How much can we really tell about someone within the first few moments of meeting them? Apparently, a lot. A Yale study demonstrated “that people can accurately assess a stranger’s socioeconomic position – defined by their income, education, and occupation status – based on brief speech patterns and shows that these snap perceptions influence hiring managers in ways that favor job applicants from higher social classes.” Clearly, our ability to form these quick assessments happens unconsciously. We’re not even aware we’re doing it. 

This automatic reaction influences how we interact with people and how likely we are to advance someone in the interview process and ultimately hire them. Snap assessments set the tone for the candidate experience.   

Lacking clear and measurable hiring criteria, socioeconomic biases pave an employee’s future earnings based on prejudice rather than merit and ability. When salaries are variable – what goes into determining that amount? Is it years of experience? A number does not speak to the quality of experience, so this is an arbitrary measure. Is it the level of education or prestige of the school attended? Many of the traditional measures of a candidate’s value, so to speak, are based on hidden biases that perpetuate the pay gap and hinder mobility.

Recruiting for Status 

Informal networks and socioeconomic assessments are pervasive within organizations. Take the U.S. State Department, for example. Some diplomats have stated that getting ahead requires “cracking a secret code,” where an image has been cultivated of a “people of means.” It’s no wonder that cultures like this perpetuate themselves. When seeking to hire those with similar backgrounds, educations, or socioeconomic statuses, familiarity bias selects candidates based on perceived stature. “The State Department for too long has relied on a narrow group of Ivy League-educated Americans to set its internal culture.” 

Historically, education has been used to form assessments of socioeconomic status. Ivy League graduates are often perceived as having a higher socioeconomic status. A college degree is often treated as a measure of a person’s intellect or ability, though a college education is a privilege, not a right. This conflation is especially true in the State Department, where 60% of career diplomats hold an advanced degree compared to 13% of the American population. Ivy League graduates are 23% more likely to get a promotion. In addition, “promotion rates for ethnic minorities were up to 42% lower than for white employees.” 

Seeing this disparity and the increasing competition for top talent, in 2017, Goldman Sachs decided to cast a wider net and move on from recruiting only Ivy League students. While highly competitive tech companies see the need to move beyond perceptions of prestige, many companies still fall into this trap. 

So What Can We Do? 

Addressing bias begins before you start recruiting. Take time to clarify the core competencies of the role. What skills are central to a candidate’s ability to succeed in a role? What values are essential for an employee to possess? For any requirements, how are these measured? Following this thought process ahead of time will allow you to see beyond arbitrary criteria and remove them. 

One way to see beyond arbitrary criteria is through blind screening. It reduces familiarity bias by hiding details that may cause a reviewer to feel comfort or discomfort with certain aspects of a candidate’s resume, such as the school they attended. By having definable measures, the influence of socioeconomic perceptions on hiring decisions is reduced and enables greater conscious inclusion. 

Although snap assessments may infer aspects of a candidate’s status with some accuracy, according to the Yale study, there’s always more than meets the eye. Behind these snap perceptions are unconscious preferences that give rise to biased conclusions. Speech patterns, level of education, school attended, or years of experience speak little of the competencies needed to perform a job. Start seeing beyond the obvious.