A few weeks ago, Ryder Cullison of Hire-Intelligence, LLC wrote a blog post about the dangers of mirror image hiring. Mirror image hiring operates along the assumption that if I’m a successful employee, then I should hire employees who share the same attributes. As an I/O psychologist, I wanted to weigh in on what theory and research in I/O Psychology says about mirror image hiring.
Essentially, mirror image hiring represents what is referred to in I/O psychology as the “similar-to-me” bias. The similar-to-me bias has been found to operate in judgments of fit in the selection process1, performance evaluations2, and even in teachers’ grades of student performance3.We actually engage in the “similar-to-me” bias quite often in our daily lives. For example, who do you sit with at lunch? Who do you invite over for dinner? Who are the people with whom you prefer to work? Who are your neighbors? We probably do not even think about it, but implicitly we prefer to interact with people who are more similar to us with respect to our characteristics (whether it be personality, values, interests, educational status, etc.). We do not realize that we have these preferences because they operate at the implicit level, beneath our conscious awareness. These implicit biases are normal and quite adaptive in that they help us to make decisions in our daily lives without having to exhaust our limited cognitive resources poring over the endless amount of perceptual data that we encounter on a day-to-day basis.
The problem comes in when these biases influence judgments of others when making employment decisions. For example, let’s assume that I interview someone for a job who happens to be from the same college from which I graduated. Odds are that I evaluate this person more favorably than others simply because we share a common background. The implicit assumption that I make (again, at an unconscious level) is that since I am hardworking, dependable, smart, etc., and I graduated from this college that this person who also comes from the same college must also share these characteristics. Now, let’s also assume that the college I graduated from is 96% white. Odds are that the person I am interviewing is also white. In the long run, this bias could potentially lead to a pattern of hiring discrimination and create adverse impact.
The “similar-to-me” bias could also lead to creativity stagnation and lack of innovation in organizations. This happens because as organizations continue to hire employees that have the same backgrounds and experiences as those already in the organization, employees begin to think and behave in the same fashion due to their shared experiences. According the Attraction-Selection-Attrition model, employees who don’t “fit in” with other employees because of their lack of shared backgrounds and experiences will ultimately choose to leave the organization, thus leaving behind only those employees who are most alike to each other. This points to the importance of diversity in organizations, not just from a legal and social justice perspective, but also from the standpoint of encouraging creativity and innovation in organizations.
The best way to combat the “similar-to-me” bias in employment decision making is to properly train interviewers and raters. Training should point out these biases and make interviewers and raters aware of the long-term consequences of making such errors. Training should also focus on the importance of documenting job-related behaviors. As attention shifts from traits and characteristics towards behaviors, the likelihood of committing errors such as the “similar-to-me” bias becomes minimized. In short, we cannot control our implicit biases, but by acknowledging the existence of these biases we can control their impact on employment decisions.
1 Rynes, S. L., & Gerhart, B. (1990). Interviewer assessments of applicant “fit”: An exploratory investigation. Personnel Psychology, 43, 13-35.
2 Turban, D. B., & Jones, A. P. (1988). Supervisor-subordinate similarity: Types, effects, and mechanisms. Journal of Applied Psychology, 73, 228-234.
3 Westerman, J. W., Nowicki, M. D., & Plante, D. (2002). Fit in the classroom: Predictors of student performance and satisfaction in management education. Journal of Management Education, 26, 5-18.