• Managing people

Class Bias in Recruitment

How employers favour candidates from a higher social class – but more so for men than women


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When it comes to recruitment, it may be no surprise that individuals from higher socioeconomic strata have a distinct advantage over individuals from lower levels – that is, they tend to get the most lucrative jobs and are able to build the most lucrative careers – particularly in professional service firms.

But it may come as a surprise that a recent quantitative study found the advantage that employers give to candidates from a higher social class applies more to men than it does to women. For women, their ‘class’ advantage is negated by employers’ perception that they are less committed to a career.

The study, from András Tilcsik of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and Lauren Rivera of the Kellogg School of Management, aimed to measure social class bias in hiring decisions and uncover the reasons for such bias. It involved sending fictitious candidates’ résumés to 316 US law firms, applying for summer associate positions – standard-stepping stones to full-time jobs.

The obvious thought is that class advantage is due to elite education coupled with family financial support, which gives access to the most prestigious (and expensive) universities and provides educational credentials that can be leveraged into the most lucrative jobs at the most prestigious companies.

But is education the only differentiator? What if there are other reasons that employers prefer candidates from a higher social class? Perhaps employers feel that such candidates will function better in situations involving wealthy clients, such as the CEOs working with top-tier management consultancies or the wealthy who hire an elite law firm.

The résumés used in the study were differentiated through a series of social-class signals, from names to awards (e.g. university award for outstanding athletes on financial aid indicated lower class) to personal interests (higher-class résumés indicated an interest in polo and classical music, while lower-class résumés indicated an interest in soccer and country music).

The results of the study were revealing. More than 16% of higher-class male applicants were invited to an interview, compared to just 1.3% of lower-class men. On the other hand, only 3.8% of higher-class women were invited back to an interview, while a slightly higher number of lower-class women – 6.3% of the applicants – received an invitation. Thus, while the social class advantage for higher-class men was clearly evident, higher-class women did not get the same advantage.

In a second, complementary study the lawyers rated the applicants on: competence (e.g. do you believe the candidate is: confident? capable? efficient?); warmth (e.g. do you believe the candidate is: friendly? well-intentioned?); within-gender masculinity/femininity; commitment (e.g. do you believe the applicant: will be willing to put in long hours? is committed to building a long-term career?) and fit with the culture and clientele of an elite law firm (e.g. do you believe the applicant is able to conduct himself or herself professionally in front of clients?)

The respondents were then asked whether they would recommend the candidate for an interview. Once again, higher-class men were recommended more than higher-class women, lower-class women, and lower-class men.

The results did not show any advantage for the higher-class men on competence, warmth or within-gender masculinity or femininity (e.g. the more ‘masculine’ men did not get more interviews). However, the participants considered higher-class candidates to be a better fit than lower-class men and lower-class women. And they considered higher-class women much less committed than higher-class men, and even lower-class women.

This advantage of higher-class men over lower-class candidates on fit and over higher-class women on commitment negated the fact that lower-class candidates were seen as equally committed, and higher-class women were seen as equally fit.

HR professionals may believe that they are focused on educational and other credentials when in fact an excellent candidate may be excluded because he or she listens to country music! At the same time, the research reveals that high social class is an advantage for men but not women, further reinforcing the barriers that women face in landing the best jobs in the best firms.

Access the research paper: ‘Class Advantage, Commitment Penalty: The Gendered Effect of Social Class Signals in an Elite Labor Market’. Lauren A. Rivera and András Tilcsik, American Sociological Review.

Rotman School of Management is Canada’s leading business school and has Canada’s largest group of management faculty. It is home to some of the most innovative research institutes in the world

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