If You Hire for Pedigree, You’re Hiring for Privilege

“Must have a bachelor degree from a top 25 college.”

“Must have a GPA of 3.7 or better.”

If you’ve ever included details like those in your job descriptions or ads, you’re discriminating against candidates who hail from lower-income households. No if, no buts — you’re a privilege magnet.

According to a report by the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, it’s much harder for low-income students to get into top schools. Canyon Kornicker, the author of the report, explains, “A combination of a lack of access to resources to solidify prerequisites for acceptance, strong barriers to apply, and unfavorable admissions review procedures, make it significantly harder for low-income students to make it through the admissions process at top universities.”

By implication, top colleges, including Ivy League schools like the University of Pennsylvania, favor students from fortunate backgrounds. But it gets worse.

There is also evidence that privileged men find it easier to get jobs than women. In 2016, a researcher sent fake résumés to hundreds of exclusive law firms to work out which factors attract employers. Perversely, so-called “higher-class male applicants” got more call-backs than their female counterparts. So privileged men have it better than anyone. While this is hardly breaking news to women and applicants from other underrepresented groups, it should be a major concern for employers.

If you make an elite education a job requirement, you’re sending a message to the market that you want to attract privileged candidates. By doing so, you’re discriminating against candidates from less fortunate backgrounds. Is that your intention?

There is no correlation between how students perform in college and future job performance. Furthermore, colleges most likely don’t use the same admission criteria as employers. So people considered to be top students may not end up being top talent for the purposes of hiring.

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According to Forbes, “The selection process of even the best universities will reject some potentially excellent candidates while accepting less promising candidates, simply because their criteria are very different from those of your company.”

This doesn’t mean education isn’t important. Education is vitally important for two reasons.

First, education can and should translate to skills. Students pick up valuable expertise, be it job-specific proficiencies like design or engineering, or more general know-how like problem-solving or attention to detail. Instead of using college degrees as a proxy, we should simply test for the skills that are important for performing well in the role.

It’s also worth remembering that the most crucial abilities are not necessarily learned in the classroom. A college education may contribute to job development, but it’s a means to an end—nothing more.

Secondly, if a candidate made a significant effort to obtain an education, it is a sign of both curiosity and dedication. If she was interested in learning and she applied herself for a sustained period of time, ask her why she chose that particular field, what she learned, what challenges she faced and how she has applied her skills since. The answers to those questions are far more revealing than her grades or the name of her university.

If you focus on the fundamentals — skills and attitude — you are far more likely to unearth the most suitable candidates for the role, regardless of their background. According to some experts, attitude even outweighs skills because it’s the main contributing factor to failed hires. Grittier candidates arguably bring traits like resilience, perseverance and a strong work ethic to the job. These are important qualities, and they’re less likely to be found in candidates who were born with a silver spoon.

Let’s be clear. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a degree from Stanford. It’s simply not predictive of performance. So let’s focus on the things that matter, and make hiring more about merit and less about background.

Omer Molad

Omer Molad
Omer Molad is CEO and founder of Vervoe, a hiring platform that uncovers hidden talent through real-world tests, tasks and tools designed by leading industry experts.

Omer Molad

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