A Tilted Playing Field
Skip to content
Careers Organizations Leadership May 1, 2015

A Tilt­ed Play­ing Field

New research finds bias in elite pro­fes­sion­al ser­vices hiring.

A woman with high pedigree prepares for an interview.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

Lauren Rivera

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.

Add Insight
to your inbox.

We’ll send you one email a week with content you actually want to read, curated by the Insight team.

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.”

Featured Faculty

Lauren Rivera

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations, Associate Professor of Sociology (Weinberg, courtesy)

About the Writer

Sachin Waikar is a freelance writer based in Evanston, Illinois.

About the Research

Rivera, Lauren. 2015. Pedigree:How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs. Princeton University Press.

Read the original

Suggested For You

Most Popular

Organizations

How Are Black – White Bira­cial Peo­ple Per­ceived in Terms of Race?

Under­stand­ing the answer — and why black and white Amer­i­cans’ respons­es may dif­fer — is increas­ing­ly impor­tant in a mul­tira­cial society.

Careers

Pod­cast: Our Most Pop­u­lar Advice on Advanc­ing Your Career

Here’s how to con­nect with head­hunters, deliv­er with data, and ensure you don’t plateau professionally.

Most Popular Podcasts

Careers

Pod­cast: Our Most Pop­u­lar Advice on Improv­ing Rela­tion­ships with Colleagues

Cowork­ers can make us crazy. Here’s how to han­dle tough situations.

Social Impact

Pod­cast: How You and Your Com­pa­ny Can Lend Exper­tise to a Non­prof­it in Need

Plus: Four ques­tions to con­sid­er before becom­ing a social-impact entrepreneur.

Careers

Pod­cast: Attract Rock­star Employ­ees — or Devel­op Your Own

Find­ing and nur­tur­ing high per­form­ers isn’t easy, but it pays off.

Marketing

Pod­cast: How Music Can Change Our Mood

A Broad­way song­writer and a mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sor dis­cuss the con­nec­tion between our favorite tunes and how they make us feel.