It's not just where you grew up but how you grew up that influences your speech--and hiring managers take a mental note about it, according to a new study that will be soon published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

Study author Michael Kraus, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, explained:

"Our study shows that even during the briefest interactions, a person's speech patterns shape the way people perceive them, including assessing their competence and fitness for a job. While most hiring managers would deny that a job candidate's social class matters, in reality, the socioeconomic position of an applicant or their parents is being assessed within the first seconds they speak--a circumstance that limits economic mobility and perpetuates inequality."

If you come from a higher social class, you're better able to replicate your parents' lifestyle because you're given better job opportunities. 

Class is something we've seen anecdotally influencing hiring decisions, and it's not surprising that this study shows that to be the case. Kate Wright, Director at Arbre Consulting & Co-Founder at The Diversity Network, gave a talk earlier this year about how she discriminated based on class.

As Wright explains, she was so concerned about finding a  cultural fit that she excluded a candidate based on his background rather than his skills. She learned from her mistakes but perhaps at the expense of this candidate's future.

How the study worked

Researchers brought in 20 subjects from the New Haven, Connecticut, area. These people had varied economic backgrounds. They recorded a brief conversation where they described themselves. Then 274 people with hiring experience either listened to these conversation recordings or read transcripts. Then, based on that alone--no resumes, no other interviews--assessed the candidates' abilities, potential salaries and hiring bonuses and their social class.

The people who heard the interviews, rather than read the transcripts, were more able to assess the socio-economic class accurately. Then, their overall perception was that those from a higher class background were better equipped to do the job and deserved a higher starting salary. 

Remember, this was without seeing any resumes or knowing any qualifications. They made this evaluation based solely on the introductory recordings.

How can you stop yourself from judging based on class?

Like all bias cases, the first thing to do is recognize that you may do this. The researchers found that "reciting seven random words is sufficient to allow people to discern the speaker's social class with above-chance accuracy." So, within seconds, you've subconsciously assigned a class to people

We assign a higher socio-economic status to people who speak "standard" and "digital" English--like that done by Siri. And how we pronounce words is enough to clue people in.

Without the random words chosen by researchers, our dialects can quickly tell people about us. Within the United States, there are at least 24 significant dialects. Dialects have their "own grammar, vocabulary, syntax, and common expressions, as well as pronunciation rules that make it unique from other dialects of the same language."

Keep in mind that the region in which one grew up, isn't a good predictor of ability. Try to evaluate based on skills rather than how someone speaks.

Try to evaluate candidates based on actual skills rather than their ability to talk about their skills. Assessment tests for computer programmers will be a better predictor of ability than talking with the candidate.

If you want people to succeed in life, try your best to evaluate based on skill and ignore their backgrounds--whether through social class or regional dialect. Your business will be better off.

Published on: Oct 25, 2019
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