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Clash of Cultures in Elite Hiring: How Social Class Background Shapes the Hiring Process of Large Technology Companies

Creative Commons 'BY' version 4.0 license

Elite companies have long expressed a desire to hire the most talented applicants. They report wanting to hire applicants strictly based on individual merit. However, elite conceptualizations of “the best and the brightest” have historically favored upper-middle-class individuals. How these conceptualizations play out in practice and shape the hiring experience for both evaluators and applicants in elite settings remains underexplored. In this dissertation, I investigate the role of social class background in the hiring process of large technology companies.

To gain insight into both sides of the hiring process, I interviewed evaluators at top-tier technology companies in the United States and conducted longitudinal research on the application experiences of computer science Ph.D. students. I show that current hiring practices favor applicants who display an upper-middle-class style of interacting with authority figures, which I call “interactional cultural capital.” I find that working- and middle-class applicants from elite Ph.D. programs enjoy access to valuable employment resources (e.g., referrals) and can gain insider knowledge about tacit hiring expectations. However, despite having similar valorized resources and information to their upper-middle-class peers, these working- and middle-class applicants still struggle more when navigating the hiring process. I show that working- and middle-class applicants describe spending substantially more time applying for positions and feeling more stressed when trying to meet the hiring expectations. I argue that these emotional and temporal disparities stem from the cultural mismatch between upper-middle-class and working- and middle-class interactional styles.

In sum, this dissertation reveals how current hiring practices reproduce elite workplaces by prioritizing applicants who have the privilege of learning upper-middle-class interactional styles. Current hiring practices also impose emotional and temporal burdens on working- and middle-class applicants who diverge from upper-middle-class interactional styles. My data suggest that elite organizations—companies and educational institutions that are well-resourced and well-informed about upper-middle-class practices—can scaffold working- and middle-class applicants’ process of learning the valorized interactional styles. Building on these insights, I offer two distinct intervention approaches for evaluators, educators, and designers to alleviate applicants’ class-based burdens. The first approach involves supporting applicants to navigate the current hiring practices. The second approach involves changing the current hiring practices to account for the cultural misalignment between upper-middle-class hiring expectations and working- and middle-class interactional styles.

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