We’re often drawn to people who look, act and sound like us, but learning how to move beyond affinity bias in recruitment and succession processes is crucial to elevating diverse talent.
Though many organisations have active diversity and inclusion programs and inclusive , affinity bias – the phenomenon whereby people act more favourably towards those they see themselves in – is a hard force to shake.
It can mean that candidates from certain universities are more likely to be selected over others, for example, or that culturally and linguistically diverse employees are overlooked for promotions and/or opportunities in majority-white workplaces.
Gamilaroi and Dunghutti author and speaker Marlee Silva, who will be speaking at the upcoming AHRI Diversity and Inclusion Conference next month, says for First Nations people and people of colour, these biases can lead to barriers at the very beginning of the hiring process.
“I think the way that some jobs are advertised and the [recruitment] platforms used is where it starts,” says Silva. “I think there’s an implicit way that we read things where we might think ‘that’s not for us.'”
Being diligent about eliminating implicit racial or cultural bias in job ads is critical for attracting diverse candidates. One way to do this could be to highlight your organisation’s tangible diversity and inclusion practices in the ad or demonstrate the ways in which you engage with local community groups to better educate those in your organisation.
Silva says where the ad appears is also important. Making the effort to look beyond traditional channels to local or First Nations-specific media, as well as building relationships with local First Nations organisations, may help attract a wider range of candidates, she says.
Beyond the hiring process, if the workplace culture is not genuinely inclusive, a worker’s confidence could take a hit and they might not stick around.
“It always goes back to is this sense of not belonging or experiencing imposter syndrome, like you’ve accidentally walked into the wrong space, or they’ve accidentally told the wrong person that they have the job,” says Silva.
So what can HR and employers be doing to address affinity bias at work? There’s plenty of long-term work that needs to occur at a foundational level – and that requires more time to unpack than this short article affords – but there are some small changes you can make now to kick-start the process.
1. Addressing your own bias
Tackling bias happens mostly at an individual level, says Silva.
“[We all need to understand] our conscious and unconscious biases and do the work to eliminate our own racism, which I think all of us have,” she says. “[Everyone], myself included, has to work hard to shed the things that our society has told us about particular groups.”
Unpacking your personal biases might take time, but can even feel liberating, she adds.
“There’s a sense of relief when you can see what you know, what you’ve held on to and what you’re actively trying to get rid of, because people get quite anxious about doing the wrong thing or saying the wrong thing.
“When you can take ownership of, ‘I didn’t know this’ or, ‘I held on to this bias and now I’m actively trying to get rid of it’, then you feel more comfortable to have these conversations and to do the work.”
However, employers can also do a lot to create environments conducive to increased cultural understanding.
For example, cultural competency training can act as a good starting point, although it’s definitely “not the end game”.
“[You could] provide everyone with resources so they can continue to educate themselves… give them space and incentive to continue to educate themselves for 365 days a year, not just during particular events,” says Silva. “That’s the sort of the overarching action I’ve seen work.”
Going back to the hiring process, setting guidelines or using score cards to assess an interview candidate can help avoid basing decisions on the “gut feelings” that often arise due to affinity bias, she adds.
2. Prioritise listening
For individuals and employers wanting to address affinity bias and be more culturally inclusive, Silva says it’s crucial to put assumptions to one side and seek a range of perspectives to broaden your understanding.
“It seems like a really simple thing, but often people forget to prioritise listening. Sometimes, when it comes to [trying to] build really welcoming workplaces, there’s a lot of assuming that happens, or there’s limited listening.”
Learning how to step outside of your own experiences (or those whose experiences mimmic yours) allows you to see other people’s perspectives a little clearer. You could even start to see under-utilised talent that’s sitting right under your nose.
When specifically seeking to be more inclusive of First Nations employees, it’s important to remember that Indigenous people are “not a monoculture” and that you should make room for nuanced opinions, says Silva.
“You might listen to one particular person who has a completely different perspective to the next ten Aboriginal people you meet. So it’s about constant learning, changing and being able to adapt.”
3. Consider inclusion an active process
Practicing consistent inclusion can help shift the culture away from one that breeds affinity bias. It’s crucial to think of diversity and inclusion as an active process, says Silva, rather than a static set-and-forget process.
“[The phrase] ‘diversity and inclusion’ has been misconstrued as an adjective, when it’s really a verb,” she says. “There are a lot of actions that people need to constantly be using to push forward and make workplaces more welcoming and celebratory of people who are different.”
For example, she suggests making sure that diverse employees have strong support systems in place – from their leaders and employers, but also from their colleagues. This can be created through peer networks, she suggests, where employees from certain backgrounds or those with similar lived experiences can share their stories with one another or confide in a trusted confidant.
“[It’s helpful to] provide safe spaces for our First Nations people, and all the other diverse groups that exist in workplaces, to be able to come together and discuss some of these things,” she says.
“So people don’t have to rely on speaking to the one HR manager, but are actually able to speak to peers who can relate to them, and then they can be more of a united front.”
Hear more from Marlee by registering to attend AHRI’s Diversity and Inclusion Conference on 27 April 2022 in Sydney and online. Click here to see the event line-up. AHRI members receive a discounted rate.