Research Finds Social-Class Bias Can Lead to Hiring Discrimination

Professor Gráinne Fitzsimons discovers that a false perception of how people with lower socioeconomic status value goals leads to less opportunity

June 20, 2023
Social Class Bias_Gràinne Fitzsimons_Duke University's Fuqua School of Business

Professor Gráinne Fitzsimons of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business says she grew up in a home that struggled financially.

“We were one of those families,” Fitzsimons said. “My parents were never out of food, but money was always a large stress in my family.”

Despite the financial stress, Fitzsimons says that everyone in her family cared about things like their health, jobs, and communities – that is, they had the same aspirations and life goals as friends from wealthier households. As a professor, she wondered if Americans knew that the poor value goals equally, or if they might show a bias about goals against people from lower social classes.

In a new paper titled ‘Tying the Value of Goals to Social Class’ published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Fitzsimons and her students show that Americans tend to believe that people of lower socioeconomic status (SES) are less motivated in pursuing goals and consequently offer them fewer opportunities. The research was led by Fuqua Ph.D. graduates Sara Wingrove and Rebecca Ponce de Leon, now a professor at Columbia Business School, and Fuqua Ph.D. candidate Jessica Jee Won Paek.

Fitzsimons says the group’s research found that people attribute goal-oriented qualities to wealthier, higher-status, people.

“Richer, more educated people are perceived as more motivated in pursuing goals and valuing them,” Fitzsimons said. “They are somehow seen as possessing an extra humanity.”

Fitzsimons says the studies showed that people from lower socioeconomic classes are instead perceived as not caring about goals, perhaps because they are too overwhelmed by their daily struggles to have the time and energy to think about their goals.

“But this is patronizing,” Fitzsimons said. “It underestimates the importance of goals to humans. The poor, like everyone else, care about their family, care about their health.”

Measuring How Goals are Valued  

The researchers conducted seven studies.

The first measured whether different socioeconomic classes value goals differently. Fitzsimons and colleagues recruited a sample of Americans of high and low social class, and asked them how they valued a set of goals that previous research had identified as common—career, health, financial, self-improvement, family, pleasure and community. The results showed no difference across different status levels.

“People might think that someone who is working in a less fancy job cares less about making a contribution to their jobs or seeking better health, but we just didn’t see any evidence of that,” Fitzsimons said.  “If anything, people from lower class contexts actually reported caring more about these common goals.”

Potential Bias in How People Value Goals

With the findings that Americans from high and low social classes value goals the same way, the researchers then turned to test whether a bias existed: do people perceive different socioeconomic classes as valuing goals differently?

The researchers used a variety of ways to manipulate the class of their fictional targets in the studies, from objective variables like income and education level, to more subtle cues like family education, music tastes, clothing, Zoom backgrounds and Twitter feeds.

The researchers presented the participants with hypothetical individuals of different socioeconomic status (signaled by the above variables and cues) and asked them to rate how these individuals valued goals.

Fitzsimons said the experiments confirmed a bias in believing that people of higher class value goals more deeply.

The researchers then turned to studying the potential impacts of the perception that lower-status people value goals less.

Impact in Hiring

The researchers set up a hypothetical hiring setting, where participants assumed the role of a department head looking to pick among job applicants they saw through Zoom. The Zoom backgrounds showed the applicants’ living room, with cues hinting at socioeconomic class.

The researchers found that with all factors equal—like merit, age and likeability—the participants chose to hire members of the higher socioeconomic class more often, because they thought they would care more about their career goal.

The scholars also tested whether, beyond the goal-value bias, other traits people often attribute to the rich might have affected the results. Fitzsimons says again, the goal-value attribute emerged as the stronger driver of social-class bias.

“Past work showed that people think richer people are harder working and more competent,” Fitzsimons said. “People who want to maintain their beliefs in a system will distort the reality in order to fit their motivations.”

What Causes the Bias

The researchers also investigated possible motivations behind the bias.

They wanted to understand whether the bias reinforces a preconceived vision of society. For example, the researchers asked participants to rate their attitudes about their worldviews like, “I feel that people who meet with misfortune have brought it on themselves.”

The researchers found evidence that people who believe the world is fair do show a bias in favor of the higher socioeconomic class, seeing higher-SES candidates as caring more about goals, and being more likely to hire or recommend them for a job.

The added value of this research, Fitzsimons said, is that it shows that the goal-value bias is the statistical driver of preference and discrimination “above and beyond” other perceived traits.

These findings are very relevant for companies, she said. Companies believe Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) is important for business, she said. They might underestimate, though, how social class can affect their decisions in hiring, team management and career opportunities.

“Bias seeps through every aspect of business,” Fitzsimons said, “Valuing goals implicates humanity, sophistication and complexity. It can give recruiters a sense of how committed job applicants are to their career.”

Fitzsimons said removing bias from recruiting is imperative, but difficult with socioeconomic class. She says while “blinding” techniques have proven successful against some bias, blinding social class is trickier.

“We don’t want it to be the case that we’re not allowing people to express their identities in the workplace and be their full selves,” Fitzsimons said.

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