Lord Sugar, you’re hired: How to avoid the similar-to-me bias


So, it’s that time again where everyone watches Lord Alan Sugar put young, inexperienced and hot-headed individuals through the demanding requirements of a talent assessment. That’s right, season 12 of The Apprentice. Throughout the course of 12 tough tasks, 18 candidates will be whittled down until there is 1 final recruit, who will become Lord Sugar’s business partner. Besides the comedy and the somewhat awkward acting, there are fundamental recruitment lessons that assessors might be able to take away from the show.

Are there errors in Lord Alan’s approach to talent identification?

One common occurrence when assessing new recruits is assessors succumbing to the ‘similar-to-me’ bias. As the name suggests, it’s an unconscious psychological bias where we often overestimate the abilities of those who are similar to us.

It sounds obvious and may resonate with many, but perhaps not Lord Alan Sugar. Remember the young man who won the Apprentice last year? The direct, confident, brash and self-diagnosed salesman, sound familiar? Was he selected because he was the most highly skilled candidate for the role? Perhaps not. He was a hardened sales veteran that appeared to many as being a young Lord Sugar.

You might argue that, given Lord Sugar’s successful career, this is a great way to hire an apprentice. However, hiring someone because you see similarities to your younger self could seem a short-term and narrow-minded reason for selection. It can also affect the diversity of your workplace, which research suggests might tamper with team’s creative output and success.

How can you avoid this bias?

Well, the first step is simply to be aware of it. It’s perhaps not a factor that organisations would be aware of as it’s an unconscious bias that many of us have. The assessor may take to a certain candidate but there may not be a clear reason as to why. This is something to make note of. Be conscious of why you are interested in this recruit. What is it about them that stands out?

Another method which can help avoid this bias is having multiple assessors. The more diverse your organisation’s panel for recruitment, the more detailed and objective the assessment of an individual is likely to be. It is likely to expose more of an individual’s strength and development areas when being analysed by multiple people, which will ultimately be harder for the ‘similar-to-me’ bias to play a role. It sounds a simple solution, but 2 heads are better than 1.

A final way to reduce the similar-to me bias might be to rate candidates through a systematic process against pre-defined behavioural criteria which are linked to performance in the role. This is vastly preferable to subjective ratings or judgements against vague or abstract terms like “integrity”, “fit” or “commercial acumen”. Having behavioural criteria to measure the candidate against can partially remove the potential for personal bias to become a factor and allow a fairer comparison between candidates to be made.

And, through being aware of these tips when hiring within your organisation, you may just find your perfect apprentice.

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