Job Interviewers Will Judge Your Social Status Within Seconds of You Opening Your Mouth, Study Suggests

Employers judge the social status of prospective employees just seconds after hearing them speak for the first time, according to researchers who say this could affect job prospects and salary.

Researchers argued in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that the idea that the U.S. is meritocratic—encapsulated by the American Dream—adds to the "willful ignorance that Americans exhibit regarding the relative lack of actual economic mobility in society."

Social class, which the researchers defined as a person's status in society reflected by their income, occupation and educational attainment, is in fact "remarkably stable" across generations, they said.

To investigate how signals of social class might help or hinder job hunters, researchers at the Yale School of Management carried out five studies involving hundreds of people.

Researchers asked people to listen to individuals speak and guess their class. The team found participants were able to correctly guess a speaker's class, race, age, and gender more than half of the time. Another showed speakers were more likely to be identified as in a higher social class if they had a similar voice to the subjective standard, like that of Google and Amazon's virtual assistants. The team also discovered that participants judged a speaker's social status according to their pronunciation, rather that what they were saying.

The final part of the study saw researchers ask 274 people with hiring experience listen to 20 job candidates, from a range of social classes in the New Haven area of Connecticut, describe themselves in a pre-interview discussion.

The respondents were more likely to think a candidate was competent and fit for a job if they were perceived to be of a higher social class. They were also more likely to give them a better starting salary and signing bonus, compared with those regarded as lower class.

Michael Kraus, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management told Newsweek the study suggests that "only brief speech is necessary to help us perceive social class. Second, it suggests that these early perceptions are sufficient to provide unfair advantages to higher social class folks in job interview contexts."

He said the team didn't expect the hiring effects "to be quite as large."

"We're talking class differences in hiring decisions and judgments about competence of applicants based on hearing just 15 to 20 seconds of speech prior to a job interview," he said. "That is a lot to overcome for an applicant even when they have the perfect kind of skills and experiences for a job."

Next, the work needs to be replicated across sectors with varied samples and more hiring staff and applicants, Kraus said. Researchers might, for instance, study countries like the U.K. "where class distinctions based on speech have had a longer history," he said.

"This work really makes clear the importance of values around diversity and inclusion. To really create a workforce that represents the broad histories of people and that embodies the American Dream, organizations must place greater value on that diversity in and of itself," argued Kraus.

He added: "If we really want to live in a meritocracy we need to start having a conversation about what that actually would look like."

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Researchers have looked at how a person's social status affects their job prospects. A stock image of an employer offering a candidate a handshake. Getty