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Do you know that feeling of immediately "clicking" with someone? Whether it's at your company's networking event, your friend's party or… a job interview. There can of course be several reasons for this, but one - admittedly somewhat disillusioning - could be the so-called similar-to-me effect.  

Similar-to-me effect in professional life

We have already written several articles about unconscious bias. As a reminder: unconscious biases are unconscious assumptions or distortions that influence people’s feelings and actions. Even in the workplace. They are important to consider because they reproduce stereotypes of marginalized groups and cause irrational decisions. This includes the similarity bias, also known as the similar-to-me effect, affinity bias or mini-me effect.

As the name suggests, similarity bias leads people to prefer other people who are similar to themselves. This is not only the case at work, but also in other social systems in which we interact with each other and develop preferences. That sounds logical at first. After all, similarities give us something to hold on to: Something we can base conversations on; a shared understanding. 

This stems from the fact that similarity is an important determinant of interpersonal attraction. In personnel selection, there is a similarity effect (hiring one's own image), which leads to decision-makers also hiring according to who resembles their own personal or social characteristics (1). Characteristics that influence decisions include values, attitudes, dislikes, behaviors, hobbies, but also physical, biographical and demographic characteristics such as ethnicity, gender and age. And social characteristics such as hometown, number of siblings, parents’ occupations, partner's occupation, schools or universities attended, fields of study, similar biographies, failures can also lead to a person being perceived as more suitable - regardless of their abilities. 

Conversely, employees are also generally attracted to organizations whose members they believe are similar to themselves in terms of their goals, attitudes, values, demographic and personal characteristics. This value preference in the choice of employer is called the attraction-selection-attrition model (Schneider, 1995). So: similarity attracts. And because of that, there is a high probability that the applicant who most closely resembles the person making the selection will be hired: Either on a personal level - or on a team level, which is often referred to as person-team fit. Particularly in small, agile and less formalized organizations such as start-ups, we often see hiring decisions being justified with the argument "they were simply not a cultural fit". The culture being referred to is the corporate culture. But what does it actually consist of?

Who determines the corporate culture?

There is a lot of literature on what constitutes corporate culture. In simplified terms, it can be said to be an accumulation of artifacts, inscribed patterns of behavior, informal and formal rules and a number of other factors. For example, it does not have to be written down anywhere that people come to work in jeans and everyone can wear what they want. And yet it would be noticeable if a person suddenly walked through the door dressed very formally and sat among all their sweatshirt-wearing colleagues. That would be somehow inappropriate.

It would perhaps be just as "inappropriate" if a person over 50 came to a job interview in a tech start-up consisting of 40 employees aged between 25 and 38. Or if in a team that likes to drink beer after work and play table tennis together, a person applied who abstains from alcohol for religious reasons. Or if a man would like to work in an all-female team. And this is exactly where the problem lies.

If you are looking for a "cultural fit", i.e. someone who fits particularly well into a company or organization, you may actually be looking for someone who causes as little offence as possible. Someone who is a reflection of those who are already there. That's the best recipe for homogeneous teams.

I hire a mini-me

If interviewers even use themselves as a template when in doubt and implicitly look for an exact fit, a vicious circle of homogeneity inevitably arises. If you want a worst practice example, you can look at the so-called Thomas cycle, the homogeneity problem of German management boards that is difficult to break. 

Of course, it makes sense to define values as an organization and to take these into account when looking for new recruits. Combating the similarity bias does not mean hiring people whose ideals are contrary to those of the team. It is more about questioning yourself and working out together what lies behind these ideals and to which extent they are related to the qualifications for the job in question. For example, studies suggest that the people making an assessment are often not actually aware of the perceived similarity and it is therefore not listed as a factor on which hiring decisions are based. And yet: in experiments, applicants who resemble the selectors are rated as more likeable as well as being rated significantly higher on qualification criteria such as expressiveness, interest in the company and initiative (3).

With all the Youtube talks with titles like "Don't hire for skills - hire for attitude", it almost seems as if recruiters no longer need criteria. After all, there are other ways to ask about attitude. Or even just feel it. But no - attitude can also be made measurable using predefined criteria. This is important, because otherwise teams run the risk of matching their "impression" of applicants as they see fit. And are surprised that they all come to the same conclusion.

One thing is clear: if this is the case, a homogeneous selection team will rarely recruit a diverse successor team (2). Assuming that all people have the similarity bias, it is worth making the selection team as diverse as possible. In this way, various biases in the team can be compensated for if necessary. Furthermore, as with all types of unconscious bias, it is important to be honest with yourself. Reflection exercises, challenging each other. If you know that the perceived similarity of an applicant influences your assessment, you can work against it. And if you know that less perceived similarity leads to a lower estimated suitability for a job (3), you can talk openly about this with the other recruiters in advance and set criteria that the team will always return to.

Affinity Bias - Sources

(1) Arnulf Weuster, 2012:Personalauswahl II: Internationale Forschungsergebnisse zum Verhalten und zu Merkmalen von Interviewern und Bewerbern. Gabler Verlag.

(2) Chen et. al, 2008


(3) Graves und Powell, 1988


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