At a glance
It’s natural to gravitate towards people we like – a preference known as affinity bias, explains Dr Katie Spearritt, CEO and founder of Diversity Partners.
However, in recruitment, the danger of basing hiring decisions on likeability is the creation of homogenous teams that miss out on the benefits associated with diversity, such as creativity and innovation, as well as improved performance, decision-making and risk management.
Better Decisions Through Diversity, a 2010 study from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Illinois, US, looked at the impact of a newcomer on an established group.
Researchers asked groups made up of fraternity and sorority members including either an “in-group” (from the same fraternity and sorority) or “out-group” newcomer (from a different one) to perform a set task.
They found that out-group newcomers gave an established team an advantage, not because they introduced new ideas, but because their presence acted as a catalyst for problem-solving and debate by changing the group’s dynamic.
Homogenous groups, on the other hand, performed worse than the diverse groups, but reported higher levels of confidence.
The familiarity between members inhibited the frank discussion necessary to make a critical analysis of the question at hand – the assumption being that everyone agreed with each other.
Homogeneity increases the risk of groupthink, Spearritt says.
“If we’re all working with people we like, what that means is that we’re not working with people who will challenge us, who will give us a different perspective, who might offer us feedback about how to do something differently,” she says.
These are characteristics she sees as important in today’s workplace.
“[Groupthink] is really dangerous because you’re not going to pick up on risk, you’re not going to encourage creative thinking, [and] you’re not going to hear a different way of changing a process or a service that’s going to benefit customers.”
Diverse viewpoints within a team improve performance.
“You’ve got to have people who will speak up, who will challenge the status quo and will say, ‘Hey, I wonder if we could do something differently?’,” she says.
If team members are more concerned with getting along than engaging in debate, they are less likely to offer criticism or come up with fresh ideas.
At times, diversity can create discomfort – but that’s not a bad thing.
“Conflict is really healthy in organisations,” Spearritt says. “As we invite people to disagree with us, it becomes a more constructive environment.”
A culture of respectful disagreement creates “an expectation that your views are going to be challenged along the way”, she says.
The “understanding that… we need to explore multiple views in order for us to get a really robust solution… leads to better performance outcomes”.
Hiring for the subjective quality of likability can also exacerbate gender biases and discrimination in the workplace.
“We expect warmth when we are meeting women – that’s part of likeability,” Spearritt says.
If a woman is assertive rather than warm in an interview setting, she’s more likely to be penalised for it than a male candidate, who is not subject to the same stereotype.
“We don’t expect warmth as much from men – we expect competence and assertiveness,” she says.
Affinity bias in recruitment
The first step in avoiding affinity bias is to acknowledge its existence as one of the many unconscious biases we all possess.
“Ask yourself, ‘Is the reason I like this person because they are like me, or because they are adding something to the team?’,” Spearritt says.
It’s a question that highlights the critical difference between hiring for culture fit, which can lead to homogeneity, and culture add, a pathway to diversity.
“Often, culture fit means someone like us – someone we’d like to have a beer with – whereas culture add asks how a person might add to the diversity of the team,” she explains.
The switch to hiring for culture add over culture fit represents a significant shift in thinking, she says.
In the past, “we might have hired people who are like us”, she says, leading “to what we call a ‘mirror-tocracy’, not a meritocracy”.
Lynda Clark, director at William Buck, says diversity is a central pillar of the firm’s innovation mindset.
“We want to recruit people… who have different skillsets to the ones that we’ve traditionally had,” she says.
“If we just recruit people who look like us, we’re not doing anything different.”
At William Buck, candidates are always interviewed by more than one person during the recruitment process to ensure against affinity bias.
“One of the dangers in recruiting is falling in love with a candidate,” Clark says. “It needs to be more about whether the person is suitable and the best person for the role. You’ve got to keep that front of mind.”
The successful candidate should be “not the one you like the most, not the one who looks the most like you, not the one who has the same background as you – it’s the best person for the role”, she says.