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Glossary: HR & Recruiting Definitions

What is proximity bias?

Proximity bias, also called distance bias, is the psychological concept of instinctively favouring people closer to us in (physical) proximity. In the workplace, proximity bias can lead to the favouritism of some and the exclusion or negligence of others.

Proximity bias may unconsciously affect your workplace and the way some employees are either included or excluded, whether it’s from making team decisions or being part of the company culture. Find out below what this form of bias entails, what it means for your business, and what you can do about it.

Proximity bias definition

In social psychology, proximity bias refers to the principle that people who are closer to each other are more likely to form a relationship than those who are further away. This proximity principle often relates to spacial distance, such as forming a stronger bond with someone sitting next to you than with someone on the other side of the room.

However, it can also refer to cultural proximity bias. For example, one study found that World Cup ski jumping judges tended to give higher scores to participants who shared their cultural background.

As such, proximity can be interpreted in many ways and relate to many interpersonal aspects. Social psychologists offer two main reasons for people forming groups with others close by rather than with people further away:

  1. Humans tend to like things that are familiar and that they feel they can relate to
  2. The more often humans are in contact and interact with certain people, the more likely they are to form a bond

Please note: The proximity principle doesn’t always result in a positive relationship between two parties. Meaning, proximity bias can also result in two people disliking each other and actually breeding contempt rather than forming a bond.

However, when referring to proximity bias in relation to the workplace, the focus is normally on favourable relationships between people in proximity.

Proximity bias in the workplace

Proximity bias also happens in the workplace. For example, two colleagues who sit in the same room are likely to have a stronger relationship than two colleagues who sit on opposite sides of the office. This is natural and doesn’t have to be good or bad.

Similarly, cultural (or any other form of) proximity bias can also occur in your workplace and isn’t necessarily a positive or negative indicator. For example, if you have several autistic employees on your team, they might grow a stronger connection due to their shared experience. But this doesn’t have to impact the performance of them or other team members.

However, it can have an effect on your company culture and how your teams work together. And this can become a negative effect, and an issue to deal with, once proximity of some results in the exclusion (or even discrimination) of others. And that in turn can negatively impact the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within your organisation.

Hybrid, remote, and proximity bias

Furthermore, proximity bias in the workplace has gained widespread attention recently due to the rise of companies shifting their way of working into either hybrid work or remote work.

In particular, employees working remotely (whether full or part-time) risk being excluded from the decision-making process because they are not physically present when the decisions are being made by their in-office colleagues.

Moreover, there is a stigma surrounding remote workers that they are less productive and deliver worse results if they are not physically present in the office. In fact, one Stanford University research even found that employees working from home saw their promotion rate drop compared to in-office workers.

We dive deeper into how proximity bias in the hybrid working model negatively affects your business in our article The dark side of hybrid work: How proximity bias can lead to favouritism.

Why proximity bias matters

We’ve already hinted at some downsides of proximity bias above. Let’s quickly list the top reasons why you should take this seriously and try to prevent it in your organisation. You’ll find a list of ways to prevent it after that.

  • Lower staff engagement, as some employees will feel less recognised and excluded or discriminated against.
  • Not using the full potential of your team as you forget or pass-over remote workers.
  • The in-office vs. remote divide often runs parallel to certain cultural and gender divides, studies have found. The result is that proximity bias towards remote workers may simultaneously lead to bias towards groups of people with a certain background.
  • Exclusion of certain groups may lead to your team growing less diverse and more homogenous over time, which in turn can have a negative impact on financial performance as well.
  • Higher employee turnover as staff working from home will soon start looking else for work if they notice they are not treated fairly.
  • Negative effect on the image of the company as a great place to work, thus harming the employer branding.

How to prevent proximity bias in the workplace

As with most (unconscious) cognitive biases, preventing proximity bias can be difficult. However, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

The most important way of achieving this is by focusing on creating a company culture that promotes diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Here are 5 tips on how to reduce proximity bias in your team (with links to additional resources that help you achieve this):

  1. Start during the recruitment process by focusing on hiring for culture add rather than cultural fit, so you build a diverse workforce with a lower chance of cliques forming in your team due to proximity bias.
  2. Include remote workers in meetings and document discussions and decisions digitally (for example on Slack or in email threads). This ensures that everyone has an equal opportunity to partake in company processes and decision-making, no matter where they prefer to work.
  3. Focus on strengthening your company culture through team-building activities. This helps acceptance and the formation of relationships between team members of different backgrounds, rather than employees grouping together based on their (unconscious) proximity bias.
  4. Build a strong feedback culture in your organisation where everyone in the team feels empowered to speak up. Not only does such a culture encourage the free flow of ideas and information, but it also encourages open communication between everyone on the team, thus strengthening team bonds.
  5. Foster a psychologically safe workplace for everyone in your team to thrive.

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