How People Analytics Can Dismantle Workplace Homophily

How People Analytics Can Dismantle Workplace Homophily

Table of Contents

Wrestle Workplace Homophily to the Ground

Homophily may not be common everyday term but it’s far from new, and people analytics like Organizational Network Analysis (ONA) play a role in dismantling the monster. Grasping its presence in the workplace and wrestling homophily to the ground couldn’t be more germane when matters of diversity, equity and inclusion are duking it out in the talent ring. 

What is Homophily?

In simple terms “homophily” is how birds of a feather tend to flock together. How people naturally seek out or gravitate to people like themselves, which leads to group-think or perception bias. 

The Origins of Homophily

New York Times Magazine writer recounts how “in the 1950s,  sociologists coined the term “homophily” — love of the same — to explain our inexorable tendency to link up with one another in ways that confirm rather than test our core beliefs.” At the time of writing, journalist Aaron Retica suggested the term was enjoying a renaissance to explain American electorate polarization.

The homophily phenomenon is insidious and despite the best efforts of HR professionals, it assails work environments of all kinds. 

Homophily in the Workplace

As much as we’d like to think the “old boys’ club” is but a distant workplace memory, it’s not.

Arevelatory 2021 study from Weill Cornell Medicine and The Science of Diversity & Inclusion, for instance, investigated why women are disproportionately underrepresented in leadership positions in medicine and academia.  

Using a people analytics approach known as Organizational Network Analysis (ONA) researchers combed through 1.6 million email connections between 345 full-time faculty members over a three-month period. What they found supported their double-pronged hypotheses. 

1) Men and women build and maintain different relationship networks:  

  • Men demonstrate homophily to a greater extent than women  
  • Women have significantly fewer relationships with men than men have with men 
  • In surgical departments, men maintained strong relationships with other men 73% of the time and with women 27% of the time 
  • Women, in contrast, had 58% of relationships with men and 42% with women.  

2) Women are not similarly included within the organization and do not receive the same sponsorship as male counterparts: 

  • There is a bias among men in senior positions to gravitate towards men in less-senior positions 
  • While women account for just over one-third of total surgical faculty, they represent less than 10% of the full Professor group   
  • Given the lower number of women at senior levels, women do not have as significant an opportunity to progress as men 

The Connection Between Homophily and Organizational Network Analysis (ONA)

Organizational network analysis provides a glimpse into the role of workplace interactions and the extent to which they contribute to career progression – by gender, age, socio-economic status, ethnicity or any other factors of your choosing. It’s a form of people analytics that creates a visual map of how individuals work together and communicate using both active (via employee surveys) and passive communication data (via collecting email, messenger, video conference meta-data). 

How Traditional Work Environments Enable Homophily

Traditionally, companies have used organizational charts to map out how they’re structured and how they function. These charts are made up of lines and boxes that represent teams, employees, and the hierarchies that exist within them.  

The problem with organizational charts is that they don’t represent the realities of how companies actually function.  

Organizations work as systems, with people collaborating and sharing information across teams and hierarchies.


ONA schematic

Based on the traditional chart (above on the left) assumptions can be made that senior managers are the most highly connected, or that employees lower within the hierarchy may not play a major role in leading or influencing others. 

However, the ONA (to the right ) shows otherwise.  

Although lower in the traditional chart (third from the bottom under Cohen’s G&G team) Cole is highly networked 

Research studies on the effect of networks and relationships on individual performance found a positive link between centrality (the number of times someone acted as a “bridge” between people in a network) and individual performance. 

Cole serves as a bridge connecting seemingly disparate teams through their networking links to Senior VP Jones, Reservoir team member Shapiro, Paine in ProductionTaylor in Drilling, and Andrew of the Petrophysical group, alongside G&G colleaguesAs such, Cole plays an important role in the organization and can be leveraged as a change agent or information disseminator. At an individual level, Cole’s visibility through their network can also potentially lead to more career growth and development opportunities than an employee like Sen.  

Contrary to Cole, Sen has small networks and doesn’t interact with many others in the organization.  

Using people analytics like ONA to identify these employees and understand whether they’re casualties or beneficiaries of “sameness-syndrome” can help improve engagement, reduce potential turnover costs, and ultimately, dismantle homophily. 

Prevent Unchecked Homophily and Employee Isolation

Left out of the networking loop, employees like Sen may find themselves siloed within an organization. They don’t communicate or work with others and are peripheral within an organization’s network. As a result, many employees with limited links can quickly become isolated and disengaged. It’s important to understand which employees within the organization are at risk of isolation, and intervene. 

Organizational network analysis can help identify who is at risk and when to intervene. Insights can be drawn, for instance, from how many different people an employee is emailing in a given day. Or the number of emails being sent and received by an employee. 

Implement ONA Principles into Your Organization 

As the Weill Cornell Medicine study proved: people who are similar naturally gravitate towards and support each other. Consequently, when left unchecked, homophily in the workplace can have a detrimental impact on the hiring, progress, engagement, and overall employee experience of people who fall outside common bonds of association. 

Organizational network analysis is a powerful people analytics tool that can uncover new insights about homophily and confirm hypotheses about biases in your organization. For the HR leader who doesn’t have access to the data, tools, or skills to conduct an ONA here are a few recommended actions to take that align with the principles of ONA: 

  1. Make the time to understand how people work together, how information flows, or who the informal leaders are. Start to think about employees and teams in terms of networks. Ask yourself questions about who may be highly networked, who isn’t, whether they may be informal leaders. Reflect on what informal roles employees play within the organization. 
  2. Pull data reports from communication technology. Some useful data to understand how people are communicating. But be mindful to follow strict data privacy policies when handling this information. 
  3. Incorporate questions into your next employee survey about employee networks. How many people do individuals collaborate with on a day-to-day basis? How many different departments are involved in that daily exchange?  
  4. Look at the informal networking associations or links between people in your organization to see if or where preferential same-same biases may be at play.  
  5. Incorporate select DE&I questions into follow-up employee pulse surveys to verify or refute suspicions. 

Gathering these insights helps leaders make smarter and more precise decisions that can dismantle homophily and prevent employee disconnect among at-risk individuals and groups. Moreover (with remote work here to stay and the sense of isolation at a tipping point) people analytics like ONA can also spot burnout (by looking at the number of emails being sent and received by employees outside of working hours) and even accelerate a new hires’ time-to-productivity (by buddying recruits with a highly networked employees who have access to a larger amount of people and information, thereby acting as a bridge and providing new hires with more resources to get up to speed quickly).