Research News

Breaking Through the "Class Ceiling"

IPR associate Lauren Rivera discovers hiring at elite firms is skewed toward white, wealthy


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Employers at elite firms favor white, upper-class job applicants, Lauren Rivera finds in Pedigree.

The “American Dream”—that a child born into less-privileged circumstances can land a lucrative job solely through hard work—is a pipe dream, management and organizations professor and IPR associate Lauren Rivera discovers in her new book, Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs (Princeton University Press, 2015).

Rivera interviewed and observed hiring professionals at elite investment banks, consulting firms, and law firms (collectively, elite professional service, or “EPS” firms), perceiving that they overwhelmingly favored white, upper-class applicants during the hiring process.

“[T]hese employers end up systematically excluding smart, driven, and socially skilled students from less-privileged socioeconomic backgrounds from the highest-paying entry-level jobs in the United States,” she writes.

Recruiting

The firms Rivera studied focused their recruiting efforts only on students from specific prestigious educational institutions. In doing so, they reinforced class stratification, since over half of the student body at top business and law schools in the U.S. come from families at the top 10 percent of the income distribution.

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Lauren Rivera

After evaluating applicants’ education, hiring managers looked more at their extracurricular activities, and underemphasized their grades and work experience, “accessible” parts of a resume that might allow a less-advantaged candidate a foot in the door.

Applicants invited to interview were judged on “fit”—ostensibly, how well they would fit in with the company, but in reality, how much they had in common with their interviewer, who was likely someone white and upper-class.

“[T]he use of fit…created informal barriers for candidates who were different from the majority of a firm’s employees,” Rivera writes. 

Diversity

Evaluators took gender and race into consideration only under specific circumstances when hiring (e.g., when making sure there was a basic level of gender diversity among new hires). Often, they held minority applicants to higher standards due to prevailing stereotypes: For instance, women who made small mathematical errors were more likely to be rejected than men who did so.

There were some paths an applicant from a less-privileged background could take to be hired at an EPS firm, such as impressing an interviewer with a “rags-to-riches” story. Still, less-privileged applicants who were hired “tended to have preexisting social or institutional ties to elite individuals or organizations,” Rivera writes.

Reversing the Cycle

Rivera offers a number of ways that firms might remedy the “class ceiling” they reinforce through their hiring practices, including expanding recruitment to a wider array of schools, placing more emphasis on past job experience and grades, and training evaluators on conducting objective interviews.

“Such changes could begin to create a more level and effective playing field in the competition for the nation’s highest-paying entry-level jobs and access to its elite economic ranks,” she concludes.

Lauren Rivera is associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, associate professor of sociology, and an IPR associate.