be to overcome our biases and make more objective judgements and decisions.

Causes of affinity bias 

To understand the true causes of affinity bias, we need to look back through our history as a species.

We have evolved this form of bias to help us make quick judgements when we meet someone. When we were hunter-gatherers, for example, we needed to be able to process information quickly when we met someone new to determine if they were a member of our tribe or if they posed a risk to our survival. So, we developed a psychological shortcut that helped us react quickly to unknown situations. 

Jumping forward to the present day, when we meet someone new, we still rely on these snap judgements to determine whether we feel comfortable. We form opinions based on gender, age, ethnicity, and class. We take in information relating to how someone looks, how they speak, and how they present themselves. However, although this unconscious bias has helped us survive throughout our history as a species, these implicit biases also cause us to make false assumptions. And this can be dangerous.

As humans, we are also heavily influenced by our culture and environment. We make decisions based on the direct and indirect experiences we have with members of other social groups. This includes our upbringing, our education, the media we are exposed to, and even the jokes we share with our peers. All these factors influence our attitudes and beliefs

Ultimately, we feel safe and comfortable when we are with those who are like us. We are more relaxed, and we find it easier to communicate with people who share the same beliefs and values as us. It gives us a sense of validation and it protects us from confrontation. But this isn’t necessarily a good thing. In fact, it can be very damaging.

Consequences of affinity bias 

So, why is affinity bias so damaging? What are the consequences?

For one thing, although seeking out people who share our values and interests can help us form better relationships, if we focus too much on similarities and differences, it can lead to tunnel vision. This prevents us from accessing new perspectives and experiences. It can also lead to the marginalization and discrimination of certain individuals or groups of people.

Moreover, by only mixing with those who are like us, we end up repeatedly reinforcing our opinions and cultural beliefs. As a result, we are unable to challenge ourselves and grow as individuals. We also become less empathetic and understanding of others and, in extreme cases, begin to fear and avoid those we see as different

In terms of the workplace, affinity bias can:

  • Severely impact your hiring processes.
  • Prevent you from nurturing a diverse, equitable, and inclusive working environment.
  • Influence your performance management initiatives.
  • Prevent certain groups or individuals from accessing opportunities for promotion or development.
  • Result in certain employees feeling unheard and undervalued.
  • Prevent us from considering all options and cause us to make bad business decisions.
  • Cause division and conflict in the workplace.
  • Curb creativity and innovation.

Affinity bias examples

Affinity bias can negatively impact many aspects of your business. Let’s take a look at some of the examples we just saw in a bit more detail.

Affinity bias in recruitment 

Hiring and recruitment is the most common area of your business where you are likely to see affinity bias. After all, your hiring managers are only human so it’s only natural that they would fall back on unconscious attitudes and beliefs when they make hiring decisions. However, it’s vital that your hiring managers learn to identify and address their unconscious biases so that you can develop a fairer and more objective recruitment process. Otherwise, it can be very damaging to your business.

For example, if a hiring manager or interviewer is led by certain biases, then they are not objectively evaluating candidates. Instead of making hiring decisions based on a candidate’s skills, abilities, qualifications, and experience, they are relying on emotions and a “gut feeling”. They think someone is a good fit because they relate to them on a personal level. As a result, they are more likely to make bad hiring decisions that can be costly. They will probably also pass up a lot of quality candidates

All this will impact turnover, retention, and overall productivity. It will also impact your culture and environment if everyone has the same ideas, beliefs, and perspectives. Your organization will be less diverse, less innovative, and less creative. Ultimately, affinity-based hiring is far more likely to lead to a toxic, non-inclusive, discriminatory workplace where nobody wants to work.

Performance reviews 

Performance reviews are an integral function of the HR department. They help you gain insight, and they provide employees with valuable feedback that can help them reach their performance objectives. However, employee performance management is not without its challenges. One of these challenges is knowing how to detect and address affinity bias in performance reviews. 

So, how can affinity bias impact your performance management processes?

Bias in performance reviews can falsely inflate or deflate your performance metrics, giving you a false reading of the performance levels of your company. A biased review also makes it harder to judge how well an employee is actually doing. This can result in employee frustration and demotivation if an individual feels they have been held back unfairly from a promotion.

If a manager is influenced by affinity bias, they might rate an employee as a high performer just because they share an affinity with them. Or they might judge someone unfavorably just because they don’t feel a connection with them. Instead of objectively evaluating an employee’s progress, skills, and areas for improvement, they form conclusions based on preconceived opinions. As a result, employees aren’t provided with constructive feedback that can help them develop. And this can impact the overall productivity of the organization.

Employees feeling undervalued 

If there is an issue with affinity bias in the workplace, certain employees can begin to feel unheard and undervalued. If leaders only praise and reward employees who they feel an affinity with or who display traits that they admire, then other employees will probably feel overlooked. This affinity-based divide can cause tension between employees and have a negative impact on employee morale, engagement, and productivity.

Leaders dismissing new, different ideas

Managers who are at risk of affinity bias are less likely to listen to the ideas and opinions of those who they don’t identify with. Instead, they look to those with similar opinions to confirm their own beliefs. This can seriously limit a company’s ability to access fresh, new perspectives that challenge the status quo and help the organization grow and develop.

Employees held back from promotions

Finally, affinity bias can negatively impact the promotion process as managers are more likely to promote those that they relate to more. If a manager sees themself in one of their team members, they will instinctively want to help them nurture their potential. Whilst this isn’t a bad thing in itself, it can impact the workplace in general if promising employees are repeatedly overlooked because they don’t fit the mold.  

For example, 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 because men were making most of these hiring decisions. If left unaddressed, affinity bias could continue to prevent women from climbing the ladder and overcoming gender bias in the workplace.

How to overcome affinity bias: Step-by-step 

Affinity bias is an unconscious social bias that we have developed over our history as a species. It affects everyone to some degree and can be very difficult to identify, and even harder to eliminate. However, there are a number of things that you can do to overcome affinity bias in the workplace

The following best practices will help you educate your workforce and create fairer and more objective internal processes. By following these strategies, your employees will learn to recognize their own biases. And this is the first step towards developing a more diverse and inclusive working environment

Recognize affinity bias in the workplace 

The first step towards true inclusion is recognizing what affinity bias is and why it can be a problem. You and your team need to understand how it affects judgements and the way we treat others. The more everyone in your organization understands what it is, the easier it will be for them to be mindful of unconscious biases.

Encourage your managers to recognize and challenge their own unconscious affinity biases. When they find themself naturally gravitating to someone, they should stop for a moment to think why. Remind them of the importance of listening to the ideas and suggestions of everyone on their team without prejudice. Proactively avoiding these natural biases will train them to rely less on unconscious stereotypes and more on objective decisions.

Invest in affinity bias training

With so many hiring managers these days searching for shared organizational values when they evaluate candidates, the risk of affinity bias is rising. That’s why it’s so important to train your hiring managers so that they understand how to find the right balance between seeking a cultural fit and avoiding affinity bias.

Offer your hiring managers affinity bias training to help them be more conscious of and accountable for their decisions. It’s also a good idea to expand this training initiative to your departmental managers. This will help all your leaders identify their own affinity biases so that they can work on correcting them.

Create an anonymous hiring process

Look at other ways that you can make your hiring process more objective and less susceptible to affinity bias

For example, do you have a diverse hiring team? Do your hiring managers and interviewers come from a range of different backgrounds? Do they have different values, experiences, and perspectives?

Randomization is another great way to create a more anonymous hiring process. For instance, you could use blind hiring software to anonymize candidate profiles and restrict access to demographic data. Or you could use applicant tracking software to automatically match qualified candidates to open positions. All this will help your HR team make hiring decisions based on skills and experience rather than shared affinities.

Enhance your performance review processes 

Performance reviews can be a great opportunity for your managers to reflect on their own biases. Encourage them to be more mindful and conscious of their own assumptions, stereotypes, and affinity biases. This will help your performance appraisals become less subjective so that feedback is more fact-based and constructive.

Another great way to reduce affinity bias in performance reviews is to focus on performance metrics as much as possible. You also need to make sure you set clear performance goals so that progress is easy to measure. Tools like Factorial’s 360 performance review template and 9-box grid can help you create a more skills-based evaluation model. Also, make sure each step of your performance management cycle is clearly documented. This will help your managers obtain a clear and objective picture of an employee’s overall performance.

Finally, the best way to reduce affinity bias in your performance reviews is to focus on creating a culture of trust. Encourage your managers to develop better relationships with their teams and promote an environment of positive performance management and diversity. Reward your top performers and offer training and support to any underperformers. This will help you create a culture where employees experience fairness and equity throughout the entire performance management cycle.

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Collect regular employee feedback 

Make sure you collect regular feedback from your employees so that all team members feel heard and valued. Collecting these insights can also help you identify areas of your business that might be impacted by affinity bias. Your managers can find out more about how their leadership style might be impacting their teams and whether they display any affinity biases that they might not be aware of.

Once you collect feedback, listen to it. If you uncover any blind spots, address them. Make sure your employees understand that you value their suggestions and that you want to create a culture and environment based on equity, not bias.

Promote diversity, equity, and inclusion

Finally, the best way to overcome affinity bias in the workplace is to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

If you haven’t already, design and implement DEI initiatives that help you create a culture of belonging where everyone feels heard and valued. For example, you could launch employee resource groups, focus on promoting more inclusive hiring, and implement initiatives to help build diverse leadership. Nurturing a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion in this way can be a great way to reduce recruiting bias and create a safe space for your employees to develop their professional skills. Take a look at this post on diversity and inclusion best practices for more inspiration.

It’s also important to track your diversity metrics on a regular basis to assess the impact that your DEI initiatives are having on your workplace culture. DEI technology such as Factorial’s HRIS enables you to access all your DEI metrics through a centralized DEI dashboard. This data is displayed in a range of visual formats, including graphs and charts. This makes it easier to understand where you are in terms of your DEI benchmarks so that you can continuously improve your diversity efforts, increase inclusivity, and reduce the risk of bias and discrimination in the workplace.

Ultimately, although we can’t fully control our unconscious biases, we can work to identify and correct them. The more we, as organizations, are able to manage and overcome affinity bias, the easier it will be to build a more diverse, equitable, inclusive, and productive working environment.

FAQ about affinity bias

1. What is affinity bias?

Affinity bias is an unconscious bias where people favor those who are similar to them in interests, backgrounds, or experiences.

2. How does affinity bias differ from confirmation bias?

Affinity bias involves favoring those similar to us, while confirmation bias is about seeking information that supports our pre-existing beliefs.

3. Why is affinity bias a problem in the workplace?

It leads to exclusion, hampers diversity and inclusion, and can result in biased judgments about a person’s skills and performance.

4. What are the causes of affinity bias?

It’s an evolutionary psychological shortcut for quick judgment, influenced by our culture, environment, and the need for comfort with similar individuals.

5. What are the consequences of affinity bias?

It can lead to marginalization, lack of diversity, reinforced cultural beliefs, poor business decisions, and a non-inclusive workplace.

6. How does affinity bias affect recruitment?

It can lead to biased hiring decisions based on personal connections rather than skills, resulting in a less diverse and innovative workforce.

7. Can affinity bias impact performance reviews?

Yes, it can lead to biased evaluations, where employees are judged based on personal affinities rather than actual performance.

8. How can affinity bias make employees feel undervalued?

Employees may feel overlooked and undervalued if they don’t share affinities with leaders, affecting morale and productivity.

9. What steps can be taken to overcome affinity bias?

Recognize and educate about bias, invest in bias training, create anonymous hiring processes, enhance performance reviews, collect employee feedback, and promote diversity and inclusion.

10. How can technology help in reducing affinity bias?

Tools like blind hiring software and performance evaluation templates can aid in making objective decisions and reducing biases in the hiring and review processes.

Cat Symonds is a freelance writer, editor, and translator. Originally from Wales, she studied Spanish and French at the University of Swansea before moving to Barcelona where she lived and worked for 12 years. She has since relocated back to Wales where she continues to build her business, working with clients in Spain and the UK.  Cat is the founder of The Content CAT: Content And Translation, providing content development and translation services to her clients. She specializes in corporate blogs, articles of interest, ghostwriting, and translation (SP/FR/CA into EN), collaborating with a range of companies from a variety of business sectors. She also offers services to a number of NGOs including Oxfam Intermón, UNICEF, and Corporate Excellence - Centre for Reputation Leadership.  For more information or to contact Cat visit her website ( or send her a message through LinkedIn.

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