The Class Ceiling: Tackling Class Discrimination in Recruitment

Shirwac Dirir






min read


We're rebuilding the hiring process.

Want to see more content like this? Subscribe to our fortnightly newsletter.

Give me more

Do you believe that you live in a fair society?

Fairness is increasingly being seen as the leading marker of a progressive society (you’ll struggle to find a politician of any party who doesn’t bang on about it come election time), yet it is one of those abstract ideals that is almost impossible to define and even harder to achieve.

In the continuous struggle to make society fairer, it’s inevitable that not all causes will receive the same amount of attention or progress at the same rate. For example, diversity when it comes to gender, race and sexuality have been at the forefront of equality movements in recent years.

One form of inequality that is becoming increasingly conspicuous by its absence is social class discrimination or “classism”.

What is classism?

Classism is defined as discrimination against someone who belongs to (or is perceived as belonging to) a particular social class. This prejudice can be based on the perception of someone’s wealth, education, appearance, accent or job, and is usually underpinned by social stereotypes about particular social classes.

While class discrimination can be aimed in any direction on the social scale, its most common and pernicious effects typically stem from the source of power i.e. from the upper classes downwards.

Like all biases, social class discrimination can manifest in every corner of society. Yet it is in employment where it is most noticeable and, fortunately, most rectifiable too.

Absence from equality legislation

While the UK government has been quick to legislate against racial, sexual, gender and age discrimination within hiring, it would appear that class discrimination might be the last taboo that needs serious attention.

As mentioned in another of our posts, the Equalities Act 2010 makes it illegal within the workplace or during the hiring process to discriminate against anyone based on certain personal qualities, including age, gender and religion. However, there is no protection against social class, meaning that it is technically legal for recruiters to not hire a candidate on account of their class.

Even if this discrimination is not intentional – in fact, we’re pretty confident it isn’t for the majority of businesses – unconscious bias can always raise its ugly head without the recruiter even realising it.

Job discrimination based on where you live 

As mentioned, social class discrimination can be triggered by various factors including accent, appearance, and adherence to the social norms of a particular demographic (i.e football or ‘ruggers’?).

Another signifier of social class that comes into play in recruitment is where you live. When stated on your CV (which, by the way, employers would be wise to ditch), your home address invites recruiters to make assumptions about you. If you grew up in a rough area, for example, they might draw the (completely unsubstantiated) conclusion that you lack ‘the finesse’ for a particular role. A prestigious postcode, on the other hand, may lead them to overestimate your abilities.

What’s even worse is that the inclusion of home addresses in hiring processes represents a serious obstacle to improving the lives on the homeless, as shown in this note from The Yale Law Journal

So what do the studies say?

A 2016 study conducted by Sam Friedman of LSE and Daniel Laurison of Swarthmore College Pennsylvania found that although roughly one third of the UK’s population come from a working class background, they only account for around 10 percent of the nation’s elite occupations.

What’s more, even when those people from working class backgrounds make it into those top professions, they go on to earn an average of 16 percent less than their colleagues from more privileged backgrounds.  

When looking at individuals who went to Russell Group universities, this same study also found that those from privileged backgrounds who achieved second-class degrees were still more likely to go into elite professions than those from working class backgrounds who went to the same universities and achieved a first-class degree.

These studies highlight the inherent “unfairness” of the current employment marketplace and really bring home the susceptibility of the process to irrational bias.

“It’s remarkable”, commented Amol Rajan, BBC Media Editor, of the above study. “It’s a terrible indictment of both education and the myths we tell ourselves about education.”

Another study conducted by the government itself, the State of the Nation Report 2016, found that: “from the early years through to universities and the workplace, there is an entrenched and unbroken correlation between social class and success.”

So what can we do about it?

Some organisations are already taking independent steps to address classism, and encourage social diversity in their workplaces. PwC, for example, have removed UCAS scores as entry criteria for the majority of their graduate roles.

This begs the question – “why stop there?”

At Applied, we understand that class discrimination can stem from anywhere. From a candidate’s name, to their accent or home address, biases around social class can creep in at almost every turn.

With our blind hiring platform, we strip away all of the candidate’s irrelevant information leaving just the qualities that make them suitable for the job. As such, the chances of any form of bias distorting your hiring process are significantly reduced. This ensures that you’re always hiring the best candidate for the position.

While we’re aware that social mobility does not finish at the point of occupation entry, we think it’s a great place to start.

Why not visit our resource centre to learn more about how you can benefit from fairer recruiting?