There’s a simple way to safeguard your resume against class bias

Not every activity needs to go on your resume.
Not every activity needs to go on your resume.
Image: Reuters/Eddie Keogh
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As corporate hiring becomes more sophisticated, employers and applicants are getting savvy about resumes and CVs.

Job seekers know to avoid obvious mistakes, like typos and embellishments, and they’re learning from hiring gurus like Laszlo Bock—the former head of HR at Google—that employers don’t want to see just a list of positions, but a record of accomplishments.

Employers, too, are recognizing their biases, and are increasingly using techniques like “blinding” resumes by removing applicant names so women and minorities get a fair shot.

But employers and candidates might also think about removing extra-curricular activities from resumes and application forms as well. Consciously or not, employers pick up clues about the wealth and social class of applicants, and it skews whom they hire, according to a paper from Lauren Rivera, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management, and Andras Tilcsik, a professor at the University of Toronto.

Men from wealthy backgrounds are overwhelmingly preferred to lower class men, yet, perhaps surprisingly, women from poorer backgrounds are preferred to wealthier women, their research showed.

To test hiring bias along class lines, the researchers sent fictional resumes of standout law students to 147 law firms. The resumes included subtle differences in the applicants’ names, their undergraduate extra-curricular activities and their personal interests.

To signal an upper class background, they used the last name “Cabot,” an old money Boston family, and listed sailing, polo and classical music as activities and interest. The lower class student’s last name was “Clark,” ran track and liked country music. And while the Cabot applicants won general athletic awards, the lower class student won an award for athletes on financial aid. First names—James for men, Julia for women—and universities, grades and test scores were otherwise identical.

Among the fictional upper class men, 13 of 80, or 16%, were invited to interview, compared to just one of 78, or 1%, of the lower class men. But, in a twist, women from less privileged backgrounds did almost twice as better than their upper class counterparts. In later surveys with attorneys at the firm, the wealthy women were seen as less likely to commit themselves to a demanding job, and more likely to quit to raise a family. Affluence for women was an obstacle to employment.

Class bias can be pernicious, and it’s hard to scrub every signal of one’s socio-economic background from a resume. In the UK, where class roles are more fixed and social mobility more limited than in the US, Deloitte and at least 18 other employers have agreed to obscure not just names but the high schools and universities of applicants. The goal is to eliminate biases in hiring and increase diversity within the firm.

It’s hard to imagine a US applicant omitting their college or university from a resume; doing so would raise red flags. But progressive employers might consider asking job seekers to leave it off, as well as their extracurricular activities. The results may be surprising.