Affinity Bias, In-Groups, and Privilege at Work

Author’s note: This article is adapted from my book, Network Beyond Bias.

Each of us needs to understand why our professional networks lack diversity by default and why we should change our default settings. I’ve already covered unconscious bias and what to do about it. This article explores the concepts of affinity bias, in-groups, and privilege in a work setting, as well as the pitfalls of failing to recognize these patterns.

A Cautionary Tale from “HardNoggin Industries”

Our friends at HardNoggin Industries are trying to solve a serious problem. They have noticed lately that when things fall from the sky, it hurts their heads. Robin and Rita have come up with an ingenious idea. They want to institute a new policy requiring HardNoggin employees to wear hard hats, and they’ve already found a supplier!

When they share their idea, Diego and Dana agree this will make employees happier and save the company a lot of money. Everyone is really excited and can’t wait to try on their new HardNoggin Hard Hat.

Well, Almost Everyone…

Fred is one of HardNoggin’s newest employees. He’s still learning about HardNoggin’s business and getting a feel for the company culture. When he hears about the new policy, he has some concerns:

  • Was he intentionally left out of the decision-making process?
  • If so, was it because he is new to HardNoggin?
  • Or does it have to do with his … well, let’s just say it… *whispers* Fred has a flat head. (No one at HardNoggin has mentioned it, of course, but it would be hard not to notice.)
  • Is this new policy a way of telling Fred he’s not welcome?
  • Do they not know — or just not care — about the problems people with flat heads face in the Noggin industry?

What Should Fred Do?

  • If he asks how the new policy affects him, he might be inviting trouble.
  • If he follows the policy without question, he still has the problem of falling-object-induced head pain. He’ll also have trouble keeping the hat on, and he’ll feel silly.
  • Maybe he could wear two hats, but that might be perceived as “flaunting” his flat head or as making fun of the new policy.
  • Perhaps he’s overreacting. Or maybe, just maybe, he should find a new place to work, where his flat head won’t be an issue at all?

What Do You Think Happened at HardNoggin?

  • Were Robin and Rita being malicious in their attempts to solve a problem?
  • Did Diego and Dana set a policy designed to make Fred feel uncomfortable?
  • How can Fred reconcile his specific concerns without calling attention to his “otherness”?

Let’s assume that all the managers and employees at HardNoggin Industries are good people who care very much about each other. No one at HardNoggin wants to offend anyone, and everyone wants new employees to feel welcome. While this may not always be the case, it is almost always true that people have good intentions. And it is also almost always true that people don’t know what they don’t know. Which brings us to…

Affinity Bias, In-Groups, and Privilege

Affinity bias is our tendency to surround ourselves by and spend time with people we believe are “like” us. When we do this collectively, we create in-groups. Almost everyone does this to some extent. We’ve all been in situations where we’re hanging out with others who share our particular worldview. We may say or do things, without even thinking, that would make outsiders feel uncomfortable or unwelcome.

On the other hand, we’ve all been the new person at school or at work. We’ve all shown up somewhere under- or overdressed for the occasion. We’ve all felt like outsiders at some point. Sometimes our differences are obvious to everyone. Sometimes they’re only — and often painfully — obvious to us.

Whether we’re “in” or “out” is usually circumstantial. When we find an environment where we’re “in,” we tend to spend more time there. It’s more comfortable. When our particular in-group is larger, has more authority to make and enforce rules, or determines the cultural norms of a larger group, we experience privilege. Privilege is a very charged word lately, so I’ll give you a minute to collect yourself.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • Privilege is not a constant state of being
  • Having — or not having — privilege is not anyone’s “fault”
  • In any given situation, having privilege implies a certain responsibility to seek outsider perspectives

What Happens If We Don’t Change?

Let’s think about some possible outcomes of the situation at HardNoggin, if not handled properly.

Work Environment

Left unchecked, the new policy at HardNoggin could create “us vs. them” factions. If Fred speaks up, the R&D team may get defensive and think Fred is overreacting. Suppose they talk about it amongst themselves, rather than with Fred directly. Excluding Fred from the discussion will make it more difficult to understand Fred’s point of view. If Fred doesn’t speak up (after all, it’s not his job to educate every round-headed person he encounters), he is likely to feel more and more isolated and resentful as time goes by. He becomes less likely to discuss the issues with the R&D team and less likely to understand their motivations.

Outside of work, Fred probably spends time with other people who have flat heads. He’ll tell them about his experience at HardNoggin and seek their advice. In any number of ways, Fred’s experience could become folklore among his in-group. HardNoggin could be perceived as a bad place to work within the flat-head community. Over time, it will become more and more difficult for HardNoggin to hire and retain talented people with flat heads. The company might tell itself, “They’re just not HardNoggin material” or “Fred is an exception. He’s not like the other people with flat heads.”


As HardNoggin continues to exclude “outsider” perspectives, the R&D group will have difficulty developing products and services that have broad appeal. Assuming their competitors get this right, or as new competitors emerge, HardNoggin could lose market share.

Legal Challenges

Since the hard hat policy was implemented, Fred has been keenly aware of his “outsider” status at work. He applied for a management position and a role in the R&D department, but didn’t get either promotion. In the lunchroom, he notices that he is often eating alone. Last week, someone from R&D told a joke about people with flat heads in a meeting. Fred reached his breaking point. He’s suing HardNoggin for discrimination and a hostile work environment. Now, HardNoggin management has both a legal problem and a public relations nightmare.

Questions for Discussion

  • Think about a time when you felt like Fred, an outsider wondering if you were welcome in a group. What fears, concerns, or questions did you have? How did you resolve them? What was the outcome?
  • Now, identify a situation when you were part of the “in-group,” having a “round-headed conversation” to the exclusion of someone else. Were you aware, at the time, that you were being exclusive? How did you experience this awareness at the time? How do you feel about it now?
  • What positive steps could you take to bridge the insider/outsider gap in your working relationships?

If you’re thinking, “But, Amy, don’t engage in affinity bias. I have lots of flat-headed friends,” check back for my post on assessing the diversity of your professional network or attend a Lead at Any Level webinar!




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