Not long ago, I was asked to audit a hiring process for a large organization. I learned that appearance was a factor rated by hiring managers and impacted the overall hiring decision. This was a bias that could negatively affect all people belonging to low socioeconomic status. I saw it as an opportunity to educate managers on the impact social class bias has on employees’ career mobility and hiring practices.
What is social class bias?
It’s a type of multifaceted discrimination exerted against people based on their perceived social class group. This form of prejudice consists of perceptions about someone’s socioeconomic status, educational level, appearance, occupation, speaking patterns, and cultural preferences.
Why You Should Remove Social Class Bias?
A recent study at Yale University examined how social class signals such as appearance and speaking patterns implicitly are used by hiring managers to justify merit. The researchers found that hiring managers judged higher-class candidates as more competent than lower-class candidates. As a result, hiring managers assigned higher starting salaries and signing bonuses. This bias, plus racial & gender biases can create multiple barriers to entry for marginalized candidates.
What social class signals are used in hiring practices?
Appearance: candidates are judged based on how they dressed for interviews or how they wear their hair. If hiring managers are expecting women to wear skirts and not pants, they are engaging in biased behavior. Now there are natural hair laws that protect Black candidates from hair discrimination. If appearance is part of your criteria, you may instruct reviewers to remove it.
Speech patterns: candidates are judged based on the pronunciation of certain words, leading black candidates to engage in code-switching to match linguistic expectations. In addition, candidates are negatively judged based on accent stereotypes. For instance, non-native English speakers are deemed less competent than native speakers. You will want to ask raters if their accent has anything to do with the rating.
Cultural activities: candidate’s resume contains activities that can be associated with higher class; playing violin, golf, or attending prestigious schools. Recruiters of hiring managers unconsciously rate higher employees coming from Ivy League schools vs. state schools. Eliminating the criteria of hiring only from Ivy league schools will help remove this bias.
In addition, people signal cultural identity while detailing extracurricular activities. Research has shown that writing about LGBTQ activities in the resume can lead to discrimination against LGBTQ candidates. Managers must be aware of how these signals impact their judgment. If they both belong to tennis clubs are they judging the candidate more positively than they should? This type of reflection is required to drive inclusive hiring practices that yield results.
Since workplaces are often segregated by social class and designed to replicate social stratification, you must mitigate social class bias in your hiring practices to promote upward social and economic mobility for all.
- Aguilar O., et al. 2016. The intersection between class and gender and its impact on the quality of employment in Chile. CEPAL Review N° 120.
- Kraus, M. et al. 2017. Signs of Social Class: The Experience of Economic Inequality in Everyday Life. Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol. 12(3) 422–435
- Kraus, et al.2019. Evidence for the reproduction of social class in brief speech. PNAS, Vol. 116 No 46.
- Ortiz, Susan & Roscigno, Vincent. Discrimination, women, and work. Processes and variations by race and class. The Sociological Quarterly 50 (2009) 336–359 © 2009 Midwest Sociological Society.