Similarity Bias in Hiring: How HR Leaders Can Avoid It

How to avoid similarity bias in hiring

Despite recent pushes in several states to undermine workplace diversity and inclusion, it has been proven time and again that a diverse workforce fosters creativity, innovation, and a broader range of perspectives, ultimately driving a company’s success. 

However, achieving demographic diversity isn’t always easy, as hiring practices can inadvertently be influenced by bias— especially the biases that we aren’t consciously aware of.

One type of bias that often goes unnoticed but has significant implications is similarity bias. 

Also known as affinity bias or homophily, this bias occurs when interviewers, HR professionals, and company leaders unintentionally favor candidates who share similar characteristics, backgrounds, or experiences to their own.

What is similarity bias?

Similarity bias is one of several cognitive biases that influences decision-making, particularly in hiring processes. It occurs when individuals prefer candidates who remind them of themselves or with whom they share common traits, such as gender, ethnicity, education, or hobbies. This inclination can unintentionally sway recruiters and hiring managers to select candidates primarily based on perceived similarity rather than their qualifications and potential.

Like many other biases, similarity bias is largely unconscious. These biases are not a reflection of ill intent or prejudice. Rather, they are a result of the brain’s attempt to simplify decision-making processes. That being said, even if there is no ill intent behind the bias, it can still get in the way of building an inclusive and diverse workforce.

Similarity bias in hiring: Why it matters

When similarity bias goes unchecked, it can lead to a lack of diversity in the workforce. By consistently favoring candidates with similar backgrounds and experiences, HR teams inadvertently limit the pool of talent within their organizations. This can result in a homogenous workforce that lacks the richness and varied perspectives that come with diversity.

A homogenous workforce can negatively impact a company in various ways:

  • It limits innovation and creativity as diverse teams bring fresh ideas and approaches to problem-solving.
  • It may hinder the company’s ability to understand and cater to a diverse customer base. This can lead to missed business opportunities. 
  • An absence of diversity may create an uncomfortable and unwelcoming work environment for employees from underrepresented backgrounds, leading to reduced employee morale and retention.

Apart from its detrimental effects on company culture and productivity, similarity bias in hiring can also have legal ramifications. When biased hiring practices result in a lack of diversity and underrepresentation of certain groups, the company may find itself facing discrimination claims. It is essential for company leaders to be aware of and address this issue to ensure compliance with equal opportunity and anti-discrimination laws.

  • Similarity bias is a cognitive bias that occurs when individuals show preference to those who remind them of themselves or with whom they share common traits.
  • In hiring, similarity bias can lead to a homogenized workforce that limits creativity and innovation.
  • Similarity bias can create an unwelcoming environment and can even have legal ramifications if left unchecked.

Identifying similarity bias in hiring practices

Recognizing similarity bias in the hiring process is crucial in order to effectively combat its influence. By understanding the signs and situations where bias may arise, organizations can take proactive steps to ensure fair and inclusive recruitment practices.

Similarity bias examples

Here’s a look at how similarity bias may appear during hiring.

  • Resume screening: HR professionals might inadvertently favor candidates with similar educational backgrounds or previous work experiences, overlooking potentially excellent candidates with diverse backgrounds.
  • Interview dynamics: In an unstructured interview setting, interviewers may form an unconscious connection with candidates who share similar interests or hobbies, affecting their evaluations.
  • Networking and referrals: Relying heavily on employee referrals or networks could perpetuate similarity bias, as people tend to associate with those who are similar to them.

Strategies to mitigate similarity bias

Luckily, similarity bias— along with other forms of unconscious bias— can be avoided. With intentional and structured hiring processes, you can eliminate opportunities for biases to creep in. 

Implementing structured interview techniques

Structured interviews involve asking all candidates the same set of standardized questions and evaluating their responses on the same set of predetermined criteria. This approach helps ensure that each candidate is evaluated consistently and objectively.

To conduct structured interviews:

  • Create standardized questions: Develop a set of relevant and job-specific questions that remain consistent for all candidates.
  • Define evaluation criteria: Clearly outline the evaluation criteria for each question to guide interviewers in their assessments.
  • Use scoring rubrics: Employ scoring rubrics or rating scales to objectively assess each candidate’s responses.

Diverse interview panels

Diversity in the interview panel is essential for combating similarity bias. When multiple interviewers with varied backgrounds and perspectives are involved, potential biases are more likely to be challenged and balanced. 

Here are a few ways to establish diverse interview panels:

  • Cross-department representation: Include interviewers from different departments or teams to ensure diverse viewpoints.
  • Inclusion of underrepresented groups: To the extent you can do so without detracting from their main work responsibilities, seek to actively involve individuals from underrepresented groups in the interview process to counter potential bias.

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Blind recruitment

Blind recruitment involves removing personal information such as names, ages, genders, and photos from resumes and applications. This approach assesses candidates primarily on their qualifications and skills, minimizing the influence of similarity bias. 

Consider these steps to implement blind recruitment:

  • Use anonymized applications: Redact personal information from resumes and applications before they reach the evaluation stage.
  • Focus on skills and experience: Emphasize a candidate’s qualifications, experiences, and achievements during the initial screening.

Training and education

Continuous training and education on unconscious bias are essential for recruiters , interviewers, and hiring managers. By raising awareness of similarity bias and its potential impact, organizations can create a more inclusive and equitable hiring environment. 

Ways to train and education your team include:

  • Unconscious bias workshops: Conduct regular workshops that address unconscious bias in hiring and decision-making.
  • Promote open discussions: Encourage open discussions among employees about diversity, inclusion, and bias.

The bottom line

Similarity bias in hiring is a prevalent, yet often overlooked, obstacle to creating a diverse and inclusive workplace. HR professionals and company leaders play a pivotal role in dismantling this bias and fostering a culture that values diversity.

By understanding the impact of similarity bias and implementing data-driven strategies, organizations can break free from the constraints of homogenous hiring. Embracing diversity and inclusion improves employee satisfaction and engagement and drives innovation and leads to more robust and successful businesses.

As HR leaders, it is our collective responsibility to continuously challenge our biases, adopt inclusive practices, and champion diversity. By doing so, we create a workplace that not only attracts top talent from all walks of life but also celebrates the unique strengths and perspectives that each individual brings to the table.

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