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Job Candidates Face Class Bias Just Seconds Into An Interview

When interviewing for a new job, all candidates can hope for is a fair hiring process. But a new study finds that candidates are judged on their socioeconomic status within seconds after they start to speak. 

The study, conducted by researchers from Yale University, suggests that people can accurately determine another’s social class (measured by income, education and occupation status) based on brief speech patterns. And hiring managers are favoring applicants from perceived higher social classes. 

“Our study shows that even during the briefest interactions, a person’s speech patterns shape the way people perceive them, including assessing their competence and fitness for a job,” Michael Kraus, lead author of the study and assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, said in a statement. “While most hiring managers would deny that a job candidate’s social class matters, in reality, the socioeconomic position of an applicant or their parents is being assessed within the first seconds they speak — a circumstance that limits economic mobility and perpetuates inequality.”

The study

In total, the researchers conducted five separate studies to come to their final conclusion. 

Through the first three, they determined that it only takes about seven words — just a few seconds of speech — for someone to determine another’s social class with “above-chance accuracy.” They also found that people associate higher social class with subjective standards for English, like that spoken by popular tech-assistant products such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home.  

In the fourth study, they found that pronunciation cues (the way someone speaks) more accurately communicates their social class than the actual words they speak. 

And finally, in the fifth study, the researchers examined how socioeconomic perceptions based on speech may influence hiring decisions. They recruited 20 prospective job candidates from the New Haven, Connecticut, area to interview for an entry-level lab manager position at Yale. Before the job interview, each candidate was asked to record a brief self-description. 

Then, the researchers had 274 hiring managers either listen to the audio recordings or read transcripts of the recordings. Based on that, they were asked to assume each candidate’s professional qualities, assign the candidate a starting salary and signing bonus, and estimate his or her social class. During this process, they did not have access to candidates’ resumes or their answers to formal interview questions. 

The researchers found that the hiring managers who listened to the audio recordings were more likely to make an accurate assumption of each candidate’s socioeconomic status than those who read the transcripts. And without any actual facts about each candidate’s qualifications, the hiring managers were more likely to judge applicants from a higher social class as being more qualified for the job. They also recommended higher starting salaries and signing bonuses for those who they perceived to have a higher social status. 

A lack of upward mobility 

In society and throughout our education systems, people are told that it doesn’t matter where they come from. If they work hard enough and make the right decisions, they can get anywhere. But this study is just further evidence that, for many, upward mobility is not that easy. 

It is critical, therefore, to raise awareness of this subconscious bias in hiring, but surmounting such bias is not a simple task. Achieving a more equitable society, Kraus says, will require overcoming the “ingrained psychological processes that drive our early impressions of others.”

But, it’s important to remember that this study evaluates perceptions based on the first few seconds of a job interview — the small talk before the hard-hitting questions. 

And although first impressions do matter, impressive answers to later questions may change a hiring manager’s perception.  

“Despite what these hiring tendencies may suggest, talent is not found solely among those born to rich or well-educated families,” Kraus said in a statement. “Policies that actively recruit candidates from all levels of status in society are best positioned to match opportunities to the people best suited for them.”