Are You “Classy” Enough? Social Class Bias in the Hiring Process

“I can’t believe she acted like that at the company party…so low class.”

This is a relatively innocent statement, right? At face value, it’s just an evaluation of behavior. Maybe the object of this comment acted very unacceptably. However, think about the underlying meaning behind this statement. At its core, this statement comes from historic and present associations of people from lower social class backgrounds with vulgar and inappropriate behavior.

While we as a society have become more aware of how our words, thoughts, and actions are influenced by another person’s race, gender, and sexual orientation, we are less aware of how they are influenced by social class. When we think about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) in the American workplace, we don’t often think about social class. Social class is typically seen as a byproduct or outcome of other elements of diversity – for example, how systemic racism has led to significant wealth inequality or how historical heterosexism has made LGBT people and couples more vulnerable to poverty.

Class is not often thought of as a separate identity or element of diversity. The United States likes to think of itself as a meritocracy without significant class distinctions or boundaries between its citizens. Many Americans want to consider themselves “middle class,” even when their actual income and education suggest they would be in a different class category.[1]  American tradition asserts that we are all judged on our accomplishments and character regardless of our origins.

However, just as implicit bias research shows us that most of us are unintentionally racially biased, research also shows us that social class is not invisible and that we judge those in lower social class brackets in negative ways. For example, compared to middle class people, people of low social class status are more likely to be labeled incompetent, crude, lazy, aggressive, criminal, and immoral.[2] They are also dehumanized, a finding that holds within race, i.e., White people evaluating other White people.[3]

These class prejudices are not confined to our personal lives.  They carry over to the workplace, often without awareness. Let’s consider social class and hiring.

Social Class and Hiring

Research suggests that social class is “signaled” by clothing, comportment, speech, and behaviors, and that people are quite accurate in identifying the social class of another person even from very brief interactions.[1] A series of recent studies from Yale found that people are accurately able to identify a person’s current social class status within seconds by speech patterns alone and that when hiring managers listen to recorded introductions of candidates of different social classes, they judged candidates from a higher social class more competent and a better fit for the job. They also suggested higher starting salaries and hiring bonuses, all before seeing any candidates’ actual qualifications.[2] In-person interviews, of course, give even more visual and behavioral clues that can facilitate this same effect.

Other markers of class have also been shown to influence hiring. For example, in a study of hiring at elite law firms, researchers sent identical resumes with names changed to manipulate gender (James vs. Julia) and extracurriculars/hobbies changed to manipulate social class (e.g., sailing team vs. track and field; peer mentor for first year students vs. peer mentor for first generation college students).[3] They found that male upper-class resumes received more interview invitations than all other groups combined (i.e., lower-class men and women, upper-class women). This study also demonstrates the importance of intersectionality in class – how different identity markers intersect to create different experiences.

Particularly for those starting out in their career, when we drop hints about our background in an interview or the recruiting process (think expensive hobbies, opportunities to travel/study abroad, preference for a certain kind of wine at a lunch meeting, unpaid internships), we are signaling our social class origins. Especially when applying for high-status positions or in interviewing with leaders of higher social class status, this may increase perception of cultural fit and likeability.

So, what can you do about these tendencies and biases as a leader and hiring manager? Monitor your assumptions and potential implicit biases. When you find yourself feeling more warmth toward a candidate, deeming them more competent, or judging them as a better cultural fit, see if you can identify exactly what about that person is leading to that judgement. Ensure that what you deem as cultural fit is truly that they are aligned with the values of the organization, not that they are similar to you. Try to avoid questions that may give you unneeded information about their social class background; for example, questions about hobbies. The more you can do to create a fair hiring process, the more likely you will combat all forms of potential biases in hiring, including with social class.

By: Hanna Collier, Ph.D.

[1] Kraus, M.W., Rheinschmidt, M.L., & Piff, P.K. (2012). The intersection of resources and rank: Signaling social class in face-to-face encounters. In S.T. Fiske & H.R. Markus (Eds.), Facing social class: How societal rank influences interaction (pp. 152-172). New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

[2] Kraus, M.W., Torrez, B., & Park, J.W. (2020, March 13). Research: How speech patterns lead to hiring bias. Harvard Business Review.

[3] Rivera, L. A., & Tilcsik, A. (2016). Class Advantage, Commitment Penalty: The Gendered Effect of Social Class Signals in an Elite Labor Market. American Sociological Review81(6), 1097–1131.

[1] Mantsios, G. (1996). What Is social class? In K. Rosenblum & T. Travis (Eds.), The meaning of difference: American construction of race, sex and gender, social class, and sexual orientation. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies.

[2] Smith, L. (2010). Psychology, poverty, and the end of social exclusion: Putting our practice to work. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

[3] Loughnan, S., Haslam, N., Sutton, R. M., & Spencer, B. (2014). Dehumanization and social class: Animality in the stereotypes of “white trash,” “chavs,” and “bogans.” Social Psychology, 45, 54–61.