The latest hiring taboo: class

Linda Nazareth on class bias in hiring decisions, citing a HBR blind cv study:

We love stories of rags to riches, and rightly so.

In North America, we adore hearing about the scholarship student becoming a CEO, or of the person who immigrates with a few dollars to his name then ends up a mega-success. We are all about income mobility, and are happy to talk about it. What we do not talk about is “class,” maybe because it is a so distasteful a topic as to be taboo. And yet, class diversity exists and arguably should be a consideration in building a balanced and effective workplace, and by extension a productive economy.

The issue of “class migrants” was bravely taken on by researchers Joan Williams, Marina Multhaup and Sky Mihaylo in a recent piece in the Harvard Business Review. Making the argument that those who started out in what they call “working class” backgrounds bring unique skills to the workplace, the authors assert that savvy companies should actively seek out those from diverse income backgrounds, or at least stop discriminating against them.

But wait, goes the argument, no one is likely to ditch a résumé from someone who started out with humble beginnings, because no one would know that they did, right? It is not like ignoring every applicant with a female-sounding name, for example. And while it is true that economic discrimination may not be as easy as ditching everyone named Jill in favour of all the Jacks, it tends to happen even if those who are discriminating do not realize it.

In a study done by researchers Lauren River and Adras Tilscik, fictitious résumés were sent to 316 offices at law firms across the United States, ostensibly from students looking for summer positions. All listed hobbies, although some were “upper class” (sailing, polo and classical music) while others were”‘lower class” (pick-up soccer, track and field and country music). The result? Sixteen per cent of the first group got a callback, compared to 1 per cent of the second.

The managers at the law firms may not have gone as far as thinking that they did not want to hang with the kind of people who ran track, but more that they felt that the polo players would be a good fit with their firms. In economics, this is known as the “signalling” hypothesis, whereby some characteristics are considered signals of other qualities even if the characteristics themselves are not being sought (unless there are billable hours for polo, which there might be).

From a job-seeker’s perspective, the best advice seems to be to just leave your hobbies off your résumé, or at least to lie about what they are (which is to say, if you like Lady Antebellum, for goodness sake keep it to yourself). Or, if you did not grow up with the right bona fides, do as legions of women have been told and just learn to play golf and talk about it as much as you can if you want to succeed in the corporate sphere.

The thing is, this is not just a job-seeker’s problem, but a company’s problem as well. For firms looking for the best talent, limiting the pool in any way seems kind of foolhardy. Leadership qualities are often correlated with having transcended income levels (one study of those in the U.S. Army, for example, found that class migrants were the most effective leaders). If you are trying to build the best workforce, you want to have access to the best workers, so figuring out how to attract those from a wide swathe of economic backgrounds should arguably be part of any policy on diversity.

In their Harvard Business Review article, the researchers assert that to do this you have to do more than just go to the top schools and look for diverse candidates when bringing in entry-level candidates, you have to actually look at schools that might not be considered top-tier: a top student from one of those schools could be a much better hire than an average one from the usual choices. Perhaps more controversially, they also suggest going easy on referral hiring (which many find an effective way to get good candidates) since the friends and relatives of employees are likely to give you more of the same in terms of economic characteristics.

Looking at this from a wider perspective, we are not exactly serving the wider economy by making it difficult for people to be accepted and assimilate into the workforce in a way that makes the best use of their talents. We have long talked about the barriers that stop some from making their way through high school and getting into postsecondary institutions. More recently, there has been a recognition that those who come from a background where acquiring a postsecondary education is unusual are much more likely to drop out without finishing than those where it is the norm. In both cases, there has been a recognition that fully engaging people helps them, but also helps create a better labour force and a stronger economy.

And so perhaps we need to take it one step further and talk about the last thing we want to talk about.

Source: Linda Nazareth

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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