A woman with high pedigree prepares for an interview.
Yevgenia Nayberg

Think individual ambition and talent alone determine which candidates secure offers from the most prestigious banking, consulting, and law firms in the United States? Think again.

A new body of research by Lauren Rivera, an associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, suggests applicants’ socioeconomic backgrounds play a large role in the hiring decisions of elite professional services (EPS) firms. Rivera’s book Pedigree documents what she found from attending swanky recruiting events, interviewing 120 hiring decision makers, and observing almost every component of the hiring process as an HR staffer at a top firm.

Rivera’s findings overwhelmingly showed that the playing field for EPS jobs is skewed in favor of applicants from the most privileged backgrounds. This happens, according to Rivera, not because these organizations intentionally seek to hire the most affluent students. Instead, when searching for the “best and the brightest,” they happen to use a definition of merit that is linked closely to social class, preferring accomplishments, activities, knowledge, and interactional styles that require significant investments of time, money, and energy not only by job applicants but also by their parents. Put more bluntly, aspirants without elite qualifications or connections—or evidence of pedigree—tend to have slim chances of earning an offer. The process results in what Rivera calls “elite reproduction” in our supposedly merit-based society. These findings have implications for the firms and candidates in question, and for society more broadly.

The EPS Hiring Ecosystem

“I always had a deep interest in inequality and stratification—how people get sorted into different groups and positions in society,” Rivera, a sociologist by training, says. That interest has motivated her research on topics including what drives high school popularity and how status signals determine who gets into elite nightclubs.

Observing a university faculty hiring meeting inspired Rivera to study hiring and social inequality. “I realized how the decision to hire is, in many ways, a big status ‘sort’ that has huge consequences for applicants. It can affect your lifelong career path.” She became interested in EPS hiring because of the high salaries associated with these jobs: “Getting one of these jobs can catapult a person in their twenties to the top rungs of the country’s economic ladder.”

She was well-equipped for this ambitious research project, which began as part of her Harvard doctoral dissertation. Not only had Rivera worked at an EPS consultancy after completing her undergraduate degree at Yale, but she had also served as a Harvard resident tutor, watching students go through the EPS recruiting process. “It’s very much its own little ecosystem, with intense competition for status that affects how applicants see the world and themselves,” Rivera says.

Gaining an Insider View

To study the EPS hiring environment, Rivera literally became part of it. On top of in-depth interviews with 120 revenue-generating professionals from all levels and HR staff at the most prestigious banks, consultancies, and law firms, she secured permission to work with the HR group of one firm, participating in everything from preparing interview sites to sitting in on decision meetings—with the exception of watching the interviews themselves. By comparing the data from her research interviews with the results of her direct observations, she was able to understand where people’s perceptions of their hiring practices diverged from what they were really doing—this was especially true for biases related to class, race, and gender.

“Getting one of these jobs can catapult a person in their 20s to the top rungs of the country’s economic ladder.”

An early insight from Rivera’s work is that contrary to popular and academic views of the HR function, HR in EPS firms focuses mostly on logistics, with a minimal role, if any, in actual hiring decisions. “HR sets the stage for recruiting, but the actual hiring is done by those doing the job, [the revenue-generating professionals],” she says. “We [in HR] were part secretaries, part maids, part therapists, and part metaphoric punching bags for the interviewers,” she writes. Because HR tends to include more women than the revenue-generating side of these firms, the narrowness of HR’s role contributes to a less “gender-egalitarian” culture.

Bias in EPS Hiring

The definition of “merit” as related to hiring for many of the highest-status occupations in the country is influenced deeply by cultural and structural elements, not based exclusively on objective measures of individual ambition and talent. “Displaying the right stuff to employers is not just about ability but access,” Rivera says. Even seemingly straightforward metrics of ability such as the prestige of one’s undergraduate school or being actively involved in on-campus activities—strong determinants of who secures EPS firm interviews—are linked closely to social class and the opportunities available to an individual while growing up. “We use the metaphor of a level playing field all the time,” Rivera says, “but all the data for competition for top schools and jobs suggest it’s a tilted field that works to pass on privilege from one generation to the next.”

Multiple components of the hiring process reinforce this bias, including:

Golden pipelines and false doors. EPS firms invest heavily in a “golden pipeline” made up almost exclusively of students from only the most elite undergraduate and graduate institutions; some organizations have million-dollar annual recruiting budgets for core schools. Elite schools are increasingly biased toward admitting students from upper-class backgrounds, and the EPS candidate pool reflects this disproportion. Moreover, while EPS firms convey a public image of wanting to diversify hiring, access remains limited for diverse candidates from nontarget universities. “The firms show up at diversity fairs and advertise their diversity initiatives, but these end up being ‘false doors’ for most candidates because the emphasis on school prestige is so strong,” Rivera says.

“Looking glass merit.” Minimal interviewer training at most firms means decision makers pass candidates to later rounds based largely on subjective perceptions of applicant quality. Interviewers look for a sense of connection, often seeking potential friends and “playmates” rather than those with the best work experience or job-relevant skills. Rivera and others have termed this the “airport test”: interviewers champion candidates with whom they believe they would enjoy being stranded at an airport. Rivera suggests interviewers define merit intuitively in a way that validates their own traits and experience—extraverts seek extraverts, athletes favor other athletes, and upper-class interviewers prefer candidates with similar pedigrees, whether they realize it or not. Rivera calls this concept “looking glass merit.”

Artful storytelling over actual experience. EPS interviewers prefer candidates who tell stories that feature themselves as determined protagonists, with compelling plots emphasizing personal decisions over serendipitous circumstance. “These narratives reaffirmed broader American, upper-middle-class ideals of individualism, individual fate, and control,” Rivera writes. That means stories about pursuing a personal passion—whether related to art or athletics—or overcoming a professional challenge work better than those about dealing with financial constraints or giving back to one’s family or community.

Variable (but still biased) interview structures. EPS interviews range in structure, with law firms tending to be the least formal and consultancies using the most structured formats, including assessing candidates with case interviews. The less structured the interview, the more interviewers’ subjective perceptions mattered. But structured interviews can reduce and exacerbate hiring biases. While case interviews, for example, ostensibly test candidates’ problem solving and business thinking—or job-relevant capabilities—they require mastery of a separate interviewing language or “elaborate insider codes” best learned from EPS professionals, to whom access is limited for those outside top schools or without direct industry connections.

A Catch-22 for nonelite candidates. Some nonelite candidates break the “class ceilings,” Rivera documents. An applicant from a nonelite background or institution may be matched with a similar interviewer—the book describes how a single-mother interviewer championed an interviewee raised by a single mother herself—or receive a referral and coaching from an insider friend. “Compensatory credentials” such as a military background can also give nonelite candidates a leg up. But Rivera concludes that such social reconstructions are rare exceptions that mostly represent a Catch-22: “There are less-traveled pathways into these firms, but you need to already be on an elite track or have the right cultural resources or connections to make it work.”

A Well-Protected Status Quo

“In our society we like to think class doesn’t matter much, but the data in my study and others show it matters quite a bit,” Rivera says. In fact, she suggests there is growing evidence the U.S. is now more of a class-based society than traditionally class-focused nations like England and France. “That’s hard for us to swallow because the ‘bootstrapping’ mentality is so ingrained in our collective consciousness,” she says. In reality, as she writes, “[T]here is a well-developed machinery in the United States that passes on economic privilege from one generation to the next,” with EPS hiring as a key component.

Can things change? Rivera is guardedly optimistic. On one hand, she sees merit-related criteria as deeply entrenched, with EPS firms strongly committed to their hiring practices. On the other, she hopes Pedigree sheds light on the inherent problems with the current system, including one with direct implications for EPS firms: the current hiring system is very costly and does not necessarily identify the best employees.

Specifically, there is evidence that hires from upper-class backgrounds—those toward whom the playing field is tilted—may be less likely to enjoy EPS work or to stay in their positions beyond the first year or two. This is partly because that segment is associated with the belief that work should be passion-driven—“It should fill your soul, not just your pocketbook,” Rivera says—and may be less willing to endure tedious entry-level responsibilities than those from more modest backgrounds, who tend to see a job as a job. Also, the latter individuals often have better emotional and listening skills, which are strong assets in working with clients.

Still, Rivera notes that those within the system need to want to change it, whether by targeting a broader set of schools, involving HR more deeply in the hiring process, putting less weight on extracurricular activities, or developing more systematic and evidence-based procedures for scoring performance in interviews. Inertia is one barrier; the lack of counterexamples is another. “The firms tend to think their hiring practices have worked so far, so there’s nothing to fix,” Rivera says. “It will take courage on their part to try something different.”