Equity in employment: Rethinking the most qualified candidate

Study addresses socioeconomic inequalities by challenging traditional hiring practices

Candidates waiting for a job interview.

Release Date: March 5, 2024

“We suspect that when people consider whether a merit-based process is fair, they rarely consider aspects of the wider context, such as the unequal starting points of potential employees. ”
Daniela Goya-Tocchetto, Assistant Professor of Organization and Human Resources
School of Management

BUFFALO, N.Y. — When confronted with a candidate’s prior socioeconomic advantages or disadvantages in the hiring and promotion process, both liberals and conservatives alter their perceptions of fairness, according to new research from the University at Buffalo School of Management.

Published online by the American Psychological Association ahead of publication in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, the study challenges practices that reward candidates exclusively based on achievements like GPA and quality of internships — often celebrated as the gold standard of fairness in organizations — and reveals that perceptions of what counts as merit can be changed during hiring or promotion practices.

“We suspect that when people consider whether a merit-based process is fair, they rarely consider aspects of the wider context, such as the unequal starting points of potential employees,” says lead author Daniela Goya-Tocchetto, PhD, assistant professor of organization and human resources in the UB School of Management. “Socioeconomic disadvantages early in life can undermine educational achievement, test scores and work or internship experiences.”

Gathering data from more than 3,300 participants, the researchers conducted five online experiments to test their theory. In two experiments, participants read about a hiring or promotion based on merit. Half of the participants were not given any additional information about the candidates, while the other half were informed about past socioeconomic disadvantages for one candidate and advantages for another candidate.

Regardless of political beliefs, those who received the background information perceived the specific merit-based hiring or promotion process to be significantly less fair with less equal opportunity.

Further experiments revealed similar changes in perception when the researchers provided participants with information about how candidates from low-income households have limited educational opportunities and hindered career advancement. In addition, the study found that when participants received knowledge about socioeconomic disparities, they increased support for hiring programs that foster social class diversity, such as removing the names of prestigious universities or companies from résumés, or giving less weight to prior internships.

The study confirms that shifting perceptions can have important downstream consequences for policies that promote greater social class diversity in organizations across political ideologies.

The researchers say organizations and policy makers should challenge hiring and promotion practices to welcome a diverse range of employees, views and opinions.

Goya-Tocchetto collaborated on the study with Aaron C. Kay, PhD, J Rex Fuqua Professor of Management at the Duke University Fuqua School of Business, and Keith Payne, PhD, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Now in its 100th year, the UB School of Management is recognized for its emphasis on real-world learning, community and impact, and the global perspective of its faculty, students and alumni. The school also has been ranked by Bloomberg Businessweek, Forbes and U.S. News & World Report for the quality of its programs and the return on investment it provides its graduates. For more information about the UB School of Management, visit management.buffalo.edu.

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Alexandra Richter
Assistant Director of Communications
School of Management