WASHINGTON — Is hiring the most qualified candidate unfair? It can be, depending on what side of the political divide you fall. Researchers with the American Psychological Association have found that both liberals and conservatives are likely to question the fairness of merit-based hiring when informed about the impacts of socioeconomic disparities.
This research indicates a shift in perspectives across the political spectrum toward support for programs that promote socioeconomic diversity in the workplace. The study examined how awareness of socioeconomic disadvantages affects perceptions of merit-based hiring and promotion processes. Over 3,300 participants engaged in five online experiments, revealing that when provided with information about a candidate’s past socioeconomic disadvantages, both liberals and conservatives viewed merit-based selection as less fair and equitable.
“Socioeconomic disadvantages early in life can undermine educational achievement, test scores and work experiences. In this way, inequality can undermine equal opportunity,” says study lead author Dr. Daniela Goya-Tocchetto, an assistant professor of organization and human resources at the University at Buffalo, in a media release. “Yet when we evaluate the fairness of merit-based processes, people tend to ignore this broader context and the effects of inequality.”
The experiments showed a marked increase in support for hiring practices aimed at increasing social class diversity. These include innovative strategies such as anonymizing resumes to hide prestigious universities or previous high-profile employers and de-emphasizing the importance of prior internships. These findings suggest a growing recognition of the need to address systemic barriers that impede individuals from low-income backgrounds.
The study deliberately excluded race as a variable to focus solely on socioeconomic factors, a choice that Goya-Tocchetto acknowledges could influence the outcomes. However, the insights gained from this focus on socioeconomic status provide a valuable perspective on diversity and fairness in hiring, especially in light of recent legal challenges and political controversies surrounding affirmative action and racial diversity programs in the United States.
Despite the general trend among conservative participants to view merit-based processes as inherently fair, the study found that their perceptions shifted upon learning about socioeconomic disparities. This suggests that programs aimed at addressing socioeconomic disadvantages might face less political resistance and could indirectly contribute to racial diversity, given the overlapping effects of socioeconomic status and race.
Goya-Tocchetto urges hiring managers to consider the broader impacts of socioeconomic inequality on candidates’ access to opportunities. By valuing a wider range of work experiences and understanding the systemic barriers that some candidates face, employers can move towards more inclusive and equitable hiring practices.
“Members of marginalized racial groups tend to experience socioeconomic disadvantages more often than members of privileged racial groups, and the negative consequences of these disadvantages can be even worse for racial minorities,” notes Goya-Tocchetto. “Focusing on socioeconomic considerations could garner more support and still help address racial inequality.”
The study is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.