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Research · Kelly Raz

Status issues at work

Jun 1, 2016


It’s commonly believed hard work pays off and in many cases that’s true. But other times there are unforeseen obstacles on the path to success that affect how, why, and when people climb the corporate ladder. The research of Assistant Professor Kelly Raz reveals some of these hurdles. Raz’s research looks at status, particularly how it is achieved and what are the resulting consequences.

One particular stream of her research looks at the impact of socio-economic status (SES; a measure of an individual or family's economic and social position in relation to others, based on income, education, and occupation) on job opportunities for African Americans. In the study, recruiting managers were asked how likely they would be to hire an African American candidate graduating from a selective university in the U.S. More often than not, they were less likely to hire the candidate from a lower socio-economic background even though the candidate possessed identical credentials to the higher socio-economic candidate. In order to manipulate the candidate’s socio-economic background in the study, the candidates revealed that their parents had either more or less educated parents (i.e., high school or Stanford graduate).

“Basically the only difference between the candidates was the education of their parents, but the labor market opportunities offered to each were significantly different,” said Raz. “Recruiting managers were less likely to hire the African Americans from a lower socio-economic background.”

Raz said she hypothesizes the recruiting managers assumed that preferential selection in the form of affirmative action had helped the candidates from a lower socio-economic background to be accepted into the selective school. However, the study did not indicate that the university utilized preferential selection policies during its admission process.

“Our big conclusion is that the labor market devalues the credentials of low SES African American candidates because they assume that their credentials reflect preferential selection. There’s an underlying assumption that if you are poor and African American and you went to a top university, you didn’t deserve to be there on your own merit,” she said. “In a third study, when we explicitly told recruiting managers that the selective university did not practice affirmative action, the bias was eliminated. We had to actively work at getting rid of that bias.”

Although Raz and her co-authors weren’t looking for an impact from affirmative action in this study, they found it. So, in addition to showing high socio-economic African Americans receive preferential treatment in relation to job opportunities, the study also contributes to the ongoing conversation as to whether affirmative action programs help or hinder their intended beneficiaries.

Hard work doesn’t always pay off

“There is an assumption in society, especially in American society, that we’re fair. There’s an assumption that there’s a meritocracy out there and, if you work hard enough, you have an advantage,” said Raz. “We want to bring attention to the fact that there are still class advantages in the U.S. and, in order for society to be fairer, we need to be aware of that.”

Their paper, “A fair chance at the American Dream: Why college degrees aren’t equally valuable for all graduates” is being submitted to the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences (PNAS).

Rising to the top isn’t everything. It’s how you get there

In another preliminary study, Raz and her colleagues are investigating what motivates people to climb the corporate ladder and how different motivations affect organizations. Initial findings show some people try to project value in order to be promoted, while not really adding value to their organizations. 

The study looks at different work motivations. Some people are motivated by the desire for power or money, which Raz and colleagues call contingent goals. Other people care more about personal growth, community involvement, and working in a healthy environment, and/or with colleagues they care about. Such goals are considered to be authentic. 

Findings to date show people with contingent goals are more likely to project value, meaning they care more about giving the appearance of having valuable work characteristics  (i.e., being productive) vs. actually proving value at work.

“We know that people can project value and get ahead so groups aren’t always good at being able to discern who the best leader is or who is authentic,” said Raz. 

The study will also look at what organizations can do to try to prevent this by identifying what contexts emphasize value creation and how to de-emphasize those contexts associated with value projection. 

Power versus status 

What happens when people do get ahead but are not respected by their peers? In another preliminary study, Raz and her colleagues look at the difference between power and status. Some people may get ahead and have power, but they don’t actually have status if other people don’t respect them. 

“We show that if you are not well-respected and you have a lot of power, others in the organization actually treat you pretty poorly,” she said. 

Raz joined Ivey in August 2015 after completing a PhD in organizational behaviour from Darden School of Business, University of Virginia.