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How to spot if your bias is showing during the hiring process and the steps to take to mitigate the issue.

While bias is slowly starting to be acknowledged as an issue in the tech hiring process,  it is typically addressed – consciously or unconsciously – as bias against certain groups of people. But there is another type of bias that is just as common, but less frequently discussed: bias toward individuals who look, act, or think like you. This is known as affinity bias and can have a significant negative impact on your hiring process.

Just what is affinity bias, and how does it play out in the engineering hiring process? A definition I like states that, “affinity bias is the tendency to favor people who share similar interests, backgrounds, and experiences with us. Because of affinity bias, we tend to feel more comfortable around people who are like us. We also tend to unconsciously reject those who act or look different to us.”

After being laid off at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, I spent a full year interviewing for new roles before receiving an offer. I would estimate I had an average of one interview a day that year, yet I received no offers. 

Thinking back over my interviewing experiences, I noticed that every interviewer on the engineering teams was male and that, except for three or four organizations, the engineering teams at these companies were composed entirely of men. Was this a case of affinity bias in action?

How does this impact diversity and inclusion efforts?  

One company I interviewed with in 2022 impressed me by proactively voicing their commitment to gender diversity in the screening interview.

I had noticed before interviewing that their engineering team was, at that point, exclusively male, and I was, therefore, a little wary of what I might encounter. However, this homogeneity was preemptively addressed in my first interview as something the company was actively trying to rectify, which gave me a much more optimistic outlook on the company and my prospects within it. Though I didn’t end up getting an offer, I had an overall positive experience and was encouraged by their vocal commitment to creating an inclusive engineering team.

A year later, I applied for a new vacancy on their team. Now that I had the depth of experience they were looking for the last time around, I decided to reach out and apply. This time, I was interviewing with an entirely different set of people and didn’t end up making it past the first round. Surprised by the changes since my last interview, I decided to investigate. In the year that had passed, their engineering team had almost doubled in size, but none of the new hires were women. A year later, the entire engineering team remained exclusively male.

How could this happen in a company that seemed to be aware of its own blind spots and claimed to place significant value on rectifying them? By continuing to build out an exclusively male team, they were exposing themselves to a deeper undercurrent of affinity bias, making it far more difficult to improve their gender diversity.

How can engineering leaders take action to avoid affinity bias? 

This type of bias is particularly insidious because it can be difficult to recognize and counterbalance in your hiring process. The best antidote is to have a diverse hiring panel. But if your team isn’t already diverse, that can be hard to accomplish – hence the vicious cycle of homogeneous hiring panels perpetuating homogeneous engineering teams.  

To someone who often sees themselves reflected in hiring panels and engineering teams, it may seem trivial, or even like unnecessary box-ticking, to insist that a variety of demographics and experiences be represented on the interview panel. But as someone who can count on one hand the number of times I have seen myself represented in these situations, I cannot stress enough the importance of having a  broad cross-section of individuals participating in the interview process – and on the flip side, the negative impact (for both the candidate and the team) of having a totally homogenous set of interviewers.

Getting creative with your hiring panel

I suggest getting creative with your hiring panel and process. If your engineering team and leadership comprises largely one demographic, you may need to bring in outside perspectives to participate in the interview process. This could look like having cross-functional team members (i.e., external to the engineering team) be part of the process, or bringing in a consultant to take part in the interviews.

Whatever the method, three things should be true: these participants should be:

  1. Part of a demographic that is unrepresented on the internal engineering team.
  2. Briefed with an understanding of affinity bias and how to counteract it.
  3. Given equal say in the hiring decision, along with other participants.

Whether or not you can include external voices in your interviews, a non-negotiable for any process should be to ensure that the hiring team is informed on the issue of affinity bias in a way that enables them to engage and begin to check their own biases.  

A good starting point is for engineering leaders to reflect on the following questions in  order to check their own biases/processes:  

  • Why do you believe [existing screening method] is an effective way of screening candidates? Have you ever tried alternate screening methods?
  • Who is on your hiring panel? Does this create an inclusive and unbiased experience for candidates?
  • If your current engineering team and leadership lacks diversity, where can you draw from to ensure that multiple points of view and backgrounds are represented in the interview process? 

We inherently have bias toward those who look, act, speak, and live like us, which we need to actively address in ourselves and our processes if we are truly committed to diversity and inclusion. 

I am hoping that with this newfound awareness, leaders can begin to tackle the issue itself in concrete ways that can be introduced into their existing processes, creating a better environment for engineers and paving the way for building a more diverse and inclusive team.